Saturday, November 21, 2009


Let's grab some ridiculously overpriced popcorn and a couple of leathery hot dogs!

You may have noticed that I haven't written this week.

It's not for lack of thinking, or lack of desire.  It's a lack of time.

A long time ago, when I was maybe late teens, maybe early twenties, I attended a wake for some distant relative who might have been my great-aunt.  (This underscores one of the strange and distressing things about family:  until my generation, no one moved very far away from the Avenues.  That was Home Base, the place where your went to make sense of things.  There were hundreds of us, Litwins and Siedleckis and Klimeks and others, all within a three or four mile radius of one another.  The same was true on the other side of the family, even if the center point was more First Ward than Third Ward.  And for all of that, I knew very few of my relatives beyond my brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents.  There was this amazing collection of second cousins and great aunts and uncles, great-grandparents even, who were like ground echoes on a weatherman's Super Doppler 3000 radar screen: they showed up, but were immediately dismissed as shadow images, nothing to bother with at all.)

This wake was held at the Saber-Skomski funeral home, on Oliver Street.  There were three funeral homes on Oliver Street: Wattengel's, which serviced the folks south of Wheatfield Street, the Italians and the Irish and the intermarried Germans and the people who had been around since before the lumber mills died; Saber's, which by my time had been sold by the Saber family, and had been renamed Saber-Skomski's; and Pawenski's, which was next door to OLC Church.  Saber's and Pawenski's battled for the Polish business.  Pawenski eventually sold out, to a really kind man named Larango.  This was an earth-shattering event in the Avenues, an Italian running a business, a business that handled OUR KINDRED DEAD, no less, operating in the shadow of the OLC spire.  I remember hearing my grandfather speculate on double coffins and Secret Mafia Burials and all sorts of things worthy of a Mario Puzo novel.  It wasn't like that, not at all.  Mr. Larango was a professional, through and through, and his funerals were conducted with grace and class and sensitivity to the needs of the bereaved.  He even kept the Pawenski name on his business for years, "Pawenski-Larango Funeral Home", a sort of vestigial Polonia.  My grandmother's funeral was done by the Larangos (knowing what I know about my grandmother's early career as a bootlegger and putative moll for the infamous Dutch Schultz, she might have gotten a kick out of waiting for the Judgment Day with some Mob hit as a coffinmate, but no such luck).

I digress.

So I'm at this funeral, and I'm young, maybe late teens, maybe early twenties.  And it is raucous, as raucous as such an occasion can be.  There is a haze of cigarette smoke.  I may be imagining it, but I swear there was an open bar.  Kids were running around, adults were laughing and talking too loudly.  It was a party.

Off in the corner, ignored, was the coffin, its lid propped open, its occupant a tiny, impossibly old woman, dressed in something that looked as old as she was, delicate and white and trimmed with lace.  As far as the rest of us were concerned, the laughing, smoking, sweating folks who for one reason or another were tied to her, were part of her legacy, she may as well have been an umbrella rack, or one of those hedgehog things you use to scour mud from the soles of your work boots, something in the room, but not worthy of notice.

Except for one little couple, a man and a woman, as tiny and old and unnoticed as she was.  They held fast to her casket, peered into it, the man's head bowed, the woman's lip moving, but barely, and whether in prayer or conversation I cannot say.  

These people were related to me.  And if they weren't, they surely knew my people, surely experienced the things they experienced.  Maybe the old man had crossed the Atlantic on the same ship as my great-grandfather, Piotr.  Maybe the women worked together on the ladies' auxiliary at OLC Church, or attended dances at Dom Polski or the Polish Falcons.  Maybe they all did shift work down at "The Bolt", and ended the week with a beer that had been brewed down in the basement of Litwin's Barber Shop.  And now it's all lost, all dust, all shadows and suppositions.  Ghosts.

This can't happen anymore.  We have extraordinary technology at our disposal.  Everybody can be Ken Burns.  Everybody SHOULD be Ken Burns, provided they don't all grow wispy beards and Beatle bangs and move to New Hampshire and turn every documentary into a White Guy From New Hampshire's Commentary On Black Oppression in America.  I mean, sheesh, Ken, you're talented, but you live in the whitest place this side of a jar of mayonnaise.  Spare us the moral outrage, already.  

Anyway, I digress.  Again.  

My point is that everyone should be taking family histories from their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and kindly old neighbors and anyone who's willing to talk.  We need this information.  We need to remember it, to cherish it.

Another one of the many things I love about Mormonism is that its most sacred text, the Book of Mormon, is really nothing more than a family history.  It's one family's story, told over dozens of generations.  And the record was kept for the benefit of their children and children's children and on and on.

Why is my family's story, or any family's story, any less valuable?

So I've been busy, and honestly, a little discouraged: part of that discouragement comes in accepting the truly depressing limits of my ability.  I just finished reading a book by Lawrence Weschler, Everything That Rises, and it was illuminating and brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable, and I will never write anything like it.  It's like listening to The River in its entirety, or having your iPod on shuffle and hearing "For No One" for the first time in months and realizing that Paul McCartney was twenty-five or twenty-six when he wrote it and you could write until you were one hundred and six and never come close to creating anything as perfect or as beautiful.  You realize that Szymborska's poetry just isn't in you, that you will never craft something as exquisite as an Olmstead park or as clever as a Dylan lyric, never accomplish the modern art genius of Dominik Hasek flailing between the pipes, arms and legs, stick and trapper flying like paint from Pollock's brush, that it is all beyond you, so why even bother?

You wallow in that a while, feeling sorry for yourself, wondering why a cruel God would make you Felix Unger at the Met, surrounded by great voices, your own a sad dissonant screech.

Then you get over it.  And you start writing again. 

It may be junk, intrepid readers.  But like those leathery hot dogs in the theater concession stand, it's here.  

Thank you, Lynda, for your encouragement.