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.
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.
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.