A 100-Year Life, and All of It Full to the Brim
My father had a fall several years ago that put him in the hospital for a couple of days with a cracked rib and a collapsed lung. He had been painting a stairwell in his two-family house when the make-shift scaffold failed, sending him down half a flight of stairs.
After taking it easy for a few weeks, he was back to mowing the lawn, tending to his small garden, and his Sunday morning ushering duties at church. He was only 92 at the time, so a mere collapsed lung was not going to keep him from getting back to the business of life.
Eight years have passed, and my father has just turned 100. He’s now part of that exclusive centenarian club composed of only one out of 4,400 Americans.
Stanislaw (“Stanley”) Lesinski’s life began in Easthampton, Mass. on March 25, 1917—two weeks before the United States entered the First World War and three years before women were granted the right to vote.
He was the first-born child of Polish immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. via Ellis Island, met and married here, and worked in the textile mills of Connecticut and Massachusetts. The couple welcomed a second son, my uncle Kazimierz (“Kaz”), one year later.
Back to Poland
When Stanley was five years old, the family of four returned to Poland; they were part of a wave of emigration following the restoration of that country’s independence after the Great War.
My father still has memories of his early life in America: gaslights in their home, prohibition-era “apple cider” gatherings at the local barber shop, and even a climb up the Statue of Liberty with his father while waiting to set sail for Europe.
They journeyed aboard the Scandinavian steamship Frederik VIII in a room shared with another family of four, but his most vivid recollections are of running around the ship with Kaz, their eventual arrival at the port of Danzig, and the long train and wagon journey to their native village of Jednorozec (“Unicorn”).
Much of Jednorozec in 1922 was still recovering from the ravages of the war. Like many houses in the village, theirs had only a hanging blanket to serve as a front door, windows with no glass, and dirt floors.
My grandparents’ modest millworker savings and the trunkful of American tools they had brought across the Atlantic served them well in repairing the home and setting up an adequate family farm. With her U.S.-purchased White sewing machine, my grandmother took on repairs and dressmaking from home.
Both of my grandparents became active in village and church organizations, and life for about 10 years was generally comfortable and happy, as the family grew to six children.
Sadly, my grandparents’ lives ended prematurely, like so many in those pre-antibiotic days. My grandfather succumbed to a sudden influenza epidemic in 1933 at the age of 47. My father was not quite 16 at the time, but even 84 years later, the anniversary of the event prompts him to re-tell the last conversation he had with his father.
My grandmother survived her husband by only five years, falling victim to tuberculosis in 1938 at the age of 40.
Barely recovered from a case of typhus himself, 21 year-old Stanley was left with a farm to run and five younger siblings to raise, ranging in age from 20 down to six. They scrambled to survive over the next several months, only to have German troops come in and occupy their village a year later, on the very first day of World War II.
I grew up hearing my father’s stories about life during the war—the imposed rationing and curfews, the property seizures, the closing of schools and churches, the prohibition of non-Aryan marriages, the disappearance of the village’s few Jewish families, and the small, but occasionally successful, acts of sabotage and defiance.
Despite the circumstances, the family managed to survive together through the first two years of occupation, until the invasion at Pearl Harbor brought about changes.
With the United States’ entry into the War in 1941, American-born citizens Stanley and Kaz were detained as prisoners of war by the local German authorities. As head of the family and a modest but productive farm, my father was released within a few days and required only to report weekly to the village commandant.
My uncle Kaz, on the other hand, was jailed for a time in a nearby city, transported to a POW camp in Bavaria, and eventually released to the United States in a prisoner exchange in early 1945. Having left this country as a four year-old, Kaz spoke little, if any, English, but was promptly drafted into the U.S. Army upon arrival.
Back in Poland, the German retreat and Russian advance during the winter of 1944-1945 have been described by my father as “hell on earth.” By early May, however, rumors of the fall of Berlin and Hitler’s death brought the start of recovery and a spate of previously prohibited marriages in Jednorozec; thus, my parents were married on May 5, 1945, and my sister Ann was born a year later.
Back to the U.S.
The post-war spread of Communism in Eastern Europe rendered travel to the West by the citizens of those countries nearly impossible. My father’s U.S. citizenship, however, allowed him to take advantage of a concerted effort by our country to repatriate Americans living behind the Iron Curtain.
So, in May of 1947, he boarded the former troop ship S.S. Ernie Pyle, bound for New York. His plan was to stay in the U.S. just a year or so to earn some money, while my mother and sister remained in Poland.
Reunited with his brother Kaz, he found employment in Manchester, Conn., and promptly changed his mind about returning to Poland. He spent the next 18 months filing the necessary paperwork and saving up $800 for a one-way plane ticket to get my mother and sister here.
Arriving at Idlewild Airport in November of 1948, their reunion with my father even made the front page of the Manchester (Connecticut) Herald.
The family grew by one when I was born four years later, and by 1956, my parents were able to afford the purchase of their first home in Hartford.
With their factory wages, they also managed to assist other immigrant families, and they continued to provide financial and material support to relatives who had remained in Poland.
One of my father’s proudest achievements was to save up enough money to take our family back there for a visit in 1967. For my parents, the trip was a 20th reunion with friends and relatives; for my sister and me, an introduction to numerous cousins and life in a rural village; for all of us, an eye-opening view of conditions in a Communist country.
Retired 33 Years
Retiring in 1983, my father reflects on the changes in employment practices and working conditions over the years: the reluctance of some companies to hire Eastern Europeans during the days of Mc- Carthyism, overt discrimination against African Americans prior to the establishment of Civil Rights laws, the lack of safety measures, air-conditioning, or even lunch breaks in some shops.
After retirement, my parents enjoyed 20 more years of life together, pursuing their hobbies, spoiling their four grandchildren, and indulging in some more travels abroad. They took one last trip to Poland together just two months before my mother’s death in 2003. I returned there with my father a year later—a trip that seemed to induce him to reveal more of his memories to me.
The last few years have been increasingly difficult for Stanley. He lost a daughter (my only sister Ann) three years ago, and his “baby” brother Henry last summer.
Last May, at the age of 99, he slipped while rearranging furniture on his porch and suffered a couple of compression fractures in his spine. Unlike his fall at the age of 92, he has not bounced back and now relies on a walker to get around his home.
His brother Kaz lives nearby, but the frailties of age prevent the two from spending much time together to share their 99 years of memories.
Still, with the help of grandchildren, visits from a home companion, and “Scooter” the dog, he shares with my nephew, my father lives in his own space and keeps abreast of the news of the world. The man who was born before women could vote cast a ballot for the first woman presidential candidate last November.
He finds comfort in retelling the stories of his long life, but his greatest joy seems to come from time with his young great-granddaughters— my late sister’s grandchildren.
Despite his physical limitations, he’s still probably the strongest man I know.
Raised in the greater Hartford, Conn., area, Chris Lesinski retired in 2010 from a 36-year career as a programmer analyst in 2010. She and her husband, John Lussier, purchased a Randolph home in 1989 and moved here permanently in 1999. She chats with her father on the phone every day.
(This first appeared in the Herald of Randolph April 13, 2017)