Don’t Try This at Home

Ciocia Felicia showing off freshly picked mushrooms

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 relaxing in her J-Lo glasses

 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.

bag 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.

would I have picked this one?

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.

Does Mother Know Best?

My mother is the kind of person who equates walking in parking lots and driving on highways at night with Russian roulette. Every once in a while she gets a superstitious sense that I am doing one or both. I picture her, one hand pressed against her face in worry as she walks by the Pope’s picture in the kitchen. The dried palm leaves jet out from behind the lip of the frame almost touching the phone. She looks at the piece of paper on the fridge where I wrote my cell phone number, squints and punches the buttons on the phone like she’s annoyed at negotiating and calls me.

“Where you are?”

“I’m just leaving the parking lot at Target.”

“Why you shopping late! Do you hear about the woman?”

“No Ma. What woman?”

“Why you no watch the news?”

“Ma, have you been watching 48Hours again? I’m fine.”

She gets all wound up watching murder mystery shows. So while I try to keep her anxiety at bay, I take care to look behind my seat. Occasionally I pause and take into account my mother’s I-told-you-so-track-record. I have put my money down on the wrong horse before. It creeps into my mind that she’s been right about other things in my life more than I can count. Which leads me to sometimes wonder how much to pay attention to my mother’s advice?

Things Mom was right about:

1.) My savings account

2.) Losing weight after 30

3.) clothes with dry clean only tags should be avoided

4.) It’s not the worst thing that could happen

5.) a meal without bread is not a meal

Things Mom was wrong about:

1.) I didn’t die in the Peace Corps.

2.) (Insert sound of wind and tumbleweed here.)

She’s always saying I should be conscious of the czarna godzina (the black hour). And I am which is why money flies easier out of my hands than hers and why traveling to a far off place doesn’t scare me like it does her. Maybe sometimes it’s good to play it safer. All of her hard work and values afford me the comforts and choices that my parents never had. Old world values and new world opportunities wrap around each other and propel the next generation forward, stronger and better off, but with conflict in tow.

For the Love of Words

As my mom likes to say, after 40 years of being in the country, “I don’t know English and I forgot how to speak Polish.” My parents’ first language is Polish but they also speak English at home.  As with most immigrants, my parents eventually spliced both languages to create a third.  So I grew up translating both.  I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that I developed a love for words.

 One time I was sitting with my mother watching a TV show about a blind man who summited Mount Everest.  His tragic and triumphant story unfolded before us.  My mother and I both had tears trailing down our faces. She turned to me, dabbed her runny nose with the balled up paper towel from her finished apple and said, “Can you amazing?”

 I laughed and said, “You mean, imagine.”

 My mother had already turned her attention back to the TV. Since then, I’ve often tossed that phrase around in my mind. I got the feeling that my mother had somehow captured a deeper understanding. Of course, I thought she meant to say imagine, but perhaps in her back and forth of searching for the right word to translate, she came up with a better one.  Could I amazing? I could. I really could, because if you are thinking about a blind man summiting Everest you’ve got to do more than imagine.

 Translating words back and forth from Polish to English has always offered me a way to peek in to a richer world.  When something is lost in translation, I think it’s because the value of a word cannot be calculated to its fullest to a non-native speaker. Too many nuances of tone and meaning are lost when the translation is direct. Bouncing between two languages is like being able to see a canvas instead of a thread.

Take for example the phrase, ‘of course’ in English. It’s not a particularly exciting phrase. In Polish, oczywiście means ‘of course or obviously’. When I say the Polish word, I associate other Polish words with it. It’s like they are all holding hands. The sounds or roots of other words float in my mind and paint a more colorful and layered patchwork of meaning for me. Anyone who speaks another language will know exactly what I am talking about. (I want to hear about your favorite words that sound beautiful in your head when you translate them. Please leave me a comment if you have one.) For me, Oczywiście conjures up the words eyes (oczy) and to see (widzieć)- as if to say, “eye’s view”. For me it’s like saying I see it, therefore it must be true.  In other words, obviously.

 I like layered meanings, more poetic.