My Mom Lives On

DSC02486In October of 2012, I took a trip up to Long Island to scatter my mother’s ashes in the places she loved and had spent most of her life.  She had died in 2007.  Unable to deal with the anger and rage she caused me during her last seven years of life, I tucked her ashes away on the top shelf of a dark closet. It took me until just a few months before that trip to understand what had happened between us and why. I found forgiveness for her in a journey of memory I took through our history together. I found out things I hadn’t known about my mom or me.

As I scattered the last of her ashes in places where she’d spent time as an adult and a child, I felt lighter and happier than I’d been in a long time.  My rage was gone and I was able to pick up the pieces of my life and put it back together.

A month or so after returning home from that “letting-go” trip, I began reorganizing my studio. I found a small tin tucked away in a corner and upon opening it I discovered another tiny plastic bag filled with her ashes.  I took those remains and placed them on the  ground around a tree peony that grows just outside my  studio door.  It had been transplanted a few years earlier and hadn’t adjusted well to its new location.  At the time I asked Mom to help that beautiful plant to grow strong and tall.

This is what she did!IMG_1109IMG_1112

What Little I Know About My Father

My grand father's cabinet making shop.

My grandfather’s cabinet making shop.

The photo on the left is of my grandfather’s cabinet shop in New York City.  He is standing on the left. To the right is my father. Further to the right is a hired employee.

Except for a few photos and the stories I remember from the time I was a child, I know very little about my grandparents.  On a visit to Ellis Island a few years ago and my husbands penchant for putting together family trees, we gathered the small amount of information we have about Dzadzia and Babchia. They were very tight-lipped. If they ever spoke about their lives in Poland before they arrived here in America or their journeys across the Atlantic Ocean to a new country where they couldn’t speak the language, I never heard it.  I remember meeting other relatives who came from Poland through them, but the visits were always brief and we never followed up. There was never a sense of having an extended family.

I can say I don’t know a lot about my own parents, who were both born here as first generation Polish-Americans. I do know the day to day Mom and Dad stuff, but their early lives remains a mystery to me in many ways.  For my father all I have are his military records and the medals he was honored with for his heroism during the Second World War.  I have a few photos but that’s it.

I know my dad suffered from shell-shock, known today as PTSD.  He was difficult to live with and my mother, my brothers and I suffered the consequences of his damaged mind. He abused all of us both psychologically and sometimes physically.

My dad as a boy!

My dad as a boy!

He was born and grew up in New York City in what I presume was a Polish neighborhood, surrounded by other ethnic neighborhoods.  He was a bigot, always taking people of other ethnicities down. He was also extremely competitive. I imagine it started in the City where many early immigrants first settled. The competition he most likely experienced in school and on the streets, to be the biggest and the best that he could be, must have been fierce. He experienced the Great Depression, witnessing men jumping out of windows because they’d lost everything. Other than that I know nothing of his day to day family life.

He attended Cooper Union, where he studied engineering and architecture for three years.  I have no idea why he didn’t graduate.  He did however have a chair of his design in exhibition at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939.  He married my mother on Valentines day, 1942. I was born 9 months and 3 days later.

The day after he and Mom were married he went to Montana to begin training for his role in fighting the war with the First Special Service Forces, known by the Germans as the Devil’s Brigade.  The were fierce fighters trained to jump out of planes over Norway, then skiing during the cold winter months to munition factories and labs where the Germans were beginning to experiment with atomic energy and bombs. When their mission was canceled, my father landed by parachute in Italy where he and his men fought their way up the boot, killing and being killed as they went.  He witnessed his best buddies head blown off by a Nazi, as they stood talking and was the lone survivor when he and his men took out a nest of  Nazis hiding in an extensive underground bunker.  When the war was won, Dad was one of the men who liberated a number of the prison camps in Germany and stayed there for several more years doing some kind of secret work. My mother and I joined him there when I was four years old.

After the war he started a home building company on Long Island, where we lived until 1960, when he decided to “retire.”  We moved to Killington, Vermont, where he built and ran three ski lodges.  Despite his early abuse and bigotry, he was a good man in many ways, and became  a loving “Grampy Tom” to my kids.

As Memorial Day approaches at the end of the month I think of him and wish I had known him as a boy, as a student of engineering, and the man who fell in love with my mother.  Before he went away to Europe and came back a different man.

It’s all still happening today as we send our young people across the seas to fight in other lands.

My “Foody” Ancestors

The Zabski Family

The Zabski Family

Going through a box of photos the other day, I found this family portrait. The man in the foreground is  my grandfather. Dziadzi is the Polish word for grandfather which we pronounced “Jahji.”  Standing behind him and next to each other, from left to right, are his wife, their daughter Polly, and my dad, Thomas. How serious they look. Obviously the photographer didn’t ask them to say “cheese.”

Both Babcia (grandmother in Polish) and Dziadzi came to the United States from Poland. My grandfather, Wladislaw Zabski, was born in the city of Trembowla in 1888.  He came to this country, landing at Ellis Island on September 22, 1912. Babcia was born in 1894, only a few miles northwest of Dziadzi’s home. Her name was Michalina Podhajecki.  She arrived on Ellis Island on March 16, 1911.  She was only sixteen. She was released to her sister, a dressmaker in the city.  She and and my grandfather married on October 5, 1913, at the Church of St. Stanislaus in New York City.

According to one set of records my father had been born on September 18, 1913, just a few weeks before his parents married.  Others say he was born  on the same date in 1914. Obviously more research has to be done in order to find out his exact birth year. I find it amusing that there is talk among cousins that Dziadzi was a lady’s man and “adored” young girls. Also, my father was very strict with me. As his only daughter, I was’t allowed to date until I was a senior in high school. I was forever feeling embarrassed because he wouldn’t even allow me to go to the movies with friends on a Saturday afternoon because, “Bad things happen in the dark.”  Was he trying to save me from getting involved with a cute guy and making the same mistake his own parents had? He did send me to a  private girl’s school for my junior year in high school because I was going steady with a boy named Steve.

Eventually both grandparents became United States Citizens. After years living at various addresses in New York City and Queens, they moved out to Port Jefferson, on Long Island where they both resided until they passed away.  Babchi, at five-foot two inches and overweight, spent all of her time in the kitchen cooking up the food they grew on several acres of land.  Before she retired she worked at a local lace factory. Dziadzi, a bit over six feet tall was a cabinet maker.

They raised chickens, had a huge vegetable garden, and a grape arbor under which they ate their meals during the summer. Babchi thought being fat was the healthiest way to be.  She complained to my mother that I was too thin, saying in her broken English, “Skinny no good. Plumpy is helty.” Her daughter’s son, John, on the other hand  was “good and plumpy.”

The first time Babchi met my soon-to-be husband, Bill,  she happily exclaimed, “Oh Joiny, he’s so plumpy.” He wasn’t even terribly overweight at the time, but standing next to me at only one hundred and five pounds he must have looked massive. Finally I had done something that made her happy.

Dziadi was very tall, dark, and mysterious. I was afraid of him.  He was gruff and tough, drinking his coffee every morning with a raw egg cracked into it.  He loved the awful looking blood sausage that was always on the table. He made me try it once.  I screamed and carried on and never had to eat it again. I didn’t like it when my parents left my brothers and me with them. If we didn’t eat every bit of food in front of us, including the brown, mushy, bananas, Babcia always kept in the fruit bowl, we were threatened with the wolf who lived in the pump house across the street. He thought skinny children were delicious and would come and make a meal of us.

Food was a huge part of my grandparent’s lives, and in turn it became a huge part of my own.  Both of my parents were fabulous cooks. We ate dinner with my grandparents most Sundays, rich with all the Polish fixings. Perogis were alway my favorite, especially those filled with sauerkraut. And Babchia’s Bobka, a yeast cake she often stuffed with farmer’s cheese and studded with raisins was to die for.

I learned to cook when I was around ten years old, making the world’s best devil’s food cake. One of my favorite past times was cutting out recipes from magazines and putting them together in my own recipe notebook.  You can still catch me today finding amazing recipes on the internet or in our newspaper’s weekly food section. My collection fills a file box I bought just for them.

When I was small, I didn’t appreciate my grandparents or even like them very much.  As an adult I’m grateful for their obsession with food and the few recipes they have passed down to us. I wish I could sit around the table with them now and share a meal. I’d like to talk with them about their life in Poland, and what it was like to leave family and friends behind and move to a new country.

Reno Week #2

The living room turned storage space.

The living room turned storage space.

Wouldn’t you think that once you learn a lesson it would stick?  Letting go is one of the biggest lessons I’ve tangled with all through my life.  It’s probably because I’ve spent my life trying to control everything around me.  As the family caretaker when I was young, I was in charge of keeping the peace. Most of the time it didn’t work. My parents didn’t stop fighting because I went out of my way to be the best little girl on earth. And my brothers never listened to me when I told them to stop slinging mudballs at each other. But I kept trying.

When I grew up and had kids of my own I got fairly good at controlling them … until they became teens and started developing attitude.  Then they flew the coop and  I was left holding the empty control bag. I turned to everyone else around me. Who could I control now?  Why wasn’t I being awarded the best controller medal of the world?

But time, a few therapists, and life in general has taught me that there is absolutely nothing I can control.  Life has a way of doing it’s own thing. I can try as hard as I might to make the sun shine on a rainy day but it won’t happen.  The world is what it is and I find it best to work at having a good time rather than spending all of my energy trying to make everything run smoothly.

I ticked off one more try at it this past week, which resulted in a meltdown. For a meltdown it wasn’t as bad as they can be and I apologized profusely to everyone in sight. I felt awful for making an ass of myself and spent a couple of hours hating silly, stubborn me. I thought, “No more home improvements for me! I’ve had it!” When the end of the day came and everything looked wonderful and just as it should.  Nothing was shattered or broken. The sun was still shining and the birds were singing.  But I had hurt myself. I’ve been there before. Every time I react without pausing to think through something that isn’t going my way, I end up making a mess of myself and sometimes those around me.

I figured in order to keep it from happening again,  I had to approach all of this from another angle. Somewhere in my head I heard the suggestion that I should stay away from the construction zone as much as possible.  The next morning I went to the house to put a load of laundry in. I worked in my studio and didn’t go back until later in the day to put the laundry in the dryer. I stopped to look at what was happening, but made no judgements. I smiled and went my own way again until I went back to fold the laundry, again admiring the work that had been done.

I did somewhat the same thing on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  What a difference. I was happy. Things were on schedule and the world hadn’t ended because I wasn’t paying attention. I even took time for having tea with a friend, reading, walking the dogs, and napping.

But the thing is, I should know better by now.  So once again I’m making a promise to myself and the world that the next time steam starts pouring out of my ears, I’ll pause and stop trying to keep the world from coming to an end.  Maybe I should take a notebook and fill it up with the same sentence over and over again: “I will not react before I stop and think about what is happening.”

Just to let you know the latest word, the crew boss thinks they’ll probably pretty much wrap up the kitchen part of the  project by the end of this week or early the following week.  I’m elated and have promised  to keep my cool at least until then. The laundry room is now tiled and the electricians and plumbers are hard at work.. The appliances should start going back into the kitchen today. I’m totally surprised and in awe of how quickly this has gone and so far am extremely happy with the results. And though I embarrassed myself pretty badly this past week, I’m proud of myself for stepping back and accepting the fact that I am just one imperfect human being amongst all the rest.

Being Perfect

DSC00553.JPGEven when there there are no holidays looming we live in a rush-rush world. But this is the time of year when the push to the finish line is most noticeable. In the past few days out on the road I’ve seen several near misses, with drivers not paying attention, talking on cell phones, or not indicating that they want to change lanes. I’ve had two incidents lately myself with people riding my bumper. I wasn’t dawdling. I was going the speed limit. But they insisted on pushing me so that they could get to their destinations in record time. I slowed down and got off the road as soon as I safely could, probably making them angry in the process.

When I find myself joining this Speedy Multi-tasking Club, I try to stop myself and ask, “Where do you think you’re going?”  Usually the answer is simply, “I don’t know.”  All I seem to know is that I have a lot to do and the days aren’t long enough for me to accomplish it all. I become somewhat unconscious, anxious, headachie, grouchy, and resentful.

My next question is, “What on your list can be eliminated?”  That’s probably the toughest one for me since everything on my list is so hugely important and absolutely must be done. What it takes for me to see the error of my ways is to sit down with my list and really concentrate on all of things I’d planned on doing. Being a perfectionist for a good portion of my life, it’s usually about finding the best gift for a friend or relative, and making it even more perfect by finding lovely wrapping paper and ribbons to tie it all up with.

It’s about NOT being outdone.  It’s about bringing a delicious blue ribbon casserole to the pot luck dinner.  It’s about knowing more than we know, so that we can be on top of every situation, always having the best solution to everyone’s problems. And might I mention having The Last Word. It’s about NOT taking the time to appreciate how the Christmas tree spreads its lovely pine scent through the house.  It’s about eating without tasting our food, missing the juicy sweetness of the clementine we seem to swallow whole as we rush out the door to pick up one more last minute item. It’s about NOT stopping to rest when we’re about to fall over with exhaustion. It’s about being out of sync with our own body rhythms. It’s about  driving ourselves to distraction and being miserable because we don’t think we’ll be loved unless we’re perfect.

This year I’ve made a huge effort to slow down and live more simply. I almost ran off the road a few times because I wasn’t paying attention to the essentials. But luckily I caught myself before it was too late. I started being more mindful, considering what my intentions were and why. I actually stopped making lists and instead began listening to want it was I wanted to do, rather than what I absolutely had to do.  Sure, those “must dos” still exist, but by allowing myself to sit back and close my eyes as I listen to good music, I’ve actually gotten more done than I do when I pressure myself with the proverbial lists of what to do in order to be the perfect friend, wife, and mother.

How can that be? I don’t really know. What I do know is that what I thought were the most important things on my list, weren’t so important after all.  Those we spend our love and time with would prefer to be with someone who is cheerful and grounded. That fabulous piece of jewelry or the best toy in the world will not make Christmas a happy time. It is the spirit of the day and being with happy, healthy family members that will make it  memorable. Being mindful of where we are and how we feel helps slow us down making life a lot easier and free from holiday blues.

 May your holidays be filled with ease and the New Year bring you peace and joy.