Ciocia Talks Tom Brady

I called home recently. Ciocia Felicia answered. I asked her whether she was planning on watching the Pats vs. Ravens game, even though I already knew the answer would be yes. She interrupted my chain of questions to tell me in Polish, “Brady has a hand injury.”  She was certain he was going to play the game but the outcome of how well he could play was causing her to worry.

Sometimes I wonder if I call the right house.

Brady and Gaga.  Household names.

See, ever since my brothers introduced my Mom and Ciocia to the Super Bowl football squares some years ago and they started betting $20 on the game, they started tuning in. Not because they loved football, but because they wanted to maximize their twenty.  They learned to read the football square grid and somewhere along the way they got hooked.

Adam said to me the other night, “Ma called to ask me about Timeouts.” I told him Ciocia informed me of Brady’s injury and that if it weren’t for her I wouldn’t have known.

They’re obsessed. Apparently, my Mom will do her walking-on-hot-coals howl when the Pats are heading for a touchdown.

After the AFC Championship game last week (what a nail biter!), I called home to see what they thought of the game. My mom said, “Miałem highablood pressure.” I had high blood pressure.

Mom never says HIGH. She says high-ah blood pressure, as if what is already high just went higher.

I realized that I’ve been catching the games myself these days.  I have watched games in the past with groups of people but it was really just to have salsa and chips and engage in some conversation.  I have called a quarter an inning before, so there you go.

I make no smoke screen to disguise my otherwise poo-poo to sports attitude I used to have.  I would have rather watched a foreign film than go to a Sports Bar. Actually, maybe that’s still true…BUT I have always enjoyed the thrill of an underdog winning or the drama of a snowy game. Maybe like my Mom and my aunt, I’m slowly finding the joy of watching a game because I’m figuring it out.

Plus, I just bought a football square for the Super Bowl next week and I want to see what happens to my twenty bucks. Go Pats!!!




Spiders Are Your Friends

This spider has been hanging in the house ever since I was small enough to be afraid of it and now I am old enough to want it.

It’s kind of a talisman.

At our old house, it used to hang in our hallway at the top of the front stairs leading to the bedrooms. We didn’t often use that staircase because we oddly had another staircase right next to it that led to the same upstairs hallway. So it had a rather ominous perch, the non-used stairway.

Friends who caught a glimpse of it as they walked by would say things like, “What’s that weird spider thing?” or “That’s creepy.” and my favorite, “Why do you guys have a spider on the wall?”

To these questions, I could offer only a shrug. ‘I dunno. It’s from Poland’.

My mom liked to point out that the pająk (pronounced Pie-yonk) was hand-made and that it was ciekawe– interesting. Something I could see when I allowed myself to get close to it and poke at its wicker belly.

Besides, my Dad has always told me, “Spiders are your friends. They eat the little bugs that you don’t want to eat.” This he always said in English.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I seem to have a lot of friends around the house these days. One marched back and forth on the rim of the tub last night as I warned it away from the water. Earlier in the week, one was bungee jumping on his silk cord next to the kitchen table when I was at my laptop writing. The same night, I watched one go into my closet.

I felt like saying, “Guys! Guys! You’re getting out of hand.” I’ve been known to take them outside in a glass and release them. But it’s winter.

I pretty much have only one rule when it comes to spiders- Start biting me and you all die. So far, this is a friendly group.

Still, when is it too many?

I took exception to this rule, when I was living in Eritrea, Africa. One night I had come home by flashlight to discover a web that ran from my water filter to the floor. I got up close and discovered a black widow. Seriously, pea-size body, red hour glass marking! And I know you will think I am making this up, but it was October 31 to boot. There were expletives. I quickly lit some candles to give the room some light, took off my flip-flop, aimed, and said to myself, DON’T MISS!

I sent the squiggly remains to my friend who was being a terrible correspondent.

There was also the mysterious spider sticker that was on the wall during my in-country training. Huh, that’s funny I said to myself, I wonder what that sticker is doing up on the wall. Day after day I’d come home and notice it. Always the same spot. Then many weeks into my stay, I shook out my blanket and the wave of air hit said sticker and much to my surprise the paper thin spider came to life like a children’s pop-up book and scurried under my poster. It was so flat when it was still, that I named it Plate. It was a harmless spider so we stayed roommates.

Anyway, this spider decoration at my parents’ house, I really like it now. Weird little décor item that it is– there is just something about it that reminds me that a fear can be created and dispelled.

Mom Talks Gaga

Note to the reader: Some of you have asked. Yes, I can speak Polish. I would venture to say though that I understand it better than I can speak it.  Unless I’m in language boot camp mode like when I’ve visited Poland and I snap right into shape. Immersion is good for things like that.  I usually talk to my parents and aunt in a mixture of Polish and English. My parents used to speak only in Polish to me but over the years it has also become a mix.  Not to mention the third Polonia language they’ve created. Ciocia Felicia only speaks Polish.  I can also read relatively easy things- like letters from Mom or my relatives. I can’t write very well though.  But when I push myself for small batches of sentences I can do it.  I think understanding, speaking, reading, writing is the line up of how many first generation children learn language- comprehension can be stronger than any other facet.

…and now to the musing.

I was sitting on the couch with Mom over Christmas. I half heard something she was saying ‘blah blah blah Gaga.’

Did you just say Gaga? Lady Gaga?

Yuh, Gaga.

You know who Lady Gaga is?

She shot me a look. Same one I get when I swear.

Jak bym ja to niewiedziałm, kto Gaga jest?  Ona miała suknię z mięsem. Nawet Ciocia wie kto Gaga jest.

 Translation: How would I not know who Gaga is?  She had a meat dress.  Even your Aunt knows who Gaga is.

Ciocia, a blessed 84 years old, sat on the love seat next to us.  She looked up at me and said “Gaga.”

My mom said Gaga like they are on a first name basis with each other.  When I told her to say the words Lady Gaga again, she waved me off like a house fly.

“Say it again! I like the way you say her name.”

Maybe this insistence was where I picked up one of my many nicknames, Pest and Piła (Saw) just to name two endearments. As a kid If I wanted to sleep over my friend Holly or Julie’s house, and she said no, I would pout and repeat “I wanna go. Iwannago. Iwannago.”  I mentally chained myself to her leg.

I usually got what I wanted by wearing her down.

There are certain things that my mom says in English that I want her to repeat. I like hearing the flow of Polish come to a flying halt of English. Like when some years ago she stopped by the liquor store near Market Basket to buy scratch tickets and said to me, “Kupiłem Cash Blizzard.”  I bought Cash Blizzard.

Not two words I have ever heard her put together. So I hear them. It’s the English words that become foreign and stand out to me. The figurative is distilled. The sounds and meaning seem new.

For a split second my Polish mother becomes a pop culture American and the two worlds we both live in bump out of orbit.


Polish Costume

Julie and Jannett, 1978. One of a few first generation Polish American friends I had growing up. So cute, we could have sold you swampland in Florida

My Polish folk costume lived in a blouse box, not a sturdy one, but one that folded at the corners. The box always kept its shape because it lived in my parents’ bedroom closet on the top shelf. I say lived because referring to the costume was like talking about a living thing.

It was stored energy that would only come out during important church and Polish events. I would crane my neck up at the impossibly high shelf and wait for my mother to put the box on the bed. I loved to open it. I would run my fingers around the white baguette beads and the multi-colored sequins, cold to my fingertips, until I touched the black velvet. I loved touching it so much I wanted to pull the beads off– not to destroy it but to appreciate how it was put together.

Wearing it was like synchronizing my breath with someone or something else. At age 6, it felt sacred.

I wonder if the Queen feels this way about her crown jewels- walks around with them like they’re breathing, knows that history and culture sit on top of her head.

Flower head wreath

When I was home for Christmas and snooping about the house, I came across my flower wreath that I wore in the picture above. It was wrapped in a clear plastic baggie sitting on top of porcelain dinner plates in the kitchen china cabinet. In the old days, at my childhood home, the crown lived separate in a built-into-the-wall credenza, probably to give it more breathing room. It sat on the highest shelf next to the lead crystal cordial glasses. Same plastic baggie, it appears. My mother’s love for plastic wrapped items is the reason I still have 33 year old paper Christmas ornaments in mint condition. I would make fun of this more, but it’s too easy for me to see my love for antiques and documentaries stemming from this care. You should see my scrapbooks.

Other things mom wraps in plastic

I thought about how much I loved wearing the paper flower crown. How it didn’t occur to me then, that I would outgrow my costume. I remember begging for a new one. I was hoping for an even flashier one like I had seen on some of the older women with thick ribbons running off their shoulders, hand-painted roses running down each strip. Their velvet bodices were a lush carpet of sequins. But no one was coming or going from Poland in the early 80s. So I never got another one. My parents shushed us every time the news came on. I asked them what Martial Law meant.

In just a few quick years, the costume became baby stuff. Pride turned to self-consciousness. I didn’t want to be caught dead in anything Polish. I wanted Levi’s. I wanted Carvel Ice Cream cake birthday parties. I wanted clothes from the Gap, not Zayres or Stuarts.

If I remember correctly, my Krakowianka costume was a gift from Kazimiera Wojciechowicz, otherwise known as Babcia, my mother’s mother. She bought it for me. I don’t think my mother ever owned anything like this in her life. I can be pretty sure of that, because she had to share her shoes with her sisters. My costume got passed on to my nieces. I’m sure it’s in one of their attics now, in the same box waiting to be opened by the next small hand.

What sticks with me the most is that everything about my costume was delicate, especially the necklace. It was made of layered strands of pink, blue, silver and red beads. Actually, bead doesn’t feel like quite the right word.

The glass balls were more like tiny strands of Barbie Christmas ornaments that got larger toward the center. If I pressed just right, I could easily crack one between my fingers.

And I did, just to know its fragility.

Na Zdrowie!

If you'd like to stop at one, best to put your hand over the top of the shot glass. Or better yet, hide it under the table. The Pourer will pour. Lesson #1.

To your health! That’s what Na Zdrowie means but you probably already knew that dear reader! (I can’t help but borrow some phrasing from Charlotte Bronte and talk to you directly.) I know you are out there and I symbolically raise these over 40 year old shot glasses to say, Happy New Year!

My friend Denise once taught me a Vietnamese phrase for clinking glasses, Cham Phan Chum (Please forgive any butchering in spelling.) It means something like, 100%. Isn’t that great? I’m looking you right in the eye.

There are many phrases we say for this moment to connect. To me Santé, Sault, Na Zdrowie etc…ultimately all say the same thing no matter your state of health. Its meaning transcends the literal.

It means, I am present here with you and that is a blessing. We can still share a story. We are still here to feel all the mysteries.

I raise my glass to you and to those on the other side. Let us take a moment to laugh, find poetry and feel love in the quiet places of our minds.

Hope your New Year sparkles.