17 June 2010


     Sadly, I never knew my Irish grandfather. William Large died from appendicitis while waiting for his son, my Uncle Philip, to be released from a Stalag 3B, a POW camp in Germany, in World War II.  But I did have a few precious years to spend with my Polish grandfather. To honor him, and all our fathers and male ancestors, am reprinting an essay of mine that won second prize in the Southern California Genealogy Society 2009 Writing Contest. Happy Father's Day to all the fathers!

     My grandfather could not fly or leap over tall buildings with a single bound, but I would not be surprised if one day I heard a story told that he accomplished those feats and more. Watson Burdalski was a legend in the Polish Whitman Park section of Camden, New Jersey, in the 1950’s. Dza-dza (zhaa-zhaa) once swam across the treacherous Delaware River to Philadelphia. He was an acrobat who could pop his joints in and out at will. He was an enforcer not only for the mob, but also for a small Polish National Church congregation that was being bullied by loan sharks. Dza-dza did not belong to the church, but, like Superman, he came to the aid of anyone in the neighborhood that had need of his tough guy exterior and strong arm. The priest who told me the story, after almost thirty-five years had passed, assured me that there were many more stories like his.

     "Your Dza-dza was a legend in Camden," he said. "He was a great man."

     Some of the legends have a sour note. Watsie, as he was known in the Polish section of Camden, spoke his mind, freely and loudly. He berated customers who came to his grocery shop with a competitor's bag in hand. He yelled at people--or so I have heard. I don't remember any yelling. In my mind, any loud or harsh words I may have heard him utter were well-deserved by the recipient. I idolized him and felt protected by him, as though I had someone on my side who was afraid of nothing.

     One warm October evening in 1960, I presented him with my first report card. After closing his produce store, Dza-dza took me on a celebratory tour of the other shops along Mt. Ephraim Avenue, introducing his genius--his first grandchild, of course she is a genius!-- granddaughter to his fellow merchants. The first stop was Rossner's Shoe Store next door. Heads nodding solemnly, Mr. and Mrs. Rossner approved of my grades. Next, we walked across the street to the dress shop. As I tried on a frilly red dress in the makeshift dressing room in the back storage room, I heard Dza-dza bragging about my straight “A's.” I poked my head out of the curtain and called to him.

     "I didn't get straight A's," I said. “I got..."

     He cut me off with a wave of his hand, and turned back to speculating with his fellow merchant about my future as a doctor or president. I emerged in a fluff of crinkly red tiers, and was ordered to parade up and down the narrow store aisle. After the dress was modeled and packaged, Dza-dza and I capped off the celebration with an chocolate ice cream soda at Chris's Sweet Shop.

     We formed a mini-parade that evening--Dza-dza strutting along Mt. Ephraim Avenue, his chest puffed out like a proud peacock, cigar clenched in his teeth, Stetson hat on his head, and little Debbie hopping alongside, solemnly attempting to match his stride.

     Perhaps, I should stop here and mention that Watson Burdalski was an invalid. He took those strides wearing a heavy, wooden, artificial leg. In three more years, by the time he lost his lifelong battle with diabetes, Dza-dza would lose all his arms and legs in a desperate measure by doctors to save his life.

     After he lost his first leg, Dza-dza wore a bulky prosthesis anchored by a leather strap. After a wearisome day of standing in his store, he would take off the cumbersome limb, then hand it to me to carry over my arm like a surrealist's handbag. The leg was half my size, so I would it drag around, sometimes asking the grown-ups to toss in some pennies.

     "Oh my leg, it itches! Scratch it for me!" Dza-dza would shout, and I would hurry to the old armchair where, wearing a white tank undershirt and smoking a huge cigar, he sat.

     I would pretend to scratch-- scratch, scratch, scratch--the empty air, the phantom limb.

     "Ahh, yes, you are hitting just the right spot," he would say.

     After Dza-dza strapped the leg back on, he would stretch out his two legs and say,

     "Which leg has the candy?"

     I always guessed correctly and was rewarded with a taffy or other sweet, plus any pennies I had collected.

     Having no right leg did not stop Dza-dza from driving, even though handicapped-equipped cars were yet to be invented. He rigged his standard shift '50's Chevy with a broomstick and wooden block and somehow worked all three pedals with that contraption and his good leg. One August day, he arrived to pick me up for an outing, and my mother told me to get in the back seat.

     "Get in the front," he said.

     I looked at him, then at my mother, who shook her head, then back at him.

     I got in the front. After we turned the corner and escaped my mother's eyes, he handed me the broomstick and taught me how to push the gas pedal.

     Perhaps Dza-dza had a bizarre sense of humor, but from him I learned never to be frightened of deformities or scars or loss. He taught me to keep moving, no matter what life tries to take away. From him, I learned to treasure the “A’s” of life and celebrate them, even if life’s report card contains lower grades. Sometimes I catch a whiff of a cigar, and I laugh. Dza-dza is reminding me to scratch that itch, even if it exists solely in my mind.