Author: Barbara Serbinski Sipe

arbara Serbinski Sipe is a first generation Polish immigrant from a refugee resettlement camp in Great Britain. Barbara grew up loving history and this love became a passion especially when it involved World War II and specifically the European conflict. Ignited by the love of European history, the project, Letters from the Box in the Attic, a Story of Courage, Survival and Love is factually based on letters and documents discovered in the attic of her mother. Historical perspective is preserved when placing her mother’s letters and experiences into this narrative. Understanding why things happen in life and how they affect life are just as important as the events themselves, this is therefore the reason behind the extensive research and introspection found in this book. Letters from the Box in the Attic is told by her daughter, Barbara, tracing her mother’s journey from the Soviet invasion of Poland, to Soviet prison cells and eventual release from a Siberian labor camp.

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.

It’s all About the Letters

So far my blogs have focused on growing up Polish and remembering my mother and how she influenced my life and my family’s. But now it’s time to talk about all the letters she left in the attic.

I have vivid memories of my mother both from the early years and as she grew older as well as her modest life, sometimes too modest in my estimation. She tried to add a positive spin to whatever was going in her life while being frugal. I remember when she said her heating bills were too high in her old, drafty house and how the new thermostat reading needed to be 65 degrees on some of the coldest days. She simply wore an extra sweater to keep warm. When I came to visit the thermostat went up a few degrees. I don’t think I am holding her up to be this perfect person, but she was able to tackle adversity with grace. She was someone who could make lemonade out of sour lemons, when she had to, and she had to make lemonade quite a bit.

My greatest accomplishment, next to giving birth and rearing my children has been memorializing my mother’s World War II experience. This period in her life was when her survival skills, making lemonade out of sour lemons, were the most useful. The art of tackling adversity head on served her well the rest of her life also. The project, Letters from the Box in the Attic, a Story of Survival, Courage and Love” is a tribute to this woman I called mother. My book is a work of love, which will be published sometime in early 2018.

The book’s genesis began in the fall of 2012, shortly after I resigning from my job. Because I am a one track minded type of person, there was no time for two major undertakings in my life. I needed to focus on researching the book and gathering as much information as possible. Later another job found me, which took 18 more months away from the project. Eventually I got to where I am now.

I always thought I knew so much about European World War II, only to find out that I knew only some of the basics which are taught in school. There was so much more that I needed to know to begin the writing process. The learning curve also involved needing to know more about my parents’ lives during the war; however, they were both deceased when I started the project.

This was when the letters became the dominant focus of the project, the heart and soul of the project once the letters were translated. Revelations were learned, the inner most feelings between two people, and family members were exposed. After digesting all the translations I was left with trying to make sense of it all. Eventually I was able to connect some of the dots between historical events and what my parents experienced.

Historical context is so important to put events into prospective – why things happen, not just that the events themselves occurred. Knowing what my parents experienced needed to be put into an understanding of why. As a history nerd, this was the most fun!

Then there are the personal revelations that come from doing some introspection about family. We are all interesting human beings, who suffer from human failings along with some burdens we carry both good and bad. All families have issues.

This has been my first attempt at writing a manuscript. I thoroughly enjoyed the research portion of the journey. Collecting the data, intertwining the letters with all the historical facts was fascinating. A non-fiction author once gave me a bit of advice; he said that at some point you have to start writing. You cannot just keep doing research, was his advice. As difficult as it was to follow his advice, I took it to heart. I was nevertheless convinced that I could find more information if I just tried. As I began to write, I did pursue archived information from the Polish government, which did reveal interesting facts. I was so excited to add them into the narrative. But for me the reality is that there are facts I will never know.

The idea of becoming an author is crazy to me. I am sure my high school English teachers are rolling over in their graves if they are deceased. As with other new ventures, I will have to buy into the fact that I did write the book. This next phase of my life will be exciting.

Weddings and Anniversaries – a Tribute

Recently I attended two weddings. The first one was my own daughter’s wedding, my youngest, which was in the planning process for months and the other one was  my niece’s wedding. Both were well organized and each was a distinctive celebration. Each wedding had a beautiful weather day, with a striking setting, and both receptions were good parties. But I must admit my daughter’s was by far the best. I may be a bit partial, however.

Anniversaries are time honored milestones in a marriage and recently my son and daughter-in – law celebrated their 8th anniversary. Remembering my own wedding 46 years ago feels like it was not that long ago. Then I recall the day my parents celebrated their anniversary every year, October 3rd, which is today. They would have been married 74 years had they lived. My dad predeceased mom by 30 years and every year when October 3rd rolled around, mom would count the number of years they would have been married had he lived. Many people seem to revel in the numbers as if it were a badge of courage they wear surviving so long with their partner.

Getting back to the two weddings I recently attended, I can only speak to the preparations for my daughter’s wedding. She painstakingly made sure all her details were nailed down. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details”. Her wedding was perfectly orchestrated and simply lovely, a fairy tale wedding. She was a radiant bride who also had fun at her own wedding.Samantha and Braden 162

The wedding planning process seems to change over time as new concepts and fun activities for guests or wedding party members enter into the planning. Being married almost a half a century, at the time of my wedding, there were no bachelorette parties. Comfort items for guests now include goody bags at hotel check in for out of town guests.  Receptions are usually elaborate to keep guests entertained and well fed.

My thoughts now go back to when my parents were married. It was October 3, 1943 in an army tent, in the Palestinian desert. Their life was in the middle of World War II. They were both in the Polish Second Corps which was the reorganized Polish fighting force made up of both men and women, many of whom were once exiled to Stalin’s Siberia. In Stalin’s Soviet Union they were slave laborers deported out of their homes, political prisoners, or POW’s following the invasion of Poland in September 1939. My parents each had their horror stories from the invasion of their country and all the repercussions that followed.

They had met each other the winter before the war started in mom’s home town, and somehow miraculously found each other during the war, after each was released from captivity and then struggled to make it to where the army was forming. My mom was able to join the protection of the army by becoming an auxiliary support person, a nurse. She received nurse’s training in Tehran, Iran and my dad became a fighting soldier again, as a light artillery specialist, which was his training before the war. Many of their stories I share in my upcoming book, “Letters from the Box in the Attic, A Story of Courage, Survival and Love”.

Their many post-war struggles kept them together for 36 years, until my dad died in 1979. It amazes me that I’ve been married 10 years longer than they were. I am very fortunate to still have my spouse and to keep clocking up those years. Wedding vows usually say, for better or for worse and my parents kept their devotion to each other alive during their married life, even though some of the time their relationship was rocky. Here’s to devotion and for better or for worse!

Happy Anniversary, Mama and Tatuś! I hope you are able to celebrate 74 years on this your anniversary.

The Wonders of Dill – Memories of Mom

I was having lunch with my son the day I flew in to visit him and his family. We both were having a salad and he was raving about the dressing. It was a creamy ranch with dill. After having a taste I agreed it was yummy. His comment was that dill is not used much but is a very enjoyable herb. This got me thinking about dill and the many ways to use it in cooking. I think it is one of those herbs that you either like or dislike, and there is no middle ground.

That’s the key, you have to like it to use it in meal preparation and since it’s not used much in western kitchens not many people have had the opportunity to cultivate a taste for it. Yet it’s a Polish staple at least it was when I was growing up. This got me thinking about my Polish household and how dill was used in many dishes my mom prepared. In fact it was during medieval times that dill made its way to Central and Eastern Europe. It’s called dill weed for good reason, because if not harvested, it self-sows and becomes an invasive species, a weed.

Dill is such an aromatic herb which for centuries was used for medicinal purposes. It had been used to sooth the upset stomach, used as an appetite suppressant, and even to kill bad breathe. It’s even been given credit for stimulating milk production in breastfeeding mothers, and helping with colic. I can’t vouch for any of these remedies; I just enjoy the taste and aroma.

Dill was a staple in my mother’s cooking, and she grew it in her back yard garden, the South 40 as we called it. The fragrance takes me back to mom’s Polish cooking. I presently live in a household which is a no dill zone, so I don’t go out of my way to keep it in the house, nor do I grow it in my garden. My husband is one of those who was never exposed to the wonders of dill. The fragrance alone takes me back to the dishes mom prepared. She used it in dressings made of sour cream and vinegar for cucumbers and salads, as well as in the filling for stuffed cabbages / pigs in the blanket, and she added it to her vegetable soups. Of course it is used extensively in canning pickles and on salmon for a great taste. My mom cooked the way she remembers her mother cooking and the way my dad liked his foods. He would say to mom, prepare the foods like my mother did.

My favorite memory of one of mom’s dishes was her gołąbki, her stuffed cabbage rolls. The filling was produced as an art form, which no other chef has replicated to my knowledge. Her recipe was probably from her region of Poland, or a combination of areas and ethnic influences. Those regions of Eastern Europe traded hands multiple times in history which influenced how women cooked as well as their traditions, especially from the Ukrainian, Jewish, Austrian, Russian and Polish communities. This meant that the ethnic influences from each country or ethnicity left their culinary mark. Gołąbi was definitely put together the way my dad’s mother made it and quite probably the way my mom’s household made it. The key to the filling is the dill that is used along with bacon bits, bacon drippings and small pork pieces. This concoction mixed with white rice is what made my mother’s gołąbki so special. I have not found anything close to this recipe as long as I have lived in Chicago, which has a large Polish population. The vendors at Polish fairs who sell stuffed cabbages just don’t get it right. I have tried to reproduce it from memory, but have failed. Mom’s Polish cook books don’t have that particular recipe either which is source of my frustration. I guess, getting the recipe right will take much trial and error if I want to duplicate it, because recipes handed down but are not written down, call for a little of this and a little of that. They have a hard time living on.

Even if I do not find the secret to the best gołąbki, I will use dill more, just because it needs to be used in my kitchen and to have the wonders of dill live on.

Grandma Visits – Memories of Mom

I remember the numerous times my mother came to visit my young family. She would come for Christmases, Baptisms, First Holy Communions, or when asked to babysit. These were special times for my kids, because that meant there were treats, presents and lunches out. Mom became a widow early in her life, so when she was around her grand kids it was up to her to spoil them all herself.

These memories are especially important to me now that I am a grandmother to two adorable and energetic grandsons who bring me much joy. When I get on the floor and play cars with Oliver, the four year old, or when Duke, the 20 month old gets ecstatic when we play with any ball shaped object, I remember how excited my mother was to be with my kids. Each time I visit my grandsons, I feel inspired by my mother’s example to be involved in my grand kids lives.

My mom did not live close to us, but always made the journey to come see us no matter where we lived at the time. Depending on how old my kids were, when she arrived she would slip them some money for their piggy banks, and usually had a piece of candy in her purse for them. When at her house and not able to see them often enough, she would call and ask to speak to each of them individually. On their birthday, there would be that special phone call when she would sing them Happy Birsday to U.  With her Polish accent she was never able to make the th sound, which produced giggles from the kids. She would also send holiday cards to the kids, with a special note which she signed, “Grandma loves you.” The birthday call was a favorite memory my kids have of their Polish grandmother.

A few times I asked her to come and stay with the kids when Alan and I went away for business meetings. Those visits had to have been very difficult on her since she was away from her home and the familiarity of her environment. In fact mom would start to pack even weeks before her trip, which was an anxious reflex. She was nonetheless willing to embrace our surrounds and became familiar with our local shopping and could walk to the important places to both entertain the kids and get all the necessities. When mom came to visit us in Illinois, she would make sure she took the older ones out to lunch at a local restaurant, which was close enough to walk to, followed by grocery shopping at the neighborhood store. That would mean a special snack may make it into the shopping cart along with what groceries needed to be purchased. Since they walked, only the groceries that could be carried home could be purchased. The kids had to pull their weight and help carry the bags home.

She was a very selfless grandma which I appreciated then but never understood the gravity of her sacrifice. Because she had the persona of a strong no nonsense person, I viewed her as a mighty force that should be able to handle all the needs of my kids single-handed. Car pool friends would pick up the kids and take them where they needed to be and all should be fine. Even though she did help a few times, mom became resistant to do more once we moved away from Illinois. She did say that being responsible for her grand kids and doing it alone was too much for her physically and emotionally.

Holidays and special occasions were different. Mom would come and stay a short while just to visit. Since we dotted the countryside with several moves, to visit us was a new adventure for her as well. The beauty of these trips was that once over she got to go back to her home, which was sacred territory.

I admire her even more now for what she did for my family.

Grandma’s Simple Family Values

Samantha’s wedding is this coming week; finally here after so much planning.  As the mother of the bride, I need to reflect not only about my baby, but on how family has influenced my life and the family relationships which develop. The dawn of a new life which my baby and her fiancee are about to enter, has arrived. The memories I have of Samantha as a child, I hope I never forget as I grow older and seeing the young woman she has become, makes me proud. But when did this little girl grow up? She did so right before my very eyes, and now brings with her a young man to complement our family. As our family is about to become larger, we will be forever be connected not only to her fiancee but to his family.

May I just say that we are blessed to love our soon to be son-in-law and his parents, including their other son, his wife and their babies. As we add other families into ours, we continue to be blessed, as with the addition of our daughter-in-law and her family.

Now what would grandma, my mom, say about her youngest granddaughter getting married, if she were alive? She has been gone for a while in time, but never far from the heart.

She would be thrilled that Samantha is so happy and about to be married. Simply put, she would say, if Samantha loves Braden; then I love him as my new grandson. It’s as simple as that. Her family values were not complicated. They were a reflection of how she viewed the world – that family comes first.

The future is bright for Samantha and Braden and we trust they will be happy. As a mother, I wish I could wave a magic wand over my daughter and her fiancee’s heads to assure their happiness. In the meantime I just need to trust and love.

We welcome Braden and his mom and dad, his brother and his young family to our family. We are now forever connected.

 

 

Living the Language

I grew up speaking Polish, because it was important to my parents that my brother and I learn their language, and it was the only language spoken in the home. Actually Polish was my first language, having learned English by going to school. Since I learned so young, I have no accent, while my parents had heavy accents.

I can remember reading from a Polish primer, basic child stories like the Dick and Jane readers, while sitting at my mom’s side as she did her re-weaving at the sewing machine. I hated it, because it was hard. I could speak the language, but having to learn to read it too? This was a hardship in my view. My grandmother sent us those books, czytanki, (in Polish).

So many years have gone by and the Polish language has suffered because I don’t have anyone to speak it with. One of my first but vague memories as a child was when in kindergarten I participated in a Christmas pageant, reciting a Polish poem, with my mom behind the curtain in the wing. She was there to rescue me if I missed a line. I have no idea what it was that I recited or even if it was related to Christmas. But apparently I delivered the poem in Polish. I also remember at some point during high school, my brother and I no longer spoke Polish to one another outside the home.

When I went off to college, I would write letters home and since my mother saved just about everything, I still have the letters I wrote home in my possession. Wow, my language skills were great. I had an extensive vocabulary and probably spelled the words correctly too.

While mom was alive, we spoke on a weekly basis and as the years went on, there were more and more English words inserted into our conversations, because of just not remembering the Polish words. Mom fell into that trap too, not just me. I do have to admit that I often felt that our relationship was not as strong as it could have been because the language got in the way. I would withhold information about some matters because it was too hard to explain them to her in Polish. She would always say to me when I struggled, “Say it in English” and I would, but usually it was easier to avoid the subject and not go down that road.

After she died, I realized I no longer had someone to help me keep the language alive. I had a rude awakening when I made my first trip to Poland to visit my cousin. She and her husband speak no English, so it was all on me to communicate with them. I had a really hard time. Basic conversation was okay, but if I wanted to get into a deeper explanation on a topic, I found myself translating English into Polish in my head before I spoke, which is not good. In the past I have always been able speak without thinking too much about it. To start translating with Polish sentence structure being different was frustrating, and it was evident that the vocabulary was not there. Indeed, I had a two year old’s vocabulary instead of the second grade level vocabulary I thought I had.

When I started to work on Letters from the Box in the Attic, I had to hire a translator to help me read all the documents and letters written in Polish. So maybe those Polish primers were necessary. I still would not have been able to read the letters, since they were hand scripted and I have a hard enough time reading the language when it is printed. My translator was wonderful. I was grateful for her patience. She also said that it is evident that I was taught well by my mother, even though much skill had escaped. She would also correct my mistakes, because it is so important to know correct grammar  and pronunciation. It was amazing to me to know how many words I have repeatedly mispronounced for so many years. We would spend a couple of hours together weekly and this was my immersion experience. It was still evident that I lacked good speaking ability, but to my credit I understood more than I spoke. I also developed more sight recognition of some printed words. I used to have to sound out each and every syllable before knowing what the word was, and some Polish words are very long.

I love to go shopping at a Marshalls or a TJ Maxx in the suburban Chicago area where many Polish immigrants live and shop. It’s fun to spy on their conversations. Not that I hear anything personal; it’s always about finding that outfit in the right size, or look at the cute shoes. There are benefits to knowing another language.

I do not mean to trivialize the idea of speaking and understanding another language. It’s a great gift to do so, and I am proud of and love that I can speak another language even if it is at a basic level. I do wish I had a better command of the Polish language, but that would require going to Polish language classes. I could go full circle and start reading those primers again.

 

 

 

 

The Blazer Lady, Memories of Mom

Shopping in suburban Chicago can be quite an adventure when you are from a small town in Western Pennsylvania. In fact I had made all my own clothes for years and even taught my best friend how to tailor a blazer. When my husband Alan and I were first married, and moved around for a while, we settled in Sewickley, outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my home town. We were financially destitute so I made him a wool suite one Christmas and then a leisure suite, which were popular back then. I am dating myself with the leisure suite comment. The clothes I sewed for myself were for work, even maternity clothes when needed. My mom had taught me how to sew when I was in junior high, and after graduating high school, before going off to college, I made some dresses for a friend of mine. Growing up my mom sewed just about all my clothes.

After Alan and I moved away from Pittsburgh and entered the sizable Chicago shopping market, I discovered Marshalls, the off price store. It became clear that I no longer needed to sew my own clothes. The selection and the discounted prices were phenomenal. It would be more expensive to sew than to buy. And the time savings! That was added value. In the middle 1980’s, the town where we settled, Arlington Heights, got a Lord and Taylor Sales Store, which was a shopping extravaganza.  Periodically they had fabulous sales on top of their already discounted prices. Suburban Chicago became a shopping mecca for me.

When my mom would come to visit in the 1980’s, we of course would go shopping. Mom was a widow and very frugal, so every penny was important to her. She enjoyed and took pride in being a smart dresser. We would go into a Marshalls and she was amazed at the inventory and the prices. There were no such stores in and around Sewickley or even Pittsburgh at the time. She would repeat each time she entered a Marshalls, that she was like a homing pigeon. She would gravitate to the blazer and jacket section immediately. She loved her tailored clothes. At home she would do the same, but the only stores she could afford where she lived were resale shops.

So when shopping with me she would do a lot of looking and enjoyed the experience but rarely bought a blazer. The looking was half the fun. The other half was to buy some other small item and to enjoy the time. To this day, when I need my fix, even if I need absolutely nothing, I go shopping. The fun is in the hunt for whatever is on sale and while browsing you buy something to complete the adventure.

After mom had her stroke, while she was living in a nursing home in Arlington Heights, my brother Andrew and I decided it was time to sell her house in Sewickley. My daughter Stephanie and I drove to my home town on the Ohio River to see what we should keep and what to give away. For someone who was frugal, and who told me that she periodically gave bags and bags of clothes away to the charity clothing box at church, mom still had a lot of clothes for us to dispose. We also gave away bags upon bags to the clothing collection box at her church.

Stephanie and I put together one outfit which of course included a blazer with broach, accompanied by a stylish blouse and pants, as her funeral outfit, even though there was a chance she could be cremated. When she died over a year later, she was cremated, so there was no need for burial clothes. But I still have the outfit as a memory of mom and her blazers.blazer