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.




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!



First or Second Generation?

Search Result

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

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.