When Francis Majewski escorts my sister to our back porch, he bows to her like a Polish nobleman, then hobbles home on walking crutches with hard leather cuffs that circle his forearms.  Lesczyk Iwanowski, Gerald Bluebird, and I, Antek, stare at him, scratch our heads, call him “the Noble Pole.”  He’s older than us.

If we’re playing basketball, he’ll lean his crutches against the garage, plant himself at the free-throw line in the alley, and yell stupid things like “Hustle him!  Hustle him!”  When he’s not facing the basket, he can’t shoot.  Because he can’t turn without crutches, slapping the ball from him is easy, despite his strong arms.

He has weak legs, though.  They are thin as a person’s wrists and won’t bend.  He’d never let you see them.  One time, Pete Dziedzic and some bullies kidnapped him.  They paid a guy a year older to buy them beer in the county, where it’s legal to drink at eighteen.  They forced three cans of Northern down Francis.  With their own beers gone, they headed to Allouez Sauna in the neighborhood across the Left-Handed River from the East End where we live.  Francis was embarrassed they’d see his legs if he came into the sauna.  If he didn’t, they threatened to make him stumble home, drunk, on his crutches.  It was nine below zero.  Leaving their clothes in the changing room, the guys sat in the steam, laughing about Francis out in the car.  Just as they got the sauna hotter than even Pete Dziedzic could stand it, in with his crutches walked the Noble Pole—in long underwear!  No one in high school wears long underwear, which got them laughing.  Five seconds later, the union suit was soaked, and Francis was passed out, but at least no one had seen his legs.  The heat and the red underwear sweated the beer right out of him, Dziedzic said.  Knowing the Noble Pole with his high moral standards, they will be the last beers he’ll have in life.

My sister’s other sad friend attends Szkoa Wojciecha, St. Adalbert’s Grade School, with me.  I don’t like Teeny Juncewicz, who wears thick glasses that make it appear as though she knows just how the teenage years of a Polish Catholic should be lived.  She always talks about the “wand of youth.”  She tells us we control something valuable that one day will be lost.  “The wand of youth, it’s so precious,” she says, waving her hands as though she holds this wand.  While Teeny scowls at everyone her age, when the nuns call tennis shoes “tennis slippers” or boxing gloves “killer mittens,” she laughs her approval.  Whatever they say is great.  I think the wand of youth has passed her by.  Teeny is an old woman of fourteen who laughs at idiotic things and cries over Anna and the map of Poland.

Nowadays in the East End, neighbor ladies collect money for polio research, donation cans stand on counters of businesses, and my sister prays she will be healed.  When Anna returns from the special school she attends with Francis, who probably wears long johns on hot days, she starts in praying, so that her voice puts me to sleep.  For centuries, the Black Madonna of Cze? stochowa, a blessed icon, has guarded Polish people, Polish homes, Polish armies, but Anna’s prayers will go unheeded because this family is cursed: Dad is stuck in a job on the packing floor at the flour mill, my sister has polio, and Ma can’t do anything when we’re home but pray or listen to Chopin on the phonograph.

Thankfully, I have two normal friends—Gerald Bluebird, the lone Indian in the Polish East End neighborhood, and Lesczyk Iwanowski, who’s come from the old country.  They take my mind off of how people treat Anna special and how she has two bizarre friends.

“Why’d the nuns keep you?” Mother asks when I return from helping the Sisters pack away schoolbooks for the summer.

“That’s how the Polish nuns are.  They got nothing better to do,” I tell her, saluting as I tear back out the door.  With Anna upstairs in bed, Ma is distracted as she always is lately, but I’m on Memorial Day business and can’t worry about it.  My dad and I are men with a mission.

“Sorry I’m late,” I tell him when he looks like he’s expecting me to screw something up again.  “It was the Sisters at school that kept me working.”

“Wreath’s in the trunk,” he says, driving our beat-up Chevrolet down the alley, then down Fifth Street.

Much land south of our house is flat and wet.  You can’t build on it.  After a few miles of Superior, Wisconsin, wetlands, you come to the South End, where a water tower with the words TWIN PORTS CREAMERY written on it rises over the neighborhood.  Further south, we pass farm fields, a couple more houses.  Beyond the drive-in theater, Dad parks behind a line of cars on the side of the highway.  Through air that smells like lilacs, we head for the cemetery, when someone yells to us in a Polish accent.

Mr. Ham is leaning on his cane.  People call him “Good Ham, Dobrze Szynka,” because of his last name.  If he corners you, he’ll tell you about his “phantom pains,” which he pronounces “phanthom pains.”  He also has “galloping pains.”  To help the soreness in his legs, he wears his wife’s support hose.  Today, he has on funny-looking gloves.  Unnatural on the hands of a retired laborer, they are tight, dressy, tan-colored lady’s gloves.

“Why you wearing them?” I ask.

“Arthur-itis control,” he says.  “Helps the hands.”

Because of the pain, it’s hard for him to walk, too.

Though the priest is asking everyone to bow in remembrance of the war dead, we follow Mr. Ham, president of the Polish Club, the Kosciuszko Club.  Holding the wreath Dad’s given him, “Good Ham” limps up to the Moose and Elks.  Successful men, they wear white shirts, ties.  Mr. Ham has on a blue work shirt; Dad, a clean T-shirt.  Compared to ours, other organizations have beautiful, expensive wreaths.  Looking at them distracts me.  How do I concentrate on praying amid the color?  The United Commercial Travelers and the Eagles Club have red roses on their wreaths, the Woodmen of the World, white carnations and spruce boughs.  I have never seen such splendor.  The line of wreaths goes back half a block.

Our wreath is built of coat hangers.  They form a crooked A.  Leaves and vines hang from the three-foot-tall wreath.  It looks like no one at the Club bothered to dust them.  Four sad, fake daisies peek from the plastic greenery.  What resembles poison ivy dangles in back.  To read it, you have to straighten out a wrinkled streamer:


“People are going to laugh at you.  That wreath’s disheartened,” Ma had said earlier.  Maybe because he’s embarrassed about the wreath, George Ham breaks out a miniature of peppermint schnapps.  Still in eighth grade, I’m not allowed to taste it.  Dad does.

“Royal Order of Cooties, Pup Tent #1.  Come forward.  Present your wreath,” says a VFW official.  “Woodmen of the World.  March forward next.”  After ten more groups, he calls us.  “Polish Club.  Present your wreath.”

When he says it, something comes over me.  I realize our war dead—my Uncle Walt in Korea; my Uncle Stasiu, Helen’s husband, in World War II—are as important as anyone’s.  As Dad, Mr. Ham, and I march forward, my heart sinks with sorrow for the lost.  Fixing the wire stand in the earth, we salute the wreath, then help Dobrze Szynka, a World War I vet, turn around to march back through the crowd.

When a bugler plays “Taps,” nobody’s supposed to talk, but in front of everyone, Dobrze Szynka, slurring his words, starts saying, “We have a future with the Polish youths involved.  Kosciuszko has the same number of beats as ‘Kiss-Me-like-Ya-Used-to.’”  Breaking open another miniature, he slips a dollar into my shirt pocket.  At the moment he sips from the bottle, he loses his balance.  People are laughing.  Dad’s laughing.  Mr. Ham is complaining to people on the left and right about galloping pains, phanthom pains, and stiffness in the joints caused by months of living in trenches during the First World War.

“Polish people are patriotic,” Dad is saying.  “Do you know more Polish fellas from the U.S. served in World War II than from any other what’s called ‘et’nic group’?  Save the dollar Mr. Ham gave you.  Get your sister a nice present tomorrow.  She’s in the house all a-time.”

“Thank you, boys,” Mr. Ham says to us.  Stumbling to pick up the daisies he knocked from the wreath when we caught him, he hands them to me for safekeeping.

As we follow him to the Warsaw Tavern, Dad says, “You’ve done the club proud, Antek.”  He tells me of Polish East Enders that fought in wars—Duke Novazinski, “Tag” Novack, Walt Simzek, Tony Stromko, Joe Bukoski, on and on goes the list all the way to Dobrze Szynka at the Meuse-Argonne, which we studied in school.  For him to have been in World War I, Dobrze Szynka must be sixty.  Dad has a beer with him in the tavern, where someone plays “The White Cliffs of Dover” on the accordion.

At home, Mother has lilacs in the rooms to honor these and other war heroes.  I hear her telling someone that Anna’s resting, then hear her call from the hallway, “Teeny and Francis!”

“OK, Ma,” Anna is saying.

When Francis, who thinks my sister loves him, realizes she isn’t coming downstairs, his face sinks.

“We’ll be back later,” Teeny says, as if threatening me.

After lunch, when everyone has to be quiet so Dad can take a nap before work, I get bored around the house.  In the East End business district four blocks away, businesses are closed except for the taverns.  Peering through the window of the Warsaw, I see Mr. Ham where we left him at the far end of the bar drinking a bowl of beer in his lady’s gloves.  Standing at attention, I salute him before wandering back to the neighbors’, the Iwanowskis’, to ask whether I can look through the magazines Lesczyk’s Ma stores in the shed.  To keep out the wind and rain, they have tacked old newspapers to the wall.  The Iwanowskis have been “resettled” from Poland to Louisiana under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, then resettled to Superior.

“I geev you money you sweep and t’row t’ings out of shed, Antek,” Mrs. Iwanowski says.  Lesczyk and her other sons are off in Minnesota working on a farm for the summer.

Finding a CORONET, when I am through sweeping the shed, I sit on the back-porch stoop of our house to look through the magazine.  I am a nickel richer for my payment.  If I call up to Anna to tell her how wealthy I’ve become, she will hear me.  I am thinking how last week Ma picked wild roses from the overgrown field Iwanowskis own between their house and Malmquists’.  The fragrance clung to her hands, her dress.  Placing a bowl of water with a rose in it on the mantelpiece, she gave another to Anna.  When Anna proceeded toward the Black Madonna’s picture, Ma held her arm the way Dad and I held Dobrze Szynka’s at the cemetery.  The Polish Madonna has long scars on her cheek where Swedish invaders had slashed the face on a portrait at Jasna Góra.  The Madonna holds the Christ Child on Her lap.  His two fingers are raised in blessing as though He holds the wand of youth.  With Anna whispering prayers, I knew the Madonna and Child would someday heal her, regardless of what Dad has said about Anna’s chances.

Now I visit her on the last day of May.  Propped against a pillow, she sits on a blue quilt.  A breeze pushes the window shade inward, sunlight brightening the bed, then pulls the shade back.  Either Ma or Aunt Helen has undone her braids.  Light brown hair falls to her shoulders.  Looking as though she’s going someplace she isn’t, she sits alone in a dress with a white collar.

“You know what I did, Anna?”


“Represented the Polish Club at the cemetery.  Bought you something.  Dad told me to.”  As I place the daisies on her bed, I say, “This is today’s first present.  I didn’t buy these plastic flowers.  They’re a memento for you.  They fell off of something.”

Breeze moving the shade, I go in my room for the second present.  When I return, Anna, surprised by what I’m bringing, says, “Weren’t stores closed?  Where’d you buy a magazine?”

“I got it.  Dad told me to, but I would’ve anyway,” I tell her.  “I bought you the CORONET with a dollar from Mr. Ham, a nickel from Pani Iwanowski.  What are you doing?” I ask her.

She’s twirling the daisies in her hands.

“You didn’t buy it.  Let me rest.  Why should I talk to you?”

“I suppose the magazine’s from outer space.  You’re confused from being upstairs so much.”

“If that’s true that you bought a magazine, then tell me I’m pretty.”

“I will,” I say.  But I’m soon stuck.  “If I say it, you’ll tell me I’m a liar.  If I don’t, you’ll never believe you’re pretty or going to be healthy.”

“You’re so easy to see through, Antek,” she says, laughing.  “Give your friends a proud salute for me.  It’s hard being upstairs and believing you.”

It’s too bad if she doesn’t trust me, I think when I leave.  It’s not my fault she gives up on things all the time.

Outside, I fiddle with the strings holding the clematis vine to the trellis below Anna’s window.  “What are you doing?” Ma asks.


We can hear the music from Anna’s radio coming through her window screen upstairs.

When I go next door, Mrs. Iwanowski says I can keep the magazine she didn’t know I’d taken from her.  Looking above a story title that reads “The Future Looks Better for Disabled Veterans,” I see, printed in white letters on the blue cover, a three-year-old date.

“Oh no!” I say when I realize my mistake.  Thinking Anna knows I lied, I foolishly salute Mrs. Iwanowski, telling her Mr. Ham has galloping pains.

“What you are talking about, ‘galloping pains,’ Antek?” she says.

“I don’t know.  I worked all morning.  I brought Anna this magazine from your shed.  I told her I bought it.  You didn’t mind, did you?”  I’m talking so fast I don’t know what I’m saying.

Drying her hands on her apron, Mrs. Iwanowski says, “‘Czem chata bogata tem rada—What the home has, we are happy to share.’”

“I don’t mean to be impolite, but I ain’t cut out to be Polish.  There’s no use speaking it to me again.  ‘Man is the maker of his destiny,’ the nuns say.”

“Antek, Antek,” she says, smiling as though she’s traveled a very long distance from the old country—maybe even from Cze?stochowa—and can rest awhile.  Seeing her shake her head, I know I’ve embarrassed myself in front of her, too.  Unsure of what to do, I salute Pani Iwanowski the way I’d saluted the wreath at the cemetery, then take off through the field to Aunt Helen’s, who lost her husband, Uncle Stanley, at Iwo Jima.

With Helen at work, no one is home.  I keep thinking how Anna, a year older than me, is very serious.  With little to look forward to in life, she at least expects kindness from her brother.  I never worry whether she’ll walk without crutches.  I have too much else to think of.  Brother and sister.  If I say the words in Polish, I am afraid they will haunt me.

The sun has almost sunk on a holiday.  I have been on Aunt Helen’s porch steps all evening.  I wish Gerald and Lesczyk were here, but Gerald has gone to the reservation with his parents to celebrate Memorial Day.  Even Francis wouldn’t be bad to have around.  I’d apologize for what the guys did to him at the sauna.  I’d do everything different if Francis was here.  The Noble Pole could teach me to be Polish.

When I come in, Ma says, “Anna wrote you a note.  I was going through the newspapers on the table.  Her note might have gotten buried.”

When I find it under the Naród Polski, I see Anna has written “Thou Shalt Not Lie.”

“What’s she talking about, Antek?”

“I said something to her earlier.”

Putting the note with the money I will give Anna on the table before the Black Madonna, then praying to St. Adalbert, I think of how our family attends a church named after him and of how, last week, I graduated from the school named after him, Szkoa Wojciecha.  The Patron Saint of Poland would be ashamed of me.

“I don’t feel so hot, Ma.  I might need a new saint.”

She’s listening to a Paderewski record on the phonograph.  He is a composer and Polish statesman.  Except for the dim light from Grandmother’s old lamp in one corner, the room is dark with the beauty of spring.  I bend to kiss Mother.  “Here is a Polish saying for you, Antek.  ‘Kto pre? dko daje, dwa razy daje—He who gives freely gives twice.’”

Upstairs, everything is quiet except the Paderewski music.  After awhile, I hear the hum of engines at the flour mill where Dad, a military veteran, works from three to eleven.  Then I hear a tug on the bay signal an ore freighter—but in the next room, no sound, just stillness.

Once in bed, I hear my sister.  I think she is saying, “What kind of brother are you?”

“Anna,” I tell her, ashamed to go in there, “if it helps you, I will listen to you say it all night.”  Over and over as she is whispering, “What kind of brother are you?” then saying it in Polish, I am whispering, “With this wand of youth, I will make it up to you.”

At eleven-thirty, when Dad comes home from the mill, I am whispering it.  The little I’ve done for Anna is as quiet as whispers promising nothing.  As I listen to her, I am certain St. Adalbert will hear my prayers to him.  There is so much to request with prayers and a wand of youth—a better job for Dad, a less worrisome life for Mother, a new wreath for the Polish Club.  But mostly my prayers concern my sister on the night May becomes June and when the next Feast of Our Lord is Corpus Christi.

At midnight, I hear Dad saying he works hard.  “Anna,” I hear him in the next room.  “I’m proud of your Antek for how he helped Dobrze Szynka keep standing.  I’m proud of you for keeping your chin up.  You don’t give in; I won’t give in no matter what,” he says.

When he comes into my room, he asks, “Are you up, Antek?”  From inhaling so much flour dust at work, he has a hard time catching his breath after climbing the stairs.  Plus, he’s had a couple of beers in the kitchen.

“I can’t sleep.”

“I’m proud of you, believe it or not,” he says.  “I keep thinking how ‘From a good nest come good children.’  Don’t let nobody tell you it ain’t important to be Polish.  And remember what Dobrze Szynka said, ‘Kosciuszko has the same number of beats as ‘Kiss-Me-like-You-Used-to.’”

“I’ve decided I’m joining the Club when I’m older.  Can we sneak Gerald in, though he’s Indian?  I’ll still join if we can’t.  I’ll be president.”

Bardzo dobrze,” he says laughing, then touching the top of my head with his rough hands.

By now, Mother, whom I haven’t paid much attention to but should have, is coming upstairs to their room across the hall.  Halfway up, I hear her say, “Oh dear,” and turn around.  “If I put on another record, Chopin this time, the phonograph will shut off automatically when it’s through playing, won’t it, Janusz?” she calls to my dad.

“Yes,” he says.  Since my sister got polio, Mother needs reassurance about everything.

With the windows open, lilacs inside and out, the house smells like heaven tonight.  You can hear the Chopin record my mother has started to play, though not as clearly as if you were with her in the moonlit living room downstairs where she has gone again to pray to the Madonna, kissing the Child in the Madonna’s arms over and over until Dad comes to rescue her.

“Come upstairs, Agnes,” I hear Dad saying to her.

“I love Chopin.  I’m not too tired yet.”

“Come.  The Madonna will be here to kiss tomorrow, just as Poland will be.  Chopin and Paderewski as well.”

“Her Child with Her?  I want Her Child to be with Her.”

“Yes,” says my father.  “Her Child with Her.  Let the phonograph shut off now by itself, and you can listen for awhile in the moonlight upstairs.”