parents

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 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.

 

Letters from the box.

mama & tatus

My parents, circa 1944 or 1945.
Zdzislaw and Stanislawa Serbinski

Exploring the past has always been my fascination. Depending on the era I was studying in school, I wished to be a fly on the wall in order to experience life as it was then. Having my mother’s treasures in my possession and knowing the two characters involved, my parents, gives me the thrill of that fly, or at least the thrill will one day come to be. Right now I have more questions than answers as I explore their early years.

My goal is to explore my parents’ war years and put many pieces of a puzzle together based on letters, documents, photographs,  stories and much research. The puzzle is incomplete because both my parents are dead and many answers went to the grave with them and while they were alive I never asked the right questions. Growing up in a Polish home, my parents told some war stories, many stories of pre-WWII Poland and expressed how much they loved their country. Their Polish pride always showed through by how they viewed world politics, the American educational system and life in general. I always wondered why they were reluctant US citizens. My hope is to be able to find out more about their lives from the stacks and stacks of letters, photos and documents my mother left behind.

Excerpts from my diary:

November 26, 2012:

Today November 26, 2012 is my birthday and it’s the first day that I am officially working on the project that I have been destined to do. I quit my job to start this project without one ounce of regret.

I woke up and started on the computer at 8:00 a.m. Actually my daughter Stephanie and I started the night before, where she had us on the Library of Congress website. I then did some more Googling after she left and found myself on the most fascinating site.  At 8:00 a.m. the next morning I found myself consumed by www. Kresy-Siberia.org, a virtual museum, dedicated to the stories, videos and photographs of Polish refugees from the Kresy region who underwent forced deportation to USSR labor camps during the first two years of WWII.

I have not taken the time to discipline myself into my work space or to outline what I should be doing. Since this is the first day and it is my birthday, I am enjoying being immersed into the stories and language struggles of what I am about to undertake.
I will need to find some additional websites as potential resources, and then very carefully go through all of mama’s papers, sort them, scan and catalog them.