Nina Talbot

Painter - Writer
painting, Franciszka Jean Charak, by Nina Talbot
Franciszka Jean Charak, 2020, oil on linen, 24 x 18 inches

Places in Galicia

Franciszka Jean Charak

My paternal grandmother, Franciszka Jean Charak, was born in the city of Przemyśl. She emigrated to the United States at the age of nineteen with her parents and younger brother Poldek in 1920.

Her family settled in The Bronx, New York. Her fiancé, my grandfather Israel Distenfeld arrived two years later, they married, and lived in several locations in the East Bronx, where my father Daniel was born.

I have loving memories of Grandma Jean, and only learned as an older adult of her unhappy marriage. She was an independent woman, however, running her own shop, “Jean’s Variety Store” on the corner of Burke and Wallace Avenues in the Bronx. My father recalled his mother’s customers, Polish women in the neighborhood, with whom she conversed with in Polish. My father also remembered the large metal cash register, which went “Boom!” when the drawer was opened. He also recalled going down to the Lower East Side to buy wholesale goods with his mother on Sundays.

I remember my Grandma Jean visiting our home, bringing large boxes of chocolate wafer bars. She also crocheted, knitted and sewed beautiful items: bedspreads with hundreds of little gathered sewn circles, crocheted blankets of colorful squares. I still have two crocheted suits she made for me, consisting of skirts and tops, one purple, one turquoise. After her husband, my grandfather died, Grandma Jean traveled a lot, which she loved. She went to Israel and Florida. She enjoyed meeting people in airports.

It was only a few years ago from this writing that my mother unearthed a box of photographs in pristine condition of my grandmother’s relatives. Jean was a beautiful woman, and prided herself on her appearance, wearing stylish clothing. She was very feminine, but also dressed in men’s suits, looking a bit like Greta Garbo. In photographs of her with my father, her only child, it is obvious how much she loved her son.

When I traced her family’s path from various towns in Poland (now Ukraine), I was fascinated. So many places: Grodek, Skole, Brody and Czortków. My father told me that Jean’s father, Isidore Charak worked as a government clerk, and his theory was that it was best that the family travelled to these towns, following him where there was work.

Doing this work, I wish I had been closer to my grandmother. She passed away in 1977 when I was seventeen years old. I feel sad when I look at her photographs, because I didn’t really know her.