House

Excerpt from Chapter 3 – Dealing with her Past

I would like to introduce you to Letters from the Box in the Attic, a Story of Survival, Courage and Love, my labor of love. This book chronicles my mom’s war experiences as a young adult and how it changed her life. My first book is to be published next month and here is an excerpt from Chapter 3.

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While mom was alive and living in a nursing home in Illinois, my brother Andy and I decided it was time to sell mom’s house in Pennsylvania and deal with her possessions. There was a life time of stuff which she accumulated.  So much of what was in her house proved to be either in disrepair, or have no real value to worry about. Andy insisted that he did not want anything out of the house. Mom was proud of Andy’s art work which dotted her walls. They represented much of his portfolio from his college days at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He did not want any of it back. So knowing this, my daughter Stephanie and I drove to Sewickley, Pennsylvania, mom’s picturesque town along the Ohio River where I grew up. We pulled a small trailer, ready to deal with and take away what we needed to keep from the house.

Mom was a saver; not to be confused with a hoarder however. If there was the possibility that something could be reused, she kept it. If there was anything sentimental, she kept it. There was stuff everywhere! Mom’s living room was full of newspaper clippings, books and magazines, pretty much as she had left it the year before. She saved all things that represented family or a connection to her past.

My daughter and I found ourselves looking through everything, piece by piece, and found many old bound calendars and day timers filled with mom’s journaling; her written commentary about her life and life in general, covering every page. She never wasted any piece of paper while writing about this or that. Stephanie and I each spent hours pouring over stacks of materials, laughing and crying over what Grandma had saved and written.

Stephanie and I continued to look through the photos both loose and in albums, books and other recently saved memorabilia – deciding what we wanted to bring back with us. We then tackled the kitchen, dining room and her personal bedroom items and clothes. The kitchen, as small as it was, contained scads of paraphernalia as well, including small appliances, pots and pans that she had not used in years. Mom had no longer used the old Amana gas oven range, which was original with the house in 1963 the year my parents bought it. She used only one burner and never used the oven for fear of blowing up the house. The rest of her cooking was done in the little microwave or toaster oven, which Andy bought her years prior.

Stephanie laid claim to all of Uncle Andy’s art work, while I decided to keep some of her china pieces and a particular curio cabinet, as well as her old treadle Singer sewing machine. That sewing machine was the life blood of mom’s sewing business and it gave her many years of use, even after she was given a brand new machine one year for Christmas. The new machine would break down periodically, but her mending and sewing for others needed to continue forcing her to use the old reliable one.

Before Stephanie and I left that weekend, I went up to the attic which had been neatly organized over the years. I was drawn up there, somewhat as an afterthought, because Stephanie and I really needed to get on the road to drive home. Once up there I knew there was something I needed to find. We stumbled on additional clothes which we added to all the bags ready to give away. I began to open some of the cardboard storage boxes and there they were, the two boxes of precious memorabilia that mom kept. I knew she kept letters and documents from the war because she would often refer to some of the keepsakes, handwritten letters, documents, medals, photographs and books.

Those two boxes were full of precious items that needed to be in my custody, since I could not possibly abandon or discard them. To this day I can’t fathom how I almost left without mom’s treasures. They represented who she was. Had I abandoned the boxes, it would have been like throwing away pieces of her life, her youth, her heart and soul — saved for more than 70 years. In good time I would explore the contents.

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 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.