Lessons from a Feisty Polish Grandmother

I lost my grandmother last week. She was 87. While I’d more or less known it was coming for the last several years, nothing ever prepares you for when “sometime soon” is “today.” I’ve done my fair share of crying the past several days, and I’m certainly saddened by the loss. But there are many things about Mama Alice that will always make me smile. Here are a few of the lessons my feisty Polish grandmother taught me through her words, her actions, and her attitude.

1. Traditions are traditions for a reason – so keep them.

In an age where everything about everything changes so quickly, some things about Mama always stayed the same. At Easter, there would always be a butter lamb on the table. For those not familiar with Polish Catholic traditions, it’s exactly what it sounds like – a lamb-shaped glob of butter with peppercorn eyes and a red ribbon symbolizing Christ’s blood, bought from the Broadway Market.

Because Jesus was the Lamb of God...get it?
Because Jesus was the Lamb of God…get it?

At Easter, there was always a ham; at Thanksgiving, a turkey; at Christmas, a ham. Always those meats on those holidays, never any substitutes.

On Christmas Day, we’d arrive to Mama and Papa’s house around mid-afternoon. Mama would be well into her set of bayberry candles, which she’d burn all the way to the sockets, because “A bayberry candle burnt to the socket brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket.”

They were simple things, but they were always there on those days. And as such, they were part of what made those days family holidays. And they’ll be how I continue to do holidays in the future too.

2. When you have visitors to the house, always have food for them. Always have plenty.

If there’s one thing Polish grandmothers know how to do, it’s feed family. Without fail, within 3 minutes of walking into the house, Mama would offer you a sandwich, some candy, and something to drink. You’d decline, because the meal would be on the table in 20 minutes. Dinner would never be overly fancy, but it would leave you full. Then about half an hour after the meal was over, the cycle of food offerings would start all over again.

“Do you want leftovers? How about a sandwich? I have a nice roll. How about a cookie?” “No Mama, I’m full.” “Ok, but if you go home hungry, it’s your own stupid fault.”

Even if it was a quick drive-by visit, she’d pop some pizza in the toaster oven for you. She was always prepared for visitors to come, sit around the table, laugh, talk, and of course, eat. Food was the centerpiece. It gathered us together and then fueled the memories we made the rest of the day.

It rubbed off on me. Friends can’t come to my house without at least having a snack. When I have parties, my friends go home fat and happy and I have enough leftovers for a week. When I go to someone else’s house, I bring food with me to share with my hosts. I bring baked goods to work because food has the power to break people away from their busyness, come together, and relax for just a few minutes.

3. Take pictures. Put them in albums and hang them on the walls.

After Mama passed, my mom and I spent some time looking through old pictures. There were surprisingly few with Mama in them, largely because she was always the one taking them. She used one of those long, flat Kodak cameras that you had to wind before each shot to advance the film. She’d get those photos developed and they’d either wind up on the wall in a frame, or in an album. Often they were blurry, or crooked, but they still captured the smiles. Periodically, she’d send a picture in the mail of myself when I was younger – sometimes climbing a tree, sometimes playing kickball in their back yard, but always smiling.

Taken from the photo album of my dad's first year.   I guarantee there were bayberry candles burning somewhere in the house that day.
Taken from the photo album of my dad’s first year. I guarantee there were bayberry candles burning somewhere in the house that day.

Nobody prints pictures anymore. We carry thousands of memories with us on our smart phones in our pockets, or we post them to our Facebook walls, but rarely do we print them out. I think we do ourselves a disservice, because the memories are so much more tangible when you can hold them in your hands on real paper. Our digital memories are so fleeting. We take them for granted because we can take the picture 10 times until we get it perfect, instead of having to deal with the blurry off-centered shot we got when we used real film. We can delete our memories with the swipe of a finger when we need more space on our device. This cheapens them and makes them less, well, memorable.

I may never have books and books of photos like my grandmother (or giant Tupperware tubs of pics like my mother), but I’m going to start printing more.

4. Yankees games make for good family time.

Without fail, if the Yankees were playing on a day we were at Mama and Papa’s house, the game would be on. After the aforementioned large dinner, we’d gather in the living room to talk, watch baseball, and usually fall asleep for a 3-inning nap. We’d cheer on Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, and Rivera, and talk about how I did in my softball game last week, how Dad’s work was going, and what Mom’s latest sewing project was. (Of course, the conversation would be periodically interrupted by Mama’s offers of food or drink.)

Yankees baseball is a big part of our family. Dad taught me that “all of baseball exists just so the Yankees would have someone to play.” As a little girl, I was going to be the first woman player in the Major Leagues, and of course I was going to play for the Yankees. My parents got me a life-size Derek Jeter cardboard cutout one year for Christmas. Love for the Yankees is in our blood, passed down from generation to generation, and is as much a part of family tradition as the butter lamb.

Derek Jeter, a part of the family since 1996.
Derek Jeter, a part of the family since 1996.

5. Little women can pack a mighty big attitude.

When Mama passed away, her weight nearly matched her 87 years, and she couldn’t have been more than 5 feet tall. She was taller and heavier once, although she was never a large woman. But she had a big attitude! She kinda reminded me of Lucy from Peanuts, always playing feisty pranks on poor Charlie Brown, and warning “I oughta slug you” to any of the boys (or dogs) who got on her nerves. Mama was the same way. Though she was tiny, she had a snarky sense of humor that would come out when you’d least expect it. And yes, she’d even jokingly threaten to slug you in the arm sometimes if you were getting out of line.

Even in the hospital a couple weeks before her passing, she still possessed that same big attitude that I loved. When the neurologist came by to see how Mama was doing mentally, the neurologist asked her what day it was. “It’s Friday and you’re the 5th person to ask me that today. Why don’t you look at a calendar?” The neurologist pointed at my grandfather and asked who he was. “Oh, that’s my crabby old husband.” Dad and I just sat there and laughed, because there she was, hooked up to machines and wires, still being her feisty self.

What're you lookin at?  I oughta slug you!
What’re you lookin at? I oughta slug you!

So I will be my big-attitude self, with no apologies. I will make large meals for my friends and I shall take pictures of my friends eating those meals and print them on real paper. I will watch the Yankees whenever I can, and burn bayberry candles this Christmas. Mama may be gone, but her spirit is alive and well in me, her feisty Polish granddaughter.

One thought on “Lessons from a Feisty Polish Grandmother

  1. Karla, what beautiful memories of your grandma. If you are on Facebook please friend me and I will add you to the Herdzik page. I have been putting a lot of old pictures that I am converting from slides on the page dating back to the 50’s. I am so sorry for your loss and remember lots of good times with your grandma.

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