Month: November 2017

A Tribute to my Father

My memories of him come alive when I think of my dad and see photos of him both as a young man and older. Because so much time has passed since his death, I have to spend more time processing memories of him.

My dad, mój tatuś, in Polish, was a larger than life person when I was a child, as most fathers are. My dad was not tall, but was a large man, a steel worker. He was strong and able to do manual labor in a steel mill. He was also a survivor of World War II and was the head of our household; so he ruled the roost. My brother and I knew that and we knew our place.

This time of year brings a flood of memories back because his Feast Day has come and gone, November 28, 1979, and the anniversary of his death is coming up. As is the custom for many older Polish people, and it certainly was when I was growing up, feast days or name days were more important than birthdays. It was on your feast day that you received presents. Feast Days in Poland, imieniny in Polish, were the days on the Catholic calendar commemorating the day of a saint for which you were named. Dad’s was St. Zdzisław, his patron saint. Now on a non-Polish calendar, Zdzisław, would not be there, but on a Polish Catholic calendar, it’s there. And it’s important to note that on any given day on a saints’ calendar, your name may share the day with other names. Living in the United States, my brother and I did not celebrate our feast days, but our parents did.

I do remember when dad was very sick, a few days before he died, which was also a week after Thanksgiving that year, he only wanted turkey and rice for his feast day meal. He used to have quite an appetite, but not that year. He was so sick from receiving weekly dialysis treatments, and he was getting weaker every day. I also remember the morning of December 4, 1979, which was the feast of St. Barbara, my feast day. Since my husband and I lived near my parents they often watched our little miniature Schnauzer during the day. I don’t remember the circumstances, but it was agreed upon that Spanky, the dog, would go down to grandma’s house that day and I would go on to work. I vividly remember that morning when dropping off the dog. My dad was on the second floor at the top of the landing in his pajamas and robe, saying that he was not doing well and that my mom needed to call an ambulance to take him to the hospital where his doctors were. Now the beauty of where my parents lived was that they were a block from the local hospital, but the hospital where he needed to go was in the city, on the north side of Pittsburgh. The morning traffic was a problem and complicated because one of the bridges was under re-construction, consequently the ambulance had to make a detour.

Going on to work, I stood by the phone to get a status call from my mom about dad’s condition. The hospital from downtown where I worked was very close and I would go over at a moment’s notice.

Well the call came but it was with mortal news that dad had died and I needed to get over there right away.

I immediately prayed to St. Barbara, my patron saint, to welcome dad into the afterlife. When I got to the hospital, I found him lying on the emergency room table, no life left in his body, as I walked over to say good-bye. This indeed was a surreal experience. He needed to get up off the table and tell everyone that he wanted to go home. But I realized that was not going to happen. The whole experience was awkward. I did not know what to do or say or think. I had never had anyone close to me, especially someone I loved, die before. I did realize I needed to say good-bye, feeling that his spirit was still in the room. I do think I was numb to what had just happened.

So as I think of my dad these days, not having him in my life for 38 years, what could have been had he lived? He would have been around for the birth of my first child, Christopher, who was born three months after his death. He could have been around for his two other grandchildren, granddaughters, Stephanie and Samantha. There would have been so many other events, but none of that was to be.

He was my father and he was the only dad he knew how to be during his time on earth. He loved me, that I know. Was he hands on? No. He would get reports from my mom about what was going on in my life, but actually asking me? No. Was that normal when I was growing up? Maybe. I feel that is totally immaterial, since he was my dad and that’s the way he fathered. He put food on the table, paid his mortgage, and walked me down the aisle. And he loved me.

 

When is a House a Home?

What is a house? Is it just shelter?

For some people who may be homeless, an apartment is shelter. It can be a one room rental and still be home as well as shelter. What makes a house special? I think it all depends on who lives there – a roommate to share the space for company, a significant other, a spouse, a pet or family members.

During my early life I lived in a variety of places which took me from England to our first apartment in the United States. We then moved to a series of walk-up apartments before my parents bought their first home. This one and only house is where my parents stayed, never to move again. For my parents living in that house meant that they had arrived; they had their piece of the pie. They owned it and had stability and security. Sewickley home (2)

My brother and I did not live there long, but still called it home. After going away to college, neither one of us returned to that house to live. During my married life, I experienced living in several apartments, eventually we bought our first home, then built a house and sold the first one. We then transferred to another state, found a rental house until we sold the one we built. We then bought a house in the new state only to be transferred several years later. The saga went on. There were multiple moves after that. When do roots become important to promote that security and stability? One might say once children are born; yet we moved three children multiple times.

Each of those moves was traumatic for my kids and for us as parents because we left friends, but not so much because of the houses themselves. We left several really nice houses behind, but that’s what they were – houses, just shelter. Don’t get me wrong, leaving each of the houses was hard because they each had some unique feature. We do get attached to things. But the memories that were grown in those houses we take away with us when we leave. I have to remember this now as we contemplate downsizing and moving!

I suppose feeling that human connection in life is what makes us happy or leaving them makes us sad. What makes a house a home is the people in them or around them. This is what I found important in my relationships with houses. For my parents, they moved around a lot as well. Yet for them, finding an anchor was important, since their lives had been so unstable and disrupted during and after World War II. They also wanted to feel rooted to a community since they had no family around.

My mother lived in her little house for twenty-eight years, all by herself, after my dad passed away. She kept up with the house repairs and yard upkeep because that property was hers and ultimately too important to neglect or sell. It was only after her stroke when she could no longer live alone did she move out. It was very sad to have to sell the house after she was in a nursing home for over a year. I was sad for her; my attachment to it was only that it was her precious house. All she wanted to do was to go home.

The Clean Plate Club

Have you ever spoken the words “finish your dinner, or… else – some consequence directed at one of your kids or grand kids? Or do you remember hearing those words growing up?

There are many phrases about meal time struggles with parents and children each having an opinion about what foods the kids need to eat before having dessert or leaving the table. One favorite one comes to mind is “Eat those peas or beans – you can’t leave the table until you do.” To this day my husband won’t eat a pea or a bean. Power struggles between parents and children produce no winners but they do produce vivid memories.

I grew up with food being precious and the edict in my home was you have to eat everything on your plate. It was sacrilegious to waste food. I was raised to be in “the clean plate club”.

If you knew my parents you would understand why they felt this way. The mere fact that they had no money may be reason enough, but also knowing that they were starved during the early years of World War II, would be the better reason for their strong feelings on the subject.

I recently read this about the starved Polish population from Siberia during the war – “Once they were starved in Siberia by the Soviets, they were always obsessed with food.” My dad in particular showed his propensity for weight gain more than my mother. These are some before and after shots of him – the one of the left was after he was released from a Soviet prison and the one on the right was a couple of years later when he was in the Second Corps of the Polish Army, eating well and when not training or in battle, enjoying life.

before and after tatus (2)

My mom had an interesting relationship with food. As I mentioned there was no food waste in my house growing up. If it was on your plate you ate it. Later in life we would have these lively discussions when I visited Mom. We discussed the pros and cons of not eating when you were not hungry.

So here we had a woman, my mom, who was not only obsessed about having to eat everything on her plate but also obsessed with her weight. I think she realized that because she was no longer being starved, she had a tendency to gain weight when she ate too much or made bad choices. She then ate other “non-fattening” foods like popsicles that had 10 calories or the no fat whipped cream that comes in a container which helped to keep her weight down. She loved her sweets and enjoyed them because they had few calories. Even with this license to eat, she would pace herself and only eat the sweets for dessert or in the evening as a treat.

When the grand kids were at her house for a visit, Mom had many snacks in the house and they knew where to find them, like bread sticks, cookies, and all sorts of crackers. She was known for her popsicles because they were the brand that had a joke on every stick. She loved to tell those kidly knock – knock jokes; many of which she learned while eating the popsicles.  These are some of the memories my children have of their grandmother.Mama and kids

We all have an individual relationship with food, either as a panacea for an emotional or physical ill or as a bribery weapon against someone else. Eating your feelings is a good example of how some react as opposed to eating to live. Living to eat is more fun but then eventually life catches up with that choice.

Unknowingly this phrase “Clean Plate Club” actually had an origin. After the two major wars and the Great Depression, when food was scarce, our government instituted the club to help people realize that when they had food, not to waste it. The government drew on the public’s patriotism from during the wars and knew people wanted to help. The concept primarily focused on school children with a pledge that read, “At table I’ll not leave a scrap of food upon my plate. And I’ll not eat between meals, but for supper time I’ll wait.” This idea grew impractical over time as lifestyles changed and people became overweight, as our portion sizes grew.

As children my brother and I struggled with being overweight in a time when society did not have its current weight issues.Sunday at the creek

Most of my adult life, I have been obsessed with watching my weight just like my mother. So much for the “Clean Plate Club”, but in my house there is very little food waste. If you don’t cook as much food, you won’t have to eat it all, and if you don’t put as much food on your plate, you’ll have left overs.