Worthwhile journeys toward finding the true essence of home and place within (and without) us requires grit. For it is not as if you can call ahead to Starbucks or Gino’s Pizza and place a to-go order for Authenticity. (Extra-large, please. And with a side salad and deep-fried cheese sticks of Courage.) Inevitably, we must turn inward, locate and then befriend our inner GPS. Maybe that is the only way home.
That is not to say this is an easy journey on which to embark.
All this comes to mind, as I glide—OK, fine, occasionally stumble—through another excursion back in my birth home of Chicago before and during the holidays. Truth is, at times, I feel as if I have devolved into a 5-year-old. I’m a wilting flower here—emotionally speaking. I crave fertilizer for my soul, something which felt readily available during my 90 days on Maui. (and Darlings, let me tell you, if there is anything that can get you closer to the Divine and further away from inconsequential blah blah blahs of so-called “real life,” it’s an accidental 90-day Detox From Society on the luscious isle of Maui.)
Still, ever since I left that haven back in early October, nothing feels the same. Even though I knew that my return to The Mainland had a purpose: To partake in three more book-related events, for my book, “Grace Revealed,” which was published earlier this year, and to see my Polish mother through shoulder replacement surgery. I figured I could be of service. However, that Polish mother of mine has spunk. In no less than two months since her surgery, she was driving on her own and already planning trips for spring.
Meanwhile, after my book events bowed, I was left with the gruesomely sad endeavor of twiddling my thumbs and deciding what may be next for me, all the while confronted with my Can I?/How Can I?/What Is The Way? blather that is obviously my default mechanisms. Do I relocate to Chicago for a while? Head to Santa Barbara? Or, do I return to Maui, where my heart seemed to thrive? I sense Maui is calling me back to her.
In between, there have been holiday outings, brave escapades of making more than 200 pierogi and much much pondering about home and place and one burning question: What do we do when life as we know it—corporate or otherwise—has been stripped away from us, and we find ourselves at a crossroads, attempting to venture forth anew, only to realize that the F word—Fear—has suddenly crawled into bed with the D word—Doubt—and the two of them insist on offering you a daily dose of Insecurity Porn.
Alas, I was entering the deep depths of Week six (or seven, or something chilling and cold like that), when, one morning, I found myself I sitting at at the dining room table in my Polish mother’s home. I was sorting through a myriad photos from one of her thirty-three photo albums. Yes. I counted. Back and white photographs of my parents’ wedding. Photographs of my parents and their Polish friends at a New Years Eve party in somebody’s refurbished basement. Photographs of me clutching my bozo rag doll when I was 5 years old, when we still lived on Altgeld Street in Chicago.
I had flipped through these photos when was back “home” last year … when I had first experienced being in between “homes” after the loss of a longtime job in the media. And yet here I was again, still exploring the very idea of home and place. Needless to say, the fascinating irony was not lost on me: That I was still adrift, technically home-less after spending more than five years writing about homeless Polish refugees. (And they say there is nothing to epigenetics.)
Well, I sat there, sifting through photos again and I discovered several albums with photographs from the 1940s and 1950s—when my family lived in Tanzania, Africa, and later, when they first came to America. Suddenly, an event that occurred last year, when I had been sorting through similar photos, came to mind. At that time, I needed more pictorial options for the book when I turned to my mother and said …
“Let’s go to Aunt Jenny’s house. She has photos. She’s 87. She’s the matriarch of the family now!”
My mother shot me a look. “Matriarch! Ha! Yes. Watch—she’ll outlive all of us!”
The car keys were in my hand. I handed my mother her blue-toned fall coat. “I’ll drive.” Twenty minutes later, we arrived at my aunt’s home in suburban Westchester.
My Aunt Jenny is a throwback to a 1950s Zsa Zsa Gabor—gracious, stylish, boisterous with an unpredictable spirit. All that, and a tremendous sense of pride about paying for—mostly by herself—her compact bi-level three bedroom beige brick wonder in the suburbs. I loved visiting her home because it felt like a “home,” boasting equal parts comfort and refuge and many a large family gathering over the years.
My aunt—she of short, stout, penciled-in eyebrows and perfect Aqua-netted blond hair—greeted us at the door. “My darling! What a surprise to see you!”
Suddenly, Iwas being held ransom in my aunt’s fierce embrace, my left cheek buried into the side of her right bosom, my Clark Kent glasses, lifting off my face, the rococo scent of Estée Lauder’s White Linen perfume slid up my nostrils and consumed every fiber of my being.
My mother dropped her purse on the kitchen table. “How is it a surprise? We called you and told you we were on our way?”
“Nevermind that now, darling,” my aunt countered, gently pushed me away, and headed straight toward the bottom drawer of her refrigerator.
My mother held a look of concern. “What are you doing?”
My aunt’s search took her deeper into the freezer. “Let me see … I have frozen pierogi and some kabasa in here somewhere!” A moment later, she tossed a few packages onto the counter and traveled north, to the larger confines of the fridge, and retrieved a large jar of suarkraut.
Onto the counter it went. “Homemade!” She exclaimed.
My mother and I exchanged looks. We were about to eat our way through another winter afternoon.
“But auntie, we just ate.”
She wasn’t having it. “What are you talking about? We have to eat something!”
“Why don’t we just treat you to lunch from the place down the street,” I countered. For I knew that I could certainly order something more calorically soothing from there than endure another bout with two-dozen pierogi my aunt nabbed from Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, not to mention the Polish sausages and rye bread and butter that was about to land on the table. My aunt cherished the locally owned, corner fast food joint, which was less than a block away, and she had often insisted on treating her guests to the establishment’s beef sandwiches and hamburgers.
“Good idea! Let me give you some money, sweetheart.”
“No. It’s my treat.”
She reached for her purse. “Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Stop!” my mother intercepted. “It’s my treat!”
Suddenly, my mother and aunt raced to shove a twenty-dollar bill into my hand. Folded. As if it were a secret. As if to say: Here, take this money and do NOT tell a single soul that you have it for … you never know if the Russians are going to stop by and take everything away from us again!
Carm’s Beef Sandwiches was a standard Chicago dive—tall order counter, formica tables, a soda pop machine, a tv blasting a sports channel, the fiery hiss of hot grease and the aroma of mouth-watering aroma of French fries and hot dogs wafting in the air.
A tall, robust middle-aged woman with platinum blond hair that was waddled up into a frantic bun was behind the counter. She was heavily mascara’d and had rosy cheeks. I gave her part of the order—two hamburgers, plain, with grilled onions on the side. She chuckled. “Let me guess. This is for Jenny.”
I nodded. Obviously, my aunt was well known in these parts.
“Add a large order of fries and a salad with grilled chicken.”
“And that would be for you?”
“What makes you say that?”
She learned over the counter. Her eyes hit me, travelled south and then back north. “Blond hair, suntan, no beer gut. You’re not from around here.”
“I may move back.”
She handed the fry cook, Jose, the order. “Move back? From where?”
A laugh. “God help you!”
Finally! Confirmation from The Universe.
Back at my aunt’s house, I walked through the back door, into the kitchen and set down the two brown paper bags filled with food—a grease stain was already spreading across one of them.
“Beautiful, sweetheart!” my aunt beamed and began ripping open the bags. “I can smell the onions!”
I sat down at the table, my eyes suddenly betraying me.
For our fabulously low-cost $18.85 fast food lunch, my aunt had set out her finest china. Good God, it must have been the same china she received as a weddng gift from her first marriage—delicate and accented with detailed pink roses. Barely a chip to be found on them.
I shot my mother a quizzical look. She shrugged. A moment later my aunt’s hand was over my plate and like a bulldozer releasing fresh mounds of rich Earth, they opened and a hefty portion of French fries fell down before me. I unwrapped the hamburgers and opened the container of grilled onions and handed them out just as my aunt passed a large platter of pickled pigs feet my way.
You have got to be kidding me! I thought bitterly. More food? More food other than the fast food?
“Maybe later,” I insisted, passing on the pickled pigs feet. My mother, on the other hard, took a large wad of that gelatinous anomaly before passing it over to my aunt. She ripped off a corner portion and slid it onto her plate, which had already been loaded with the hamburger, onions and fries.
My stomach turned.
Opening my salad container, I noticed that my aunt had found several photo albums after all, and had placed them on the table. I grabbed the oldest looking one—ivory with white linen sheets sticking out of its side—and set it on the corner of the table between me and my aunt. I flipped through several pages, landing on a photo of my grandmother Jadwiga in the 1950s, after the family had endured eight years living in an African orphanage.
The black and white photo featured my grandmother and my mother in their modest apartment on Chicago’s south west side. My mother, smiling, sat on a double bed. My grandmother, modestly dressed in a dark housedress, leaned against the dresser nearby. Home—from another era.
“I have never found a picture of grandma smiling,” I mused.
“Mamma?” my aunt chimed in between bites. “She was very tough woman; been through a lot sweetheart.”
“Oh Ma? She never smiled in photos,” my mother added.
I recalled some of the stories my mother and other relatives had told me. “And she was strict?”
“You no want to know, sweetheart!” my aunt shot back in broken English. “Be lucky you have the mother you have.”
“She loved you all, though” I added. “She protected you during the war. She must have given you great advice? You know—about home, about the world, about life?”
My aunt’s penciled-in eyebrows arched. “Advice?” She sighed heavily. “You wanna know what my mother told me when I got my …” She turned to my mother and asked how to say something in Polish. My mother laughed and then told her. My aunt turned back to me. “Sweetheart … you know what Mamma say to me when I got my period?”
I looked up from the chicken salad. Had my aunt just said what I thought she said? Did she really just bring up her first menstral cycle? Right there? In front of me, God, the grilled onions and that horrible pickled pigs feet?
“YOU KNOW WHAT MY MOTHER SAY TO ME WHEN I GOT MY PERIOD?” my aunt repeated, this time louder as if I had not heard her the first time and now, I wished that maybe I should not have.
I shook my head, and immediately grabbed my iPhone and pressed record on the voice memo app. “What? What did she say?”
My aunt waved a finger, obviously mimicking her mother. “If you ever …
Oh, the emphasis on that word EVER…
“…bring something home, I throw you out like a dog.”
“You mean … ?”
“Yes. She would kick me out of house like dog, sweetheart … you know, if I ever got pregnant.”
I waved a hand. “Yeah. Got it!”
“That’s nothing!” my mother suddenly chimed in from the other end of the kitchen table. “You know what mother said to me?”
Good God. There was more.
My mother stood up as if to make a point. “Listen to me good,’ my mother told me. ‘If you ever, ever bring home anything, I will commit a mortal sin before God. I will kill you!”
My aunt laughed. I sat there, braving a mix of horror and excitement.
“It no like today, sweetheart,” my aunt went on. “A mother should talk to daughter—sit them down, tell her about birds and bees.”
“Yeah …” I nodded. “Birds and bees.”
“I so afraid after my mother told me that; afraid she kick me out. I thought that when boy touch my arm, I become pregnant! I no know!”
My hand was over my mouth. I did not know what I was enjoying more—my aunt’s broken English or the fact that we were still on the subject of First Periods.
“This is what life give me, sweetheart. I no know nothing! I so confused and scared. I was virgin on my wedding night!”
(Okay. So she actually went there.)
“Yeah, virgin! My husband do his thing and all it took was one shot, sweetheart and boom—I pregnant with my Christine!”
My mother nodded. Obviously she could relate?
“I learn the hard way, honey,” my aunt went on. “I learn the hard way. I learn to find my way in the world.”
A sigh. And then the woman turned to my mother and shot her a serious look. “Do me a favor, kitten…”
“What?” my mother held her gaze.
“Pass me the pickled pigs feet …”