When Do You Know Who You Are?

On the Lighthouse Writers’ porch last night, sipping a crisp white wine, a writing instructor asked me, “When did you first realize you were Polish?”

Great question, I said. No one has ever asked me that.

I’ve never even asked myself that question.

“I didn’t even know I was Polish.” I answered, laughing, which is to say, at first, I didn’t distinguish myself as possibly being something else.

How could I? Polish was spoken fluently in my home. Dr. Ogonowski was my dentist. The Kosciulek family gave us car and house insurance and calendars for our walls. Polish friends were our masons, kielbasa makers, shipping specialists, painters, barbers and funeral directors, even the non-Polish bakery, sold Polish Rye bread. Their children, a handful my age,  “were just like me”.  We referred to Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so, as Pan and Pani. When our parents spoke to us in Polish, we answered in a mélange of Polish or English, choosing the language that conveyed the message with the most ease, instinctively knowing what worked best.

We knew to be quiet when our parents were glued to the News in the 1980s. They wore Solidarność pins on their lapels. To me, Lech Walesa was the mustachioed face of an unknown struggle. I didn’t know the meaning of Martial Law yet, but I knew it wasn’t good. Solidarity was hope. That’s what I figured.

We had relatives that lived in places that seemed impossible to get to, that our parents talked about with longing. Paper thin airmail letters were treated like miracles, faceless voices reaching out from some nether land, memories of Mom holding pages with two hands.

I lived in a little Polonia without even knowing the word.

Even in elementary school our uniform gym shirt had a Polski Orzel on it.  Unlike Chicago that had a large Polish community, we had a small bubble. I straddled two worlds.

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It’s easy to misremember and say that high school was when I decided Polish was uncool. Perhaps the same years that I decided my parents didn’t know anything about real life and real love, that their old fashioned ways made them dim. But that would be untrue. I had those feelings much earlier.

It didn’t happen in one moment but hundreds of little moments dripping like rain.

Was I Polish or American when I begged for McDonalds, and not my mom’s kotlety? Her hamburgers were oval and meatloaf-y and had hidden onions inside.

“I can make hamburgi better than McDonalds.” Mom said.

“No you can’t!” I cried. Real tears.

Mom’s soups didn’t look American either. We had Ogorkowa – cucumber soup and Borscht– beet root. Things I die for now. Back then, I questioned unidentifiable floaties. We had Campbell’s Soup and Chef Boy-Ar-dee cans too. Did you she buy them for us? or did my parents like them too?

My early birthday parties were family affairs with boxed spice cake, topped with Mom’s real butter frosting. She’d cut the cake in half and put jelly in the middle. I wasn’t unhappy with what I had, but I dreamed of color coordinated birthday parties, with invitations, printed napkins and Carvel ice cream cake. Mostly I wanted Mom to buy a pink tissue Barbie table cloth. Pointy Party hats just weren’t enough for me. I wanted favor bags for my friends just like I had at their homes. I found myself meandering in party aisles in department stores, seduced by packaging. Right before my 9th Birthday, I held up a package of Peace key-chain party favors and said, “We haaaave to buy these.” (When I wanted something and nagged, mom called me a piła, a saw.)

Mom said yes. I never loved a piece of plastic so much in my life.

I must have realized I was Polish when I wanted to start telling people I was Irish.  Who wouldn’t believe me with my abundant nose freckles, I reasoned. Nobody made stupid jokes about the Irish. Even the drinking ones made them sound cool.

When I played school my imaginary teacher name always French: Susan LeClair. The French were cool too. Their names had both big and little letters. For the most part, people could pronounce them without halting. Except for my family, I knew no one else with our last name. The first time I saw my last name elsewhere was on a tombstone in Poland. I was 19.

This was before the internet. (I can’t believe I’m old enough to say that.)

Maybe I truly realized I was Polish when I was 27 and told my boyfriend that we couldn’t go to his friend’s wedding without a money envelope.

His face went blank.

I insisted. If not a gift in hand, a least an envelope!

“Uh, people our age don’t really give money.”

“Yes, they do.” I insisted. We got into a spat on the drive up the coast.

Don’t they? I hadn’t thought about where this custom comes from. I guess my model was seeing Polish adults leave fat envelopes at weddings. You know, so the couple can buy a house.

It was like a scene from The Godfather: Don Corleone and Luca Brasi understanding each other, me and my boyfriend, not so much.

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Luca Brasi came with an envelope!

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Old school style.

I mentioned the envelope incident to other friends (whose parents were not immigrants.) They too gave me the blank stare.

That’s when I said, Oh.

 

 ***

I’ll keep thinking about this one. It may be the coffee, but my mind’s sizzling with answers.

 

 

 

Interview with Mom

Me and Mom, 1972

 I called Mom this morning and asked if I could interview her in honor of Mother’s Day. She agreed. I told her she could answer in Polish or English, whatever came to her. I’m sure I’ve omitted some Polish accent marks, but I’ve tried to spell everything correctly and stay authentic to her voice. Mom’s words as spoken to me.

 

Do you think you raised your kids like your own mother raised you?

Mmm. Almost. More spoil.

(We laugh.)

Babcia used to say to us Ja was nie zbije, was wzycia jecze beda nabije– I’m not going to beat you, miserable things in life will beat you.

Way to say it Grandma!

If I go back I could ja mysle chowalaby inaczeje– I think I’d raise you differently. I used to think I not that good mother. I don’t know why. I don’t pay too much attention. I so busy. We buy house. Three kids, we have to make the payments. I just go go go. I don’t know how to bring up kids in this era, than in my childhood. Probably not understand my kids like I should. Well, I dunno. I try to be better. I wanna if my kids have life in a difference way.

Babcia used to say, Ty nawet nie wiecz jak woda zgotowac– You don’t even know how to boil water. I understand her better to raise so many kids by herself. She used to adore people who didn’t have children. Oh boy, I think our mother don’t like us. I used to say to myself. Now I understand her better. If I see something I don’t like from Babcia, I never want to put on you because I know how bad it is.

How was your Mother’s Day breakfast at the restaurant this morning? (my oldest brother took her out)

Good. Very good. I had vegetables omelet and kartofle –potatoes. Good thing we go early. When we left there was big line. Big one line! I not exaggerate. Maybe 30 people. I say to Adam, Dziecko taki kolejki w Polce tylko byli za mięsem. Tyla godzin musieli stac. Kazdy stawal rano zeby dostac kawalek mięso. Ludzie prawie nie spali. – Child, these kinds of line in Poland were only for meat. We had to wait many hours in line. Everyone got up early in the morning to get a little piece of meat. People hardly slept.

That puts things into perspective for me.

Ya.

What are 10 things you wished you could cement into your kids’ heads?

1.)Be good in the world

2.) Care about the others

3.) Help for the people who needs some help

4.) I always wish they are playing like some kind of musician. Oh yes, I like music.

5.) I always wish the better life. Bring the gwiazdka– star from the space for them. I live for my children. Honest to God. My kids are everything for me. No matter how older they gonna be. What kind they are. I live for my children. I really do.

6.) Don’t forget where they come from.

Why is that important to you? I can’t explain. If they grow up to be good people to value the life because what you have right now and what I have before is big difference. Big difference.

I used to don’t have any bread, two or three months. Now you have bread every single day. That’s why you have to hold and thanks God what we have these days. I always fight for the better future for you guys. If you get good school, education, more food.

(Mom’s voice cracked at the word food.) So you don’t have to go through what I went through. Even if you close your eyes, you couldn’t know it close. I always thought I was dreaming.

7.) I always want if my kids look good. To dress up. I could never get through to them. They always say I old fashion. Put on a hat.

Looking fashionable while pregnant with her first son.

Looking fashionable while pregnant with her first son.

8.)Zeby nigdy nie uczyli sie klac. What’s that? (laugh) Swearing. Now everything is F’n and F’n. I wanna if my kids never learn it. You ever hear us speak F in our house? No.  But they still learn.

9.) If you make the money, don’t spend the money. Oh ya, Jannett. Ja bylam zawcze savers. – I was always a saver.

10.) Nie mogłem nic przymyslec. –I couldn’t think of anything.

Nothing else?

Oh, I wish someday if I die, that my kids don’t cry. You should say she’s in a better place.

Ma, you’re killing me, you always say that. Don’t say that. Of course, I’m going to cry.

Why? Everyone have to die. Why do you have to be crying and crying. Be reasonable. For everybody sad, no matter. But some people get cuckoo. Be smart with that.

Do you think motherhood is complicated?

Probably it is complicated. If you use your brain correctly, it’s less complicated. I so bad to make decisions. It eat me to death. I want to go further further to do the stuff right. Some people look at stuff, make decision and they are done. Not me.

Do you think you feel differently about motherhood now vs. when you had your first son? (My father was denied a visa from Poland at first and was only reunited with Mom and my oldest brother 2 months and 2 days after his birth.)

Yes, because if you never experienced with the babies, you just scared. Especially with first baby, Daddy wasn’t here yet.

The baby cry, you cry. You don’t know what’s going on. Now, live and learn. If you gotta better life, you feel more secure with everything. If you are new mother, you don’t know much about the baby. You are afraid to go to work and to feed them. That’s not easy. These days people don’t worry about nothing.

One word to describe how it feels to be a mother.

one word? (silence) I dunno. (silence) One word? Yes, one word. Hmm. Good.

Is there anything funny about motherhood?

It is. After the kids start to crawling and smiling, they do stupid stuff. It is happy time. And cuckoo time too. I always in the bad stuff, get something good from it. Do you?

Yes, I do.

What do you wish you asked your mother?

I never ask anything. We used to don’t talk about those stuffs. Babcia just work work work. I never tell to my mother I love her. I regret to this time. Because we don’t use the words I love you. Jak wojna byla (during the war) there was no one to talk to. She all alone. She had six kids. I didn’t have good childhood. Not because she bad mother, she a very good mother, very good. But she had to survive. We could have died from starvation.

Do you want to say anything else?

I wish I could to tell to my kids, someday, if I not gonna be in this world for them to be together. That’s my wish. I am mother every day. Don’t forget. Don’t have to be once a year.

Mom

I love you Mom. Thank you.

 

Tattooing Family Part 2

I know. I left you hanging and the lamb-shaped butter shaking in its dish on Easter. I, too, was waiting to see what happened when my niece, Em, showed off her tattoo to my Mom. I asked my spy to write down Mom’s reactions and words. We’ll call this spy, Katerina. (Not her civilian name.) Don’t miss a word, I demanded.

Here’s how it shook out.

Niece waited until after everyone had breakfast. Good call. Who gets mad during dessert and coffee? No one in my family. That’s when all the jokes and oh I have the funniest story moments start rolling in. Whoever can make Dad laugh to the point that all sound is drained from him and he clutches at his chest in mercy, wins. This is also the time when people have delivered news: We’re getting married. We’re having a baby. I’m going to Paris by myself. (Can you tell which one was mine?)

Em told my Mom she had something to show her. My brother, Adam, put his hand on Mom’s shoulder and Em lifted up her hair, revealing her Rodzina tattoo.

“Why did you do that?” my Dad calmly offered.

“I gonna punch you in the puchkis.” Mom said. I pictured her raising her fist in a jokey way.

Then instead of punching her in the cheeks, she kissed her neck.

She kissed her neck!

A relief! I think my brothers and sister-in-law noticed that she might not have registered what the word actually was and told her to look at it again.

Then it sort of stunned her.

My other brother texted me, She didn’t take it so bad. Once the coast was clear, I called.

“So Ma, what do you think of the tattoo?”

“You know I hate’dem.”

“Ya but don’t you think of all the tattoos she could have gotten that it’s kinda significant that she chose a word in Polish and that word means family? That’s pretty deep for such a young girl.”

“Hm,” Mom said, getting quiet. “Yah. You right, that says something. Thoughtful. Hm.” She paused again. “I’m gonna tell her after talking to you I understand her better.”

Now I was the one stunned. Really, I thought? How come it’s so easy for her to understand my 18 year old niece in a two sentence dialogue, but when it comes to conflict with me we have conversations that don’t end in Mom’s enlightenment?

Grandchildren can really do no wrong.

Later, I followed up with Mom.

“What did you end up saying to Emily?”

“She think I gonna take so badly. I ask her don’t do it. I tell her, I not upset. I tell her, after I talk to Jannett, what she say, it make me very warm. Usually I hate ‘dem tattoos, but somekinda make me happy.”

(Niece, when I am decrepit, I hope you remember to lift a spoon to my mouth!)

“Did you give more thought to the actual tattoo, the word, rodzina?” I asked.

“To me if someone cherish the family, to me, that is like Number 1. It feels good. To me, family means everything.”

 

Tattooing Family

 

Em Getting Tattooed

Em Getting Tattooed on Saturday

My niece, Emily, is planning to reveal her new tattoo to Babcia, my mother, this morning at Easter breakfast. Dad and Ciocia will be there too of course, but they are silent knowing trees, to Mom’s active frontline.  I sense the butter lamb on the table already trembling.

I’m trying to picture how Mom will react. Sign of the Cross?  Yell at niece but kill brother before the eggs and kielbasa are passed around?  Repeat the word tattoo like she might not understand its meaning? Maybe just maybe, go with the flow? Sometimes Mom can surprise me.

If she faints from shock, Ciocia can use the freshly grated horseradish to make her come to.

Several things will be working in my niece’s favor:

1.) It’s a holiday

2.) The whole family (except me) will be there

3.) Mom will naturally lay blame on her parents

4) The Tattoo is of the word “rodzina” which means family in Polish.

With or without ink, Family is tattooed on all of us.

With or without ink, Family is tattooed on all of us.

That ought to bring on pause and surprise.  Just like it did for me when my niece told me of her plan for her 18th Birthday and asked me to verify the spelling. It’s pronounced with a slight roll of the “R”. Roh-gee-nah.

See, we are not a tattoo nuclear family.  Maybe it is truer to say, we have never been a family to believe in permanence. We could never even get Dad to put a bumper sticker on his car, no matter how hard we tried.

In college, when I came home with two extra piercings on only one ear on my already pierced ears, Dad said, “You just had to get another hole in your head.”  That’s about as brazen as it got at home with body art.

Maybe this is why I collect antiques the way other people get tattoos, to find an anchor of permanence in an impermanent world. Give ourselves reminders that we’re living.

Two of my young male cousins got tattoos, and I don’t think Mom flinched. But what will she think of her young granddaughter, the girl who loves animals so much, she took a broom and snapped all of the mouse traps in the basement when she was 10, the Captain of the Cheerleading Squad, with the word rodzina written in cursive script on the back of her neck?

I can’t wait to get the phone call. Will Mom blow a gasket or simply say, “She crazy.”

Em was about 12 years old when my aunt and uncle from Poland visited us for an extended time. So eager was she to communicate with them, she asked me to buy her a Polish Language cd. She memorized vocabulary. Not knowing whole sentences didn’t stop her from enjoying a quiz or recitation. Among the many words she knows, Lotnisko airport, trawa  grass and lody ice cream. Plus proszęPlease and dziękuję  –Thank You, which she knew even before she knew she was studying Polish.

This plan really got me thinking. Of all the tattoos Em could have gotten: hearts, stars, designs, quotes, etc. She chose the word family and in Polish. Since I’m working on a memoir about our Polish family and have been compelled at a very early age to investigate ancestry and heritage– not necessarily a conscious choice but like following a magnetic pull through a maze, her tattoo choice warms my heart.

It made me wonder, do we tattoo the next generation with family legacies? For better, for worse. In presence or absence our family is a sum of what extended before us.

I asked her what inspired her.

She said, “I’ve been wanting to get a tattoo since freshman year. I didn’t want something random or something I’d regret.  And I thought, I don’t regret my family.  Then I thought what can I do to make it different and I chose to make it in Polish, cause that’s what I mostly am.”

Will this be a secret?

“I’m getting it in cursive and I’m putting it on the back of my neck. I’ll be able to hide it for job interviews if I put my hair down. No, it’s not a secret. LOL. My mom is coming with me to get it. My dad is like, whatever. LOL.”

I can tell you right now, that my brother was not like, whatever.  Given her age, I’m sure he sighed. I’m sure he ran the riot act of do you know what you’re doing? I’m sure four years ago when this was brought up he was hoping it would go away. I’m sure he impressed the meaning of the word permanent.  I’m sure he thoroughly expressed his opinion and then let his daughter make her own choices.

She’s gutsy. I love that that she thought of the word family. I could never get a tattoo. I got nervous for her when my sister-in-law texted and sent me photos of the process.  In fact, it’s one of my reoccurring anxiety dreams I have.  Once after a friend recounted, in painful detail, what it was like to have laser resurfacing on her face, that night I dreamt that I got a giant purple leaf tattoo on one whole side of my face. Not even a cool-can’t-explain-it-because-it-was-so-beautiful in the dream but an ugly wall mural type leaf. Filled in solid light purple. I woke up in a sweat and was relieved when I looked in the mirror in the morning. I still shudder when I think of the leaf on my face.  Another time, I dreamt I had a snake tattooed on the entire length of my arm. Sheesh.  Panic-city when I woke up.  Real tattooing is not for me. I’ll appreciate them from afar and think about the other ways I’m tattooed by my family and write about it.

I’ll stick to collecting antiques too.

Mom is bananas about all four of her grandkids and given that I probably won’t have children of my own, they are like my own. (I was at the birth for two of them.) I wonder as generations of our family die, who of the young cousins and nieces and nephews will be interested to stay in touch with their heritage?

This tattoo gives me hope that the future is not without the root.

Seems kinda heavy to say to Emily, so I will just say it looks cool and that I loved the beautiful script, as I secretly analyze metaphors and extrapolate the largeness of this act, ponder its implications for generations and appreciate its poetic muscle.

 

 

Wesołych Świąt Wielkanocnych

Happy Easter!

 

 

If Time is a Revelator, What is Distance?

Mom on her boat to the USA

How the journey began.


The words came out fast.  Too fast. 

Mom, Ciocia Genia had a stroke.

This would be mom’s other living sister. The one in Lithuania. The one she hasn’t seen since 1997. The one she hadn’t seen since 1984 before that. The one who calls at Christmas and cries with them. The one that looks most like Babcia, my grandmother. The one I recently saw black and white photos of when she was young and said, ‘WOW! What a looker.’

Ingrid Bergman came to mind.

I always thought I will see her again. Mom choked.

Mom! She’s not dead yet. Don’t worry you’ll see her.

(That’s some Massachusetts comfort right there. Straight-up.)

I know there are immigrants who come to this country and visit their homeland every year.  I know some who have never been back. As an American, it seems easy to ask, Why don’t you just visit? I can tell you that it is a very complicated answer that starts with, “I wish…”

*

I wish I had softened my words some. Mom’s silence let me know that the news was a shock. I thought about how readily I told her. Perhaps, unknowingly, I had punctured the place that exists between her old life and her life now.  In the old days, she would have eventually received an airmail letter. News would have been old. The recovery would have already happened. She could feel sick for a moment and when the worry made her stare out the kitchen window and watch the birds pecking at seeds, she would remind herself that this was all past tense. Everything’s okay.  “Thanks God.”

Now she anxiously waits for more news.  We’re in the moment. We know Ciocia Genia’s in rehab. She’s praying for her sister. I don’t even need to be told.

Is distance both the pain and comfort for an immigrant? Is longing a cradle?

This is how it was for decades. But the phone and the internet have changed that. There was a time my relatives in Poland and Lithuania didn’t have phones. Calls to the USA were from Telecom booths.  Precious and expensive minutes were spent listening to each other’s voices echo; a gift to the ear.

Now cousins have cell phones and Skype.  We’re directly plugged-in, well, at least I am. Mom still approaches these mediums as if she is being led onto an alien space ship with reluctance and awe. Last Christmas, we Skyped with her late brother’s daughter. She seemed nervous. Excited.

Click twice. Your niece will appear on the screen in moments. Talk as long as you want. It’s free. Really.

Click twice. To lift an immigrant veil 48 years in the making.

Click twice. To listen to your heart pound and wonder what to say to the face looking straight at you.

How does this immediacy feel to a woman who journeyed from Poland at age 26 on a 12-passenger freight ship, sailing toward a country whose language she did not know? Whose main connection back home over the years was a hand-written letter?

She doesn’t think about these things, but I do. I’m constantly striving to bridge the gap between these two worlds. I don’t know where this comes from. I only know I have a compulsion to do it. Look how easy it is now, I want to say. Look how easy it is to go back.

*

I think about delicate air mail paper, thin enough for tracing, and how it held longing, sadness and joy. Letters could be picked up, read again, talked about at length over percolated coffee. It allowed news to settle for a life in two places.

I think about the thoughtful way Mom approaches a phone call. The way she looks for her metal address book, puts on her glasses and sits on the couch with the cordless phone, punching in numbers like she’s launching the Space Shuttle.

I’m all speed-dial. Mom uses a calling card.

Twice last year, she misdialed when calling Poland and wound up with a $90 phone bill she wanted to dispute.  It took two conversations with me and my brother Adam to convince her that the calling card wasn’t faulty and Verizon wasn’t to blame. It’s likely she didn’t press all of the numbers correctly or as we suspected put them in at all.  These things, they get confusing.

Still, I know Mom appreciates the technology when we bring it to her: Email, Skype, Facebook. She’s happy. Eager. I know she’s hungry for the wiadomości, news. Thankful when cousins and nieces write to me via “computer”.  I read the emails to her in Polish. I’m slow, but understandable. When I stumble on a word or two, she corrects me. She listens.  It’s a good thing I can read in Polish, I tell her–looking for a scratch behind the ear.

This is how we do it now. This is what I’ve grown into.

I am the intermediary. The buffer. The hooker-upper. The one facilitating the modern connections. I wonder if that makes the immediacy of connecting with the past possible or bearable, like looking at an eclipse indirectly.

 

 

 

 

Time to Make the Pierogis.

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The Pierogi-making morning started with a fight. Not so much fight as an agitation. It was like I woke up in a military barracks with the General– Mom’s voice, a trumpet on the other end of the phone. After the pleasantries of my arrival (my flight was delayed until 2am and I stayed at my brother’s house) mom got right to the point.

“We wait for you. You wanted to make Pierogi.”

“Yeah, Mom I do. FRIDAY! I told Ciocia FRIDAY. Today is THURSDAY.”

“Well, Ciocia ready NOW.”

“NOW?!”

“Yesss. Now.”

Call of duty.

That’s how it is around the house. I should have known my Friday appointment wouldn’t hold. In the past, my mother and aunt have laughed themselves into fits when I’ve mentioned the word, ‘appointment.’ “Felicia” my mother gasped for air, mid-belly laugh, “She wanna make an appointment.” Mom bobbled her head back and forth and pursed her lips. Her hand flopped like a Hollywood starlet.

It was the same thing this time around. I’ve learned that appointments feel contrived to Mom and Ciocia. I think they appreciate organic evolvements to the day. Unexpected events have room to play out. Appointments are road blocks to their flow.  A down-right pain in the butt, like the Doctor appointments they hate going to.

I grumbled, but headed over to my parents’ house immediately.

I walked through the door and Ciocia was pounding the marble rolling pin against the dough.

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We bickered over Thursday vs. Friday. My sleeping in.

“My flight got in at 2 am.”

“So what.” Ciocia offered, not looking up. The rolling pin slimmed out the thick circle of dough.

This was my welcome home moment: Scrub up. Get to work.

weeeeee!

weeeeee!

 

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Kapusta (sauerkraut) stuffing

 

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The first…in seconds.

 

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And then there were more….

 

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Can you tell which one was my first?

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If Ciocia says it’s time to make the Pierogis, it’s time to make the Pierogis.

So much for setting up a video camera, getting out my notebook and writing out the recipe in careful script. I grabbed a thin notepad from the dry sink and a crappy pencil that looked sharpened by a handsaw. I put on the kettle. Breakfast had to wait. We got into the flow. I fussed with sealing the Pierogis. Ciocia and Mom made three to my one.  The table filled up.

The dough, cheese and potato and sauerkraut fillings were made before I got there.

“Ciocia, how many cups of flour and water for the dough?”

In Polish she answered, I don’t measure for cups. I pour.

I wrote down her words in badly mangled Polish, as if I were jotting down a measurement.  I phonetically spelled some words, and easily wrote others.  I have to work at spelling in Polish despite understanding her perfectly. It’s strange to know different aspects of a language but not have absolute mastery. The non-measurements tripped me up. Mom suggested I use a Pierogi recipe from a cookbook.

“I don’t want the book recipe. I want your recipe. Big difference.”

“First use recipe from book. You get used to it. Then you can make you own recipe.”

Hm. That didn’t sound like such a bad idea.

Mom, how much water in the pot when you drop the Pierogi in?

Tyle żeby tanczyli.” Enough so they dance.

dancing pierogi

dancing pierogi

That was the stuff I waited for, the most important secrets to a recipe. Like knowing the Campbell’s Soup can makes for a better dough cutter then the $3 jaggedy teeth pastry cutter or that you have to keep flour on your fingers at all times or else the dough seams won’t seal up or that it’s good to let the Farmer’s cheese dry out a bit on the counter so it makes for a stickier filling. Despite things not quite happening like I imagined- orderly, on my time schedule, with things layed out in a chronological sequence, so that I could record everything, it happened just as it should. What would family memories be without a little chaos and bickering? Especially when it ends with some good laughs.

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simple is better.

We were just about finished when Ciocia said “Ciekawa jestem co na General Hospital.” I wonder what’s on General Hospital.

Hell or high water, they watch their General Hospital.

Mom concerned

Mom concerned

She went on to tell me that the character Robin has been locked up and wondered if someone would find her. Mom shuffled into the living room and went back to the stove.  “Tylko Sonny i Karli.” It’s only Sonny and Karli, she reported.

Ciocia was unmoved. “Maybe Friday, they show.” She’s on to the daytime drama cliffhangers. Nothing juicy, until the end of the week. We scrapped the last of the filling out of the bowl. A near perfect ratio of dough to filling.

I felt accomplished.

I lay down near the Christmas tree, and draped my arm over my eyes, a hardwood floor never felt so good.

“My back’s killin’ me.” I moaned.

I partially lifted my arm off my eyes and felt the laughter seize my ribs. I waited for someone to throw a pillow at me or swat me with a broom.

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Wesołych Świąt

 

 

 

A New Take on Stolen

Not Ciocia’s pumpkin

A conversation with Mom last week over the phone.

 

“Ciocia bought the most beautiful pumpkin. Heavy. She bought it for seven bucks. You couldn’t lift it,” mom said.

“Oh yeah?”

“So beautiful.  She put it on the front step. Yesterday, I came out into the front and I knew something was difference. Then I think, the pumpkin is gone. Someone stole!”

“Ooooo. I’m sorry mom, that stinks. Must have been some kids.”

“Teenagers,” she said.

“Probably,” I said.

“They probably took and gave to their girlfriend and say, ‘Here is a big pumpkin.’

Why you laugh? Teenagers don’t have money and they want to give their girlfriend a pumpkin.”

“Mom, teenagers like to smash pumpkins.”

“No smash. They take the pumpkin.”

She repeated herself to make sure I understood.

“This very nice pumpkin. You can’t find one like that.” she added

Mom’s idea was like a time travel machine bringing me to a lost world. Sometimes I’m surprised by what wholesome views remain intact for my parents.  Like the time, I complained to Dad it was hard to meet anybody to date and he asked, “What about church picnics?”

I tried to erase the image of punks drop-kicking the pumpkin and replaced it with something more humane: A teen aged boy with long bangs brought his BMX to a halt when he spied the pumpkin on the front stoop.  He sighed and whispered his girlfriend’s name. He knew he couldn’t balance it on his handle bars, so came back on foot and stole in the name of love.

Not a bad way to picture being ripped off.

“Maybe you should put a skull out there next time,” I said.

“Yeah maybe.”

“Okay my phone is peep peep peeping.” (Mom’s way of saying the phone is about to lose charge.)

“Tell Ciocia and Dad I love them.”

“Okay I will. Next time I’ll use the better phone.”

Next time, I thought, I won’t imagine the worst.

 ***

 

For those of you who didn’t see my Facebook posting a few weeks ago…. Here is a picture of the Bigos I made!

Clap your hands. I’m officially Polish.

Cabbage Proclamations and the Slow-Burn of Tolstoy

The cabbage that made me patriotic.

 

My friend hadn’t used up her box of Co-op veggies this week, so upon leaving town for ten days she texted me.

“Do you want some veggies?”

Who am I to turn down organic farm veggies for free? Of course I want them. I drove to her house.  My iron and calcium levels got higher looking at all of the greens spilling from her fridge.

“You don’t have to take anything you don’t want.”

I filled three grocery bags. I even included the celery root that took a few minutes of sniffing to identify.

“How ‘bout a cabbage?” Jen asked, “Can you cook a cabbage?”

I looked at the bowling ball sized head and couldn’t say no to it. I couldn’t bring myself to close the fridge door on its tightly wrapped face. It would have been unpatriotic.

“I’m a Polish girl. I should know how to cook a cabbage. Give it to me.” I took the cabbage and plunked it into the grocery bag “I’ll figure something out.”

Two things crossed my mind. 1) I need to call Mom   2) Is this cabbage proclamation going to end up like my Anna Karenina promise?  I’m on page twenty-two of eight hundred and seventeen since August and managed to read two other books in place of moving on to page twenty-three. It’s a slow-burn with the Russian novel, what can I say? It’s a workout.

Anna Karenina. Yoga Block.

when you’re in a pinch.

So is cooking. I have never made Bigos or Golumbki’s by myself. Sure, I’ve been in the kitchen and given a stir or stuffed a cabbage leaf to bring a smile to my mom or Ciocia’s face. But in charge of the alchemy that makes cabbage taste divine? Never.

Let’s face it, making cabbage taste great is a little like trusting stone soup will have flavor.  Yet somehow all the great Polish ladies of my life have made it so. Plus there’s bacon fat to thank.

I’m convinced that the tastiness of Bigos is in direct ratio with the age of the person making it and the amount of kielbasa and bacon in it. It’s the Golden Mean of cabbage making.

I’ve been eager to learn how to cook Polish food over the years, but it takes a kind patience and desire to really make those moments happen. All too often, I’m in a rush when I visit home for the holidays and sleep in late only to be woken up by the smell of frying onions to know the cooking went on without me. Another opportunity missed. Mom and Ciocia have made so many mouthwatering batches over the years.

In my teenage years, I recall my brother’s friends walking into the house, “Mrs. Matusiak do you have any Polish food?”  They scanned the stove top for pots or the counter for aluminum wrapped pans, the way others looked for potato chips.

People started requesting Mom and Ciocia’s cabbage stew at cookouts. Nevermind Hot Doggy or Hot Dogzi, as my mom liked to call them. Cabbage Stew was a 4th of July favorite. Talk about smug Polish ladies.

The way to their hearts was through your own stomach. It is a magic to be learned.

So what could I possibly know about making cabbage flavorful, hearty and a family crowd pleaser like my mom and aunt?  Next to nothing. I’m not sure I can even shred the damn thing for the right consistency. But I have to get my hands on it and try.

I don’t want to circle around a pile of cabbages in the store and think I should know how to cook you.  

 

 

 

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.