The grandmothers

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January 1, 2015 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 







By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)

In July of 1888, one ten-year old girl and one eight-year old girl rode their horses over prairie and steppe grasslands that flowed under their horses’ hooves. The horses’ manes flew out wildly. The girls’ hair loosened from pins and billowed like clouds – one black, one brown – around the children’s heads and then streamed like flags of independence behind them.   A rider less than twenty percent of the horse’s weight can encourage her horse to go twenty miles so perhaps each went twenty miles. At dusk, each child and her horse stopped to rest. Each girl fell asleep near her horse – one in Minnesota, one west of Warsaw — and returned to her home more slowly the next day.

In a photograph taken on her return to her home, Blanche Stanford wore a torn soiled white dress and leather boots and loosely held a little leather whip with a wooden handle in one hand, a whip she was to give to me when she was an old woman.   She held her horse’s reins in her other hand. Her hair hung in uneven scraps. Flat Minnesota land extends behind her forever, land I was only to see through the glass of a stereopticon when I was three.

I imagine that on the day of Justyna’s ride she wore a long skirt with an apron embroidered by her mother Luisa, a tight fitting vest with ribbons sewn down the front, a white blouse and boots.

At Dozynki festival in 1894, Justyna will wear little red leather boots, a red skirt, ribboned vest and a headdress made of flowers woven together. She is taller than the other girls and will help carry the harvest wreath made in the shape of a dome shaped crown and decorated with wheat, rye and hazelnuts. A young man named Albert or Victor Podeswa traveling either to or from his own village will see her dancing with a boy wearing a belted tunic and trousers tucked in his boots and a small flat hat. He was tall. His hair was white-blond.   He may have come from Dlugosiodlo originally, a village in Wyszków County, Masovian Voivodeship,

Albert will arrange for Justyna to become his wife. He will take her and their little boy to the United States in 1895.   There is no record of either Justyna or Albert entering the United States but they lived in the Bronx and then moved to Yonkers in 1907. Albert/Victor worked as a gardener in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx but near Yonkers.

In 1930, the census taker reported that he was Albert, born in 1865 in Poland, and that his wife was Eustina. Previously, a census taker reported their last name as Todrwa, which is a name that doesn’t exist anywhere but on that one entry. In 1930, their 36 year-old son Theodore still lived with them, as did my mother Louisa, later Louise, aged 13, a grandchild named Dorothy, later called Dossie, aged 7.

Zukowski means from Zukow. Many Polish villages are named Zukow. The root word is zuk, which means, “beetle.” The place Justyna lived with her family, however, was probably Brzeziny, a famous market place in Łódź Voivodeship.  In 1892, Brzeziny suffered a severe economic depression, which was to last until the beginning of the new century. Perhaps that is the reason Justyna’s parents gave her to Albert (sometimes Victor) Podeswa.

Podeswa is a relatively rare name derived from Hebrew. It is a Jewish name. Podeswa in Polish means “sole,” as in sole-of-the-shoe. Only about 900 people named Podeswa or Podeszwa remain in Poland, perhaps because most people with that surname are Jewish, and the Nazis wiped out 90 percent of Polish Jews.

Most people with the last name Podeswa live in or near Dlugosiodlo. Towards the end of the 1870s in Dlugosiodio 653 Jewish people were farmers.

Before the Catholic Church began its prosecution of Jews, the Polish government — I assume an interregnum where there was a Polish government before World War I — created rights to preserve the Jewish culture and religion. Poland and Lithuania were the only European countries that allowed Jews to own land.

The child whose surname means beetle will marry sole-of-the shoe, a man who might have been a Jew. She will leave her family’s farm, the wooden house with the wooden shutters that closed over the windows both at the height of summer heat and against snow and cold in winter. She will leave her childhood friends and the trees she hid behind when they played games with them. She will leave her Polish books that were hidden under the mattress, In Justyna’s village or town, the Russians did not allow the Poles to read Polish language books so they hid the books under the bed.

Justyna’s religious faith will comfort her after she leaves Poland, but her belief was rodzimowierstwo, — native faith — lightly sketched over by priests and incense to appear as Roman Catholicism.

She will continue the native faith traditions of decorating eggs by drawing designs on them with beeswax and boiling them with red onionskins or boiled berries or spinach. Home, on St. Nicholas Day, the saint arrived on a sleigh to each house in the village. She pressed her face to the window glass when she was a child, listening for the sound of snowbells and horses’ hooves. The pretend saint wore a bishop’s mitre and a long white robe. He will become Santa Claus in Yonkers. She will no longer run with a pail to the river for pure water to sprinkle on the cows on Christmas Eve and for everyone in the family to wash herself to ensure wealth for the coming year. Her husband and sons now will go into the woods of Yonkers to find a spruce or fir so that she will hang the branches from the ceiling. She will combine Swarog, god of the Sun and fire, and Perun, god of storms, to make up God in Heaven.   The earth goddess Mokowsz becomes Mary, the mother of Our Lord. Justyna will not plant seeds in her vegetable garden in Yonkers when she menstruates, because that will poison the vegetables.

Justyna cooked the meals for her husband and their seven children: the food made from the vegetables in her garden and fruit from the trees, from the chickens she caught and killed, and the few pigs she raised. If Victor was a Jew, he must have been madly in love with his wife because that family cooked everything in pig fat. One of their daughters, the Terrible Aunt Kitty made cruel anti-Semitic jokes, which Albert – if he was a Jew – also had to swallow.

Justyna sewed all of their clothes by hand with tiny stitches. She washed the clothes on a metal board and hung them on a line in the yard. She washed the dishes and cleaned the floors. By the time my mother Louise was small, she hid from cameras and mirrors because she had once been beautiful. She died in 1930, when she was about 48, and she had been sick for a long time before that. Louise was the youngest child. She was fourteen when Justyna died.

The son born in Poland became an engineer and then a drunk. Joe became a cop. Ally became a fire chief. He was legally separated. They couldn’t divorce because they were Catholic, but he lived with another woman and, when he visited us in Los Angeles, dated the Japanese woman who owned a restaurant in Silver Lake.   I don’t know who Peter was. He may have been the son who died in a fire. Cecelia died young in childbirth. Kitty – eight years older than my mother, short, fat, long-nosed with bruises under eyes so deep she looked as if someone had punched her — married a milkman. Louise married a Slovak bookie when she was 17. The milkman’s wife made sure she had taken over Victor’s house and put him in the attic. When Louise ran away from her gambling violent Slovak husband, the milkman’s wife made sure Louise did not have a home to come back to. Victor gave Kitty money for groceries and didn’t make a peep. Louise’s first children stood hungry outside Albert’s house now the milkman’s house and their aunt gave them a little chicken in her kitchen.

When Kitty got a television set in about 1950, Papa came down the stairs and sat down in wonder. He asked seriously how they had gotten the people to be so small to fit in the television box.

Blanche’s story played out quite differently from Justyna’s.

The University of Minnesota had allowed women students since 1869. Blanche joined the first women’s Greek letter fraternity Kappa Alpha Theta and graduated with a degree in philosophy in about 1898, three years after Justyna Zukowski entered the United States – perhaps through Canada, because Ellis Island records don’t record her entry. Blanche’s graduating thesis was on Thomas Carlyle’s transcendentalism and his influence on Emerson. That thesis, like other of Blanche’s writing, disappeared. She hand wrote it in Copperplate calligraphy. Affixed to the document was a ribbon indicating highest honors. Blanche was an atheist. Emerson’s transcendentalism was a close as she came to faith in God.

Blanche married in 1900, after she completed her master’s degree, already considered an old maid at twenty-four. My grandfather Doctor Franklin Bissell said he was drawn to her because she was the first woman at the university to reveal her ankles.

In 1901, Dr. and Mrs. Bissell built a house on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. I saw photographs of her swimming in the lake as sleek as an otter. Soon after the first of their four children was born – Uncle Stan, born in 1906 — they took a steamer to Europe. Franklin took a post-graduate course in radiology in Vienna. A photograph Franklin took on the ship shows my grandmother and other women on deck wearing heavy clothing, with scarves holding down their hats. During World War I, she marched for female suffrage and the police carted her and her sisters in spirit and my then eight-year old aunt Barbara to jail, because the march was considered treasonous. After women were granted suffrage, she was one of the founding mothers of the League of Women Voters. She taught school and became a high school principal. During the Depression, she and Franklin rented out their house in Berkeley on Panoramic Terrace. The elder Bissells hooked up an airstream trailer to their Studebaker, drove into Mexico, and lived in state parks pretending they didn’t speak Spanish.

Aunt Barbara became a schoolteacher.   Uncle Stan was an insurance broker and an instructor at UCLA. Uncle Frank was a doctor who volunteered with the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

My father Phil’s plane crashed off the coast of Florida. Blanche and Franklin wrote furious letters to Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas about what they felt was tantamount to his murder. They were right. It was, but no one did anything about it.

Louise was pregnant. She waited on the beach near Vero for two days for the Coast Guard to locate his body, but they couldn’t. She couldn’t stay with her family, not with Kitty queen of the Podeswa household. Kitty made sure the church excommunicated Louise, and she didn’t expect any charity from anyone. They were not charitable people. She had made her bed, Kitty said, and now she must lie in it.

Louise took the train to Los Angeles, and she lived in the Bissell house in Glassell Park across from the bend in the Forest Lawn wall. Blanche and her husband raised me until I was about 18 months old, when Louise married a Jewish man who was a bartender in his brother Bernie’s restaurant in Santa Monica. Her husband opened a dry cleaner’s in Silver Lake. I worked in his store adding receipts because my mother could not. I went with him to the house of a rich family in Beverly Hills. They had a swimming pool outside and porcelain jaguars all over the inside of their house.

My stepfather never attended temple. We had a Christmas tree every year. Louise used Crisco (“Always Fresh”) instead of pig fat in her cooking. I think she could have made a living making only potato salad and cucumber salad. Easter, she dyed hard boiled eggs and made kielbasa.

One grandmother rode into a future of opening possibilities for women. She worked as a teacher and then as a principal. She married well. She washed clothes and cooked, but she often had help. She held open the door and other women passed through it to find work.   The other grandmother was a wife. She worked in her house and she went to church and she died.   It did not occur to her or to any woman on that side of the family up to my generation that a woman should get a job or that a man should wash a dish. The role of a woman was to be a wife no matter how vicious the circumstances of her life, to bend her neck and wait for the yoke to be fitted upon it.

I wake sometimes at night and think how Kitty tried to place that yoke over my neck when I ran away from my own gambling violent husband, and that only pure blind luck gave me the chance to get my first job and then take my children away with me to a new life.

I visited my mother in Palm Springs when she was old. I told her that when she got better – but she was not really going to get better from being crazy – we would take a plane to New York and find Kitty’s grave and lift our skirts and piss on it.

For a moment, she remained lost in confusion, rocking back and forth peculiarly, bending from her knees. Then she returned as bright as a new penny. She threw her beautiful head back, hair long white hair falling straight down and laughed. She just about laughed her head off.







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