Big Hank and the Perils of Being Polish
My father, who loved nicknames, had his own as well. His sister and other family members on my mother’s side called him Tommy. Where did that come from? No one seems to know. His name was Henry Bernard but what he really liked being called was Big Hank.
He also liked the idea of being called Big Daddy and I remember that a few times he called our mom, Big Mama, right out of a Tennessee Williams play. In fact Tennessee Williams’ characters were uncannily like our family, especially Stanley Kowalski.
As a kid I watched a lot of movies. I loved Cat On a Hot Tin Roof because Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor were such hot tickets in that movie!
But Street Car Named Desire often went over my head. I understood Stanley Kowalski well enough, but Blanche Dubois took me years to figure out because her story paralleled my mother’s to some degree and it is written with a lot of metaphors as well. It was too close to home.
But watching Big Daddy on the screen always reminded me of Big Hank and his desire to keep his family near him, demanding love and respect but bullying us at the same time.
My father and mother were first generation children from Polish immigrants. This was a heavy load to carry for my father. He said that he felt a lot of discrimination for being Polish and carrying the last name of Wenglowski. He was also short in stature and seemed defensive about this at times too. I think both things challenged him.
My father also saw himself as an outsider maybe because he was the first-born son of immigrants. His friends mostly went the career route of working at Kodak Park. It was very common in Rochester to want the benevolent protection of a large company and sail through life with a sure job and pension. My father was not interested in doing that kind of work. My father was an entrepreneur. He loved to sell things to people and came up with wild business ideas that he thought would make millions.
My dad first sold grocery products on the road. He sold things like olives and pickles to grocery stores and covered a large territory.
As he progressed, he and his partner, William Konar, joined forces and built a successful business selling non- food products to grocery stores.
William or Willie as we all knew him, was a holocaust survivor and built his business up from nothing. He and my father worked together to create yearly sales of a million dollars during the 1950’s.
For some reason my father parted ways with Willie. I have always wondered why my father ended the partnership when things were so successful for him. You would think that they both had a lot in common as sons of immigrants.
Willie went on to become hugely successful and owned a chain of drug stores and a real estate company. My father had some successes but often came up with ideas that just couldn’t find traction.
Once my father left his partnership with Willie, he opened his own version of that business. He branched out and went into vending machines. He sold stockings, film and even popcorn in these machines. I remember that my sister and I would stuff stockings into small paper tubes to re-merchandise them for the vending machines. We also cleaned the popcorn machines sometimes.
Henry developed a sign business that made glittery signs out of metallic squares that shimmered in the wind. These signs could be seen all over Rochester but they were not made well. The glue that held the metallic squares in place didn’t work and the signs all had to be replaced. It was pretty embarrassing to see the signs he had hung look broken and shabby around town.
My father’s drive though was epic. He never gave up that elusive dream to become a millionaire. He eventually got a license to sell mutual funds and insurance and did well for a while with a company called Equity Funding Of America.
However my dad had bad luck once again. Equity Funding turned out to be fraudulent, selling bogus securities. It turned out to be the biggest Wall Street scandal of its time when it went under in 1972, and it wrote the book on insider trading. Both the principals of the company went to prison along with 100 other employees.
My father didn’t seem to let this debacle get the best of him and dove right into opening an insurance brokerage company selling personal and commercial lines of products.
All these set backs must have put enormous stress on him. What he wanted was to be wealthy and successful, but what he got was a lot of hard times.
My brother and I kept wondering why he kept making such devastating mistakes.
I believe being the son of immigrant parents fueled his drive to be successful, but also skewed his ethics and common sense. He often made partnerships with some unsavory people and tried to cut too many corners ethically.
My father’s family consisted of my grandparents, my father and his younger brother Teddy and younger sister Eleanor. They were seen as a hard working, up standing middle class family.
When my father was 17, his brother Teddy who was 15, died suddenly from appendicitis in 1934. When he spoke about this loss, my father said that his mother was inconsolable and that it changed her life forever. My grandmother who could not read, write English or drive, bought a car and made Henry get his driver’s license in order to take her to the cemetery everyday for years. By the time I was born in 1951 it was 17 years later and my father was still driving his mother to the cemetery at least two or three days a week.
As creepy as this may sound, I have very fond memories as a kid going with my father and grandparents to Teddy’s grave. I loved the park-like feel of the cemetery. I was in charge of the watering can and remember carrying the can to a spigot about 100 feet away from Teddy’s small stone marker and lugging a full can of water back to the grave. Grandma would be on her knees in her work dress weeding the small flowerbed she planted every season that always consisted of lacey white and purple ageratums. My job was to gently sprinkle the water over the flowers once she stopped the weeding.
Grandpa would take his hand-held grass clippers and scissor cut the grass to the perfect height. Then everyone would kneel down and pray for Teddy.
My grandparents said their prayers in Polish. They usually seemed to take a long time saying them, which was my cue to walk around the cemetery looking at stone markers of angels holding babies, or lambs curled up like kittens, or check out the stone saintly men holding staffs.
At some point my kid mind realized people were buried there and I began to talk to them, wishing them well, sending them prayers like my grandmother did, and wondering what they looked like when they were alive. Maybe this is why I liked the Adams Family so much!
I always thought that it was my uncle’s untimely death that was in part responsible for some of my father’s anger. As a kid I saw my grandmother, who was loving, protective and devoted to her grandchildren, be mean, disapproving and cantankerous with her son.
Henry could do little right by his mother. They had a complicated relationship. They fought a lot but my father was still devoted to her. When grandma was in her eighties, declining and living with my parents, it was my father who took care of her most intimate needs, not wanting to see her go to a nursing home. I always felt there was some lopsided thinking and reverse guilt going on between them. I wondered if my grandmother blamed my father for his brother’s death. It seemed like my father may have been my grandmother’s scapegoat so she could deal with the traumatic loss of her youngest son. I think my father felt guilty because he took loans from his parents and never paid them back forcing them to move in with in us.
Being the firstborn son of immigrants, Big Hank’s parents relied on him for many things as he got older. He would tell the story of being forced by his father to stand in bread lines during the depression for the family because his parents were to ashamed to do that. They needed my father to read and write things for them all the time. My grandfather had some ability to read English but my grandmother did not read English at all. My father was their interpreter in a lot of ways helping them to deal with life in America.
My father also felt a lot of discrimination being Polish. He hated people repeating “Polack” jokes and would head people off at the pass by asking anybody he met first, “What country do your people hail from son?” or use the phrase “Solidarity Brother” from Lech Walesa’s Polish labor movement. He also had a special handshake that went with the phrase. My father would do this routine especially when we would go out to dinner. In fact the more upscale the restaurant the more he would act out. It was pretty annoying to be around him when felt out of his league and threatened socially.
He could not afford the time or the money to go to college back then either. Just graduating from high school in those days was a feat. That must have been a very hard thing for him to live with. As an adult he was an avid reader and had a sharp mind self-educating himself on history, religion, geography and politics. My father knew well the benefits of education and encouraged and groomed my brother Gary to want this for himself.
Gary was a good student to begin with but my father sealed the deal by having him go to a competitive catholic high school in Rochester run by the testy, academically stringent Jesuits. Gary excelled in this atmosphere, and with my father’s support went on to the University of Pa. and got his doctorate in economics from the Wharton School.
My sister and I were encouraged to go to Katherine Gibbs secretarial school or to be a nurse, wife or mother. It was my brother who encouraged me to think beyond that career path. I will always be grateful to him for that.
My brother had a much different relationship with our father than Lynn and I had. Gary was my Dad’s pride and joy. My father saw the potential for Gary to have a life that he wanted, but wasn’t sure he could get. Big Hank, paved the way early on for his son. He encouraged him to get educated at the finest schools, paid his tuition fees, enrolled him at the Rochester Yacht Club to learn to sail, bought him a small sail boat and a car. I will say that my father sent Lynn and I too sailing school too but I only went for one year. My sister didn’t like sailing, or the type of kids there, and even though I wanted to continue, I stopped my lessons because I was too young to go alone.
Gary succeeded and took the opportunities presented to him very seriously. He excelled at school, at sailing and in his profession as an economist.
My brother and I have this conversation all the time. Although my sister and I never had the kind of foundational encouragement or financial support that he had from our father, it was Gary who took over his own destiny once he had the opportunity to do so.
Lynn and I never begrudged Gary his successes and good fortune, but it has been hard to get Gary to see the price we paid for being daughters.
Also, by the time my brother was off to college, my father’s business was beginning to take a nose-dive. Gary was not around to have a first hand experience of the deterioration of things that Lynn and I saw. The demise of my father’s business success caused a lot of friction between my parents. Suddenly our suburban “movin’ on up” trajectory was coming to an end. My father made some very bad business decisions. The split up with his business partner inadvertently created a series of events that caused my father to go bankrupt.
During this time Lynn worked at secretarial jobs to help my parents financially but to also take over car payments. My father never put the car into her name, and the car got repossessed anyway.
My father’s parents eventually had to come and live with us. I believe my father needed them to sell their house and move in with us to help pay off some of our family’s debt.
I remember during this time, right before my grandparents moved in, my parents came home from work in a very foul mood. My father was yelling relentlessly at my mother for being “stupid.” She in turn was sobbing from his verbal assaults.
They both walked into the TV room. I was minding my own business sitting on the floor watching TV. My father out of sheer anger and frustration suddenly picked up his rocking chair and threw it against the wall! BAM! I jumped a mile high! My mom collapsed in a corner still sobbing. My father took the remains of the chair in one hand like nothing happened, broke off the last remaining leg like it was a chicken wing and put the now legless rocker on the floor and sat down in it and grumbled to himself. He looked like a little boy having a tantrum!
It turns out my mother who did the books for my father’s business put a decimal point in the wrong spot and they were now in major debt that they didn’t expect and the IRS was also sending threatening letters about back taxes as well. Oy vey!
While my brother missed a lot of the bad stuff by moving away from Rochester when he did, I would have as well given half the chance. I actually use to fantasize about running away when I was a kid.
My father used to love to take my mother to New York City. He took me with them a couple of times. New York was my kind of town. I loved the lights, the hustle and bustle, the freedom to be anything you wanted to be and nobody cared!
At thirteen I saw a crazy movie called The World of Henry Orient with Peter Sellers. In this movie two precocious 13-year-old girls romp around New York City spying on Henry Orient who is a famous pianist. I loved that movie and fantasized about living in New York, in a brownstone and going to a private school like they did and being worldly and mad cap all at once.
So when I went to the New York with my parents I memorized the streets, the hotels and the train station that was near the Americana Hotel where they stayed on Lexington Ave. It happened to be near a YWCA too. I was very familiar with YWCAs because I swam at one in Rochester. It all made sense to me. I thought to myself that I just needed to come up with a plan to escape these people!!
I plotted taking a bus. I knew where the greyhound station was in Rochester. I would sneak out on a Saturday and say I was going to a friend’s house. At that time I knew how to take the city buses and get around. I was fearless! I would take the bus, get off somewhere near Broadway, walk up 42 Street until I got to Lexington Ave and check into the YWCA. I got that far with the plan.
Where it fell apart was what would I do next? I imagined someone might see I was pretty young to be on my own. They would corner me and force me to call my parents, or worse call the police. My mother would be crying and wringing her hands. My father would be furious. They would have to drive to New York City to get me and then I would have to hear my father yell at me all the way back home to Rochester. Worse would be that my good girl cover would be blown and I would be under suspicion like my sister for the rest of my days. Damn, it was a good plan up until the moment I realized that I would be sent home and things would actually end up worse for me in the end.
Big Hank did have a few good qualities. As quick as he was to de-evolve into a tantrum or into more serious anger, he also laughed a lot. He laughed much more than my mother did. He told jokes and was interesting to talk with when he was reading about history or politics. He had a curious mind and loved books. He also loved to talk about Native American history in upstate New York, and had great respect for the Iroquois Nation. He enjoyed taking the kids out on walks through the woods near our house and pretend that the Indians were still living there and to watch out walking the path because they might sneak up on you and kidnap you!
In his later years, my father just got more disappointed and desperate about not having earned his million dollars.
He kept coming up with one bad business plan after another during those years trying to make it big fast. He invested in diamonds when he knew nothing about how to judge their quality or authenticity.
He wanted to dabble in arbitrage trading which is really bizarre and almost got my first husband fired from his job because he circulated a letter to potential investors saying that Len, who was at the time the Treasurer of Pepsico, was using my father’s expertise! It was a lie and made my head spin regarding how far my father would go to get the success he wanted.
He also invested in ATM machines and would drag my poor mom around with him, who by then had at least one major breakdown, as he was trying to sell local businesses on this idea. The problem was they were not his machines, he was just a middleman and by then everyone had ATM’s so there was little interest. My father was in his late seventies during this time.
As my father aged he just grew more cantankerous. He started to have small strokes in his early 80’s. He couldn’t seem to find any joy in life but then outside of the business deals he dreamed up, he never did seem to enjoy the important things like family and friends. He was more demanding with our mother who was frail. It was a sad time.
Once my father was admitted into a nursing home I decided that I would only go to see him if he asked for me to come and visit him. I was so angry with him for the years of his bad behavior, his selfish ways, intimidations and violence. I was emotionally worn out by him and the repercussions of things he had done.
He never asked for me to come and see him. On the one hand I was relieved he never asked for me to come and visit him because it would have been very painful to do so. On the other hand I knew that he was not well and perhaps not capable of asking for me. I am not sure if he was aware or not about my not showing up for visits. He did though seem to be very aware of my brother and sister coming.
I did see my father one last time right before he passed away. He was in the hospital near death when my sister called me to come and see him. I went and saw a small struggling man lying in bed now powerless and meek. My heart broke for him but I was still angry, too. I kissed his cheek and said “Dad, I love you. I forgive you,” and I thought, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, that it might be good to forgive myself as well.
My father just looked at me and I wasn’t sure if he heard me or not.
My brother said that when he spoke to our father for the last time our father said, “Thank you for accepting me.” Wow, that was a very astute statement by him. So my father did know that we struggled with him. I wish he could have said something like that to Lynn or me too.
When my sister called me to tell me that our mother passed away all the lights in my hotel room flickered off and on for two minutes. I took this as a sign that mom was sending us, telling us that she was ok.
When my father passed away I felt his presence around me for a few months afterwards. Often when I was driving and thinking of my father, the U2 song Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own would come on the radio. It would make me ball my eyes out. I felt my heart fill up with love for my dad and the tragedy of his life. At the time I had no idea that the song was a tribute to Bono’s dad. It was a cathartic letting go of all the sadness I had inside of me from years of watching my father rail against his demons and those of his Polish heritage. I took this as a gift that my father was sending me.
I am lucky. I was able to find some peace with him after he passed away. But I could still feel the wounds of his actions and wondered why he couldn’t have just been happy with his family that loved him.