The Power of a Postage Stamp

Christmas card from Ciocia Halinka 2011

It’s that time of year. Cards from Poland come in the mail. As a kid, I would trot through the hallway to the spill of mail laying on the throw rug by the front door. Squiggly handwriting and exotic stamps would be peaking just past the Bell Atlantic bill.

“Mooooooooooooom, we got a letter from Poland.”

I knew this would make her happy. She’d be wiping her hands on a dish towel waiting to see which relative wrote. She’d note whether it was the first we received in the season, whether it was earlier than usual, or from a relative we hadn’t heard from in a long time.

The letter would be from the following list…my grandparents, Ciocia Genia, Ciocia Stasia, Ciocia Halinka, Bozena, Czesia. Usually my mother’s sisters or father’s sister, wives of brothers, cousins wives, nieces. Each time it would be a family tree lesson for me.

Whose sister is this again? This is whose wife? It was a giant puzzle and every year, every letter, every story kept putting another piece in place. Sometimes with little to associate with it, I’d relearn the same piece of information. When I wanted to show off my Polish skills, I would read the letter to my mother to high praise or pass it back shaking my head saying, I can’t read her handwriting. 

Unlike many of my school mates, I did not have an understanding of my extended family. I did not have the benefit of coming to know them through the osmosis of cookouts, christenings, birthday parties or the other kind of events that everyone is dragged to when their little and see people in person. I went to Poland when I was 3 and while I remember the smell of the barn and my father’s parents milking the cows I wasn’t exactly taking genealogical notes. That didn’t start until my visits at ages 18 and 25.

I only really knew my immediate family: My parents, brothers, Ciocia Felicia and her two children, and my Babcia- my mother’s mother who moved to the United States in the early 70s and passed away when I was in the 3rd grade. Everyone else who shared our last name or my mother’s maiden name was a mystery. And while they seemed like strangers to me, my parents’ warmth and reverence made me understand that they were not, in fact, strangers. Somehow these people in Poland knew very much who I was even though I couldn’t keep them straight when I was young.

I only had letters and pictures and stories that came while the dishes were getting washed, pork chops were getting pounded or the news of a letter was being rehashed over coffee. I grew up with the great sense that Poland was a place that was very far away and that my parents’ connection to it was like an invisible umbilical cord.

I was confused when people asked me how many aunts and uncles I had. I didn’t exactly know. Sure my parents told us, but their names and faces were airy and delicate just like the air mail envelopes that arrived through the mail slot. My sense of them would fade in and out. This was before phone calls could be made to them directly and Telecom Offices were expensive and had to be coordinated. This was before email, before Skype, before telephone cards and cell phones. The only thing that connected our families for a few decades was a piece of paper and a stamp.

There was a time I couldn’t name all my family members or associate them with the right side of the family, so I took to memorizing. I took to asking and re-asking the same questions until the information stuck solid like a wooden spoon in a good pot of Bigos.

That curiosity seed settled deep in my heart and sprouted. I’ve spent my whole life following the vine.

I get my own cards from Poland now. I just got one from my Ciocia Halinka, my Dad’s sister. The first of a few I’ll get from Poland this season.  It came early. I made a note of that.

Inside, a piece of Oplatek

Silent Night, Holy Night

Slipped inside was a thin piece of Opłatek, the Christmas wafer. During Christmas Eve, it is a tradition to pass the Opłatek around and break off a piece between each family member before dinner. Everyone wishes each other good health and special blessings and seals it with a kiss.

I love that a stamp and envelope are allowing me to break off a piece with my family in Poland, that despite the miles, a thin and delicate Christmas wafer can be both airy and real.

Things You See and Can’t See in a Picture

 

I love this picture. Me and my brothers: Poland, 1976, Wroclaw Zoo.

Johnny is on the left with his European man bag. Adam on the right with his 3 tone flare jeans that would have made any Bee Gee jealous. Neither carried this through in their adult life except for maybe when Adam spent $60 (could have it been closer to $100?) on a pair of parachute pants with all its zig zaggy zippers in the early 80s. My mother stroked out in the kitchen from price shock. I love the way the picture is cut off right at John’s bowl-cut hairline. It was the same kind of straight.  John turned out to be more the Hulk pants wearing type than one to don a satchel. I’m in the white and red dress, age 3, in my mother’s favorite color scheme: The Polish National Flag.

Other than beige, this was my mother’s favorite color combination that added pride or umph to any celebration like the time our Christmas tree was decorated in white lights and all red ornaments in the 80s. I remember how dazzled my mom’s eyes looked when she plugged in the Christmas lights. Her eyes so deeply absorbed in the tree, it was if she was seeing something I could not see.

I wonder if she was homesick.

In later years, when my Dad passed me a twenty dollar bill and asked me to pop into Wood Bros. Flowers, I knew what he wanted: white and red Carnations for Mom. My mother loved carnations. Perhaps more so than expensive roses that might too easily disappoint with drooping buds and whose full glory of bloom depended too much on chance. Carnations on the other hand lasted forever. Although when there were times a garden rose made it to the kitchen table and unfurled its many fragrant layers, she would cup it in her hands like the face of a small child and say in Polish, Look!

These are things that run through my mind when I look at this picture.

That and what I would come to know years later, that we were back in Poland because my Dad became increasingly sick. A kind of sick Doctors still didn’t have tests for. One with no medicine. A kind of sick that would likely involve paralysis and make my Dad unable to walk. The US doctors said it was Multiple Sclerosis.

They went back to their own country to hear it in their own language. My Dad was 35, Mom 38.

I look at this picture and think about where our minds were; for us, probably nothing more than the zoo. My brothers proudly sported their new gold watches and I felt the bounce of air from a twirling dress and knee highs, our backs to the giraffes, tired from our day. For my parents, it was something else entirely.

So much lay ahead for all of us.

But here we were. Relaxed. Waiting. In it together.

Tactical Operations

Brigadier General Ciocia Felicia is an expert in tactical operations involving basement mice, squirrels eating bird food and woodchuck infiltration. No rodent too big. No rodent too smart. She will find its weakness. She will persist.

I bought my father a birdfeeder for Christmas a few years back for the new ranch house they bought. In the winter, it replaces the potted plant that hangs on a free-standing hooked stake in the backyard.

“Give the poor birds some food, will you?” Dad said when it was running low and I was over for a visit. I followed the narrow footpath in the snow and poured the seeds from the top until they gently started to spill over the lip. As soon as I left, a squirrel started pecking at the seeds that had fallen to the ground. Within minutes, it had shimmied up the pole and then hung upside down on the hook like a miniature acrobat. It swung towards the birdfeeder and knocked the seeds onto the ground.

Taking in the scene through the kitchen table window, Ciocia muttered, Skurczy Byk! Shriveled Bull! Not a swear word exactly, but not a phrase for polite company either. It can also be translated as Crouching Bull! Either way, I think you know what you could insert there in English.

The squirrel came back again and again. It was the same one. We knew that because it had an unusual white tipped tail. 

Also not their actual squirrel

 

The window banging started again.

“Can we try to act a little normal in this house?” I asked. Dad shrugged his shoulders and continued to read the paper.

When I came back home the next time, I heard about Felicia’s offensive.

She greased the base of the hook with Olive oil. I imagine that she stood by the window like a patient sniper waiting for her target to approach. And because the story was recounted so many times, I can tell you that the little fury acrobat started up with gusto and then promptly slid down the pole.

In my mind there were sound effects.

On the scoreboard of Ciocia vs. squirrel, she finally scored one for the team. Then I think the squirrel bought some Isotoner gloves because it managed to grip its way back up the pole again.

So our #1 Rodent General took the birdfeeder off the hook and ran a thin thread between the hook and the small flowering tree. The feeder bowed slightly in between. Ciocia was convinced this was better because she had picked an especially strong but thin thread. A thread that was too thin for the squirrel’s body to balance on. That turned out to be true, but the squirrel realized that instead of trying to walk on the line, it would flip upside down and grip the line from underneath like some scene from Mission Impossible.

It got to the seed again. Felicia got back to planning again.

This is the little dance that goes on between them.

Why bring up the woodchuck and squirrel stories? Because it occurred to me that this is what we must do.

You have to die trying.

Operation Scare the Woodchuck

A refresher for those of you just tuning in: Ciocia means Auntie in Polish. It’s pronounced Chuh-Chuh. My sister-in-law, in the family for 18 years, was so dreadfully afraid she was mispronouncing it like Spanish swear word that she refrained from using it. She just mastered it a few years ago. So don’t worry, you still have time to practice.

 

This is the view outside the kitchen table window where my parents and Ciocia Felicia (she lives with them by the way) enjoy the backyard view. The window also serves as an observation tower from which they strategically plot against two enemies: the squirrels and the woodchucks.

My family members are live and let live people but when the squirrels started eating the bird seed in the winter and the woodchucks decimated Ciocia’s tomato plants in the summer, lines were drawn. Mom and Ciocia began their daily surveillance. This involved mid-sweep pauses as they cleaned the kitchen to watch for movement outside the window. If they had access to infrared goggles, there would have been a night shift.

not their actual woodchuck

During the day, Mom kept one eye out over the sink window while she washed dishes. If she noticed a woodchuck she’d plunk the dish down and start muttering things that shouldn’t be repeated. Felicia would already be slipping on her flip flops to run outside. I think she was hoping for some hand to hand combat to settle this once and for all. After all, they ate all her tomatoes that year.

When Mom and Ciocia realized that the woodchucks had an acute sense of hearing, they started banging on the windows. It saved them from running outside each time they appeared. That got old pretty fast. When the banging stopped scaring the woodchucks off, Mom and Ciocia started making their own sounds to make things louder.

To an outsider, it may have looked like my mom and Ciocia were trying to be let out of their own house.

The woodchucks started multiplying. Started getting bolder. One blatantly sunned itself on the stone wall. It was all my mom could take.
They started going back outside to scare them.

And then…

My mom started barking.

Let me just say, that pretending to bark in Polish sounds different than in English. If you don’t believe me make your bark sound right now and then tap the next foreign person you meet and ask them to bark for you. I’m just saying. It is its own translation. My mother’s sounds something like a cross between a lonely wolf and someone walking on hot coals.

Her barking had no effect on our pudgy brown woodchucks at first. So she persisted barking in the back yard louder and louder. Until the next door neighbor who had been sitting on his back deck, stood up and looked over the tall hedge separating the yard and said,
“Everything okay Halina?”

My mother laughed so hard when she told us, she moved herself into a coughing fit.

“Oh my god Mom, did you tell him why you were out there?” I asked, wondering if I should start wearing a hat and dark sunglasses when I drove onto their street.

“I tell him. We havin’ good laugh.”

The barking stopped because the have-a-heart-traps came in…and eventually foxes.

When winter came and the squirrels moved in on the bird feeder, that’s when Brigadier General Ciocia Felicia really started proving her mettle.
To be Continued…

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.

“DO YOU EAT ANY SALADS?”
My mom in a torso twist, answered, “Yes. Every day.”
“DO YOU EAT CANNED SOUPS?
“Oh No,” my mom said, “I make my own soup.”
“YOU PUT EXTRA SALT INTO YOUR SOUP, HALINA?”
“No.No.No,” assured my mom.
“YOU PUT A HAM BONE IN THE SOUP, HALINA?”
“Yessss, sometimes.”
“OKAY HALINA, NO MORE HAM BONES IN THE SOUP, OKaaaaay? YOU HAVE TO WATCH YOUR SODIUM.”

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.