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.




Food and the Freezer: Revisited

I spy five rye breads and eight bags of freshly frozen blueberries. I can barely make out the bag of Pierogi on the left hand side. Has my mother gone vegetarian? This is the not the pork chop stocked freezer I used to know as a kid, where if the family pak yellow Styrofoam slid out over the round of a bread, my toes would get hammered. Things are looking tidy in my parents’ freezer these days. And healthy! Look at all those frozen anti-oxidants. It’s a good thing because it reminds of my mom’s trip to the hospital several years ago.

It started with a mid-day phone call to my sister-in-law Martha.

Mom: “I feel screwdriver in my chest.”
Martha: “Oh my God! Halina, call an ambulance!”
Mom: “No ambulance. Some kinda pain in my chest. “

Martha had the good sense to already have one foot out the door since Ciocia Felicia made a similar call to her several years before that and said, “Feel like elephant on my chest, but I okay.” Felicia’s story ended in quadruple by-pass surgery. Martha knew if my mom was complaining, the situation was already a code Red. My mom did not call an ambulance to head to the Emergency Room as instructed. Instead she waited for Martha who lived one town over to pick her up in the Jeep.

Blocked arteries. “Somebody call Jannett.”

I raced down in my car from Maine and was in the hospital room by the time the Nutritionist showed up. My mother was only able to lie on one side after the catheterization into a groin artery. She half way turned her upper torso to face the Nutritionist.

“HALINA, I’M GOING TO ASK YOU SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR EATING HABITS.” announced the Nutritionist who evidently thought that by being foreign, my mother might also be deaf.

My mom in a torso twist, answered, “Yes. Every day.”
“Oh No,” my mom said, “I make my own soup.”
“No.No.No,” assured my mom.
“Yessss, sometimes.”

My mom turned away from the Nutritionist, back toward the curtain that split the room in half and said, “You ask too much of me.”

“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.

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.