By the time we gathered together around the table on Christmas Eve, the kitchen windows were completely fogged up and you could hardly see what was going on outside. It gave me a sense of being cut off from the world and that everything that was important was now happening inside. My mother has been cooking the entire day. The kompot (compote) of apples and raisins, made early this morning is chilling .The mushroom soup is hot. There are pots and pans all over -on the stove, on the counters, and a there's huge board with cheese pierogi waiting to be boiled and served as desert later on. There's an overall sense of urgency to get things done by dusk.
On the cloth covered table are my mother's best dishes, the ones with the picture of wheat on it that she painstakingly collected from boxes of Duz detergent. I set out the silverware she bought when she redeemed her S & H green stamps. In the center of the table, one of the smaller wheat plates, is the opłatek, sent to my mother from her family in Poland. The white earthenware pitcher that traveled from Germany, then to France and here to America, is filled with a milky hot tea. To the table is added a platter of fried fish and then bowls of boiled potatoes and sauerkraut. My mother covers all the hot food with lids from the cooking pots to keep the food warm and calls everyone to come and take our respective places at the table.
Standing by our chairs in our nice clothes my mother takes off her apron, so that she, too, is at her best. She slowly looks around at all of us, gathers her thoughts together and begins our Wigilia tradition with the sign of the cross. "W imię Ojca, Syna i Ducha Świętego. Amen." In the name of the Father son and Ghost. Amen. We pray together in Polish. First the Our Father, then a Hail Mary and then we fall silent to listen to my mother give thanks for the gifts. " O Jezu, dziękujemy Ci za wszystkie łaski i dobrodziejstwo Twoje i błagamy ci.." (O Jesus, we give you thanks for all your graces and goodness and beg of you...). When she is finishes, we remain standing for the single, most important part of this night, of this entire Christmas season. All of Advent, all the day's work and preparation, with all of our ancestors looking over our shoulders, it boils down to this moment: the ancient Polish custom of sharing the "opłatek"(pronounced "oh-pwah-tech"), the Christmas Eve wafer.
In its physical form, the opłatek, the Christmas Eve wafer, is a thin, white, unleavened piece of bread made from flour and water similar to the wafer used during holy communion in many Christian religions. It is considered holy, but it is not consecrated. In earlier times it was circular in shape but is now mostly a large or small rectangle. The word opłatek comes from the Latin word oblatum, meaning "to offer" or "to bring to, " because in its centuries-old history, this thin bread has always been shared with family and friends and gives it its intangible, symbolic meaning: offering it to others is a sign of caring, of friendship and love. It is also a symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness because in old Polish tradition it was an acknowledged fact that if you invited your worst enemy to Wigilia to share opłatek, to share bread, it meant that you forgave whatever differences there were between you; that you were looking for reconciliation and words need not be said. The sharing of oplatek is done with an open, accepting, loving, and also forgiving, heart.
It was always my mother that initiated the moment of sharing by taking the plate containing the opłatek off the table and asking my father to join her in the center of the kitchen. Standing there in front of us, my mother could have said a lot of things to my father. He worked very hard, never missed work, but drank too much and often gambled but I don't remember any recriminations, any accusations on this night. In that moment there was only unconditional positive regard. Offering him the opłatek she had in her hand she'd say "Józek, you work so hard to provide for us and I want you to know how much I appreciate that. May you be healthy and strong and be continually blessed..." My father would accept the wafer she offered to him and then offered her a piece of his opłatek, expressing his gratitude for her housekeeping skills, for being a good mother and raising the children. And then it was my oldest brother Michael who approached them and then each of us in turn with both our parents and with each other - breaking and offering each other the opłatek.
I always felt a bit shy and uncomfortable being praised by my parents. Most of the time they were busy correcting me and telling me how to do better but not on this night, not while sharing opłatek. It felt good to hear the good things - that I was a help around the house, how pleased they were that I was studying hard and doing well in school and to keep at it. It felt wonderful to be recognized for the positives. That's the power of sharing the opłatek and why the custom has endured over the centuries; why it remains one of the most significant aspects of the Christmas season for Poles and Polish Americans; why, regardless of wars and governments and separation, it is sent to families across continents and oceans: why the custom is so cherished: it is a symbolic bread of love and forgiveness that nourishes the soul and spirit of all those who partake in it.
It's late fall and the chestnut trees out front are already bare. The garden has been put to bed and the geraniums potted and resting on the pantry windowsill. It's early on a cold Saturday morning, when the frost is thick and white on the grass, that Mr. Burek pulls his truck to a stop in front of our house on his way to sell at the outdoor market. He is all smiles beneath his trim black mustache when we join him at the curb to stare into the open bed of his truck. Thrust together are baskets of thick purple grapes and yellow squashes. There are open sacks of potatoes with clumps of brown earth still clinging to their sides. There are apples and pumpkins, the very last of the tomatoes for the year and bushels of great, big, beautiful heads of green cabbage.
With a very proprietary and confident air, Mr. Burek reaches in and pulls a cabbage off a bushel and thrusts it into my mother's hand and says, "Well, Pani, what do you think?" She holds it and weighs it carefully in her hand, but remains silent as she moves to carefully inspect the remaining heads and bushels. Mr. Burek is a patient man. He's familiar with the scenario from previous years, so he lights himself a Lucky, props his booted foot on the fender of his truck, and rests his elbow casually against his knee. He takes a drag on his cigarette and the smoke drifts out of his nose into the crisp morning air.
"Ile?"(How much?) my mother asks.
He names a number.
"Too much," she says.
Burek might be third generation Polish American already but he's still a member of the same tribe and knows the ways of the people so he isn't offended. Haggling price is part of the cost of doing business with my mother. I've never met anyone - ever- who comes even close to how good my mother was with holding on to a dime, let alone a dollar.
He looks at her thoughtfully, slowly takes another drag of his Lucky, names another price.
My mother's hand is in her apron pocket, squeezing her change purse. She gives his number some thought, counters with another number, close to his but not too close. There is, after all, a protocol to follow.
"Dobrże," (good) Burek finally says, nodding his head in agreement, still in good humor. He knows we'll buy from him again and that counts for something.
He leaves six bushels of cabbage at the curb. We watch him leave a trail of exhaust fumes in his wake until he brakes for the red light down the street and then we call the boys to help carry the bushels inside.
In the kitchen we kids all sit on stools surrounded by the bushels and remove any dirty outer leaves on the cabbage. Unless completely deteriorated, they are carefully washed, chopped by hand and used to make the kraut. Mama and I have tied kerchiefs over our hair and Tata and the boys wear baseball caps. We pass the cleaned heads to Tata who uses a very large curved machete to split the heads in half. His left hand, already missing the tips of his thumb and forefinger, holds the cabbage head steady against the wooden board while his right slowly raises the knife shoulder high, synchronizing arm and eye, and comes down hard. Whack! Whack! The knife slashes cleanly through again and again and Tata's stubby fingers remain unharmed. "I once knew a very hungry horse," my father says laughingly when asked about his missing fingertips. He doesn't know that, once, when he had been drinking with the guys from work, I overheard him cursing the Nazis and the bombs that he had been forced to make and the infection that cost him his fingertips. I can't figure out why he doesn't want us to know.
When all the heads are cleaned and split and cored, the table is pushed out of the way. Our thirty gallon oak barrel, brought from the small shed out back, is scoured and scrubbed clean, waiting for its portly belly to be filled. Mama is mixing a bowl of salt, peppercorns and bay leaves that will be mixed into the shredded cabbage. In the center of the kitchen, Michael, being the oldest, and Tata each straddle a chair facing other and place the large oak shredder between them on the front edges of their chairs. The shredder, fitted with sharp blades in the middle, is made of sturdy oak and has been handed down to us from our neighbor. Her children are grown and gone from home and she no longer needs to make kraut to help her get through the winter months.
The cabbage is piled high into the small square frame that fits in the grooves of the shredder and in unison, Michael and Tata push and pull in long, rhythmic motions back and forth across the carbon steel blades. I sit on the floor at Tata's foot and watch the shredded cabbage fall into our old zinc wash tub like huge flakes of clean white snow. I catch a handful and feel the cold from out of doors, the juice released from its fibers, and eat it raw.
It's an all day project this kraut making what with haggling, cleaning, shredding and then pounding it into the barrel. That's the hardest part because you've got to get the kraut to release all of its juices and pack it down tight to prevent air pockets and have a good amount of kraut juice on top to keep it all submerged in liquid until it ferments. We will all take a turn at it but it's a dull, hard job and Tata will do the bulk of it. For now, I watch the drifts of cabbage-snow grow higher and higher and listen to the lulling sound of crisp cabbage running through carbon steel blades. The chairs beneath Michael and Tata creak noisily as they work. The wood stove is crackling. The birds on the cuckoo clock knock their heads together, marking the passing of time.
In my head and in my heart, I am still there, in that kitchen, making sauerkraut with my family, whenever the frost is thick and white on the grass.
When I started first grade I didn't know a word of English. I think about this when I hear people discussing issues about the influx of immigrants in schools in a not-so-positive way and how, once, I was one of those kids.
By the time I started school our family had been in America for about five months. At home I spoke Polish with my parents and French with my brothers. We kids had attended school back in France where we lived before immigrating to the U.S. Playing with other kids we heard a lot of French and pretty soon we were chattering in French, too. I can still remember the entrance to the school, the building that held the toilets and the fountain with the water spigots in the middle of the school yard where we washed our hands. I had to wear this required apron - really more like a white pinafore - that my mother had sewn for me, for kindergarten. So age-wise it was right that I should start first grade that September and was enrolled at our parish school where the Felician nuns, an order that originated in Poland, also spoke Polish. I think the consensus was that, placed in the same class as English-speaking kids, we'd pick up the language and the nuns would be our go-between in the Polish and English worlds.
I must have stood out a bit what with no English and pierced ears and earrings in first grade. This was 1954 when it wasn't in yet. The nun called me Sophie, the American version of Zofia.
I was assigned a desk along the windows, third or fourth from the front. Next to me a boy had three, long, sharp yellow pencils. I thought they were beautiful but I didn't have the words to tell him.
My first book was about Dick and Jane and their dog Spot. How I loved that reader! First I loved the pictures because I certainly couldn't read the words. I can still see Jane losing her roller skate and the long ears on Spot. Puff, the cat, was in there, too. Later on educators would highly criticize this reader for being overly simplistic but I'll defend it to my last breath. My very first English words were Run, Jane, run. See, see. We repeated the words over and over again out loud with Sister leading the way, page after page. For me it was Fun with Dick and Jane.
I felt different, not knowing the language, but I don't remember anybody being mean to me. I only remember one, what was to me at the time, a huge incident. Again, because I didn't have the words, when I needed to go to the bathroom I'd raise my hand or, if it was quiet time, look-at-your-reader time, I'd walk up to the desk and ask Sister in Polish if I could go. OK, good to go. But one time, she must have decided it was time I learned how to say it in English. She stood me up in front of the class, called everyone to attention and made me pronounce each word slowly after her: May-I-go-to-the-bathroom? Those words were way, way ahead of anything I'd seen in Dick and Jane. I had to do it though, pronounce each word after her and felt completely stupid and humiliated and was in tears. All those eyes looking at me! Lesson over, I went to pee and returned to my seat. I never did see that particular topic covered in my reader but still...it'll always be me and Dick and Jane. BFF.
Photo: Google images
It was in 1851 that the first railroad, the New York and Erie, reached Dunkirk, NY. The tracks began twenty five miles upriver from Manhattan and reached its terminus in what was then a village of 800 souls. While the town never became a major hub of any kind, the railroad did bring commerce and industry and immigrants seeking work. The Germans, Italians, and Polish developed their own little communities and churches on the lake side of the tracks. By 1902, Polish arrivals began building in the less populated region on the other side of the tracks called Górki, the hills, and by the time we arrived in 1954 another rail line called the Nickle Plate was running through that neighborhood. A lot of yards ran alongside these double tracks or backed up to it and to undeveloped land that lay further on. These homes had a little bit more property and seemed more rural, tucked in as they were back away from the main streets. One such pocket of homes in the neighborhood was called Goose Shit Alley.
For the longest time I thought it was called "Goshen" alley, which is how I heard the older Polish women pronounce it. It was said that during the rough times of the Depression, when there were no jobs and money was scarce, the Polish women kept their families going by raising and selling geese. Coal for the winter was expensive, but they kept their families warm by making feather pillows and feather covers, what we call a pierzyna. People said there were so many geese in this neighborhood in those days you could hardly walk by without getting a shoe full.
My mother connected with these older women of Poland. They looked like the photos of my grandmother - sturdy, aproned women with wrinkled faces framed by colorful kerchiefs tied beneath their chins. Their feet were firmly planted on American soil but many were still rooted in the way of life they had known in Poland. A small town girl herself, my mother understood geese; fattening and killing them; using the blood and gizzards to make soup; rendering the fat to make goose grease to rub on chests for bad coughs; stripping feathers to make your own pillows; making your own homemade baster from the feathers to brush an egg wash on top of baked goods; using it all up, every bit, every time.
I suspect it was when she was homesick that my mother went to the alley, when she longed to talk to someone whose ears, like hers, still heard the wind rustling through the grains of rye, who knew what it was to cut wheat at harvest time with scythes and sickles, and to gather mushrooms in the forest after a rainy spell. We'd arrive unannounced, like they did in the old country, mostly because we didn't have a phone for a long time but also because it wasn't necessary. They were always home, always working- gardening, hanging out the wash, ironing, stirring a pot of soup. We'd sit at the kitchen table and they would talk about Poland, about pickle recipes, illness, birth and death and once, rolled down their thick flesh colored stockings to examine one another's varicose veins. No one cared that I was bored to tears but something of those talks, of those visits, must have stuck, must have silently crept in and rooted within me, too, when I wasn't looking.
When someone in our parish died, the funeral director hung out a basket of gladiolas at the front of the funeral parlor. In those days, before everyone had phones, it was a way of announcing that someone had died, that the deceased was ready for viewing and friends and family were welcome to visit. The first to see it were the guys having a beer at the bar across the street. It had these huge windows that gave them a great view of the neighborhood. Then it was word of mouth over fences or at the corner store that generally spread the news. Sometimes when we kids were pedaling through the neighborhood on our bikes and saw the basket of flowers hanging outside the parlor we'd holler out to each other "Hey, who die?" Hey, who die?" and someone would scream, "Hey, I dunno!" and we'd laugh hilariously, high on the sound of our own voices. Sometimes, from the safe distance of the street, we'd pedal by really fast and scream it out while looking at the men at the bar but they never reacted to our crazy antics. If my mother had gotten wind of this behavior she would've pulled out the strap, for sure. The deceased deserve our respect, she'd say, as we walked to the funeral parlor to say our final goodbyes.
Well, who died was one of the women from Goshen alley and I remember feeling badly about the who die business. She was a nice lady who had given me tea and always asked me how I was doing in school. When it was my turn at the kneeler in front of the coffin to pray for the deceased it wasn't the pink gown and ballet slippers that caught me off guard. I'm sure she had left instructions or even picked out which outfit she wanted to be buried in. It's what practical Polish people do, so I understood the wanting to look your very best and she did look lovely. What surprised me was the little satin pillow behind her head: so small, so smooth, so stuffed her head didn't even make a dent in it.
Instead of saying my Eternal Rests like I should have been doing, I mentally removed the satin pillow and replaced it with one of her own making, of the softest down, covered in a white cotton pillowcase, something you could gratefully sink your head into at end of day. And then I'd turn her head into the pillow so she could smell the sun and the wind that came off Lake Erie as the pillowcase dried on her clothes line and so she could hear the honking of the geese still trapped within the fluffy feathers to help keep her company on her next big journey.
Photo taken in Poland by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.