Coughing into a Christmas in Pictures 2011

My brother John picked me up from the airport on Thursday. Bless his heart for waking at 5am to check my flight status.  This voluntary early morning pick up from a guy who once needed an air raid siren to wake up.  We had breakfast and then I got into my post-cold coughing jag.

 “You want me to stop at Rite-Aid, Typhoid Mary?” asked John.

“No,” I choked between coughing fits. “I’m fine.”

I coughed all the way into my parents’ house.  Greetings. Hugs. And within a few seconds, Ciocia Felicia thunked a small bottle of thick yellow liquid in front of me and handed me a tablespoon.

“You drink.”    

“What is it?”

“Spirytus, honey and lemon.”

Dr. Felicia says take a few tablespoons, if you start feeling woozy time to stop.

Home-made cough syrup.          

 It’s in a recycled glass bottle that once held something similar.  

Spriytus is 192 proof.  Who needs Nyquil with Red #5 when my 84 years old aunt mixes her own elixirs in the kitchen? I took 2 tablespoons and slept for 4 hours, a mix of red-eye exhaustion and the warm burn radiating in my throat. When I woke up, Felicia said in Polish, “I didn’t hear you cough once.”

“You want me to mail?”

“Um, Ciocia that’s like mailing gasoline.  I don’t think you can do that.”  

As I photographed the Spirytus bottle today at lunch my mom reminded me that you can dip a little on your finger and light it on fire. Hm.

Gasoline in a bottle. Clears sinuses and car pistons.

 Now the house is sizzling with oil and onions and fish. The overhead stove fan is causing extra deafness. The table set. We’re waiting for guests. Wesolych Swiat! Merry Christmas everyone! The rest in pictures. (cough. cough.)

192 Proof.

My brother waiting for Santa.

One of three fish on the table tonight.



Babki baking beautifully!

Bundt cake moving fast!


Ciocia putting curlers in her hair after the first wave of cooking

There was a lot of this in the fridge.

Mom and Dad

My brothers Adam and John.

My sister-in-law Kim and me


My niece and sister-in-law Martha


It's a Patriots family. My niece.

Before Family.


That's more like it.

Christmas Hideout

Mom and Dad's tree last year with my first grade ornament


This is a picture of an ornament I made in First grade. I just got my calculator out because I’m bad at math. The ornament is exactly 33 years old.  I don’t even feel old enough to be counting 3 decades, but math is sobering like that. Somewhere in my brain I’m still the little girl who crawled under the tree and slid into the corner gap where I could fit perfectly, my back up against the drafty floorboards.

 I did nothing more than stare at the white twinkle lights and break off a needle or two so I could smell the tree better. Sometimes in those quiet moments I would bend the ornament hooks tight around the tree branches so that when I slid back there, the ornaments would give off a muted thud as I passed under them instead of falling off with a bright clink causing my mom to yell from the other room. I’d run my fingers through the piles of needles at the base creating imaginary roads and dunes. I’d stay there until my limbs grew numb from the cold or my father chased me out.  In later years, I’d bring my small tape recorder with me and listen to my K-Tel cassette, the one with Abba’s The Winner Takes it All. (There is some awesome hair and blue eye shadow in this video.)

While I cannot say for certain, I must have been there almost every night the tree was up. This continued for as long as my little body let me slide back there.  And when I couldn’t slide in anymore, I just took to sitting on the aqua couch.  I guess looking at a Christmas tree is not unlike staring into a fire.  There’s a certain peace that comes with the light, the quiet.


The Power of a Postage Stamp

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.

Finding Myself at a Polish Club

Greetings from San Francisco! Where today I experienced fresh eggs from a chicken coop in Los Gatos, Dim Sum in Millbrae and Mexican food at El Metate in San Francisco. My action packed weekend visiting friends is coming to a close. Tonight my friends took me to the KALW 91.7FM 70th Anniversary special, a local public radio station hosting a night of storytelling and a live broadcast of Crosscurrents. We were there for three hours.

Essay topics revolved around a “Beginnings and Endings” theme and included a man being bitten by a Harbor Seal while he swam from Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge and a woman who recorded the sounds of Antarctica (like cracking ice) and created musical instruments out of stone and bones to re-create sounds. There was also a segment about the amazing life of a Queen Termite, who lays eggs every 3 seconds for 15 years and at the end of her life cycle gets licked to death by her spawn. Yep. All this I learned from the very gifted writers I saw read tonight. Where was all this held? Why at the Polish Club.

I was kind of excited to compare a Polish Club in San Francisco to the Polish clubs I know from home. There were similarities: walnut paneling, no fewer than 5 Polish eagle emblems, Pope John Paul II photos, etchings of past Polish Kings, and even an oil portrait of George Washington.

There were a few construction paper collages with pictures of Warsaw and one of the great battle of Monte Cassino, Italy where I noted my own grandfather was wounded in WWII. I tired to get up close to read about the person whose picture was photocopied on the collage, but it was a dimly lit while the writers read on stage. I thought, someone else probably had a grandfather there too. Even though the edges of construction paper were curling, the person who made it cared. I couldn’t help but walk over to it. It reminded me to ask my mom some more questions about her father.

I felt at home and it wasn’t just the paneling. I thought it was so appropriate that I should find myself there. In a Polish club. Listening to writers read stories about beginnings and endings with the ever-watchful Polish Eagle eyes above our heads and a George Washington smirking in the distance.