Mama Matroyshka

My Mom’s birthday is this week. I sent her a card shaped like a Matroyshka, otherwise known as a nesting doll. We had a small one in the house when I was a kid. It smelled faintly of varnish and wood.  It was something to be careful with. Pieces could get lost.

Nothing looks more broken than a Matroyshka without one of her halves. I loved the doll so much, when I went to Poland as a teenager, I bought a bigger one for myself. I always thought of the Matroyshka as a Mama and her babies. They are all connected. The same but different.

I loved opening up the Mama in anticipation of unearthing the tiniest baby, not much larger than the size of a bean. How could something be so small, so delicately painted, a tiny replica of all those other shapes before it? It was both satisfying and frustrating to get to the last one.  Surely it could get even smaller.

With that kind of Mother/daughter connection, it was the perfect card to send. But I came to look at the doll a little differently as I was trying to write a new chapter for my book.

Last week, I opened Word and stared at the blinking cursor. In about three seconds I knew; it was going to be hard to write about Mom. Words belly flopped on the page just as quickly as they sprung from my mind. No, that isn’t right.  Backspace. Backspace. Backspace. I deleted them as quickly as I wrote them.

I had no previous homework nuggets to arrange. I had no perfect scene with tendrils of possibility waving me in. This time, I had to dive into a stark white page and produce new pages.

Of course, I’ve written about my Mom before—many times. But I knew I wanted to dig for something deeper.  In other words, I needed to think of her as a human being and not just my mother. It occurred to me—aside from a spouse, mothers might be one of the most significant people we will have a complex relationship with.  Dead or Alive.  Involved or adrift.  Our connections and conflicts are deep as they might be silent. To understand any of that, I had to stop thinking of how I related to my mother and ask instead, who is my mother independent of me? I had to get to the source.

But what is it exactly that I wanted to say about her? Yes, she’s funny and lovable and yet there is no one I can get into a row with quite like her. When she disapproves of something, it’s like a stink eye hovers above me. Despite it, I accomplish and fail. When I fail, it feels worse. On the flip side, her blessings are a magic swath of miracle light. With it, I accomplish and fail. When I fail, it feels better.

But where does all that love, expectation and disappointment come from?

I gave myself writing prompt: In order to understand my mother you would need to know…..

My mind dove easily into the page and the words started their long striding laps. Easy to see the ripple effect.

I started writing about her growing up in Poland during World War II.  Germany invaded Poland just three weeks shy of her 1st birthday. No Barbie Doll themed party plates for her. No smashing her face into a sheet cake. There weren’t such things. There weren’t such things to even imagine.

She grew up poor in a small gray clapboard house. Sometimes they had money for shoes, sometimes not. When I was young she told me that my grandmother took the kids and hid in the woods when they knew Russian and Polish military factions were raiding houses for food and supplies. She stood in cow pee to warm her freezing feet. I’m pretty sure the first time Mom told me, I was fixated on the grossness of cow pee. With three meals on the table in our duplex house, I rode around on my banana seat bike in circles in the driveway not really understanding the concept of survival. I just wanted to shop at the Gap. Eat at McDonalds. Spray perfume.

I heard a million stories growing up. But hearing about the past from your parent is like hearing some forgotten children’s tale. Other worldly, filled with text book morals and values and filled with ancient methods and machinery. So removed from the life I lived, it’s almost as if it happened to an old facsimile version of my mother. In a way, it did.

My Mom has grown and changed with the times. But while current events keep changing her, there is no denying the past she came from. I wrote about how she liked to save things, how it’s in her blood to help people. That she took care of things in such a way that we didn’t live among the broken.

She taught me to make things last.

The more I unearthed my mother’s character, the more our own connection and discords made sense. Like how I couldn’t tell how much I spent on a pair of Tango shoes.

I called her yesterday and asked, “Did you ever not tell your mom something? Did you ever try to keep secrets? Like, what I’m saying is do you think your mother understood you?”

She laughed and said, “She never understand me.”

“Yeah, how so?”

“The older people could never understand the younger. No. Because they grow up difference than we are. That’s why.”

Babcia mowila,wy terez porwiecie, zepsujecie a jak zgubilismy igla to Mama kręcila za mięso . Your grandmother used to say to me, you kids rip things and break things but if I lost a sewing needle (when I was young), my mother used to “twist at the meat”.

At first I misunderstood my mother, I said what about the meat grinder?

“No. No. No meat grinder. Pinch.” My great-grandmother would twist the skin on top of my grandmother’s hands for losing a sewing needle.

Mom continued: “We used to laugh. Do you think a needle, you could just go buy one? No way! Needles were like Gold.  Co to jest igła dzisiaj? What’s a needle today? Nothing.”

“Do you think you understood her more later?” I asked.

“Oh yes. Just like you. Now you understand me more than before.”

It’s true.

The metaphor of mother and child works pretty well with the Matroyshka.  How we pass on things on to our children, yet still maintain our own sense of self. But after writing about Mom’s life I saw the Matroyshka as a symbol of just my Mom, filled with growing layers that started from a kernel.


Mom Talks Gaga

Note to the reader: Some of you have asked. Yes, I can speak Polish. I would venture to say though that I understand it better than I can speak it.  Unless I’m in language boot camp mode like when I’ve visited Poland and I snap right into shape. Immersion is good for things like that.  I usually talk to my parents and aunt in a mixture of Polish and English. My parents used to speak only in Polish to me but over the years it has also become a mix.  Not to mention the third Polonia language they’ve created. Ciocia Felicia only speaks Polish.  I can also read relatively easy things- like letters from Mom or my relatives. I can’t write very well though.  But when I push myself for small batches of sentences I can do it.  I think understanding, speaking, reading, writing is the line up of how many first generation children learn language- comprehension can be stronger than any other facet.

…and now to the musing.

I was sitting on the couch with Mom over Christmas. I half heard something she was saying ‘blah blah blah Gaga.’

Did you just say Gaga? Lady Gaga?

Yuh, Gaga.

You know who Lady Gaga is?

She shot me a look. Same one I get when I swear.

Jak bym ja to niewiedziałm, kto Gaga jest?  Ona miała suknię z mięsem. Nawet Ciocia wie kto Gaga jest.

 Translation: How would I not know who Gaga is?  She had a meat dress.  Even your Aunt knows who Gaga is.

Ciocia, a blessed 84 years old, sat on the love seat next to us.  She looked up at me and said “Gaga.”

My mom said Gaga like they are on a first name basis with each other.  When I told her to say the words Lady Gaga again, she waved me off like a house fly.

“Say it again! I like the way you say her name.”

Maybe this insistence was where I picked up one of my many nicknames, Pest and Piła (Saw) just to name two endearments. As a kid If I wanted to sleep over my friend Holly or Julie’s house, and she said no, I would pout and repeat “I wanna go. Iwannago. Iwannago.”  I mentally chained myself to her leg.

I usually got what I wanted by wearing her down.

There are certain things that my mom says in English that I want her to repeat. I like hearing the flow of Polish come to a flying halt of English. Like when some years ago she stopped by the liquor store near Market Basket to buy scratch tickets and said to me, “Kupiłem Cash Blizzard.”  I bought Cash Blizzard.

Not two words I have ever heard her put together. So I hear them. It’s the English words that become foreign and stand out to me. The figurative is distilled. The sounds and meaning seem new.

For a split second my Polish mother becomes a pop culture American and the two worlds we both live in bump out of orbit.


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…