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.

 

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…

For the Love of Words

As my mom likes to say, after 40 years of being in the country, “I don’t know English and I forgot how to speak Polish.” My parents’ first language is Polish but they also speak English at home.  As with most immigrants, my parents eventually spliced both languages to create a third.  So I grew up translating both.  I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that I developed a love for words.

 One time I was sitting with my mother watching a TV show about a blind man who summited Mount Everest.  His tragic and triumphant story unfolded before us.  My mother and I both had tears trailing down our faces. She turned to me, dabbed her runny nose with the balled up paper towel from her finished apple and said, “Can you amazing?”

 I laughed and said, “You mean, imagine.”

 My mother had already turned her attention back to the TV. Since then, I’ve often tossed that phrase around in my mind. I got the feeling that my mother had somehow captured a deeper understanding. Of course, I thought she meant to say imagine, but perhaps in her back and forth of searching for the right word to translate, she came up with a better one.  Could I amazing? I could. I really could, because if you are thinking about a blind man summiting Everest you’ve got to do more than imagine.

 Translating words back and forth from Polish to English has always offered me a way to peek in to a richer world.  When something is lost in translation, I think it’s because the value of a word cannot be calculated to its fullest to a non-native speaker. Too many nuances of tone and meaning are lost when the translation is direct. Bouncing between two languages is like being able to see a canvas instead of a thread.

Take for example the phrase, ‘of course’ in English. It’s not a particularly exciting phrase. In Polish, oczywiście means ‘of course or obviously’. When I say the Polish word, I associate other Polish words with it. It’s like they are all holding hands. The sounds or roots of other words float in my mind and paint a more colorful and layered patchwork of meaning for me. Anyone who speaks another language will know exactly what I am talking about. (I want to hear about your favorite words that sound beautiful in your head when you translate them. Please leave me a comment if you have one.) For me, Oczywiście conjures up the words eyes (oczy) and to see (widzieć)- as if to say, “eye’s view”. For me it’s like saying I see it, therefore it must be true.  In other words, obviously.

 I like layered meanings, more poetic.

First or Second Generation?

Search Result

first-gen•er•a•tion
adj. 
Designating the first of a generation to become a citizen in a new country
Designating the first of a generation to be born in a country of parents who had immigrated
– a first-generation Canadian whose parents were born on a farm in Vietnam
Designating the first version of a type made available
– first-generation descrambler technology

sec•ond-gen•er•a•tion
adj.
1. Of or relating to a person or persons whose parents are immigrants.
2. Of or relating to a person or persons whose parents are citizens by birth and whose grandparents are immigrants.
3. Of, relating to, or being the second form or version available to users: a second-generation Web browser.
________________________________________

I had to look up a definition of myself.

First-generation. That’s what I’ve always called myself. But recently I questioned if I was misusing the term. I remember telling a new acquaintance that I was Polish American.

“Oh so your great-grandparents came over?” she said.
“No, my parents.” I responded.
“So your grandparents came on the boat.” She replied.
“No, my parents did. Well, mom via freight boat. Dad came on Pan Am two years later.” I said.
“So you’re Second Generation.” She concluded.

I became puzzled. Was I first-generation or second-generation? My parents arrived in the United States as adults in the mid1960s. My two older brothers and I were born in the United States and grew up bi-lingual and bi-cultural. Was I naively calling myself one thing, when I was actually another? I had to look it up. This was the first time I had to look something up about myself that I didn’t intrinsically know. Who was I telling people I was? And why was it becoming more important for me?

I guess up until that moment, I hadn’t noted the importance of defining it. I’ve always considered myself first-generation because my brothers and I were the first-generation born in the United States. That makes perfect sense to me. After some research I discovered that technically, my parents, my brothers and I can all refer to ourselves as first-generation. We all share the same definition. At the same time my siblings and I can also jump tracks and be called second-generation too. But who wants to be second in anything? I hereby, proclaim myself as first-generation.

It’s important for me to know so that I am conscious of how closely woven my parents’ past is to my present life. As a child, trying to understand the duality of cultures was like trying to look down at my own nose. The more I understand what defined my parents, the more I understand myself. During a writing workshop two years ago, a teacher assigned us the task of writing our life memoir in only six words.

I wrote: Could have been born in Poland.

Every once in a while that fact floors me.