Cover image for Fourteen : growing up alone in a crowd
Fourteen : growing up alone in a crowd
Zanichkowsky, Stephen.
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Publication Information:
New York : Basic Books, [2002]

Physical Description:
xxv, 261 pages ; 22 cm
The annunciation -- All my children -- Crowds -- Hunger -- My two afflicted children -- The expanding universe -- Satisfaction -- Our father -- The fear -- Liftoff -- West -- In the new world -- The unconsoled -- Death of the patriarch -- Saint Joan.
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HQ536 .Z36 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Born eighth in a family on its way to becoming almost twice that size, Stephen Zanichkowsky immediately learned that his life was to be no Cheaper by the Dozen romp. Instead, he and his siblings fended for themselves to avoid the wrath of their father and the heartbreaking emotional distance of their mother. Silence and terror ruled. A brother was taken away by the family one day, never to return. A sister was born with a mental deficiency that was never explained. As the years went by, each child left home as soon as he or she turned eighteen, creating unaccustomed "space" by skipping the others' weddings and graduations. With artless narrative style, Zanichkowsky embarks on a journey back to the family's Lithuanian Catholic roots in Brooklyn and follows its members on a tortured climb to suburban comfort that, for him, culminates in his escape from home and the draft. Along the way, he seeks answers to lifelong questions: Why was his father so angry and uncontrollable? Why did his parents continue to have children when they didn't have enough love, patience, or money to spread around? Forty years later after leaving home, Zanichkowsky reaches out to his siblings--most of them divorced or living alone--and discovers a group of people still learning how to form relationships with others. In the process, the boy that once retreated into his own world emerges, whole and self-possessed.From Fourteen:I was born into a system with an established order, with people cemented into positions long before I got there. As I got older, the biggest kids gradually filled me in with things I needed to know, as if I were a new hand at the factory and needed to learn which drawers certain tools were kept in. They showed me where the shoe polish was kept; how to fry an egg (because on Sundays we could have our egg fried or scrambled if we didn't want clucked); where to put my laundry in the basement. I learned about Mom's miscarriages, because all the rest of us resemble a line of ducks and outsiders sometimes asked about the three-year gap between Rita and Jane. The bigger kids told me about our religion, our relatives, our nationality. When bath night was and how often to change my underwear. (No one, however, had an answer as to why all the girls had the same middle name: Marie.)

Author Notes

Stephen Zanichkowsky worked as a licensed electrician, a carpenter and furniture maker before turning to writing. His work has appeared in the New York Press, The Atlantic Monthly, and other periodicals. He lives in South Portland, Maine

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

When the author was born, in 1952, he was his parents' eighth child. Eventually, there would be six more for a total of 14 born between 1943 and 1961. What was it like, being one person in a small army of kids? How did they get along, with a father who was both demanding and inattentive and an overwhelmed mother unable to devote one-on-one time to any of her children? Well, it wasn't easy. Written in a straightforward, unadorned style, this unusual memoir generates an emotional intensity almost imperceptibly, until we feel utterly caught up in the chaos of Zanichkowsky's very big family. Some of the author's brothers and sisters, in a mad attempt to do something all on their own, turned to shoplifting or stealing from friends and schoolmates; eventually, the kids moved out as fast as they could, sometimes marrying just so they could get a place of their own. And yet, despite their constant attempts to get away from one another, the children developed a bond. An unsentimental and unflinchingly honest memoir. --David Pitt

Publisher's Weekly Review

Those who grow up with only one or two siblings may sometimes gaze longingly at large, unwieldy families, believing that with multitude comes mirth, and that these big clans lead a zesty, Cheaper by the Dozen kind of life. Zanichkowsky's wrenchingly honest account of being one of 14 children neatly destroys those rosy misconceptions. He artfully describes his place as eighth in a seemingly endless line of children born to a hotheaded father and an overwhelmed mother, and how, despite the nearness of so many allies, the children grew up feeling emotionally isolated and ready to drift apart. As evidence of this, only one photograph of the whole family exists, and it was stuck in a drawer soon after being taken, discovered only after the death of both parents. The children still yearn for the image of a whole family, as Zanichkowsky writes: But we treasure the picture anyway; because it grants us the illusion, or promise, or memory, of family. Only after decades of little contact with his siblings does he reach out to the rest of the brood, finding kinship with people who, like him, have difficulty relating to others or forming strong relationships. With the inclusion of this attempt to finally connect, Zanichkowsky elevates this memoir from a tale of childhood hell into a full, rich picture of what it's like to be one among many. His writing is so straightforward and candid that it takes on a kind of intimacy while describing alienation, like a friend whispering into another's ear about how hard it is to live alone. (June 3) Forecast: This book sprang from a piece Zanichkowsky wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 2000. Many of those readers and anyone driven by the Sebastian Junger blurb on the book jacket will pick this up. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This is a disturbing memoir of neglect and abuse by freelance writer Zanichkowsky, who was the eighth of 14 children born into a Lithuanian Catholic household in Brooklyn. His father, who had been disowned by his own father, was a self-made man. Too proud to accept his own mother's offer to help with the children, he left his young wife to cope with the chaotic household. Fourteen pregnancies and two miscarriages broke her health and her spirit, leaving her with no emotional resources, and the children had to fend for themselves. The inevitable childhood crises and arguments were settled with beatings. The Zanichkowsky children learned to shoplift, lie, and blame one another at an early age. Seemingly, the goal for each child was to escape the household as soon as possible. Forty years later, after the deaths of his father, mother, and one older brother, the author reaches out to his remaining brothers and sisters. The resulting memoir is a dark, deeply unsettling look at family life, and it cries out for a sequel. Recommended for libraries with large memoir sections. Pam Kingsbury, Florence, AL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Annunciation Our family originated in Brooklyn, but by the time I came along in 1952 we had moved to Queens, and all I remember of Brooklyn is the one square block surrounding Annunciation, the parish that served as the center to the Lithuanian community in Williamsburg. That block always came to me in reverse. We'd drive in from Queens, two full cars even in my earliest recollections. We three youngest boys shared the back seat in the wagon, which faced out the rear window. That was no picnic. Once you got done making faces at the guy driving behind you and found out he wasn't amused, you had to just sit there all the way to Brooklyn while he stared you down. Sometimes I worried maybe he'd call Dad and tell him I was being snotty. It's confusing for a kid, riding backwards and having all the landmarks spring out at you from the corners of your eyes; you couldn't even read the exit signs on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. But eventually the Kosciusco Bridge would appear, we boys just called it the Erector Set Bridge, and I knew we were almost there.     Annunciation was quite stunning, even for a little kid like me. The entire interior was done with gold leaf and tile and darkly suggestive paints and looked like a page from an illuminated manuscript. The stained glass was so beautiful I once licked the different colors to see if they had any flavor; all I got for my curiosity was the bitter metallic taste of ancient church dirt. Planted out front, behind a black fence of wrought iron spears, was an intimidating black crucifix; mutant tulips radiated like spokes from the haloed intersection, upon which was mounted a tiny shelter, which in turn held another miniature crucifix. I remember the pavement around the church and school buildings. It was smooth as taffy from years of soft tires; bottle caps had been impressed in the surface and planed flush by a thousand leather soles. That blacktop was why they invented roller skates. If I discovered an embedded nickel or dime I'd become bitter, having no way to excavate it.     A crowd would accumulate outside Annunciation after services, old men and women who were probably younger then than I am right now. It was like a town meeting. The women seemed solidly built in their shiny metallic 1950s dresses and no-nonsense cigarettes and that hard, slutty red they used for lipstick and nail polish back then. Stockings still had seams, and nobody had fur except maybe the incidental fox collar. The men wore hats and wing tips and brown suits. They'd lean with an elbow between two spearheads on the iron fence, talking church business through blue clouds of Chesterfield smoke and wagging copies of the parish newspaper at one another. These were your serious Catholics, pros raised on Latin, assembling to pray on the side because Sunday wasn't enough. They had their own clubs: the Holy Name Society; the Sodality; the Perpetual Rosary ladies; the sinister-sounding and males-only Nocturnal Adoration Society, which met to pray the rosary in shifts throughout the weekend, when temptation ran high. When my father died, the NAS appeared mysteriously during his funeral in identical sports jackets, said a rosary in twenty minutes flat, and walked out; they never even introduced themselves. There were people at Annunciation who'd had crucifixes of woven palm hanging on the same nail in their bedrooms for thirty years, with miniature holy water fonts hanging on other nails by the front doors.     They stuck together. Annunciation was a community in the most literal sense, something I never understood even while standing right in the middle of it. The elders would scrape together scholarship money for promising local kids. I remember taking the test even though I was going to attend high school in New Hampshire; all you had to do to qualify was be baptized at Annunciation. (I didn't make it, and couldn't understand my father's disappointment: It was money we didn't have yet, so why was he upset at the loss?) The parish would sponsor Communion breakfasts and Easter dinners and Christmas parties. All the families would attend with their kids, and no matter how many kids appeared, Santa, having dispensed with the Chesterfield and donned the proper attire; would hoist each of us onto his lap, ask if we'd been a good kid, and bestow a gift. The women prepared roast beefs, sauerkraut with white lima beans, stuffed cabbage, kielbasa with horseradish, boiled potatoes, red cabbage, black bread that weighed a ton. This is probably why they looked so stout; I don't have any recollections of what one would call elegance, grace, statuesque beauty. Although, to be fair, I might not have recognized those qualities as a boy, and besides, these women, my mother included, were all in their forties by then and had had a bunch of kids.     We always called the mass by its hour. The Nine was in Latin, the Eleven in Lithuanian. The families had names like Skarulys, Shula, Sertyvytis (our mother), Klimas, Gula, Salesky. You could hear Polish and Russian on that corner, you might hear Hungarian. Mom spoke Lithuanian as a child at home, and didn't learn English until she started school. We kids did not learn Lithuanian, however. One of my mother's few regrets, she told me near the end, was their decision to keep the language for discussions between themselves. Because there were so many of us at home, only a separate language could grant them privacy. I could sense as a kid that we were being excluded--something about their tone and the shifty looks. But what reason could there be for speaking like Martians? When I first heard the language, it wasn't its strange beauty that affected me; I just couldn't understand what they needed to talk about that didn't involve us kids. This was my first inkling of the coming division between us kids and our parents--their need for a separate language.     The priests were assigned families in those days, sort of like the shepherd looking after a particular flock. Our family priest was a pudgy, balding, avuncular, bespectacled Lithuanian named Father Bruno Kruzas. He said last rites for my mother's parents after they died of separate heart diseases the same October afternoon in 1946. He baptized all us kids except for Louise; he'd called in sick that day. Even long after we'd moved from Williamsburg, Mom and Dad would take each new kid and drive back to the old neighborhood, so Father Kruzas could initiate the child, as if there were some critical and lifelong advantage to be gained if your starting blocks were anchored at Annunciation. We all wore the same white lace baptismal dress, made by our mother's mother (my oldest sister, Martha, has it now). Father Kruzas presided over our parents' twenty-fifth wedding anniversary celebration, when they repeated their vows. When Mom and Dad died, it was Father Kruzas who buried them. Then he died. His reputation among us kids today isn't so hot; we've often debated how much influence he'd had in steering Mom and Dad towards the extreme Roman Catholic right. I was too young to know anything about such things, but Father Kruzas was the first authority figure to rub my head instead of knuckling it, and I had no problem with that. Marty and Louise insist he was gay, but I was the cutest little teenager you could want and he never tried anything with me.     And if the priest's job was to look after the flock, that's what Father Kruzas did. He was the one who found the psychiatrist when our brother Jimmy needed help. And he found an eye doctor who owed him a favor when Annie needed an operation to uncross her eyes. He helped Jimmy with an apartment in Brooklyn when no one else would rent him one. More than once, he came by to bless our house; sometimes he'd set up an altar and say mass in our living room. Even I, a little kid, knew there was something special about having a mass said right in your own home. The ritual took on a special significance. There was the old black crucifix, the one that would follow us around to the bitter end; there was Father Kruzas, right next to me instead of up at the altar at Annunciation. It was his voice that made the mass special: just reasonable human volume, almost a whisper, because he didn't need to fill the church.     I returned to Annunciation in 2000, to take pictures. I looked up to the organ loft and remembered Jimmy singing the Ave Maria up there when I was a kid. Nothing about the interior has changed except that the votive candles are now electrified: The smoke and wax of my childhood have been replaced by flickering metallic elements that ignite themselves at the drop of a coin. The Eleven is still preached in Lithuanian (the Nine is in Spanish now), and the congregation at that service remains the immaculate white of my memory. In the congregation, I saw my sister's godmother, Isabelle Armatys, who remembered me from the old days; she was still driving in from God knows where to attend the Eleven. There were many more women than men now, devout and white-haired old ladies with skin like candle wax, palms together with fingertips heavenward, just like we'd been taught. Whereas religious men make me nervous with their righteousness, these women seemed attractive in their piety. They'd endured the deaths of almost everybody they knew; they'd said an Avogadro's number of Hail Marys by now and were certainly going to heaven if there was such a place. There were probably one or two who'd known Dad's sister, the one who'd caught fire on Easter Sunday back in 1924, while playing Jack-Be-Nimble over the leaf fire. Although they might not know it, some of those old women probably knew me; with fourteen of us kids, we'd been a central feature at Annunciation and had tapped a lot of the local community to supply us with godparents.     Still, after thirty years' absence, I didn't recognize the place, which upset me. I had anticipated being transported to the sanctuary it had always represented to me, and was dismayed not to feel any sensations whatsoever. On the right-hand wall about halfway down the aisle was painted a small pastoral scene; only then did I begin to appreciate my surroundings. I remembered sitting near that painting as a kid, imagining it as a window, dreaming myself out of the pew and into the two-dimensional meadow.     I talked to the current pastor, Father Vito, who'd had the job of burying Father Kruzas, a few years after Kruzas had buried Mom and Dad. He actually knew of us, because he'd been the assistant at Annunciation in Kruzas's day. Father Vito told me nothing in the interior had been changed, that my memory must be faulty. In fact, he had just spent $100,000 repainting the interior exactly the way he'd found it when he first took over. At the redecorating, he said, he'd only moved a few statues around. He speaks six languages and considered becoming a historian before being called to the priesthood. After all these years, Father Vito thinks he should either reconstruct the altar, or rename the church. It depicts the Ascension of Mary into Heaven, he says, not the Annunciation.     The Annunciation grade school is right across the street from the church, but only the two or three oldest kids went to school there. The Communion breakfasts were held down in the basement cafeteria, the Christmas parties up in the auditorium on the top floor. The auditorium has the same massive red velvet stage curtains, cheap loudspeakers, and decorative floral paint job that it had when I was a kid. This really amazed me. Although I couldn't remember the church, I could understand why successive pastors would retain the original scheme. But the auditorium was just a hall, and it had taken such a beating I couldn't imagine why they wouldn't have repainted it in forty years. I recognized it immediately, neurologically. We'd battled a huge snowstorm to get to Cousin Tommy's wedding reception there when I was seven or eight. I remember scouting that school from basement to attic every time we went there, starting from when I was four or five. Nothing was locked back then, and my brothers and I would go up and down the stairs, in and out of dark hallways. For years after that, well into my teens, I'd have dreams about the place, the smell of dry wood and linoleum wax and cabbage, dreams in which the architecture became more and more disorienting, the passageways more mysterious and convoluted. It would take longer and longer to complete an exploratory circuit, to find my way out. Nowadays I wonder if those darkly paneled corridors had been trying to warn me about something.     Only on the days we drove over to Annunciation did I experience too much to eat, the kindness and smiles of strangers, becoming invisible to my parents, games of tag in the hallways without scoldings, unsupervised bowls of brightly colored ribbon candy, an unexpected Christmas present. It was there I learned the tragedy of Christ's Passion, first learned the Christmas songs of Bing Crosby and Nat Cole, discovered the intimidating beauty of the pipe organ. At Annunciation I first experienced the gild and brocade and incensed pageantry of Christianity, the intoxication of ritual. I knew the occasions and would count off the days in impatience.     And maybe that's my strongest sensation and memory of Brooklyn: the anticipation of feeling safe in the halls of Annunciation; looking forward to those few days a year when, lost in ritual and excess, I could be certain almost nothing would go wrong. * * * Annunciation came to us from my mother's side of the family. In forty years of our attending church activities there, we never once strayed from that center, and I never knew until recently that the church of my father and his father, the Russian Orthodox church, was right down the street. Nor did I know how different two adjacent Christian churches could be, nor how much trouble those differences had caused in our family.     As far as I've been able to determine, our family's difficulties began with the differences between the Christian crosses. The familiar crucifix, the Roman Catholic cross of my youth, has just the one crossbar, about shoulder height, where the arms go. Some images of it depict a footrest, a disturbing feature: Its only purpose could be to prolong the torture by preventing the victim's body weight from tearing him off the cross. The Russian Orthodox cross is called the patriarchal cross, and not without reason. It is frequently depicted with a skull and crossbones at the base. In addition to having a more generous footrest than the Roman Catholic model, it has another horizontal member, shorter and slightly above the one for the arms. It's not really a crossbar, that upper horizontal, though it's much more substantial than the piece of parchment in the same location on the Roman Catholic cross of my youth. On the patriarchal cross, it's more like a nameplate. I'm just not sure whose name would go up there, the guy who does the crucifying, or the guy who gets nailed. If I had to guess, based upon the story of my father and his father, I'd say it's the guy who does the job. That would be the patriarch; his name prominently displayed above his work would be an admonition to take him seriously.     All four of my grandparents came to this country before the outbreak of the First World War. They came from eastern Europe, from countries about to be sucked into the Soviet Union. My father's parents, who only met in Brooklyn, had sailed from the Ukraine and settled in a community of their compatriots in Williamsburg. My mother's parents came from Lithuania; they met and married in the Lithuanian community in Cleveland in 1906, then came to Brooklyn and settled in a similar community, right down the street from the Ukrainians.     All four, one supposes, had the idea of a better life in mind. This decision to leave your homeland often meant leaving your entire family behind, and my grandparents were no exceptions. That was the best way, the only way, to make a new start. It would not surprise me to learn they were encouraged to flee, encouraged by people too old to take to the sea, too set in their ways to be bothered much by the changing of the guard. But I have no way of knowing their motivations. Two of my grandparents were dead before I was born, and one before I could speak; the only grandparent I knew was my father's father, Yakim, and he died long before I thought to ask him questions. Had I thought about it, had I heard the stories about my father and his father while Yakim was still alive, I would have asked him about his relationship with my father. (Continues...) Excerpted from Fourteen by Stephen Zanichkowsky. Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Zanichkowsky. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Prologuep. xi
1 The Annunciationp. 1
2 All My Childrenp. 23
3 Crowdsp. 31
4 Hungerp. 53
5 My Two Afflicted Childrenp. 73
6 The Expanding Universep. 95
7 Satisfactionp. 109
8 Our Fatherp. 133
9 The Fearp. 147
10 Liftoffp. 161
11 Westp. 189
12 In the New Worldp. 203
13 The Unconsoledp. 213
14 Death of the Patriarchp. 227
15 Saint Joanp. 237
Epilogue 1998p. 255