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.

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.

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.

Things You See and Can’t See in a Picture


I love this picture. Me and my brothers: Poland, 1976, Wroclaw Zoo.

Johnny is on the left with his European man bag. Adam on the right with his 3 tone flare jeans that would have made any Bee Gee jealous. Neither carried this through in their adult life except for maybe when Adam spent $60 (could have it been closer to $100?) on a pair of parachute pants with all its zig zaggy zippers in the early 80s. My mother stroked out in the kitchen from price shock. I love the way the picture is cut off right at John’s bowl-cut hairline. It was the same kind of straight.  John turned out to be more the Hulk pants wearing type than one to don a satchel. I’m in the white and red dress, age 3, in my mother’s favorite color scheme: The Polish National Flag.

Other than beige, this was my mother’s favorite color combination that added pride or umph to any celebration like the time our Christmas tree was decorated in white lights and all red ornaments in the 80s. I remember how dazzled my mom’s eyes looked when she plugged in the Christmas lights. Her eyes so deeply absorbed in the tree, it was if she was seeing something I could not see.

I wonder if she was homesick.

In later years, when my Dad passed me a twenty dollar bill and asked me to pop into Wood Bros. Flowers, I knew what he wanted: white and red Carnations for Mom. My mother loved carnations. Perhaps more so than expensive roses that might too easily disappoint with drooping buds and whose full glory of bloom depended too much on chance. Carnations on the other hand lasted forever. Although when there were times a garden rose made it to the kitchen table and unfurled its many fragrant layers, she would cup it in her hands like the face of a small child and say in Polish, Look!

These are things that run through my mind when I look at this picture.

That and what I would come to know years later, that we were back in Poland because my Dad became increasingly sick. A kind of sick Doctors still didn’t have tests for. One with no medicine. A kind of sick that would likely involve paralysis and make my Dad unable to walk. The US doctors said it was Multiple Sclerosis.

They went back to their own country to hear it in their own language. My Dad was 35, Mom 38.

I look at this picture and think about where our minds were; for us, probably nothing more than the zoo. My brothers proudly sported their new gold watches and I felt the bounce of air from a twirling dress and knee highs, our backs to the giraffes, tired from our day. For my parents, it was something else entirely.

So much lay ahead for all of us.

But here we were. Relaxed. Waiting. In it together.

The Asking and the Doing

There is always something that needs to be installed, fixed, filled out, moved, hauled, or arranged at my parents’ house. I grit my teeth. I roll my eyes. I help. I proclaim lack of skill. Can’t (insert brother’s name) do it? I do what I can, sometimes it’s a quick and happy fix, other times the task is so tedious I dread having to do it, like reading and translating medical insurance manuals.

And it never fails, I will have one foot out the door and my Dad will call my name.

“Yeah Dad?”

“I was hoping you could install the thermometer outside.”


“Well…oh skip it,” his gentle voice trails off.

I let go of the door handle and think for a minute.

“Can I do it when I get back?”

“Okay. I don’t wanna bother you.”

“I promise Dad, I’ll do it when I get back.”

“Do you have enough Petrol in the car?”

“Yeah I do. Thanks Pops.”

I think he asked about the thermometer a dozen times before that. It seems like such a small thing to get around to since they already have one in the kitchen. This one is for the bedroom window. Dad likes to know the temperature inside and outside. With his paralysis from MS, it’s a connection to the outside elements.

I get back from my errand and listen to his plan. I try to convince him that tiny sensor cord (digital) can get “a little smushed” between the window pane and the sill.

He doesn’t like this idea. I should know better than to think “a little smushed” would suffice. He proposes that I drill a small hole into the metal frame work of the window and thread the sensor through.

“Dad, that’s too complicated. I’d have to borrow a drill.”

I go outside to see what I’m dealing with. We talk back and forth and settle on nestling the thermometer in between the windows. I don’t have to drill. The cord does not need to be pinched.

He tilts his head right and left.

“Very nice. Thank you.”

For all the untimely requests, boring insurance literature to read through, phone calls to make, thermometers to install, I get the glimmer of the gift now: The asking and the doing.

It’s what captures time in a net.

Innocence Revisited


When do you grow up according to your parents? Maybe never.  When I go home to visit, I find I’m 16 again, even though I’m approaching 40.  High school revisited.

But this now, what was then?

The start of maturity can be awkward.

In high school all the girls I knew shopped at Victoria’s Secrets.  Buying expensive underwear was like announcing you were President of your own fan club.  And in high school, you know how important that is…My mother didn’t quite understand the lure of paying 3 times the amount for a pair of cotton underwear with the store name written around and around on the elastic waistband.

“But Mom,” I argued, “It’s a NAME BRAND.”

“Who cares?” she replied, “Who’s going to be looking at your Gloria’s Secret?”


“Oh. Victoria’s”

That winter I came home with a life-size Christmas stocking that my boyfriend filled with every imaginable present I could want. This was the stocking of all stockings!   It included one of my most favorite gifts ever given to me- a pair of Reebok sneakers.  My favorite, because he knew I wanted a pair. My favorite, because he got my size right without asking. What can I say about these practical sneakers except that I felt loved. I re-opened every goodie box to show my mom his generosity.

In my haste and excitement, I opened the Victoria Secret’s box too. “And he got me this…” I said, pulling out the see-through peach lace bodysuit.

 I held it up and I looked at my mother through it.

Me looking at my mother. My mother looking at me.

Both of us just blinking.

Tactical Operations

Brigadier General Ciocia Felicia is an expert in tactical operations involving basement mice, squirrels eating bird food and woodchuck infiltration. No rodent too big. No rodent too smart. She will find its weakness. She will persist.

I bought my father a birdfeeder for Christmas a few years back for the new ranch house they bought. In the winter, it replaces the potted plant that hangs on a free-standing hooked stake in the backyard.

“Give the poor birds some food, will you?” Dad said when it was running low and I was over for a visit. I followed the narrow footpath in the snow and poured the seeds from the top until they gently started to spill over the lip. As soon as I left, a squirrel started pecking at the seeds that had fallen to the ground. Within minutes, it had shimmied up the pole and then hung upside down on the hook like a miniature acrobat. It swung towards the birdfeeder and knocked the seeds onto the ground.

Taking in the scene through the kitchen table window, Ciocia muttered, Skurczy Byk! Shriveled Bull! Not a swear word exactly, but not a phrase for polite company either. It can also be translated as Crouching Bull! Either way, I think you know what you could insert there in English.

The squirrel came back again and again. It was the same one. We knew that because it had an unusual white tipped tail. 

Also not their actual squirrel


The window banging started again.

“Can we try to act a little normal in this house?” I asked. Dad shrugged his shoulders and continued to read the paper.

When I came back home the next time, I heard about Felicia’s offensive.

She greased the base of the hook with Olive oil. I imagine that she stood by the window like a patient sniper waiting for her target to approach. And because the story was recounted so many times, I can tell you that the little fury acrobat started up with gusto and then promptly slid down the pole.

In my mind there were sound effects.

On the scoreboard of Ciocia vs. squirrel, she finally scored one for the team. Then I think the squirrel bought some Isotoner gloves because it managed to grip its way back up the pole again.

So our #1 Rodent General took the birdfeeder off the hook and ran a thin thread between the hook and the small flowering tree. The feeder bowed slightly in between. Ciocia was convinced this was better because she had picked an especially strong but thin thread. A thread that was too thin for the squirrel’s body to balance on. That turned out to be true, but the squirrel realized that instead of trying to walk on the line, it would flip upside down and grip the line from underneath like some scene from Mission Impossible.

It got to the seed again. Felicia got back to planning again.

This is the little dance that goes on between them.

Why bring up the woodchuck and squirrel stories? Because it occurred to me that this is what we must do.

You have to die trying.

Operation Scare the Woodchuck

A refresher for those of you just tuning in: Ciocia means Auntie in Polish. It’s pronounced Chuh-Chuh. My sister-in-law, in the family for 18 years, was so dreadfully afraid she was mispronouncing it like Spanish swear word that she refrained from using it. She just mastered it a few years ago. So don’t worry, you still have time to practice.


This is the view outside the kitchen table window where my parents and Ciocia Felicia (she lives with them by the way) enjoy the backyard view. The window also serves as an observation tower from which they strategically plot against two enemies: the squirrels and the woodchucks.

My family members are live and let live people but when the squirrels started eating the bird seed in the winter and the woodchucks decimated Ciocia’s tomato plants in the summer, lines were drawn. Mom and Ciocia began their daily surveillance. This involved mid-sweep pauses as they cleaned the kitchen to watch for movement outside the window. If they had access to infrared goggles, there would have been a night shift.

not their actual woodchuck

During the day, Mom kept one eye out over the sink window while she washed dishes. If she noticed a woodchuck she’d plunk the dish down and start muttering things that shouldn’t be repeated. Felicia would already be slipping on her flip flops to run outside. I think she was hoping for some hand to hand combat to settle this once and for all. After all, they ate all her tomatoes that year.

When Mom and Ciocia realized that the woodchucks had an acute sense of hearing, they started banging on the windows. It saved them from running outside each time they appeared. That got old pretty fast. When the banging stopped scaring the woodchucks off, Mom and Ciocia started making their own sounds to make things louder.

To an outsider, it may have looked like my mom and Ciocia were trying to be let out of their own house.

The woodchucks started multiplying. Started getting bolder. One blatantly sunned itself on the stone wall. It was all my mom could take.
They started going back outside to scare them.

And then…

My mom started barking.

Let me just say, that pretending to bark in Polish sounds different than in English. If you don’t believe me make your bark sound right now and then tap the next foreign person you meet and ask them to bark for you. I’m just saying. It is its own translation. My mother’s sounds something like a cross between a lonely wolf and someone walking on hot coals.

Her barking had no effect on our pudgy brown woodchucks at first. So she persisted barking in the back yard louder and louder. Until the next door neighbor who had been sitting on his back deck, stood up and looked over the tall hedge separating the yard and said,
“Everything okay Halina?”

My mother laughed so hard when she told us, she moved herself into a coughing fit.

“Oh my god Mom, did you tell him why you were out there?” I asked, wondering if I should start wearing a hat and dark sunglasses when I drove onto their street.

“I tell him. We havin’ good laugh.”

The barking stopped because the have-a-heart-traps came in…and eventually foxes.

When winter came and the squirrels moved in on the bird feeder, that’s when Brigadier General Ciocia Felicia really started proving her mettle.
To be Continued…