My Polish Family

My dad never talked much about his origin family. His mother was, in his words, crazy, and we had little contact with his three brothers. What I knew about my father’s family fit into a 2X2 inch cube.

We know volumes about my mother’s family, the big South Side Chicago Irish clan she spoke of frequently. We sometimes gathered with them as a family for holidays and funerals, my aunt with her four kids and mom with her five, sometimes an uncle who had six kids would come along. I have vague recollections of them, not strong connections like I’ve seen in other families. I knew they were there, they grew up and went their separate ways, our parents died and we stopped having gatherings. Except for our parents’ funerals.

Tim gave me a subscription to Ancestry for our anniversary this year, which coincided neatly with the beginning of our lockdown. I’m like an addict now, scrolling and gathering and connecting and mapping our family back up the family tree and out to vast stretching branches. Because we come from a long line of Good Catholics, families consisted of 11, 16, 9 kids until my mom’s generation, which produced on average a measly 5 kids. So many people to research. It’s my favorite video game.

My paternal grandfather grew up among 14 siblings in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I didn’t know his first name or my paternal grandmother’s until I was almost 40. My maternal family names were talked about so often they ring in my head like the Sunday liturgy. Paternal grandparents didn’t exist in my childhood outside the scoffing, dismissive mentions of Grandma in Milwaukee and her crazy ways.

Researching my dad’s family has given me even more names and faces than I ever imagined. There are great-aunts and uncles, first/second/removed cousins, and big neighborhoods where they all lived close to each other. There were divorces and remarriages, step-siblings and long-distance moves across the country. It looks like a helluva party from here, something I always wished for as a kid.

one of my favorite relatives of my mother’s, the one person who smiled in every photograph when everybody else scowled.

But there aren’t many pictures of this side of the family. Mom’s family is well documented in pictures, with images of people who were born as far back as 1842. But Dad’s side, the Russian/Polish families of Milwaukee, are still invisible, the only photos being pictures of headstones. I have seen one photo of my father’s mother, and I’ve never seen a photo of my father’s father. I don’t know what they looked like.

It makes sense, economically speaking. Mom’s family were landowners in northern Illinois back at the beginning of the 19th century, and built a small body of wealth among the family members. They established economic footing well before photography was invented, and could afford to have pictures taken in the early days. My father’s family arrived in the U.S. later, and were struggling to survive when photography was becoming widely available.

In my mother’s family, I know about the deep dimples, the blue eyes, the stubborn vein of red hair that ended with my mother, occasionally appears as natural summer highlights in my half-Asian daughter’s nearly black hair. (I’m happy to say that my kids and my sister’s have increased diversity in the family in one fell swoop; finally, not everybody is white!) But my father’s family traits are still a mystery to me.

Late in his life, my father made cryptic comments to my sister that I had traits similar to his mother’s. He inadvertently piqued my curiosity about this family he closed the door on all those years ago. I’d like to see something of her, or of my grandfather, just a photo that might give a hint about where I came from. I recently learned that my grandfather was an accomplished pianist. I want to know more!

I’ve had strangers stop me to say I have “Irish eyes”, but what of my Polish and Russian genes? I don’t know what I’m missing.

I like a good mystery, and finding clues every night fuels my ambition to learn more. I am determined that future generations will be able to find information about me and my family, and see photos of what we all look like now, and how we stayed connected. So I take pictures, and leave notes, and will bind together materials for the kids to use when they get to be my age and curious about the family they never knew. Then they can discover where that streak of red hair comes from, or the dimple in the chin, or the strawberry-shaped birthmark on the nape of everybody’s neck.

Maybe by then I’ll know more about my Polish and Russian family. They seem like good people, and I want to know them.

Recipes by Mom

The version of this piece published on Eat, Darling, Eat uses softer, less-critical language about my mother. I understand why they made those choices, but it’s important to me as a person that other women who might not have had a great relationship with their mothers know that they’re not alone. My mom had good qualities and bad, and I have good qualities and bad, and that shared humanity — not some gauzy memory of a perfect mother who didn’t exist — is what binds me to her. 

My mother’s recipes drove me nuts. As a young mom trying to replicate the food I had as a child, I leaned on her slips of information, stained and creased, for direction. I quickly found that she used a shorthand that rendered the information undecipherable.

I’d taken cooking classes as a kid, from the suburban-Chicago park district courses offered in the ancient kitchen of the local community center to the required basic cooking class in the Allied Arts portion of middle school. I wanted to learn to cook for the same reason I wanted to learn to play piano; I liked to play around with the medium, to produce something that others would enjoy.

As the youngest of five, I was at Mom’s side for the bulk of the household duties; cooking, shopping, running errands. I worked with my mother in the kitchen, loving the smells of cinnamon and flour dusting the air, the crisp chicken in the electric frying pan, the buttery saute of celery/peppers/onions on Thanksgiving morning. Heaven smelled like bacon.

But when I started using her written materials in my own kitchen, I was confounded by her obliqueness. Where there would normally be a list of ingredients, she opted for groupings of ingredients in steps. This meant that I had to sift through the whole recipe to divine the complete ingredients, and backfill a shopping list before I ever started.

To my mind, and according to my training, the recipe should run in the following order:

Title

Preheat temp

Pan preparation (“grease 9X13 pan”)

Ingredients list (complete)

Steps

The Joanne C. Banaski method made me uneasy. I hewed more to my father’s orderly ways. Generally, if she did something one way, I did the opposite. I wasn’t a rebel by any measure, just attentive to my alliances, even when I was young. Mom liked paisley? I liked geometrics, like Dad. Mom left threads hanging on all her homemade items? I snipped every possible thread—twice. I thus intentionally differentiated myself from her.

If she left “unsweetened chocolate” out of the ingredients, what else might she have left out? She also didn’t mention that you have to melt the unsweetened chocolate. What other necessary bits has she forgotten? Next to “unsweetened chocolate”, she has written “use cuoa substitute”. I think she meant “cocoa substitute”, which I know from her brownie recipe means 3T dutched cocoa plus 1T vegetable oil. But anyone else using this recipe wouldn’t know what she meant.

Maybe this was her way of maintaining her magic, hiding a secret up her sleeve to entrance her audience into wonder. Maybe she forgot it herself until she had written the first part of the recipe, then tacked it on.

Perhaps, and more likely, while she wrote the recipe, she thought through “How to Make Pinwheels”, and wrote down the steps as she executed them in her head. Blend wet ingredients, sift the dry, mix together.

And she didn’t even say “mix together”!

Mom was a tactile person. She cooked and baked, sewed things that were her own invention, played piano and was a marvelous artist. Her hands were covered in paint or flour or needle pricks. She planted our large yard with her own hands, often saying that digging in the dirt was good for the soul.

I’m now older than the age I best remember her at, 45. I’m now working from my own copies of her recipes, which I rewrote for my own purposes, ingredients first. My hands smell of garlic, chocolate stains the fronts of all my aprons, and from March to October, dirt resides under my nails.

Digging through my recipe box, I discover my own handwritten recipes lack critical information as well. All ingredients have been listed – using my own shorthand – but I have left off all instructions, as those are the parts I can do without thinking. I also leave off the title, which bewilders my family, and occasionally, me as well. By now, I have discovered my own Joanne C. Banaski tendencies; I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, my pies are sloppy, hand-hewn “rustic” concoctions, and children are drawn to my playfulness wherever I go. Just like her.

But I think I’ll leave this trail of magic spells in incomplete recipes for my family to follow, and leave them to wonder how they will ever conjure the feeling of being in my kitchen, in my cloud of cocoa and flour and sugar, the smoke and mirrors I use to communicate my undying love in my own mysterious hand.

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Mom, Meggy, and Dad, circa Easter 1971-2

 

Things I Have Learned

This has been a period of non-linear learning, picking up bits of knowledge like rocks on the sand. They’re unrelated except for their origins, washed to my feet on the waves.

I have one favorite pair of pants. I wear them every day.

I don’t care what I eat for lunch, as long as it has protein. Leftover hamburger patty broken up on top of tortilla chips with some salsa verde? Sure, whatever.

If my feet are cold, I’m cold. Most days, I wear acrylic socks and wool slippers.

I only want soft, non-irritating clothing on my skin. Bras with clasps are no longer acceptable. I rarely wear jeans now. All-knit clothing, all the time. I have become soft.

Isolating on purpose is not much different from my normal life. Except for driving Tim and Sophia to work, going to work myself and going *in* grocery stores, I am doing the same things now I always did. I do more of them now, and I’m no longer alone when I do them. At other times in my life, I’ve felt like I was on a leash, the limits of which were my taxi duties for my family, and running to the grocery store. It’s like that, but the leash is shorter.

My normal body temp runs around 96.5. I’ve been taking it three times a day for weeks. I am one cool lady.

Working out at home with other people in the house is weird. I’m self-conscious about being too loud and disturbing other people. But working out makes me feel strong, so I push myself to do it. Even a little “it.” I do it.

I like to make my bed *every* day.  It’s not just nice, it’s essential to me feeling calm.

Tim is very focused during work hours. It’s impressive.

I *really* don’t like video calls. Like, REALLY. They’re awkward, difficult to hear, people talk over each other, constantly interrupted by technology, and full of people looking away from the camera. As much as I hate phone calls, I would prefer THOSE to video calls. I’ll send you a picture of my face–one that I like–and let’s leave it at that. You don’t need to see my face for this bullshit; you’re not even looking. Stop it.

It reminds me of when one of my brothers had an early version of voice-activated-calling. He loved to show it off to anyone nearby. It always ended the same way: him yelling the name of the person he wanted to call into a phone that couldn’t understand what he was saying, and him getting increasingly irritated and louder with each attempt. When he finally did get through, he was too pissed to talk. It’s like that, only with a whole group.

I have WAY more people reading my writing now. I’m not sure how this fits into my discouraged theory about how writers are the least appreciated of all artists, because we have no way of forcing people to consume our art. Except, I guess, during a pandemic, when everyone is bored.

I have extremely weird dreams. Last night, I dreamed that I found John Mulaney sexy. He’s cute as a button and he makes me laugh, but there is nothing sexy about him. My dream mind must be sad and desperate.

My husband and I are more alike than I realized: He has Aspergers, and the only way he knows how to express his big feelings is through anger. I do not have Aspergers, but I am really good at expressing anger in writing. And right now, people REALLY LIKE IT. I know that’s a limited-time offer. (Tim corrected my spelling of Aspergers, because he reads these the minute they’re posted, which I think is very sweet.) (He also wishes it WERE Aspbergers, because then we could riff on “berger berger berger”, but alas, it’s not.)

Tim and I have been through a lot together, and thinking about what we’re going to have to go through in the next few years is overwhelming. Everything in the world is affected by the pandemic, from loss of life to loss of livelihoods to loss of housing–all long-term effects. This doesn’t end when isolation is over, and the not-knowing makes me tremble.

Big-muscle activity, heavy exertion are the only two things that make me feel better. Workouts, riding my bike and gardening actually make me smile. A real smile.

I sing less at home, with people who are ambivalent about hearing me. I sing more at work, where people are likely to join in. Does that make me an extrovert? (she panics)

I’m worried about my sister. And my friends. I feel better when I hear even a brief word from them, confirming they’re healthy.

The world as we know it is falling apart. It was held together by neglect and ignorance. I wish the disease would only affect people who don’t believe in it.

I have a date with a book, a glass of iced coffee, and a patio.

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Understanding Extroversion

My daughter was three years old when she got her first wheelchair. To that point, she had used a stroller provided by a wheelchair company, so NOT a regular stroller; it had appropriate therapeutic seating to encourage her ability to sit, and hydraulic wheels to absorb shocks, and a seat back that reclined completely for when she fractured a leg, which happened a lot. But it was not self-propelled. She was too fragile at the time to push wheels. We drove her around in it.

Up through age three, she behaved much like me; hiding from strangers, quiet in public, clinging to me when anyone looked her way. The feel of her face burrowed in my neck still rests on my skin. She was my marmoset child.

When a wheelchair showed up in her life, I found out who she REALLY is. I didn’t know it was possible for a person to emerge from a cocoon in such an extravagant way. My son, older than my daughter by four years, was fearless from his first step. He would wander up to strangers — even adults — and start jibberish conversations with them. On the playground, he approached other kids and organized games. He showed none of the social tentativeness that kept me on the margins. I was sure my daughter was, like me, an introvert.

On the day the wheelchair was delivered to her preschool, where it lived because our home at the time was not accessible, she took off in it like she’d been waiting for these wings to arrive. As I watched, she sped across the preschool classroom to where the other kids were playing at a short table. She positioned her chair, which had an elevator mechanism that raised and lowered the seat, to sit at the table with her peers, and she started chatting. Her chocolate-brown eyes, already luminous, expectant saucers, lit with the energy of interaction. She laughed like I’d never heard her laugh, great cackles of delight, mischief on her face.

She wasn’t me, it turned out. She was my mother, who was born to perform, to sail across the stage in Peter Pan, to stand before a crowded church and sing, to break rules and cause trouble.

My daughter was fearless. But more importantly, she fed on interactions with her peers. I would watch this throughout her childhood, when she would bounce home from school powered by lunchtime chats and playground games. Frequent treatments for OI, surgeries, clinic visits, and periods of rest after a fracture withdrew her from social contact, and she would wither. Her eyes would dim, she became listless and sullen, and no solo activities or interaction with family could revive her. Only a return to her social group, a return to society brought her to life.

There’s an argument to be made that her periods of forced isolation created a deeper need for contact, but whatever the reason, my daughter has a native need for socializing, a need I could never completely understand. I could see it, but I couldn’t feel it myself.

The need has arisen again in our confinement. She had just left one job and started a new one when the pandemic brought it to a halt. Once they started up again, got everybody trained and equipped, she was back at regular hours in virtual meetings and phone calls.

But still, she was wilting in our seclusion. She wasn’t sleeping well, from what I could observe. One afternoon, she announced a little sheepishly that she was thinking of using her first paycheck to buy herself a Nintendo Switch. She wanted to play Animal Crossing with her brother and his fiance in Illinois.

We enthusiastically cheered her decision, offering to help in any way she needed. About an hour later, she reported that once she paid her phone bill, she didn’t have the funds left to get the Switch.

It took Tim and me about three minutes to decide to get her one ourselves. It was a pinch, but we managed. When she came out of her office/room and saw the game and player waiting for her, she broke down in tears. She was happier than I’ve ever seen her, even on a Christmas morning.

She hugged us in gratitude and started playing with her siblings. They quickly connected with the oldest and his partner, and all five are connecting every night on this gaming platform. She’s linked up with friends from college in Iowa and local friends. She visits other people’s islands (what a literary metaphor!) and discusses I don’t even know what with them. She is *connected*.

When they were kids, I would not allow them to have video games for most of their childhoods. Connected gaming wasn’t possible then like it is now, and any gains they made in outdoor activities would have been lost with a video game. But seeing her face, and listening to her laughter through the walls now as she plays with the peers she loves the most makes me certain that this was the right choice. She has plugged in to the vein of energy she needs to be fully herself.

My introversion is part naturally occurring in my neurological response, part fear borne of mistrust. Sensitive children are attuned to shifts in affection. Some of us turn inward at the very glint of rejection. I could not teach them how to connect with people socially: you can’t teach what you don’t know.

I’m disproportionately proud of my children’s lack of fear; just as I was born with this quiet individualism, so they were born with the ability to lead, and the desire for social interaction. But I like to think that they felt secure in part because of the relentlessness of my love for them, and my insistence that they are beautiful and perfect and loved for who they are exactly, precisely, utterly, inherently, purely.

The ability to be connected, to trust connection, may stem from a confidence in who you are. We all crave connection, and I am happy that my children know how to create it, and know how to jump in without hesitation and revel in it.

Even if Nintendo was involved.

While I’m Here

When I turned 40, I started picking up on the things people in my age-group were saying about the aging process. There was one post, I forget the exact wording, about if you find yourself on the floor, you start looking for all the other things to do while you’re down there; clean up furballs, detail the underside of the couch, organize the bottom shelf, etc. Those are all preferable to the difficulty of getting back up.

Well, here we all are on the floor in our stay-at-home-ordered, social distancing. As I’ve stated before, I rather enjoy isolation, especially if I am “stuck” inside with family.

I’m starting to see this experience as the physical version of a therapeutic technique I’ve practiced for a few years; if you start feeling emotionally activated by something, take a deep, four-count breath, and as you exhale slowly, notice the things that come up for you. It might be an image, a color, a word, anything. Don’t interpret them, just notice them. when you’ve exhaled to the extent of your breath, do another deep four-count breath and repeat the process. With this process, I’ve had some tectonic realizations.

In the past 12 days I’ve been at home with my people, some prominent realizations have come up. While I’m here, I’m going to take a good look at them. Just notice them.

–I’m low energy today, and a little sad. I veer toward depression if I’m not careful, so today, I’ve taken small steps including showering, making the bed, filling and running the dishwasher, and lighting a candle that smells like a florist. And writing this.

–There is a feeling of being submerged, closed off in our bubble from the rest of the world. While I enjoy the separation from people outside my family, some of the techniques I engage during the daytime to allow Tim and Sophia to work from home set me further apart sensorily. When I put on headphones and then have to use my reading glasses, I feel like I’m in one of those old-fashioned diving bell helmets.

Image result for diving bell helmet

–On the other hand, I can hear myself think better these days, without the jumble of other people’s activity in my head. I don’t quite know how their activity influenced my thoughts before, but now, my thoughts are more peaceful.

–I miss working out at the gym. I miss being able to seclude myself (yes! I have always done this voluntarily) and focus JUST on moving my body. The gym in our apartment complex is closed, and working out at home is less effective.

–Social distancing feels a lot like the times when my daughter had to stay home because she had a fracture, or surgery, or was avoiding the cough going around school. Except now everybody is here, in the same spot we have occupied.

–The online dance parties/concerts/recitations are moments of joy and connection. I like that nobody can see me. Getting to see Patrick Stewart recite one of my all-time favorite sonnets, just him and his camera phone seemingly speaking directly to me, was bliss. 

–I’m *this close* to identifying the grand tree outside my window. It’s either a hemlock or it’s not. Will update as new details arrive.

–Going on FB makes me angry every time. I have met some of the most interesting people there, and have had incredible, stimulating conversations, but there is always that ONE JACKASS who lives to be contrarian. And yet–in order to get anyone to read this, I will have to post it on FB. *pulls hair out*

–I’m grateful to the business world for making work-from-home possible for two of our household. Even my daughter’s brand-new job has her set up with a laptop and a cell phone, and she’s working away in her office/room.

–I’m so freaking proud of that kid it’s not funny.

–I just found a pen up my sleeve. If you don’t think that’s newsworthy, you don’t know me.

–Tim’s going to cut my hair later. He doesn’t know it yet. I’ll prep each strand he cuts, he’ll just work the scissors. I know what I’m doing.

–I am calmed by the ability to order items by delivery, and then I am worried about delivery people and everyone preparing items for delivery. I have it good because of them. I want them to be safe too.

–I miss my job. I work at a community center run by Portland Parks and Rec, and I’ve seen comments on social media and elsewhere deriding the precautions taken by the city, accusing city employees of being lazy in NON-pandemic times, and spreading lies about city workers’ job security and amazing insurance. “Don’t feel sorry for city workers–they are paid well and have excellent insurance.” Um, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

I was just officially laid off from my part-time, no-insurance position, and lies like that make me want to flip some tables.

–I’m worried about losing my non-word-based friends, the ones I know in active spaces, in hiking and dancing and singing, the ones who like to get together to catch up, the ones who don’t respond to texts unless it’s “what time do you want to meet?” I fear we will drift.

–I’ve gained new word-based friends, the ones who meet me inside language and roll around in syntax and wordplay. That’s fun. Hope they stick around.

–The sound of Tim’s typing used to send me into a distracted frenzy. Now his clicky-clacky Muppet typing is a comfort.

he sounds like this looks

–I’m grateful that the world is starting to experience–and will hopefully eventually remember–some of the accommodations people with disabilities have been asking for for years. Remote access to classrooms? Video meetings? Food and grocery delivery? Social distancing to avoid infection? Clearly, we can do this. The lack of will has prevented us from making this acceptable. Maybe now, we can.

I’ll be back sometime. I hope people will share what they have observed in the quiet times alone.