Dad was a PhD candidate and instructor in Mathematical Statistics at the University of Chicago: Kruskal and Wallis were his advisors. Mom was a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago: she worked with Bettelheim.
Always impatient—even before birth, I was born a month prematurely at the University of Chicago Hospital. In the process my umbilical cord became wrapped around my neck, and the delivery physician told my mother that it was either I, or she, who would survive. Mom chose me. I forgave the doctor decades ago.
We all lived in a three-story apartment building with Mom’s relatives in Chicago (Dad had lived alone, supporting himself, since before he was a teenager). When Mom and Dad went to the University in the morning, they would drop me off to stay with my Grandparents. When Dad was present I spoke English. Otherwise I spoke Polish (Mom’s family was taken by KGB from Poland to a Siberian gulag in the first week of WWII, and her family walked 5,000 miles to India to gain their freedom).
When I arrived in the morning Gramma would fix me toasted Baltic rye bread with spun honey and a glass of warm milk (one may recall how God the Father spoke of “the land of milk and honey,” and Jesus spoke of “our daily bread”). I called her “mała stara kobieta” (little old woman). A giant of a man, Grampa would sit at the table with me and have a cup of coffee. I called him “duża stara kobieta” (big old woman)—my Polish and my English were both works in progress.
When we finished breakfast, Grampa would don his tool belt, ready to commence working on the building, which was in dire straits: that was what refugees could afford. Simultaneously, I’d don my toolbelt—with the same tools but made of kid-sized plastic, and we would leave to repair some aspect of the structure. I was in front of and beneath him all the time: whatever Grampa did, I did. After a morning of hard work, I’d take a nap with my favorite animal “wolfie.” To this day my favorite land animal is a lone wolf.
After lunch, Grampa and I would resume our work.
Aunt Irka, Mom’s little sister, would return from the University of Illinois at Navy Pier (she was an immunologist), and take me to the park to play.
Soon after we returned, Uncle Peter, a mechanical engineer, would return from work. The family would inspect him to ensure that he did NOT have a present for me—the house was inundated with his gifts, and he was forbidden to make matters worse. The search always failed: I received a gift every day. Irka would do her best to beat Peter with her hands, books—whatever was handy. Peter laughed (he always reminded me of Santa Claus), as did everyone except for Irka.
Mom and Dad returned soon later, and we all shared dinner together.
Nothing lasts forever. Dad couldn’t support the family (i.e., me) on a University salary as an Instructor. In those days, unlike today, University faculty didn’t make much money. Dad took a “civilian” job in the military industrial complex, designing guidance systems for anti-ballistic missiles. All Dad wanted to be was a mathematical statistician and teacher. I ruined that for him—I owe him everything!
When Mom told me that we would be moving to another state (New Jersey), I didn’t take the news very well.
It was the McCarthy era—American leadership was terrified of Russia, and there was a witch-hunt for “communist sympathizers.” Anyone who spoke with Polish refugees had an FBI profile—in case they were conspirators. My only friends were my family. I wondered what my life would be like, spent alone.
When we arrived in Jersey I soon made my first-ever friend (I’m the short fellow in the photo), and new adventures began to unfold!
Things would become worse…
Heaven on Earth
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
April 21, 2021