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Fourteen

My first view of how outsiders saw my family was as the subject of astonishment and derision

by Stephen Zanichkowsky

MY brother Tony found the picture among our parents' stuff after they died. We call it "the family photo," because it's the only photograph we can find that shows our parents and all fourteen of us kids. It was taken in Manhasset in 1962, right after the last kid was born. Tony found it in one of the shoeboxes full of snapshots which doubled as bookends in my parents' house. I don't remember having seen the picture before. We didn't keep photo albums, and it was never displayed in our house -- not for any particular reason that I know of; we just didn't have pictures on the walls.

When I, with no wife or children, think about how much work living can be, I remind myself that when this picture was taken, my parents were younger than I am right now.

Those boxes held quite a few relics, including pictures of our distant relatives from the old country. Our grandparents must have brought them over when they came here, during the Bolshevik Revolution. Some photos were from Mom and Dad's early days in Brooklyn and Queens, when their first few kids must have seemed like novelties, and one was from 1946, of my mother's parents in their parallel twin coffins. Some very early color photos were from a 1950s Christmas. When I was a kid I used to raid those shoeboxes for negatives; I feel bad about it now, but I'd roll them up in newspaper and set them alight to make smoke bombs.

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From the archives:

"An American Requiem," by James Carroll (April 1996)
The father: an Air Force general, one of the nation's top intelligence officers, a man of power whose belief in the world of hierarchy was total. The son: newly ordained, celebrating his first mass, mounting the pulpit to speak as a priest. The time: the height of the Vietnam War. A memoir.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Catholic. Woman. Writer." (May 6, 1999)
Enough with the good-girl shtick, says the novelist Mary Gordon.

We children eventually sorted ourselves into groups: the four oldest (Martha, Louise, Marty, Jimmy), the girls (Annie, Catherine), the three boys (Paul, me, Tony), the three girls (Elizabeth, Grace, Rita), and the babies (Jane, Stephanie). Not included were the dead; my mother endured two stillbirths between Rita and Jane. She told me the details once, a few months before she died. One of the babies had fallen stillborn into the toilet. She had fished it out and wrapped it in newspaper and taken it to be baptized by Father Kruzas. She said that after she lost the second one, in the hospital this time, she feared she wouldn't be able to have any more children.

I've always resisted the idea that my mother really wanted all those kids. I suppose I don't want to see her as the cause of her own suffering. Louise says that Mom was interviewed by someone from her old high school paper, and she told the interviewer that even as a teenager she had dreamed of having twelve sons. But I'm skeptical, because we really destroyed her. In the end even Mom realized that whatever she had been dreaming about (and my guess is she'd been dreaming about the Apostles) could never align with what she or anybody else could have actually wanted. But maybe because God had given us to her, she couldn't deny her youthful wanting, much less wish she could give us back. Although she never once expressed regret, she did seem to disavow any active choice in the matter. At the end of her days, when I finally asked her about it, she said, "We wanted as many children as God saw fit to grant us."

The photograph you see here seems to imply a family, but that wasn't exactly the case, because the sixteen of us never actually all lived together. Martha was boarding at St. Vincent's Nursing School, in Manhattan, before Jane and Stephanie were born, and our parents had placed Jimmy in a mental institution in Queens by then too. The truth is, discounting holidays and the occasional Sunday dinner (when someone would fetch Jimmy from Creedmore for the midday meal), we sixteen have never been together as a group since the day this picture was taken. We treasure the photograph nonetheless, because it grants us the illusion, or the promise, or the memory, of family.

* * *

ONLY after our parents were dead did I begin to wonder how the individuals in our family had come to terms with the experience of the crowd and what it had done to their -- I should say our -- personalities. Half the kids in the picture -- grown-ups now -- live alone. Twelve of them have accumulated twenty spouses, and five of us have chosen not to raise kids of our own. Jane and I have never married. I knew all these things as facts, of course, but I had never thought of them as consequences until Tony sent me the photo. It got me wondering just how much our family weighed.

That's when I first had the idea of interviewing them all -- my siblings, my brothers and sisters, the ones Jane and I often refer to as "those guys." I became fascinated by the concept of the crowd. How do you form a sense of self if you're just another face in the crowd? How do you learn about relationships without one-on-one experiences? How would you get your parents' attention to begin with? My experience was much more with the mob than with individual kids. As a boy, I became obsessed by what Elizabeth calls "the fourteen-ness of everybody." I never felt recognized, special, singled out. I meant nothing, even to myself. I was sitting in a bar with Elizabeth one night, talking about this, when she said to me, "You weren't interesting to Mom as Stephen Zanichkowsky when she named you that, so why should you become more interesting to her as a toddler when she was already tearing her hair out over her other toddlers?"

When she said that, I felt a slight shock -- a mixture of recognition and relief and gratitude. It was not about the truth of what she'd said, because I had suspected that all along; it was about the fact that Elizabeth was a witness to my experience. It startled me that she knew who I was. I'd been living inside my head for so long that I was surprised to realize, to really get it, that she'd actually had the same parents I'd had.

Liz was right, of course. No one of us as an individual could ever attract our parents' attention. There were just too many of us for that; we became too much trouble for them, and early in their career they lost interest in us as people. Elizabeth's comment, along with remarks I'd collected from the other kids, got me wondering about something I'd never considered before: what had the fourteen of us done to our parents? I'd never looked at it from Mom and Dad's side before; I had been interested only in what had become of me. I didn't have enough compassion to wonder why my parents didn't love me. But as early as I can remember, Dad was hard-bitten, emotionally withdrawn, easy to anger. Distant is the word. And look at my mother's face in this picture; that's a pretty grim face. Even if I didn't know her, I'd say that's a face without much joy or anticipation in it. Maybe I see it differently now because I'm older, or because Mom and Dad are dead, or because the first of the kids has died and the rest of us have begun to encounter the cancers and car accidents and heart disease lying in wait for us -- things that make you see that time for understanding can run out on you pretty quickly. Or maybe it was the interviews, hearing opinions about my parents that differed from my own. Probably it was all these things. In any event, I'm beginning to understand something: we fourteen happened to our parents.

* * *

MY mother started out as a babe: a tall, well-assembled Lithuanian beauty, sharply dressed, hungering for glamour. Johanna was out there, wanting. In early pictures of her she is seductive, knowing, comfortable with her own beauty and physical stature and aware of their possibilities as tools. She wore dark hats, long dresses, red trim on lips and fingernails. She sang arias in Italian and German along with the Saturday-afternoon operas on the radio. She went to a dance, met my father, and went home and told her mother that she'd met the man she was going to marry: he was handsome, dashing, and clever. They spent their honeymoon at the Waldorf-Astoria (ten dollars a night), dancing nightly to big bands and taking breakfast in bed. She preferred Artie Shaw to Benny Goodman on clarinet, and could tell you why.

Two weeks after the honeymoon she was in the hospital with spinal meningitis, inflicted on her by the sloppy work of a drunk dentist. Exactly nine months after the wedding Martha was born, and within a few years the die was cast. Each time she awoke, all the minutes and seconds of her life were accounted for, all the pennies. From 1942 to 1961 most of the times she awoke, she was pregnant. The weight added to her frame by the first four or five pregnancies ruined her back, and her body was taxed to its limits long before she could have derived much pleasure from its use. In one of my earliest memories of her she is sitting up straight on a kitchen chair; a length of clothesline runs through a pulley in the ceiling, with a harness around her head at one end and a brass weight at the other, uncoiling her backbone with makeshift traction. She stares at the ceiling, as if -- I now think, in retrospect -- listening to God: "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

She was twenty-six years old and struggling with those first four babies when her parents died on a single November afternoon in 1946, three hours apart, both of heart disease. I look at the family picture now and imagine a woman who even with a full house was probably more alone at twenty-six than she was ever going to be again until, at seventy, she spent her last eleven months outliving her husband.

I feel guilty writing this about my mother, because she died in pain, scared and alone at the end; but the fact is, I didn't like her. I wanted to like her, and can remember wanting her to like me. But by the time I was old enough not to fear her (after she'd finally become too arthritic to beat me), it was too late to grow any love on the ground that separated us. Yet even when I was a little boy, my fear of her was diluted with sadness and pity. In my earliest memories she would have been in her late thirties (she was thirty-one when she had me), and already she looked exhausted by burdens I would never understand. I was too young to guess what might be misfiring in her life, too young to understand what had already been extracted from her before I'd gotten a chance to know her. But something told me that certain cards had been dealt her, that some of what was going wrong for her wasn't her fault.

Nevertheless, I wonder how she could have failed to figure out that sleeping with my father was going to keep making her situation worse. They say we make our own beds, but the hardest thing for me as I contemplate my mother's experience is to understand exactly how much of her misery was her own creation. Had she ever, in her dark moments, considered saying no to him? But she couldn't do that. None of us could.

* * *

AND what kind of man was my father? A private man -- one who never spoke about his mother and father. He was a man whose father had disowned him, a man with no heroes, a man who patented exotic instruments that were flown to outer space, a man who drove a Pontiac and mowed his own lawn. My father held strong opinions and expressed them forcefully. He worked under the hood. He was a husband who raised neither hand nor voice against his wife. My father had soft brown eyes; he beat his children with a stick.

He engineered his way through Cooper Union while supporting his kids, and came out on top. He took George C. Scott over Marlon Brando, Louis Armstrong but not Miles Davis, Tchaikovsky but not Berlioz, Nat King Cole but not Fats Waller. He loved basketball, its finer points and its great players -- a man with a serious memory, who knew which schools the great players came out of. A man who never called in sick even when he was. A man who taught me the meaning of hard work.

But I never knew what he felt about himself. I never saw him cry. I never heard him apologize to anyone for any reason. He never owned up to error. I can't imagine what he talked about to the priest in confession. We never played catch. We never went fishing. He never took me to a game. He never bought me a book.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)


Stephen Zanichkowsky has written for the New York Press and for Standpoints, a magazine for English teachers published in Paris.

Photograph provided by the Zanichkowsky estate.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2000; Fourteen - 00.09; Volume 286, No. 3; page 81-91.