Many find pleasure in researching genealogy, as family history tells us of the past that led to today’s people. The living are the greatest equipped to tell their own life story. They have their own version of yesterday’s tales. They best explain the background of family traditions. As a writer, one of my favorite tasks is to speak with someone who feels their story is too humble to share with others. With this in mind, I share the story of one of my favorite clients, Natalie Zagorski.
Although her life story is riddled with old country tradition, Natalie has never visited Poland. Her Polish vocabulary is limited to little more than kinship titles representing family relationships. Some refer to her as Babci (the Polish word for grandmother). Others know her as Ciotce Natalie (or Aunt Natalie). At nearly 88 years old, Natalie is the family matriarch. She was the first of her family born in America. Now, she remains as the one to carry on the customs she learned as a child.
Natalie Anne Charneski was born on September 29, 1926 in Muhlenberg Hospital. Her parents were both Polish immigrants who came through Ellis Island. Her father, Joseph Walter Charneski was born in 1897 and came to America as a baby. As is the case with many immigrants, his surname may have been changed by the officials at Ellis Island. Natalie’s mother, Wanda Busse was born in 1907. She came to the United States as a young girl.
After Natalie’s parents married, they settled into a three family flat in Plainfield, New Jersey. Natalie’s grandmother lived on the first floor with her son Charles. The grandmother’s daughter Jenny and her husband and daughter also lived in the same apartment. Wanda’s sister Mary and her husband and three children resided on the third level. Joseph and Wanda rented the second floor of the family abode. A train track ran through the backyard. Natalie remembered the train striking a dog as it passed by their yard. Fortunately, the dog was not her family’s pet. The apartment consisted of two bedrooms, a dining room, kitchen, and living room. Since there was no bathtub, the family used a washbasin to take baths.
Natalie was the first of four daughters born to Joseph and Wanda Charneski. In 1929, Wanda gave birth to Helen. On the last day of the following year, Geraldine “Gerri” entered the world. They were all born in the same hospital. The three girls shared a bedroom together. Natalie had a bed to herself; Helen and Gerri slept on the other. Although both the parents spoke fluent Polish, they never taught their children the language. It was as if they had the privilege of a secret code. It allowed them to share confidences without the intrusion of others.
It was a few years later when Wanda was ready to deliver another baby. It was 1934 and the family’s funds were limited. There was no money to go to the hospital. Natalie was sent downstairs to her grandmother’s apartment. The family’s newest addition, Marcella “Marci” was born on young Natalie’s bed.
The Great Depression had a grave financial impact on many American families during the 1930s. The Charneskis were no exception. Joseph went to work for the WPA, the short name for the Works Project Administration. It was a program developed by the federal government to give unemployed laborers work. Times were hard. Wanda worked as a sewing machine operator in a blouse factory. The family did not own a car. They walked or used the bus to get to work or other places. There were many times when there was not enough food to go around the table. When a truck passed by and accidentally dropped a chicken, the family could not believe their luck. The chicken was stretched over several meals.
Wanda was an exceptional role model in young Natalie’s life. She was an angel. She somehow managed to maintain a job and create a wonderful environment for her family. Wanda insisted that her daughters were raised in the Catholic Church. She made pierogi, those delightful little dumplings stuffed with cheese or other tasty ingredients. Wanda made sure to teach her daughters to make the dough as part of a continuing tradition. She also hosted the family’s Wigilia celebration in accordance with her strong Catholic faith and Polish roots. Pronounced (vee-GEEL-yah), Wigilia is the Polish Christmas Eve celebration. Literally translated, it represents the vigil the family kept together awaiting the birth of Jesus Christ.
In 1940, things improved a little for the Charneskis. Joseph was offered a job in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was hired to work as an ironworker. Years later, Joseph had the necessary skills to open his own construction business. The family decided to move closer to Joseph’s new employment. Natalie and her sisters changed to the Elizabeth school system. Wanda continued to work as a sewing machine operator. Nevertheless, money remained scarce.
By the time she reached the ninth grade, Natalie realized that she needed to help the family financially. She made the decision to quit school and start a job at the blouse factory with her mother. Natalie walked with her mother and her friend to work every day. She learned to make shoulder pads and sew buttons. Natalie earned $15 a week at just 50 cents per hour. Most of the money was turned over to Wanda to help with the household needs. Natalie kept a mere $2 for savings, clothes, and her personal expenses.
Like many Elizabeth neighborhoods, there was a corner store located near the Charneski home. It doubled as both a candy shop and small grocery store. It was also the gathering place for a group of young men. One in particular exchanged gazes with Natalie every time she passed him. His name was Walter Zagorski and he was just two years older than Natalie was. She liked his looks and accepted his offer to spend some time together. Their first date was on Natalie’s front porch. Wanda was there as well. Later, Natalie determined that she liked more than Walter’s appearance. She found that smooching with him was a great deal of fun.
World War II erupted and was in full force in Europe. In 1944, Walter decided he wanted to serve his country and voluntarily enlisted in the United States Army. Most of his time was spent in Italy. Natalie and Walter exchanged love letters, which Natalie treasures to this day. While the war was in effect, she took on a second job making overalls for soldiers. She could barely wait for Walter to return home.
In the meantime, Natalie did more than work the two jobs. She helped with her younger sisters. She took them to the park and did her part around the house. The family continued to practice their strong Catholic faith and attended mass regularly at Saint Adalbert’s Church in Elizabeth. Her parents loved that they could attend services in their native Polish language. Ultimately, Walter returned from the service and even earned a Bronze Star. He proposed to Natalie. He too came from a Polish family. In fact, his mother spoke no English. It was 1946, when the two wed at Saint Adalbert’s Church. To this day, Natalie considers Saint Adalbert’s her home parish.
It was time for another move. It was a complete change for Natalie, as it would be the first time she would live without her parents. Instead, Natalie and Walter moved in with his family. They would still live in Elizabeth. They made the daily climb to a three-bedroom apartment, located above a shoe repair shop. In addition to his parents, Walter’s two sisters also lived with them. Natalie continued to work as a sewing machine operator. Walter worked in a rug company in Roselle. The couple enjoyed the birth of their first son, Walter in 1948. Natalie’s mother in law watched the baby so the two could continue to bring money into the home. Natalie and her husband also became founding members of the Polish Legion of American Vets in Linden, New Jersey. Natalie is the last living founding member of the Legion’s Auxiliary.
It was 1950 when Walter and Natalie were ready for yet another move. It was also the year when Natalie gave birth to another baby boy, Joseph “Joey”. The couple decided that they were ready to buy a house. However, they could not afford to do so alone, so they bought the house together with Natalie’s parents. Marci was still a teenager, so she came to live in the new home, which was located at 139 Marshall Street in Elizabeth. They owned the whole house and eventually put another kitchen on the upper floor, to make it a mother/daughter home. There was only one bathroom for all of the residents.
Walter and Natalie continued to add to their family. In 1954, Natalie gave birth to Theresa “Terry”, her only daughter. Six years later, came Michael, who Natalie still refers to as her baby. Since the Charneski parents lived with them, the Marshall Street home became the meeting place for the sisters and their families. They laughed together. They enjoyed food and drink together. They played cards together. Admittedly, they got into fights over the card games, politics, and religion. Sometimes the arguments were extended, but they always made up with each other. After all, they all loved one another.
During this time period, Natalie stopped working at the blouse factory. Natalie moved on to work at Weston Instruments, where she did assembly parts for ten years. It was a working mother’s dream job. The company would lay her off every summer and she could collect unemployment benefits and enjoy time with her children. Natalie next changed jobs to work for an electrical parts company named Thomas & Betts for twenty years. She did assembly work. Eventually, the business relocated to Tennessee. Meanwhile Natalie’s husband, Walter worked as a custodian for the Elizabeth Board of Education.
In 1959, the family suffered its first major loss when Joseph Charneski passed away and left Wanda a widow. A year later, Wanda and Marci decided to leave the Zagorskis on their own. They moved in with another of the Charneski sisters, Gerri. By this time, Gerri and her husband had started their own family.
After her father’s death, Walter and Natalie decided to take over the Wigilia celebration. Although it has changed homes over the years, Natalie has hosted the festivities since 1959. Eventually, the family grew too big to accommodate everyone in the Marshall Street home. Each gathering continues to begin with the breaking and passing of the thin wafery Oplatek bread. This wafer is very similar to the sacred host used to celebrate the Eucharist. There is singing and a feeling of family unity. Natalie continued to make the pierogi in her mother’s honor.
Natalie raised her children with the same concepts bred in her as a child. She made sure the children went to mass at Saint Adalbert’s Church. Natalie emphasized education and warned them all not to be “stupid like their mother”. She made this remark because she regretted her decision not to finish high school. It was extremely important to her that all of her children fulfilled their secondary education requirements. She is also proud that Walter and Joey went on to complete masters’ degrees. All four of the Zagorski offspring secured jobs in either government or the corporate world. Natalie’s eyes get a special lilt when she speaks of her family. She will easily share that there is not a “throwaway in the bunch”. Natalie is also quick to put a disclaimer on that statement. There were times when she would not have minded throwing away her sisters. She loved them dearly, but like all sisters, there were periods of disagreement.
The Zagorski children went on to marry and have families. Young Walter married the former Grace Rooney, who treats Natalie with care and affection. Joey, who sadly predeceased his mother, married the former Mary Leitao. They parented three sons, Joseph, Thomas, and James. Terry married Raymond Schutz and took on the role of a stepmother to Raymond, Kimberly, and Dawn. The couple then had Erik and Kirk together. Ray died in 1994 and Terry never remarried. Michael married the former Jo Ann Komar and has two sons named Michael and Andrew.
Once the children were grown, Walter and Natalie decided to take time for themselves. They travelled across the country. In fact, they loved it so much that they did it five times. They still did not see the entire United States. Natalie did not have an interest in seeing the rest of the world until she had seen the land of her birth. In the 1970s, Natalie experienced another great loss when her beloved mother, Wanda died. Wanda continues to act as the angel from above in Natalie’s life.
Fast forward to the early 1990s and Walter became ill with prostate cancer. It was just the beginning of deep troubles in Natalie’s life. Her youngest sister, Marci died in 1999. In the following year, Walter succumbed to his illness. A few years later, her sister Helen passed away. In 2006, the last of Natalie’s sisters, Gerri left the earth. Three years passed and Natalie’s second son, Joey died unexpectedly. Natalie relied on her faith to take her through the losses. She was the oldest and never expected to outlive all of her sisters. She certainly never anticipated burying a child. She took it upon herself to love her sisters’ children as her own.
Time passes and new life chapters are written. Three of Natalie’s grandsons have made her a great-grandmother. After a generation of no granddaughters, young Joey and Kathy Zagorski gave birth to Emmi, Natalie’s first great-granddaughter. Their son Logan followed a few years later. Meanwhile Tommy and Lauren Zagorski also have two children, Austin and Calla. The most recent addition is Erik and Amy’s son, Joseph Schutz. Joseph is the impetus for the continuation of the Natalie Zagorski saga.
Change is difficult at any age. Natalie has made fewer moves than many in life, but is prepared to make the next big one. It is different from relocating from Plainfield to Elizabeth, New Jersey. Soon, Natalie is on to the sequel of her life. She and daughter Terry are moving to Texas. They are headed to babysit for new Baby Joey. Of everything, Natalie feels sad that she will no longer host the New Jersey Wigilia celebration. Natalie is not worried about the distance from her familiar home. She is not concerned how she will adjust to the new environment. However, Natalie does admit she is a little bit anxious that there may be snakes in Texas. She is relying on Terry to take care of them. Notwithstanding, Natalie is not overly troubled about the move. After all, she knows that God will be with her.