by Barbara Anderson
The year was 1919. He was seven, the oldest of four surviving children. He was his immigrant father’s workhorse who was ordered to do man-sized jobs. Therefore, to keep the family warm, the child, not the father, often walked the long, wind-whipped city blocks carrying a heavy burlap sack of coal on his back which eventually bowed his developing legs. The never-ending chores kept the child so busy that he left school at eleven years old. Anyway, he knew school wasn’t necessary for survival – work was. In fact, as soon as his father could manage it, a job was found for the youngster – laying the New York City subway tracks. Soon, his young hands became covered with hard calluses, looking old beyond their years. In those days, hard work was a way of life for the majority of immigrant children.
Life in the city was tough and so was he. To make an extra buck during Prohibition, he and his father delivered homemade booze from a laundry truck. He saw death often as he picked up the mutilated bodies of subway suicides. Then she entered his life. They had a common bond – both were hardworking Poles.
In poor, bleeding Poland after the Great War, she had to do her part to help the family survive. Picking up rocks out of the garden was a common job for a small child, as well as watching that the farm animals didn’t wander. School consisted of four grades, then the burden of household duties filled her days.
Alone, in December of 1929, at the age of fifteen, her father sent her to the United States to have a better life; his parting words were, “You know right from wrong; now it’s up to you!”
Unafraid because her sister would be waiting on the other side of that vast watery highway, she had no idea that the December Atlantic Ocean would pitch and roll her ship around for six cold and violent days. Those six days of fear and vomiting left her young body wasted, but there was no time for recuperation; a job had been arranged with a wealthy family in New York. This was the Great Depression – a time when a young immigrant girl, who spoke no English, was fortunate to live and work for a family, earning $6.00 a week, plus room and board. However, the money couldn’t be squandered, nor saved, because the ship’s fare of $150.00 had to be paid back, along with $50.00, loaned to start her new life.
One of her household duties was to put the dirty laundry in a large kettle which was located over a fire. There the laundry boiled in hot water with lye soap, constantly stirred like a kettle of soup. There was no such thing as bleach or even a hand operated washing contraption where she worked. Until wringer machines became more available, arms and hands ached from wringing out heavy, water-soaked laundry.
Frequently, young immigrant girls were at the mercy of their employers. At the second place she worked, the man of the house brought her candy, with a note saying in Polish, “I love you!” She bolted her bedroom door and packed her bag.
Settling in the Bronx with another family, she somehow, while ironing, scorched the baby’s jumper. After receiving a harsh scolding, she again packed her bag and tried to find her way to a friend’s place. Unfamiliar with the subway system, she stood lost and frightened on a dark subway platform somewhere in New York City. There, the teenager overheard two women speaking Polish. Explaining her predicament, one of the ladies gave her shelter until another domestic job was located.
That kind lady was the mother of the young man, who as a child, carried coal on his back. He was twenty years old when he met the lost Polish teenager, and, in the future, when he decided to settle down, he would ask that very special woman to be his wife.
When they married in 1936, nothing changed — they still worked hard. He made $28.00 a week working on the subway while she cleaned houses, learned English, and cared for their baby boy. Inch by inch they began to see the fruitage of their labors. Moving to an unfinished house in the suburbs, he worked in the city during the day, and at night hammered on the house.
Then, one unforgettable Thanksgiving night, the unbelievable happened – the family, now including a one-year-old girl child, barely escaped the flames that destroyed the house and the dreams. Moving back to the city, without blame and whining, they began to rebuild their lives.
It’s been way over one-hundred years since my parents were born and nurtured by hard work and adversity. Until they died, both in their early 90’s, they were resilient, vigorous people, and a living testimony that “hard work never killed anyone!”