Home Is Where the Objects Are

Yes, home is where the heart is but more so, home is where the objects are. Take any one of these items out of my parents’ house and put them and me in the jungle in Borneo and I would cry ‘Home!’

Exhibit A

The Glass Percolator: It replaced the other glass percolator that cracked when Ciocia Felicia left it on the burner and got distracted in the cellar. The broken one had been a replacement for the two other burned out metal tea kettles before it.
      *I have burned through one tea pot so far. Is this genetic?    

 

Exhibit B

Dad’s Mug – Perhaps the most sacred dishware in the house. No one can say exactly when Dad starting using it, only that it has surpassed 30 years for certain, if not more. Many have let out a gasp letting it slip from their hands into the sink and sometimes the floor, yet it remains whole. I fear that my Dad will give up drinking coffee and tea altogether if it breaks.
He claims this one holds the heat.

 

Exhibit C

The Stray Paper Towel – A gently used paper towel left on the counter for second use. This used to drive me crazy, until I found myself doing it recently too. Just like freezing bread and burning through tea pots, I am genetically programmed to saving a stray paper towel. Said paper towel is usuallysharing counter space near an apple, tomato or onion.

 

Exhibit D     

THE TV

 
Either on loud or not at all

• Home Shopping Network- My mother and Ciocia Fela cannot get enough of the jewelry. Hours of it. If Home Shopping Network is crack then Mom and Ciocia like to free-base.

• The Spanish Channel- watched most by Ciocia who speaks the least English in the house. When I pointed out that she doesn’t speak Spanish she shrugged and said, “They sing nice.”
     *I watched a little bit of Bourne Identity on the Telemundo channel the other day and thought her.

 

 

Exhibit E


The Thermometer– So vital to the house’s bio dome operations, we have two of them, one outside and one inside. I don’t know why, but like wanting to have our clocks set to Greenwich Mean Time, my father needs to know the temperature.

 When I visit my parents, I expect to see these things. Though I wonder if the percolator’s days are numbered. While it’s my family I come home to visit, these objects let me know I’m home.

Special Thanks to my brother Adam who went on a mission to my parents house yesterday morning to take some photos for me. It was good for me that it was a too windy fishing day for him.

“Ma, sit down!”

If it wasn't so late I would photoshop my mother and Ciocia Felicia's faces over Laurel and Hardy.

My mother would coal mine if you gave her a pickaxe. Actually, she owns a pickaxe. Probably, the only thing stopping her from coal mining is not having an elevator shaft to bring her a mile below the kitchen floor. My mom is not afraid of hard work and she has the hands to show for it.

In my imaginary mineshaft, I picture her doing a little vacuuming and bringing the miners some ham sandwiches before she picks a good spot in the solid earth and chips away. Black lung, be damned.

I have seen her in action with the pickaxe. Not coal mining, but digging up a gigantic tree root and stump in the backyard with Ciocia Felicia. Did I mention that they both have heart conditions and at the time were in their 60s and 70’s respectively? Snow shoveling is also high on their list of fun and relaxing activities. There is particular tell all excitement in the house afterward if the snow was wet and heavy. Even when my brother hired a snowplow to come and take care of the driveway, my mother grew impatient waiting one morning and shoveled anyway.

I’m always trying to get my mom to relax.

“Do you always have to work so hard?” I ask.
“Yes.” She nods.

We have tried to pamper her, usually against her will. Like the time we brought her in for a French manicure for my brother’s wedding: our great idea.

“How people work like this?” she said, tapping the acrylic white tips of her fingers on the counter. She grabbed things like she didn’t have opposable thumbs. So much for future manicures for Christmas.

“Ma, you need to relax.” I say.
“Relax?” she repeats, as if I just spoke in Mandarin.
“I take nap.”
“A NAP! You need a vacation. A massage. Go out to a restaurant!” I plead.
“I am not that kind of people.” She replies.

And I realize I am that kind of people. Stress? Rewards. Working hard? Rewards. Things go my way? Rewards. Things go badly? Rewards. This seems like a fine way to live if you ask me. After all, life can be long and more so, too short.

Lawrence Welk: My Baby Aspirin, My Sedation

I watched The Lawrence Welk Show with my parents when TV’s still had legs and a knob to walk up to. (Insert loud Godzilla sounds and gnashing teeth here.) My brothers and I used to annoy my father by twisting the channel dial as if we were trying to spin a top. Tickticktick. Tickticktick. I’m not so sure what we were hoping to accomplish with the speed of the rotation with only three channels at our disposal, but we made it our job.I think this may have increased my father’s smoking at the time. His Marlboro’s were on the maroon velvet arm rest, with the orange plastic ashtray balanced carefully on the wooden edge extension. When I was 6th grade and he was in the midst of quitting, my mother often came down stairs in her nightgown and stood at the living room door sniffing, eyes in a squint.

But I digress. The Lawrence Welk Show was quiet time. Just out of the bath time. Family time without vocabulary to define it as such. The Johnson and Johnson’s baby shampoo scent sprang from my brushed-out hair like the potted lilies we had in the kitchen at Easter. When I wasn’t getting my hair coiled in pin curls, I was lying on the scratchy carpet and letting out a once a year scream when I saw a silver millipede scuttle across the room. “It came from the cellar!” I would scream and felt even more reasons to love my footie pajamas.

By the time I was in high school, my parents would be in the kitchen instead of in front of the TV. Pots slid over the electric burners, tea cups hit saucers and spoons caressed the edges of porcelain cups. Their voices were a quiet murmur. I would fall asleep on the sofa. Lawrence Welk on the TV. I feigned indifference to dinner, to the TV as I felt the blanket over the back of the couch get pulled over on me.

I can’t ever remember a time when Lawrence Welk was not on my parents TV. It has been on forever. Even now in 2011, I can still walk into their house and watch an old episode. It’s usually part of some PBS telethon and my mother will take a moment to shush me when I’m in the middle of talking over a Lennon Sisters number. She still says’ Champagne Lady’ in a tone like she’s referring to someone from the Royal Family. She can tell me which Welk Show artists are dead, divorced, remarried, and whose off-spring has gone into the business. All with a little sigh like she’s telling me- look what time did. I can hardly keep track. I only remember Lawrence, Joe Feeney, Myron the accordion guy, the Lennon Sisters, the Champagne Lady and the guy who inspired me to take Tap Dance. Who can forget the mustard polyester, powder blue floor length gowns and Geritol?

I realized when I had the bubonic plague last year, and lay dying on my couch alone, I stumbled across The Lawrence Welk Show. I said Ohmygod out loud and put the volume at the perfect level for someone suffering and fell deep into a comforting sleep.

It’s like I could still hear the dishes, the spoons swirling. The murmuring.

(special thanks to tvcollector71 on youtube from whom I borrowed this link. Check out his other great LWS clips.)

Don’t Try This at Home

Ciocia Felicia showing off freshly picked mushrooms

No Polish family is complete without an aunt who means business.  Ciocia (pronounced Chuh-Chuh) means Aunt in Polish. Meet Ciocia Felicia: seamstress, wild mushroom picker and lover of big eye-glasses. She also has an affinity for picking lucky scratch tickets too, but I’ll save that for another post.

Ciocia relaxing in her J-Lo glasses

 Ciocia likes to pick mushrooms and I don’t mean the kind in the bin at Market Basket. She likes to go to a public park or will duck into some wooded areas in the neighborhood when she senses a good spot. With plastic shopping bag scrunched up in her hand, she’ll disappear into the woods. This might not be strange to those living on a farm in the country in Poland but I grew up in a mill city in Massachusetts.

Not exactly a detail I readily shared in the hallways at school, at first, because it didn’t seem unusual. There were always other Polish families who sat in our kitchen and talked about mushrooms popping up in surprising abundance or shook their heads to confirm their lack of presence while coffee percolated and my mother served open-faced ham sandwiches and plates of tomatoes with minced onions on top.

By the time high school rolled around, picking wild mushrooms seemed like an ancient past time that I wanted to run far away from, lest someone should think I wasn’t cool. I likened it to the time in 2nd grade when I wore my gym uniform Polish eagle t-shirt to the roller rink and my brother said, “Get away from me!” as he ran-skated ahead. So I devoted my time to what other kids were doing in high school, acknowledging my superior intelligence over my parents, saving up for my first bottle of Calvin Klein Eternity perfume, and getting into cars with boys who already knew how to drive.

Recently when I was home for the summer, Ciocia came home with a plastic bag full of mushrooms.

bag of mushrooms

“How do you know? Could be poison.” I asked.
“Jannett,” she replied in Polish with a voice similar to the one she used when I skipped church,” I was born among mushrooms.”

As a kid, I remembered how she and my mother dried them. The mushrooms shriveled and turned into paper-light buttons and half-moons that rattled in a brown paper lunch bag. That bag hovered around in the cabinet on top of the Kool-Aid container that my brothers and I pulled off the shelf a hundred times a day. The mushroom bag was always in the way. It was pulled out and then stuffed back in so many times, the outside of the bag became soft and worn and the fibers of the paper stood up like soft hairs. Sometimes I would open the bag and take a sniff of the deep musky aroma. I’d close it back up and upon not finding any Ritz crackers or Cheese-Whiz would close the cabinet and proclaim that there was nothing to eat in the house.

would I have picked this one?

I wonder if I could learn how to identify the good mushrooms from the poisonous ones. But I came back to a familiar whirl pool- like when I asked for the recipe for Pierogis and my mother and Ciocia laughed and said, “No recipe. You watch.” I remember I asked, ‘How much water, mom?’ She repeated the question to herself and then with her finger showed me a nick in the bowl and said, “Up to here. “ Great. I can make pierogis if I have YOUR bowl. I figured learning how to identify wild mushrooms was going to require the same kind of apprenticeship. An apprenticeship I feel about twenty five years too late for.

Does Mother Know Best?

My mother is the kind of person who equates walking in parking lots and driving on highways at night with Russian roulette. Every once in a while she gets a superstitious sense that I am doing one or both. I picture her, one hand pressed against her face in worry as she walks by the Pope’s picture in the kitchen. The dried palm leaves jet out from behind the lip of the frame almost touching the phone. She looks at the piece of paper on the fridge where I wrote my cell phone number, squints and punches the buttons on the phone like she’s annoyed at negotiating and calls me.

“Where you are?”

“I’m just leaving the parking lot at Target.”

“Why you shopping late! Do you hear about the woman?”

“No Ma. What woman?”

“Why you no watch the news?”

“Ma, have you been watching 48Hours again? I’m fine.”

She gets all wound up watching murder mystery shows. So while I try to keep her anxiety at bay, I take care to look behind my seat. Occasionally I pause and take into account my mother’s I-told-you-so-track-record. I have put my money down on the wrong horse before. It creeps into my mind that she’s been right about other things in my life more than I can count. Which leads me to sometimes wonder how much to pay attention to my mother’s advice?

Things Mom was right about:

1.) My savings account

2.) Losing weight after 30

3.) clothes with dry clean only tags should be avoided

4.) It’s not the worst thing that could happen

5.) a meal without bread is not a meal

Things Mom was wrong about:

1.) I didn’t die in the Peace Corps.

2.) (Insert sound of wind and tumbleweed here.)

She’s always saying I should be conscious of the czarna godzina (the black hour). And I am which is why money flies easier out of my hands than hers and why traveling to a far off place doesn’t scare me like it does her. Maybe sometimes it’s good to play it safer. All of her hard work and values afford me the comforts and choices that my parents never had. Old world values and new world opportunities wrap around each other and propel the next generation forward, stronger and better off, but with conflict in tow.

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.

Becoming Mom and Dad

I’m freezing bread. I just noticed today.

I jabbed a knife into the icy crest of some whole grain and recognized the routine of my parents. As soon as I heard the soft suction of the freezer door sealing shut, I panicked that I was eating lunch at 10:30am like my parents. I wasn’t. It was well after noon but here I was, frozen bread in hand. Who am I? I am thawing bread for a sandwich. I have disliked freezing food of any kind. Mostly because I don’t have the patience to thaw.  And yet, next to my ice cube trays I have two loaves of bread. Isn’t this a little too soon? The freezing. The bread. Becoming my parents? I’m not even 40 yet.

There are enough Rye breads in my mom’s freezer to build a dam levy. For lunch, she takes out the number of slices she needs, makes her and my dad a sandwich and puts the tea kettle on. One time I saw my Dad trying to gnaw into a piece. When I pointed out that it was STILL FROZEN, my mom’s response was “wait few minutes.” I looked at my dad and shrugged my shoulders. They eat bread so often that I wouldn’t think they need to freeze it. But my mom buys food at the Polish deli like she has the apocalypse on her mind or that she’ll be suddenly entertaining a dozen of unannounced guests, so I guess it has to stay preserved somehow.

They have a point. Becuase I hate it when on Sunday mornings I reach into the plastic bag and find a rock hard slice of stale bread. Secondly, I have repeatedly learned the expensive lesson that $5 organic English muffins can and will get moldy the day after I buy them. Sometimes I fear they are even molding in my car on the way home from the grocery store. Is that the powdery dust of the flour or the beginnings of penicillin? I started thinking that I ought to take into account the power of the freezer and ‘wait few minutes.’
I rarely have moldy bread in my garbage now.

Although I still don’t know how to prevent a baguette from turning into a baton.