So it's Thanksgiving time and I'm thinking of the time my mother got it in her head to have goose to celebrate the American holiday instead of the traditional turkey. Turkey was not foreign to her but growing up in rural Poland where everyone grew most of what they ate, the barnyard was more likely to see smaller poultry like chickens, ducks, and geese. It was the work of children to tend to the fowl, take them to open pastures to feed and fatten them up. She had been one of those "goose girls" as well. In those days a roasted goose, stuffed with bread and sour apples or bread with the goose liver was the ultimate, quintessential dish for very special occasions like christenings or weddings. But for my mother meat was a "raritas," something rare, something eaten only "when the big bells rang at church" on the high holy days. Her family grew the geese to sell or barter for something else. The down from the geese was used to make pillows and pierzyna's(comforters) and there was a Jewish woman who would come around buying up the down if anyone had some for sale.
Where she got the geese is lost to me but I do remember two white geese with their orange beaks and feet. My father pens off a corner of the backyard. We live in the city, not the country and rearing poultry in the backyard is against city ordinances but my mother didn't seem to take it too seriously. Various neighbors had pigeon coops so how was this different? Maybe when you manage to survive a war these issues become small potatoes. Maybe you just want to raise a goose and fulfill a childhood longing. What I did know was that she wanted the down from the geese to make pillows and pierzyna's so for three weeks before Thanksgiving we water and feed the geese, bringing them additional clover and grass from a field beyond the railroad tracks.
What was I? Twelve? Thirteen? Old enough by my mother's reckoning. A few days before Thanksgiving she hands me a wooden spoon and a white enamel bowl that has some vinegar in it and tells me to go out to the barn where my father is waiting. It's not a barn but really more like a big shed housing the coal and wood to feed the stove along with various gardening items. My father is sitting on a small stool with one of the geese held between his knees. The goose is fussing a little, probably just as clueless as I was, but my father tells me to put the bowl down at his feet and to be ready to mix. Mix what?
He takes the long lovely white neck of the goose( who is by now very unhappy), bends it into a loop and holds it tightly with his left hand. In his right hand a knife materializes like out of nowhere and with one sure movement makes a cut into its neck. The blood flows in a steady stream to the bowl. My father hollers, "Mix!" but I'm rooted to the cement floor. Again he hollers "Mix!" and so, with a shaking hand, I mix. There's chaos in my head. Slowly the goose stops struggling. "There's really nothing to cry about," my father says, "it's for us to eat."
I learned that the vinegar prevented the blood from clotting and the mixture was used to make "czarnina" (duck blood soup), a dish my father really liked. The dead goose was plucked for its feathers, disemboweled and then there was my mother cranking its liver through the meat grinder to make the stuffing. I learned that nothing got wasted, everything got used up. It was one of those life lessons, Polish style.
There are some books that always stay with you; books that you never forget and revisit over and over again during different periods of your life. That's the way it is with me and The Good Bad Boy by Gerald Brennan. I was in 5th grade when I was introduced to Pompey(what a name!) Briggs who was entering eighth grade and decided to keep a diary because "all great men keep diaries." It wasn't a book I owned or had taken out of the library. At the end of the school day, if we had been good and Sister Audrey hadn't handed out too many demerits, we put away our books, placed our hands on our desks as required and Sister read the story to us in installments.
This boy, Pompey Briggs, pretty much had a Leave it to Beaver kind of life. That is to say, so different from my own. His father had a white collar job and drove a car; mine came home filthy dirty from the radiator factory and walked to and from work. Pompey loved the smell of his mother making ketchup in the kitchen. I watched mine disembowel chickens and, believe me, it didn't smell too good. When Pompey got punished he was sent to his room and was denied TV. Our punishment was a good strapping with the belt. What Pompey and I did have in common, however, was that we both attended a Catholic parochial school, went to church on Sundays and got underwear for Christmas. That I could relate to.
I can see myself, second row from the windows, looking out at the blue sky with the wind tossing the branches of the chestnut trees as Pompey fixed the flats on his bike and met with the members of his secret club, the Beaver Chiefs. His story never left me. To this day I love books in diary form whether it be an adult fictional diary like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows or better yet, any children's fictional diary like Catherine: Called Birdie by Karen Cushman. I've read Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle too many times to count and still enjoy reading it. And from Pompey Briggs came, I'm sure, my own adolescent attempt at keeping a diary and my adult preoccupation with collecting blank books and empty journals in all different shapes and sizes.
There was another realization about the book that didn't come to me until much later: that listening to Sister was the first time I can remember someone reading me a story. We were immigrants to this country and while we kids were reading and writing English by this time, my parents weren't. They had, as the saying goes, "other fish to fry", like taking any overtime that was offered, darning socks, altering clothes to fit us and canning everything in sight. There just wasn't time for English language classes and there just weren't any children's books in Polish to be had and even if there had been, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have read to us anyway. They came from a different school altogether where kids were kids and it was their job to entertain themselves. The stories we did hear were oral ones, without books, about what life was like in Poland and about the hardships and hunger of war. Those stayed with me too.
There is one last, lingering effect from Sister reading to us from The Good Bad Boy at the end of the day. It's only when the day's chores are done and the dishes put away that I put my feet up and read strictly for pleasure.
In 1987 I jotted down my first notes about my mother's memories of her time as a forced laborer in Nazi Germany during World War II. They were quick notes: Rheinmetall Borsig, Unterluss, Kreis Celle Germany. It was the return address she wrote on envelopes and postcards to her family back home in Poland . She repeated it frequently as if not wanting to forget it.
I wrote it down in what I was using as my journal - a cheap steno notebook bought at the nearest drug store. It wasn't the first time she had said it nor would it be the last but by then I had learned that people talk about those things that are most important to them, the things that are closest to their hearts, so I wrote it down. I thought that, if anything, this was family history and I should remember it too. But on another level I wondered why I couldn't find any books about the forced labor experience, why I couldn't put what happened to her into context with the rest of all that happened during World War II. The literature was abundant when it came to concentration camp survivors so I knew what my aunt, my mother's sister, had experienced but the history books came up empty about the forced labor experience. I was kind of lost about this part of my mother. I knew her experiences were real. There were other women in our Polish American community who had been forced laborers in Germany as well. How to make sense of it?
At the time I was using my steno notebooks for a lot of different things but central to their use was to write things down about Poland, mostly the customs and traditions that I had grown up with and that the Polish American community was interested in when the articles ran in the Polish American Journal. And then in 1991, when she was 80 years old, my mother came to live with my husband and I. Frail, depressed, feeling no one needed her anymore, she spent most of her time in bed but she was very alert and really loved to talk. Sometimes when I was doing something around the house, she'd call for me to come to her bedside. "Pogadamy sobie," she'd say, meaning, "let's talk." I'd lie down next to her on the double bed and she's ask me what was I doing and what were we having for supper and other general things but that talk was just a pretext for what she really wanted and that was for me to listen to her talk. And among her talk of growing up in Poland were her memories of her time as a forced laborer in Germany during the war. I wrote them down in my steno notebooks during the seven years she lived with us. She would ask me what I was writing and I said to her, believing it with all my heart, "Mama, someday I'm going to write a book about what happened to you in Germany." I kept my promise.
My latest book, Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945 is my finally making sense of what happened, not just to my mother, but to the hundreds of thousands of other Polish women who suffered and died during that terrible time known as World War II. I wish I knew what I know now while my mother was still alive.
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.