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

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BECAUSE I was born eighth into a family on its way to almost twice that size, plenty was already going on when I got there. The four oldest gradually filled me in on things I needed to know, as if I were a new hand at the factory and had to learn what drawers certain tools were kept in. I learned that our grandparents had come from Lithuania and Ukraine early in the century (we thought of ourselves as Russians), and that the four of them had been in the needle trades, as tailors, furriers, and shoemakers. I learned that my mother had lost two babies, which explained the three-year gap between Rita and Jane; and I learned that although our family was huge, Mom had only two siblings and Dad had only three. Armed with this information, I could, to a limited extent, fend for myself when new friends at school asked me about my family.

But some things I didn't have answers for -- things accumulating at home that I felt sad about: the image of all of us lined up on wooden benches eating supper, and the fact that our parents always ate in a separate room; the food we dumped behind the radiators, because we were sick of eating the same things; the days I came to school without my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Every morning somebody would unwrap an entire loaf and set up a coatings factory, to prepare sandwiches for all of us who were in school. I don't know why it hurt me to watch that, but sometimes I'd throw mine out on the way to school and endure hunger. Or not: I'd go to the cloakroom and search the coats of my classmates, looking for snacks. Yet I would feel no guilt for stealing from my friends -- only sadness. Even today I will eat candy for lunch if nobody's looking, and feel sad about it.

And I never had a good answer for why we couldn't join the Scouts, or go to summer camp, or take music lessons, because I never understood about the money; I never knew what it meant for Mom to divide Dad's paycheck sixteen ways. We had leveraged our way into an exclusive neighborhood in Manhasset, but we would never be able to keep up appearances.

Nor did I ever learn what to tell my classmates when they asked why we had such a huge family, because of the shame. Sexually ignorant, I could still detect off-color insinuations directed at my parents, especially from boys. Even an innocent question like "Why did they have so many kids?" made me uncomfortable. The shame was not about intercourse itself, because how can a kid too young to know even the mechanics feel disgust at the thought of his parents' having sex? No: my parents were overdoing something just by having all of us. And because my classmates questioned the very fact of my brothers and sisters, I assumed that something about the size of our family was indecent. I felt shamed not by my bitten nails or my shoddy clothing but by my family. When I got older and the boys' language became coarser, my shame increased, because their words weren't merely vulgar, they were true: why didn't my father just leave my mother alone? At forty she was already fat and unattractive, and almost toothless. I felt a new shame, not at their words but at my own thoughts, thoughts that even the most vulgar boy wouldn't put into words. How could he not leave her alone?

Yet I didn't take my mother's side. I don't even know that I resented my father on her behalf. Nor could I side with my siblings; I resented them for making me feel I was the crowd. I was not proud of us. There was no "us and them" for me, only a me and them. I began pulling away even further, not only from my parents but from my brothers and sisters as well. After I moved away from home (and erringly assumed that I'd left my family behind), I quit paying attention altogether. I skipped most of their weddings, all their children's baptisms, their children's weddings, most holiday gatherings. I sent no birthday or Christmas cards; even today I can't keep all my siblings' birthdays in my head, and I certainly don't know those of their kids.

As I entered my thirties, my withdrawal increased; my fear of the crowd became a dislike of humanity in general. I became a loner, a borderline misanthrope. I despised group activities, and would never do things with more than one other person. I would seldom answer my own telephone. It might be somebody wanting something. Many times when one of my siblings calls and I hear his or her voice on the machine, I don't even pick up.

Occasionally I would come out of the clouds and spend a holiday with my siblings. But when a bunch of us got together, the past would return to me. I'd hear that insistent and desperate quality in our voices, a terrible desire to be heard. We were loud; spouses at the table didn't stand a chance. We'd repeat stories from the past but never describe how we felt in the present. We exaggerated everything. None of us had done very well at coming to terms with our parents' emotional distance and physical brutality, and I would sense in most of us a longing and a neediness and an insecurity that I had never dreamed would follow us into our thirties and forties. I didn't feel attached in any way to my brothers and sisters. The very word siblings gives me the jimjams: it suggests something small and helpless, almost pathetic. It brings to mind a specific calendar image: a litter of saucer-eyed kittens wallowing in a plaid-lined wicker handbasket.

What bothered me the most at family gatherings was that the subject matter -- in years and years of talk -- was always our family. We could not escape ourselves. I grew tired of our past, and began to view my siblings with feelings of contempt and superiority. In order to escape, one first had to make a break for it, and few of them were doing that. I wanted to be different. I didn't even want to be a Zanichkowsky.

Don't get me wrong. These reunions included some positive moments. The humor was terribly black (no subject, disease, race, or religion was off limits); the swearing came easily and in all colors. We would eat and drink shamelessly, and indulge our candy habits (for we are all sugar addicts) to excess without risk of comment or shame. Even Mom and Dad might come -- although not to a wedding if the spouse wasn't Catholic. Dad would bum a cigarette off a kid he used to beat for smoking. The serious drinkers among us might drift off to a local bar for a few more pops. We'd talk about the ones who stayed behind.

But the anticipation I would experience before the event, the origins of which remain uncertain to me, never countered my feeling of depletion at day's end. More often than not I would get home and think, "I didn't need to go there today." I had difficulty being around more than one sibling at a time. Those gatherings reminded me of the central fact of my childhood: I was just another face in the crowd, not even aware of my need to emerge. Even back then I felt that something was wrong, but I've never figured out what it is.

* * *

I REMEMBER a game I used to play with my sister Rita. In our darker moments Reet and I would wager on who in our family would die first. This now feels like millions of years ago, when sixteen of us were still running around, and even our parents seemed young, and the time for anybody's dying seemed a long way off.

Sometimes I bet on myself, because I was pretty depressed back then and often contemplated knocking myself off. We'd talk about Annie, because her life was so lacking in love and joy and accomplishment, and it didn't seem that one could hold on to life for very long under those conditions. Jimmy, who was discharged from Creedmore in 1965, was a favorite because he had been smoking thin little brown cigars for as long as anyone could remember. He had begun to take on their characteristics, looking more and more like a cinnamon stick on end, thin and brown, ready to fall over at any moment. Then Paul's aorta suddenly ruptured while he was raking his lawn, and I started betting on him. But they installed a shiny new titanium valve and a new Dacron aorta, and three operations later he's still fiercely among the living.

It was our father. He died in two seconds. He'd had two heart attacks and a quadruple bypass during a lifetime of cigarettes and stress and fatty foods, so he must have seen it coming; he just never saw it arrive. My mother had dozed off on the couch, and when she awoke she found him folded in half over the edge of the bathtub. "He left me so quickly," she said to me afterward, "that it felt like he'd walked out on me for another woman."

"I was shocked," Rita told me, "because I thought he was too powerful to die. For him to keel over in the bathtub, and die at home, with a weak human body like the rest of us, really blew me away."

My mother called and asked me please to come to my father's funeral. It struck me then that the distance between my father and me was something she had probably tried to traverse many times, a distance I hadn't thought she had measured.

After she hung up, I felt a twinge of regret. Something had just ended that I should have done more about. Twenty years had elapsed since Ihad left home, and I'd wasted most of it refusing to understand either of us. I hadn't wanted to understand him, because it seemed only a short step from forgiving him, which I couldn't do. I couldn't allow myself to slide into compassion; I didn't want to give him anything, not even forgiveness. I had expected him to fix things, to come to me out of the blue and apologize for not having loved me. I was bitter; I would never let my father off the hook for having made mistakes. I was the one to whom Grace finally said, "Forgiveness has nothing to do with releasing another person from responsibility. It has only to do with releasing yourself from perpetual torment."

My father died of a broken heart, probably in more than one sense, in 1991. All the kids came together at a funeral parlor in the wastelands of New Jersey. The Nocturnal Adoration Society mysteriously appeared at the funeral in matching jackets, said a rosary in twenty minutes flat, and walked out; they never even introduced themselves.

Now many of the kids tried to reel our mother back in, to plan on her living long enough for us to get to know her. It was important that she live long enough to leave her husband behind -- not to get over him and the loss of him, which wasn't going to happen, but to be able to talk to us about our father rather than about her husband.

But she withdrew. She spent the holidays alone. She almost never invited any of us to come visit her, and some of the kids never saw her again after Dad's funeral. I was lucky; she invited me to her place in a retirement community; she was quite insistent about it. I spent a long weekend with her, asking questions, trying to explain about my father, collecting the tidbits of history she felt comfortable sharing. She asked me if I wanted to go for a drive, to visit Dad's grave. I said no -- I wouldn't mind going for a drive, but why didn't we go to the shore? She started crying immediately; I had to fight the urge to reconsider. I saw that my feelings toward my father had hurt her, too, though they weren't intended to. But hate is like one of those underground fires that burn in peat bogs -- you can never tell exactly where it's going or what it's going to do. And you can't put it out even when you know what kind of hell it's causing.

Then my mother died -- another broken heart. Catherine was with her at the end. "I was in there giving her dinner, and she wouldn't eat, and she was crying, and she said, 'Why won't He take me? He knows I don't want to be here. Why does He revive me?'" It had occurred to many of us that all she really wanted in those last eleven months was to follow her husband.

Louise called me at work one night to give me the news. I wandered the streets like an automaton, afraid even to stop into a bar to drink. The subway entrance scared me -- it would require a response. I didn't want to go home, but I had nowhere else to go. I must have gone home, to the room I'm in right now. I have a small place. I must have sat right here in this same chair, at this same table, that night. They're the only ones I have. But I don't remember.

All of us showed up for Mom's funeral, too. Even the nieces and nephews. It was at the same funeral home as Dad's. We stayed in the same motels, ate in the same restaurants. After Martha finished reading to us from the will, we drank in the same bars. I drank quite a bit, and when I was stiffer than Lot's wife, I looked around at the faces of my brothers and sisters. In thirty years we'd almost never gathered in the same room, and now death had forced us together twice in eleven months. Who were these people?

The next day we put our mother in the ground a few feet away from where we had put our father. I have a picture of her in her coffin stuck to my refrigerator with a magnet, but it doesn't seem to do anything to me anymore.

I can't remember if I cried at my father's funeral.

I cried at my mother's funeral, because of all the suffering she had endured. But I wasn't going to miss her, and the crying wasn't about the loss of closeness -- unless it was the closeness we could have shared.

Then, seven years later, Jimmy died. We were now thirteen. It upset me that the gods had never given him a break yet still saw fit to kill him first. I cried at his funeral, because at fifty, once he was scared about his cancer and reached out to us, he started to become a member of our family, though he never got to finish the job. I cried because the people at his church knew more about him than we did, and because Annie and Stephanie hadn't come to his funeral, and I didn't know whether this mattered or not.

I cried not because I was going to miss Jimmy but because I was not, and this felt the same as when I'd buried my parents. My father's death hadn't wrecked me, and my mother's death hadn't done much to me either, and I was relieved now because with three deaths in my family, I hadn't been demolished yet. But I don't understand what's so wrong with me that I'm still waiting for someone close to me to die so that I will feel something -- as if such feelings will prove to me that Iam capable of love after all.

* * *

AFTER Mom died, we opened their safe, looking for documents. We found newspaper clippings from each and every time one of us had made the paper. They had saved the receipts for their stays at the Waldorf-Astoria, their report cards from school, all our report cards, our class portraits. We found the psychiatrist's bills for his visits to see Jimmy at Creedmore; an hour's worth of eight-millimeter film shot in the 1950s and early 1960s; their wedding cards and all our birth announcements. There were no jewels, stocks, bonds, gold, or coins in the safe.

And we found this:

I, Johanna Zanichkowsky, do hereby make, publish and declare this to be my last will and hereby revoke all other wills and codicils heretofore made by me. In making this, my last will, I am not unmindful of my children: Martha Burns; Louise Naples; Martin Zanichkowsky, Jr.; James Zanichkowsky; Anne Zanichkowsky; Catherine Andruskevich; Paul Zanichkowsky; Stephen Zanichkowsky; Anthony Zanichkowsky; Elizabeth Zanichkowsky; Grace Borriello; Rita Zanichkowsky; Jane Zanichkowsky and Stephanie Zanichkowsky, and I intentionally omit my said children and any other issue of mine, whether now living or hereafter born, from the provisions of my will. The omission of my said children from the dispositive provisions of this will is not due to any lack of affection for them.

The rest of the safe was filled with chocolate.

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


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 (Part Three); Volume 286, No. 3; page 81-91.