Family

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.

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.

 

 

The Kitchen and the Attic

These are my parents, Zdzislaw and Stanislawa Serbinski, who spent much time in their kitchen. My dad would start reading the paper with his morning coffee while mom did her daily crossword puzzle. This photograph, taken by my brother Andrew, is a special reminder of our parents.

The kitchen is a focal point of family life in most homes. It’s not just where meals are prepared but also where lively conversations start and stop, a gathering space for friends and family.

This kitchen was in the first and only home my parents bought after living in the United States for 12 years. The purchase was in the summer of 1963; they were proud. This kitchen is where my mother made her famous pierogi’s on a pastry board, on that table. She never had any counter space. The kitchen is where we would spend hours talking while I was home from college on breaks. This is the kitchen where mom collapsed from a stroke while making a cup of tea on the night of February 17, 2007.

This kitchen brings back many memories of time spent in that house. I was already in junior high when we moved in, so time living there was short.  But I spent more time there after my marriage, bringing the grand kids to mom’s house. My memories are a blend from several decades.

Unlike the kitchen, the attic was never a place where anyone went unless sent there on a specific mission. It had always been in disrepair, as I remember, with falling plaster and in need of paint. Mom did, however, do a lot of DIY repairs to it over the years, just like in the basement. By the time the house was to be sold, the attic looked good.

And then there were all those letters, documents and old photos up there too. Having found the box in the attic, with all the memorabilia that mom saved, set the stage for constructing the details of mom’s past. The joy of my life has been exploring the past – my mother’s past through those letters.  With all its contents, the box in the attic represented a link to those days which either brought a smile to her face or brought back horrifying memories, all of which defined who she was.

The box had letters written primarily in the 1940’s between mom and dad during the war, as well as communication with dad’s family during and after the war. Since my mom liked to keep anything sentimental, she even saved letters from me while I was away at school. Talk about a journey into the past!

You may have gathered that my family was not born here in the United States. Yes, my parents were Polish, born and raised in Poland. In the U.S. they raised two children to speak the Polish language and to like Polish food. The language is hard, while the food is often quite good, if you like it! To keep up a language when you hardly ever speak it is really difficult. The saying, “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” is so true. But I love the fact that I try to speak another language.

The journey into my mother’s life, found in Letters From the Box in the Attic: a Story of Courage, Survival, and Love, is my labor of love. She grew up in Poland, suffered trauma during the war, came to the United States where she and my dad hoped to experience the American Dream. They bought a little house in a quaint town with an inviting old kitchen and saved their memories in a box in the attic.

After much research, including travel to Poland, and letter translations, I started the writing process. Letter From the Box in the Attic will soon be unveiled. This post and others will introduce this piece of non-fiction, as I tell her story.

 

The Beginning of a Story

Excerpts from my trip diary:

November 9, 2013

Sitting here at the Munich Airport, as I am about to fly home,  my last thoughts are of how am I going to portray this story.  Contemplating this as we drove our last several miles back to Poland from the Ukraine the day before, I was struck with feeling Mama’s pain as in the movie Field of Dreams, relieve his pain.  Feeling her pain, how am I to relieve it?  This does not seem possible, since the pain went to her grave with her.  Is her pain to be relieved  through me on a different level?  I do feel her pain especially after seeing her land, her house, her town as it is now and remembering stories of what it was like when she lived there.  I feel regret about her life as it could have been.  I feel her pain over not having a normal young adulthood with family around.  I feel her pain over not knowing what happened to her father and her mother.  I feel her pain about not ever returning to her homeland for fear of retribution. The rational one may say that she did survive and had a loving family, with her children and grandchildren around her.  She had a nice home and friends and lived an ok life.  But that is not what I am talking about.  It’s the emotional ties that one has for what the US Constitution protects, “Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”.  Every time I hear the National Anthem, feeling the goose bumps, the pride of country, all this overcomes me.  This is what we as US citizens have and expect.  Poland could not provide that for her and that was an intangible loss, a loss of identity.  With that loss came a loss of town, a house, a normal life, worst of all the loss of a mother and  father.  All this happened by the time she was 24.  It was sheer survival at first, and then a new start.  Everything she went through affected her spirit, her will, her outlook on life.

This is what I want to capture when I tell our story, since I am the byproduct of her spirit and will to live.  Having been to where she grew up, I find myself sensing her loss.  Her town is in a foreign country that might as well be a third world nation.  That part of her Poland is a foreign country full of people whose heritage is that of those who murdered her mother.  Hearing the language spoken in Kosow and seeing the signs in that language, made me very sad.

Mama's family photo

Mama holding the walking stick with her dad off her left shoulder and mother sitting wearing the long beads. Others are some aunts, uncles and cousins.

Nonetheless, the visit had to happen for me to have a sense of what I am about to tackle, as with much of what interests me in history, the desire to be the fly on the wall.  I want to know and feel what people felt, what they experienced and not just what was left to the historians to write about.  Seeing all the photographs she kept which her extended family sent her in post-war years are priceless.  There are many family photos from pre-war Kosow.  It’s wonderful to see the serenity in her face and the faces of her loved ones, the innocence that was not yet shattered.  I know I need to portray the optimistic survivor that she was; that sheer love of family that she never would compromise; the kindness she expressed to others.

This project will honor what my mother and father experienced and felt as it unfolds and develops.