No Polish family is complete without an aunt who means business. Ciocia (pronounced Chuh-Chuh) means Aunt in Polish. Meet Ciocia Felicia: seamstress, wild mushroom picker and lover of big eye-glasses. She also has an affinity for picking lucky scratch tickets too, but I’ll save that for another post.
Ciocia likes to pick mushrooms and I don’t mean the kind in the bin at Market Basket. She likes to go to a public park or will duck into some wooded areas in the neighborhood when she senses a good spot. With plastic shopping bag scrunched up in her hand, she’ll disappear into the woods. This might not be strange to those living on a farm in the country in Poland but I grew up in a mill city in Massachusetts.
Not exactly a detail I readily shared in the hallways at school, at first, because it didn’t seem unusual. There were always other Polish families who sat in our kitchen and talked about mushrooms popping up in surprising abundance or shook their heads to confirm their lack of presence while coffee percolated and my mother served open-faced ham sandwiches and plates of tomatoes with minced onions on top.
By the time high school rolled around, picking wild mushrooms seemed like an ancient past time that I wanted to run far away from, lest someone should think I wasn’t cool. I likened it to the time in 2nd grade when I wore my gym uniform Polish eagle t-shirt to the roller rink and my brother said, “Get away from me!” as he ran-skated ahead. So I devoted my time to what other kids were doing in high school, acknowledging my superior intelligence over my parents, saving up for my first bottle of Calvin Klein Eternity perfume, and getting into cars with boys who already knew how to drive.
Recently when I was home for the summer, Ciocia came home with a plastic bag full of mushrooms.
“How do you know? Could be poison.” I asked.
“Jannett,” she replied in Polish with a voice similar to the one she used when I skipped church,” I was born among mushrooms.”
As a kid, I remembered how she and my mother dried them. The mushrooms shriveled and turned into paper-light buttons and half-moons that rattled in a brown paper lunch bag. That bag hovered around in the cabinet on top of the Kool-Aid container that my brothers and I pulled off the shelf a hundred times a day. The mushroom bag was always in the way. It was pulled out and then stuffed back in so many times, the outside of the bag became soft and worn and the fibers of the paper stood up like soft hairs. Sometimes I would open the bag and take a sniff of the deep musky aroma. I’d close it back up and upon not finding any Ritz crackers or Cheese-Whiz would close the cabinet and proclaim that there was nothing to eat in the house.
I wonder if I could learn how to identify the good mushrooms from the poisonous ones. But I came back to a familiar whirl pool- like when I asked for the recipe for Pierogis and my mother and Ciocia laughed and said, “No recipe. You watch.” I remember I asked, ‘How much water, mom?’ She repeated the question to herself and then with her finger showed me a nick in the bowl and said, “Up to here. “ Great. I can make pierogis if I have YOUR bowl. I figured learning how to identify wild mushrooms was going to require the same kind of apprenticeship. An apprenticeship I feel about twenty five years too late for.