Joseph, Josephine and St. Joseph
My parents were named Józef (Joseph) and Józefa (Josephine) and they shared the same Name Day, the Feast of St. Joseph, celebrated by the Catholic Church on March 19. When I was young, more important to me than their feast day, was the fact that it came during the season of Lent and on this day the church released us from whatever worldly sacrifice we were making as part of our Lenten devotion. This meant I could eat whatever I had given up for Lent. One year it was candy in general, another year, chocolates. The Lenten season I gave up french fries was super hard and getting some french fries was all I could think about. As I got older I became less concerned about unfasting (is there such a word?) and more interested in Joseph and Josephine, wondering what made them tick.
Everything was always serious business with my mother. Every action was purposeful, every day a struggle. Every bit of food was saved, every dime accounted for. Nothing was easy, very little was fun. She never broke out in spontaneous song. She wasn't one for teasing or a lot of laughter. She thought anyone who laughed a lot was a fool. She'd quote old Polish proverbs to us, like "Poznasz głupiego po śmiechu jego," meaning, you can recognize an idiot by his laughter. Or, "śmieje się jak głupi do sera," i.e., he laughs like an idiot [looking] at cheese. See what I mean? It really put the kibosh on excessive merriment when we were young but it didn't have any long term effects on us. If there is a lasting legacy it's that when my brothers and I get together and we're laughing hysterically about something, one of us will still pipe up and say "Stop laughing like an idiot" - which makes us laugh even more.
Józef, had a dark side to him, too, but I didn't know him that well, not really. I caught him crying a few times when I was young but he never said anything, just hugged me to him. He wasn't one to talk a lot, or tell us stories or share his feelings but there was some merriment in his heart. He whistled. He'd whistle some Polish tune, light and gay, while pacing through the house in his slippers on a Sunday morning, while collecting his shaving paraphernalia, while stropping his razor. He'd pause briefly to concentrate on the sharpness of the razor's edge against his thumb and while running the razor beneath his chin and the area close to his Adam's apple but in between, when rinsing the razor between strokes, he'd resume his warbling. When he was done wiping away the last of the lather from his face he'd break into a song that dealt with love and romance, aiming it at my mother until she glanced up from shining our shoes for church. She'd tell him to stop his nonsense, that I was too young to hear those kinds of songs and besides, it was Sunday, best to sing a hymn. Józef would look at me and wink and we'd laugh - a brief moment of closeness- and then he'd revert back to whistling his tune.
Maybe my mother did have more songs in her heart before she experienced war. Maybe my father was more garrulous, less guarded before war happened to him, too. Maybe they'd have been more compatible, or maybe they'd have picked someone else altogether if their situation had been other than meeting when they both were suffering from exhaustion, starvation, loneliness, fear, despair, threats of concentration camps, and where the spectre of death was not something obscure but a reality that surrounded them every day. And in the middle of all this they have a child together.
I never heard them say "I love you" to each other. I never saw prolonged hugs or kisses. What I saw was my father tenderly push loose strands of hair off my mother's forehead, securing the strands back into a bobby pin. What I saw was my mother carefully place a throw over my father sleeping on the couch so as not to wake him, so he wouldn't get chilled and admonished us to be silent, to let him sleep, let him rest from his hard job.
What are the feelings that tie you to someone who has helped you survive, to live to see the next day? I can't even begin to understand or explore that complexity so their relationship will always be a bit of a mystery to me. On the approach of their feast day I think of Józef and Józefa and St. Joseph himself, patron saint of families and workers. Did my parents pray to this saint? They never said. But when my father died, my mother ordered a headstone under which she, too, would later rest. You can't see it in the photograph very well but just above both their names, she had the sculptor inscribe in small letters the words "Together Forever."
3/18/2018 12:07:43 am
I’m always to glad to see a story from you! Thanks for sharing your insightful memories with us!
3/18/2018 11:53:41 am
Thank you, Ellie, for the kind words.
3/18/2018 11:39:44 am
What a poignant story about your parents. It reminded me of stories my mother me told of her stern father, and of my grandmother whistling to the Polish music on the radio in Buffalo when I lived with her. After a long history of sharing their name days, working together to forge a life, raise a child, your mother planned an eternity together. As Tevyia asked in Fiddler on the Roof, “Do you love me?” Your mother answered that question so well!
3/18/2018 11:50:55 am
Thank you so much reading, Joanne, and for or your insightful comment. I forgot about that great scene in Fiddler but it's true - actions speak louder than words.
3/18/2018 11:30:56 pm
Sophie, your blogs are all wonderful, this one especially!
3/20/2018 02:30:41 am
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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.