Christmas card from Ciocia Halinka 2011
It’s that time of year. Cards from Poland come in the mail. As a kid, I would trot through the hallway to the spill of mail laying on the throw rug by the front door. Squiggly handwriting and exotic stamps would be peaking just past the Bell Atlantic bill.
“Mooooooooooooom, we got a letter from Poland.”
I knew this would make her happy. She’d be wiping her hands on a dish towel waiting to see which relative wrote. She’d note whether it was the first we received in the season, whether it was earlier than usual, or from a relative we hadn’t heard from in a long time.
The letter would be from the following list…my grandparents, Ciocia Genia, Ciocia Stasia, Ciocia Halinka, Bozena, Czesia. Usually my mother’s sisters or father’s sister, wives of brothers, cousins wives, nieces. Each time it would be a family tree lesson for me.
Whose sister is this again? This is whose wife? It was a giant puzzle and every year, every letter, every story kept putting another piece in place. Sometimes with little to associate with it, I’d relearn the same piece of information. When I wanted to show off my Polish skills, I would read the letter to my mother to high praise or pass it back shaking my head saying, I can’t read her handwriting.
Unlike many of my school mates, I did not have an understanding of my extended family. I did not have the benefit of coming to know them through the osmosis of cookouts, christenings, birthday parties or the other kind of events that everyone is dragged to when their little and see people in person. I went to Poland when I was 3 and while I remember the smell of the barn and my father’s parents milking the cows I wasn’t exactly taking genealogical notes. That didn’t start until my visits at ages 18 and 25.
I only really knew my immediate family: My parents, brothers, Ciocia Felicia and her two children, and my Babcia- my mother’s mother who moved to the United States in the early 70s and passed away when I was in the 3rd grade. Everyone else who shared our last name or my mother’s maiden name was a mystery. And while they seemed like strangers to me, my parents’ warmth and reverence made me understand that they were not, in fact, strangers. Somehow these people in Poland knew very much who I was even though I couldn’t keep them straight when I was young.
I only had letters and pictures and stories that came while the dishes were getting washed, pork chops were getting pounded or the news of a letter was being rehashed over coffee. I grew up with the great sense that Poland was a place that was very far away and that my parents’ connection to it was like an invisible umbilical cord.
I was confused when people asked me how many aunts and uncles I had. I didn’t exactly know. Sure my parents told us, but their names and faces were airy and delicate just like the air mail envelopes that arrived through the mail slot. My sense of them would fade in and out. This was before phone calls could be made to them directly and Telecom Offices were expensive and had to be coordinated. This was before email, before Skype, before telephone cards and cell phones. The only thing that connected our families for a few decades was a piece of paper and a stamp.
There was a time I couldn’t name all my family members or associate them with the right side of the family, so I took to memorizing. I took to asking and re-asking the same questions until the information stuck solid like a wooden spoon in a good pot of Bigos.
That curiosity seed settled deep in my heart and sprouted. I’ve spent my whole life following the vine.
I get my own cards from Poland now. I just got one from my Ciocia Halinka, my Dad’s sister. The first of a few I’ll get from Poland this season. It came early. I made a note of that.
Inside, a piece of Oplatek
Silent Night, Holy Night
Slipped inside was a thin piece of Opłatek, the Christmas wafer. During Christmas Eve, it is a tradition to pass the Opłatek around and break off a piece between each family member before dinner. Everyone wishes each other good health and special blessings and seals it with a kiss.
I love that a stamp and envelope are allowing me to break off a piece with my family in Poland, that despite the miles, a thin and delicate Christmas wafer can be both airy and real.