From WITNESS, my memoir-in-progress:
The belated news came in the seventh year of my residence on Ischia, a volcanic island in the bay of Naples. At my usual table at Café La Piazzetta, Franco had just brought me an espresso doppio, and a small bottle of Pelligrino, when my cellphone rang. It was from Maria, in New York.
“I just called your father,” she said.
“Why did you do that?”
“Because I thought if I introduced myself and we talked, I might understand you better.”
“So what did he say?”
“I didn’t talk to him. I asked the woman who answered if I could speak to Chester. But she got mad and said no, I could not.”
“That sounds like Anne, his wife. My stepmother.”
“So I asked her, why can’t I talk to him? She said that he died five months ago. I said what? And she angrily spelled out the word, D.I.E. D., then hung up.”
I said nothing.
“That’s interesting,” I finally said. “Very interesting.”
After another long pause, Maria said, “John, are you okay?”
“Yes, don’t worry, sweetie. I’m fine.”
After that conversation I lit up a toxic Girabaldi cheroot, and slowly blew out a cloud of smoke. What was I feeling ? Or, what in this instance should I be feeling? It certainly wasn’t sorrow or grief or regret, but it wasn’t elation either.
Well, it was interesting that my father had been buried for five months, and no one in his second family felt obliged to let me know. Which actually wasn’t surprising. Merely interesting, as if my being deliberately kept in the dark by those people had happened to someone else.
I left a few Euro coins on the table, waved to Franco, then walked a short distance to the Di per Di grocery and filled my wire basket with four boxes of granola cereal, a bunch of bananas, a package of Tunisian dates, a loaf of bread still warm from the oven, and a few other things. I thought of the lunch I’d soon fix for myself: Fresh water buffalo mozzarella cut in chunks, tossed with shredded basil leaves and sliced cherry tomatoes, warm and fresh from the garden near the ancient grapevine trellises, with a generous sprinkle of sea salt, ground pepper, and extra-virgin olive oil. I’d come to love this dish and many others like it in a Spartan diet that the nutritional experts said would keep me healthy, help me live longer. Which was precisely what I intended to do. Especially now.
Why, I wondered, was I having such an extraordinary interest in food?
I hefted the plastic sack over my shoulder and slowly ambled up the mountain trail. Before burials there are funerals, and along with them are wakes. Celebrations of the passing of loved ones to a better world. I remembered the big, noisy, crowded one in Youngstown after my grandmother Josephine died…what? Forty, fifty years ago…
The old women brought pans and platters and plates and spread them on the big shiny table in the dining room and on card tables out in the back yard. Baked ham covered with pineapple slices and cloves. Pierogi, dumplings stuffed with mashed potatoes, onions, and cheddar cheese. Golumbki, or Pigs in a Blanket, cabbage stuffed with ground beef and pork, covered in tomato sauce. Kiełbasa, sausage, with ogórek kiszony, pickled gherkins. Kapusta kiszona, sauerkraut.
Sztuka mięsa w sosie chrzanowym, chunks of roasted beef in horseradish sauce. Placki kartoflane, potato pancakes. Pączk, doughnuts. Sernik, cheese cake. Makowiec, poppyseed-swirl cake, with raisins and nuts. Krówki, thick, sweet, delicious chocolate fudge.
Wyborowa and Żubrówka vodkas. Seagram 7, Gordon’s gin, brown bottles of Schlitz, Budweiser, Carling Black Label.
Lots of people, all talking, laughing, drinking, eating, having a hell of a good time. I wandered unnoticed among them, a skinny little six-year-old boy.
Back in the deserted living room, I stood on the cushioned knee-pad of the prie-dieu in front of grandma’s open coffin. There was a black-beaded and silver-crucifixed rosary entwined in her bony fingers. Odd, I’d never seen her with one, and she never came to St. Casimir’s when I served mass as one of Monsignor’s altar boys. Her pale waxy face looked obscenely naked without her rimless glasses that always reflected the light and made her eyes hard to see. I stared at her motionless corpse as I greedily chewed on my big chunk of krówki. I thought maybe at any moment she’d open her eyes, put on her glasses, climb out of the coffin, and resume bossing people around.
After more than a half dozen years on the island I still felt a surge of gratitude whenever I swung open the black iron gate and entered the courtyard of my gleaming white stucco villa. The air was fragrant with various species of cactus and exotic flowers growing in narrow beds at the base of sloping green tuffa walls, and it was cool in the dancing dappled shade from the walnut and towering palms and tall broadleafed banana plants.
I was paying a ridiculously small amount of rent for this great luxurious accommodation. Every morning I’d take my breakfast on the patio and gaze down at the entire west coast of the island, and out at the glittering pale blue Mediterranean. There was in the distance the Sphinx paw of Punta Imperatore, its claws curled into the water, and at its base the Poseidon Spa, and the long beach of Citera, and further along the village of Forio with the bright white Moorish chapel of Soccorso atop its promontory, and then to the right the beach of Chiaia d’ luna, and the long pointed finger of Punta Caruso.
After putting away the groceries, I turned on my computer. It took only a few mouse clicks to bring on-screen the obituary that had appeared in the Youngstown Vindicator five months earlier.
Chester Palcewski, 89
AUSTINTOWN. Chester Palcewski, 89, passed away unexpectedly Monday morning, August 22, 2005, at his home. He will be sadly missed by all who knew and loved him.
Chester was born Feb. 20, 1916 in Youngstown, a son of the late Casimir and Josephine Hoffman Palcewski, and was a lifelong area resident.
He attended The Rayen School and served in the U.S. Army during WWII.
A tailor by trade, Chester owned and operated Bouquet Tuxedo Rentals on Mahoning Avenue in Youngstown for many years and also worked at Masters Tuxedo Rentals. He was a member of the Nativity of Christ Orthodox Church and PLAV Post No. 87.
He leaves his wife, Anne Stefanoski Miladore Palcewski, whom he married Nov. 1, 1966; four stepchildren, Joann (the late John Jr.) Panko of Palentine, Ill., Sandra (Frank) Burkosky of Solon, Elaine (Richard) Luchansky of Pawleys Island, S.C. and Nicholas (Donna) Miladore of Boardman; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
A brother, Alex and a sister, Jane Hubler are deceased.
Family and friends may call from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Kinnick Funeral Home, 477 N. Meridian Road in Youngstown, and from 9:30 to 10 a.m. Saturday at Nativity of Christ Church.
A prayer service will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at the funeral home and funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the church.
Interment will take place at Lake Park Cemetery.
I was eager to see irrefutable proof that my father was indeed dead. I read the text three times, as if I wasn’t quite sure it was real, and I wondered: Is an online newspaper obit reliable information? After all, it’s easy enough these days for a sophisticated computer hacker to fake whatever he or she wants. Maybe Chester and his second family conspired to pull off a massive life insurance scam, and he’s still alive, smirking, knowing he’s gotten away with it, as he has always gotten away with every single one of his drunken, abusive acts.
Maybe he’s still alive, and brazenly laughing. At me.
I read it for the fourth time, and paused at the list of survivors.
Where was the mention of me, his son? And my two now-grown-up kids, his grandchildren, Stephen and Lara? We were not there. Oh, okay, I get it. This was his final deliberate and carefully crafted insult: I didn’t exist, and neither did my children. From the very beginning he wished I’d never been born. Now he—or perhaps Anne--had made his sentiment official in a public declaration.
Ah, beautifully ironic, wasn’t it? Despite all that, HE now was the one who didn’t exist.
Bright fragments of memories continued to swirl around in my brain.
How many times had I tried to establish communication with him, to resolve our “issues?” But over the years he rebuffed every one of my overtures. He did not want to discuss the past. Or to explain to me why he lied about my mother being dead, when in fact she lived on the other side of town and frequently called Caroline, our next door neighbor, to ask how I was doing. When I confronted him, he explained he lied about her death because “she's a fucking whore.”
When Lara was born I called him. "I've got good news," I said. "You’re a grandfather. Congratulations."
“Oh, yeah? Well, I have good news too," he replied. "I just bought a new car.”
I really thought he’d want to see baby Lara, but he never showed the slightest interest in her, nor in Stephen after he was born four or five years later.
Then I called my mother.
“Congratulations. You’re a grandmother.”
"Oh, Johnny! How wonderful! That's amazing! I'm so happy for you and Barbara!"
"So when are you coming to New York to see your granddaughter?"
My mother gasped. "You really want me to come, after the horrible thing I did to you?"
"It's water under the bridge," I said. "Forget it. Come see your granddaughter. We'd love to have you."
"Oh, Johnny! Oh, Johnny!"
Twenty years ago I told a shrink about Chester’s utter lack of interest in my family.
“You know, John," she said, "he actually did your children a favor.”
“He spared them his toxic, abusive personality. They’re much better off without him.”
Later that evening I felt a sense of lightness. Just a little glimmer. At last it’s an utter impossibility for him to physically or emotionally hurt me. While he was still alive, that potential always existed. Now it’s over.
When he showed up, unannounced, at my graduation at Moravian College, Barbara turned pale. She was worried that I’d freak out. She knew what he’d done to me. But I managed to preserve my balance and most especially my boundaries. He said he’d arrived in Bethlehem the day before, and was up in the choir loft at the Baccalaureate service. He said he saw me sitting down there, in the first row.
Then he said, “You look like a little kid in that outfit.”
Right. I was 40. My cap, gown and silver Alpha Sigma Lambda medallion signified my election to an honor society for non-traditional students. But in his eyes I was infantile, unformed, of no standing. A mere child.
“We’ll get together for drinks later, huh?” he said.
I surprised myself.
“You should have let me know you were coming,” I said calmly, quietly. “As it is, I’ve already made plans.”
“Maybe some other time,” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
Then he walked off. It was the last time I saw him.
I knew that brief encounter was the triumph over him I’d always wanted. A clean and honorable one. Unlike when after he attacked me in the kitchen I retaliated by slamming him hard, twice, against the kitchen sink cabinet, breaking three of his ribs.
I didn’t intend to kill him. Murder simply was not in my heart. All I wanted was to finally stop him from hurting me.
Not because he died, but because his death does not shatter me, terrify me, as it would have 20 years ago. I’m all right now. I’ve cast aside all those awful neuroses. I wish I could have done it earlier. But what the hell. Better late than never.
A long time ago a shrink shook his head in exasperation. I was among the most difficult patients he'd ever had. Extraordinarily guarded and defended, he said. “But what concerns me is that you haven’t yet come to terms with your father’s death.”
“That’s because the bastard's still alive,” I replied.
I suppose if he died back then it would have messed me up, big time. Maybe there's actually a Higher Power up there who kept him alive all these years just so I could get ready. To finally grow up and be fully capable of handling his departure.
Exactly what am I feeling right now?
Well, I’m not frightened. I’m not abandoned. Even though his final repudiation—that I do not exist—might be seen that way. I’m not sure he ignored my last two or three snail mail letters. Anne may have intercepted and destroyed them, because she didn’t want him going off the deep end. My visits always provoked him to drink himself to unconsciousness. He couldn’t deal with me, and with what I reminded him of. He had to blot it out.
Anne. He always called her “mommie.”
He and she were offended by my signature on their wedding guest book. It was a hurried, scrawled Capital P followed by a single horizontal line, with a period at its tail end. The sign of a focused and highly talented young writer, who had made it in New York City.
But in his eyes it was an obliteration or desecration of his family name, as if I were ashamed of it. HIS name. The one he conferred upon both me and my mother. Ha! This is the first time I’ve thought of this.
Repudiation. His was the first and everlasting one. I was, at his wedding, merely trying to ease its sting.
Chester Palcewski is DEAD.
“Hey, your dad has a lot of love in him,” Nick told me the day before the wedding. He was reproaching me, because the stuff I had been telling him about my father didn't square with what he'd seen first hand.
“Oh, really?” I should have asked Nick. “How come Chester never showed any of it to ME? Huh?”
Lucky Nick. He and the others saw a Chester transformed. One who had successfully fled, escaped his past. A fresh beginning. Among a gaggle of folks who saw only his utterly charming vulnerability, his neediness.