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.

9 comments on “The Power of a Postage Stamp

  1. Judith says:

    Beautiful images, and so poetic! This touched me, Jannett.

  2. Denise says:

    Lovely Jannett. Such a sweet reminder to enjoy the ease of face to face time with our nearby relatives whenever we can.

  3. Pam says:

    Jannett – really beautiful. Even though my family has been in the US from Germany/Luxembourg for 3-4 generations before me, there is something so familiar about your stories. I remember asking the same questions about the family tree – honestly, I never did get all of the great-aunts/uncles straight. Your blog is a wonderful thing and I Iook forward to reading more!

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      Thanks Pam! It’s been great to hear how this post brought up other memories for readers. I love hearing what pops up. There is a thread that weaves through all of us no matter what country we’re connected to.

  4. Adam Matusiak says:

    Nicely done Jannett! Brings back vivid memories of letters coming in at Christmas time…

  5. Majka says:

    Jannett! I’m reading this part of your blog and I feel so excited! Even my legs are shaking! Before my mum sent you this Christmas card she had asked me for your address as she had heard from me you had moved to a different appartment.So I looked for it in my emails from you, wrote it down on a piece of paper for her. I saw her copying your address on the envelope, and now I can see you got it. This is great.
    By the way, Thnak you for your Christmas postcard!:) We got it this morning! Missing you so much..

  6. anne says:

    so beautiful janni. i’m sitting in starbucks catching up on your last two posts with my coffee. the aimme mann version of “what the world needs now is love sweet love” just came on….it all feels perfect together. thank you for making my sunday morning special! xxxoo

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