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.

Photo 1a

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.

Photo 3

Luca Brasi came with an envelope!

Photo 1

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.


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.


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!