The theme for Week 9 of the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge is “Close to Home” and my ancestor is my grandmother, Mae Zawodna Pater. But to me she was just called Nan! The reason I chose her for this theme is because we lived together in the same house for sixteen years. Other than my parents, I’d be hard pressed to find an ancestor closer to home than that.
Mae was born on 02 August 1907 in Philadelphia, PA, the third child of Polish immigrants Joseph (Józef) Zawodny and Laura (Wacława) Ślesińska. Mae’s baptismal name was “Marianna” but she always used Mae (at least in adulthood). She also always celebrated her birthday on August 3rd, but both her baptismal record and social security application confirmed the date of the 2nd.
The Zawodny family (in Polish, the name ends in -na for females and, despite being born in the U.S., this practice was generally followed by the next generation) lived in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia, which was, and still is today, a community of Polish immigrants. Her father was a boilermaker and her mother stayed home to care for their large family. There were eight children in all, but two boys died as infants.
On 01 February 1930, 23-year-old Mae married 17-year-old Henry Pater – the two lived three doors apart on Indiana Avenue. However, they didn’t tell their families at first – perhaps because Henry, as a minor, didn’t get parental permission and lied about his age on the marriage license. For the 1930 census enumeration, they are listed as living with their respective families. Eventually, they told their parents. Mae’s father was not happy, mostly because they didn’t get married in the church. So in June the couple got married for a second time at St. Adalbert’s and moved in together.
Mae had a personality that could be difficult at times as evidenced by the nickname her husband gave her – “Killer”. But she also had a fun sense of humor and a great laugh. The couple welcomed their first child, Joan, in 1932. Daughter Anita was born in 1935.
On December 6, 1938, Mae’s mother Laura was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was admitted to Philadelphia State Hospital (later called Byberry). Mae and family moved in with her father, Joseph, in his house on Mercer Street. They all lived together until Joseph’s death in 1944. Laura would remain in Byberry until her death in 1956.
In the early 1950’s, Mae and Henry separated and lived in different residences for the rest of their lives although they never divorced. Mae moved in with her daughter Anita (my mother) from the time my parents got married. It wasn’t always a peaceful cohabitation, but it lasted for many years. It was only the last three years of Mae’s life that she did not live with us and moved to live with my Aunt Joan instead.
I’ve written short biographies of many of my ancestors not just for the “52 Ancestors” challenge but also for other posts here on this blog. But I was surprised by how difficult it was to write Nan’s story, the ancestor with whom I spent my entire childhood. My favorite memories are of her cooking – she was a wonderful cook! Fortunately my mother inherited that gene and I think it’s partially rubbed off on me, too. But some things can never be replicated like her chicken soup with homemade noodles. Or her dumplings that she called “bullets”. I also remember sitting in her bedroom for hours watching television – she was a heavy smoker at the time and I cringe now to think that I was surrounded by all of that smoke! Most of all I remember her humor and her big laugh. Plus, her personality made me laugh because she practically had an entire language of her own from Polish words like dupa, zupa, and dudek to other words like plut and gazeutch that mean something only to my family and some close friends.
She had a difficult relationship with my parents, but she loved my brother and me and that is what I remember. Looking back on her story with adult eyes, I sense that she spent a lot of her life in fear – not of a person or of any one thing, just in general. She was afraid of everything from the weather to strangers to driving in a car to all of the unknowns in life. Looking back, she made herself “old” before she really was because it was easier to be taken care of by her daughter than to try to take care of herself. Her love for me even came with fear – she was afraid that I would get hurt. I was a very late walker because Nan would pick me up and carry me so I wouldn’t try to walk and get hurt while falling down trying. In the photo above she appears ready to leap to my rescue if I took a tumble.
But despite that sense of fear she had, and which she attempted to compensate for by being abrasive, irreverent, and downright rude to everyone except my brother and me, the greatest story from her life involves overcoming fear. It is important that I tell it because this fact about her won’t be found recorded in any official document or vital record. It happened in early 1980 – I was 13 years old and Nan was 72. She developed an infection in her big toe that became gangrenous. The doctors told her that the infection was serious and wouldn’t heal, so they had to amputate her leg below the knee. I was too young to understand what she might have been going through with that diagnosis. But I do remember that after it happened, and after a long rehabilitation stay, she came home with a cane and a prosthetic leg. Even though I didn’t fully comprehend the complexity of what she’d experienced, I remember being impressed that she was able to get through it and walk again. It finally dawned on me as an adult when I experienced my own fear while awaiting a lesser operation – I realized that my diagnosis wasn’t anything like hers and if she could get through that operation as an old woman then surely I had the strength to get through mine. And I did.
Mae died on 30 April 1986 – I was 19 years old, she was 78. Her death was the first significant loss in my life. But that’s to be expected, because it hit close to home. I’m glad I got to spend so many years living under the same roof eating her cooking, listening to her tall tales, laughing as she cursed the cat for walking between her legs (one good, one artificial) as she walked down the steps, and hearing her big, loud laugh.
Just the Facts
- Name: Mae (Marianna) Zawodna Pater
- Ahnentafel: #7 (my grandmother)
- Parents: Joseph (Józef) Zawodny (1880-1944) and Laura (Wacława) Ślesińska (1880-1956)
- Born: 02 August 1907 in Philadelphia, PA
- Siblings: Jane Zawodna Galecki (1904-1976), Helen Zawodna Tiernan (1905-1977), Stanley Zowney (1909-1980), Cazimer (Charley) Zawodny (1911-1969),Bolesław (William) (1912-1913),Władisław (Walter) (1914-1915), Zofia (Dorothy) Zawodna Rozet Mohan (1916-2010)
- Married: Henry Pater (1912-1972)
- Children: Joan Delores Pater Silvers (1932-2004) and Anita Pater Pointkouski
- Died: 30 Apr 1986 in Philadelphia, PA
Written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: 2015 Edition– Week 9: Close to Home