Here is the short version of some reflections on my dad’s life. May it help celebrate and honor the good as well as contribute to our healthy grieving.
Frederick Stanley Szczesniak was born on May 7, 1953 and grew up with his two brothers on the East Side of Buffalo, on the same block as his mother — the same neighborhood as his father. Buffalo’s Polonia District was home to all his grandparents after they arrived from Poland and the diaspora (invasions and borders shifted a lot in those days). Vincent Szczesniak and his wife Laura Skoniecki (arrived 1913, 1903) gave birth to my grandfather Fred (Dzia Dzia) and his six brothers. Stanislaus Bronislaus Pacynski and his wife Stafania Ciesla (arrived 1904, 1889) gave birth to my grandmother Esther (Nani), her brother, and three sisters. They were all part of the historic Saint Stanislaus parish.
My earliest memories are while living on Clark St across the street from a dilapidated Central Terminal with my brother Jeff and my parents — next door to the split house of my dad’s parents and my auntie, uncle, and cousins. We rolled three generations daily until 1986 when my family moved to rural New York state.
After parochial school, my dad went to Emerson Vocational High School where he tapped into his knack for cooking. After high school he earned an Associate’s degree from Erie County Community College, bringing his culinary skills to the next level. It was at ECCC where he met my mother Gail (who is still Polish “by choice” after their divorce!). They got married when they were 20 years old and over the next few years found Jesus and had a son (my wonderful brother Jeffrey).
My father worked in commercial kitchens until he was in his 40s. He had the imagination to create dishes and menus and was a legendary baker of cakes, cookies, and breads. I worked for him over a few years where he brought an old school mindset to the kitchen. He only hired dishwashers. He taught dishwashers to do prep work, then desserts and baking before working on the line and some sous chefs. Team work, efficiency, and clear communication of concepts helped the kitchens run well. When they didn’t run well, he usually had a bombastic end to his tenure.
My pops loved the church — leading it as well as criticizing it. He signed his name Rev. Fred Szczesniak for years because it made him feel dignified. We were part of a small “full gospel” Black church that met in row home in DC and a booming Assemblies of God church in Buffalo where he served as youth pastor. My parents served as house parents for Teen Challenge, aiding in the substance abuse recovery of teenagers in between restaurant gigs.
My dad came out as gay in the late 90s. He told me he had repressed his sense of attraction since he was a kid. I’m glad he met Brian, with whom he was together for 20yrs as lovers, partners, and eventually married spouses. Coming out in the late 90s took a lot of guts and resiliency, not unlike many spaces today. While he experienced intense rejection from the church and many Christian experiences of his past, he found acceptance and encouragement from Christians along the way and talked about Jesus until the day he died.
Fred hated the snow. He’s from Buffalo, so this surprised people. He always wanted to move to a warmer climate, and five years ago he and Brian finally did. He got to live out the rest of his life with a pool in his yard, flowers to tend to with his secret urine-based fertilizer, and in a loving partnership with Brian.
A few weeks ago, he shared with me that the greatest joys in his life was that he got to reconnect with parts of his family. After his brother Greg died last year, my brother Jonny (with his daughter Josie) and I got to make our peace with our father. He died peacefully in his sleep last Saturday morning, primarily due to kidney failure, at home with Brian by his side.
I’m grateful because the final words between us were of love and mutual forgiveness. I’m sad because this man I knew for my entire life has passed on. I enjoyed our conversations about cooking, gardening, and sci fi. Our senses of humor did not always align, but like him I find my own jokes to be very funny. My dad made no shortage of mistakes, including painful choices. May they be a caution to me and my brothers. I know he loved me, and he knew I loved I him. I’m grateful that his passing was peaceful, and that his final gift to us was peace.
Rest in peace, Dad aka Fred aka Poppa Fred aka Big Phred aka Fred Bomb. xoxo