The Stories of Those Who Came Before Me….

I do not know exactly how my Polish and Irish ancestors finagled their way into this country.  Having been personally motivated by desperation too many times to count, I imagine it was indeed desperation that caused them to leave behind the comforts—close-knit communities, sprawling families, and common language, to scratch the surface—and come to a place that they believed, that they hoped was better.  I too feel this drive in my blood, this drive to fight like hell for anything worth having.  However, maybe I am attributing this to a genetic disposition when it is, in fact, the human desire to survive.

I know that some of my mother’s Irish ancestors first lived in Canada before moving to Somerville, Massachusetts, an area that, at the turn of the century, was more of an ethnic enclave than the hipster bohemia it is now.  My Polish great-grandparents, whom I know only from stories, learned varying degrees of English after immigrating to Ware and Palmer, Massachusetts.  They had little use for the English language.  They could buy groceries, go to the bank, and get their cars repaired using their native tongue.

All eight of my great-grandparents were deceased before I was born.  I know for certain all eight were wild characters, simply from knowing their off-spring and because, more to the point, that I am one of their off-spring.  I only wish I could have sat down with them at their kitchen tables, and, over a home-cooked meal, heard how they arrived in this country.  I remember my Polish grandmother telling me about an ancestor who, rather than returning home after a summer job was complete, she hopped a boat to Ellis Island and never saw her family again.  I do not know if this decision was impulsive or well-thought.  Either way, I am convinced that someone related to me could have pulled that kind of stunt.

These impressively strong-willed, hard-working, loving great-grandparents went onto raise large families of children of the same hardy stock.  When I look at the pictures of these large families, roughly ten children a piece, I am surprised that my grandparents remember every single one of their siblings’ names.

Sure enough, all four of my grandparents are still alive well into their late eighties, a true testament to a strong gene pool, impressive self-care, and luck.  All four can still remember all their siblings’ names, as well as cook extravagant meals, grow abundant crops of grapefruit, walk around the block, dance late into a Saturday night, and otherwise lead far more active interesting lives than a lot of twentysomethings I know.

In these pictures, everyone is sitting on the stoop of a fastidiously cared-for house, wearing shirts that would be wonderfully crisp to the touch, every hair in place.  Funny, I would have guessed I came from more disheveled stock!  I fixate on everyone’s healthy complexion and feel like my skin is literally pale in comparison, on death’s doorstep compared to these relatives (when exactly do ancestors become relatives?  For some reason, my great-grandparents feel like ancestors and my grandparents feel like relatives).  I gawk at their muscles and think that even though I have been working out at a gym for over a decade, my physique is a joke compared to theirs.  The matriarchs are always in the center.  I can not recall any of these pictures with the patriarchs in them, in part because two of my great-grandfathers died early, work-related deaths.

I know some of what was happening behind the scenes in these well-composed photographs, but not very much.  I have pieced together my family history from listening to personal anecdotes and knowing the course of the twentieth century.  Once these large families were established, the daring, perhaps desperate parents of my grandparents planned to do everything in their power to feed, clothe, and nurture the brilliance of the next generation.

Then the Great Depression hit.  My strong-willed great grandparents, devout Catholics, understood this as a sign from God that they needed to work harder to care for those they love.  Was it a risky proposition for my father’s father to cut a tree for a priest?  Yes.  Did he need the money to feed his family?  Uh-huh.  Was that tree the death of him?  Yep.  Did my great-uncle step up to the plate and become the primary breadwinner for his mother and siblings, earning money to buy a farm house outside of town?  Yes, yes, he did.

The Great Depression may have forced my hard-working immigrant relatives into overdrive and may or may not be indirectly related to the deaths of several of them.  That being said, World War Two, being fought in the old world, may have been the single greatest event in world history that allows me to lead the life of luxury I currently enjoy.  In all four of my grandparents’ families, the sons almost all enlisted.  All four families experienced the tragedy that can come with the inherent risk of a better life through serving this country.  After all, when my grandparents speak of the war, speak of the pride that they feel in the relatives who served, they also speak of those who never came back.  These siblings will always be young in their memory, just as they are in the photographs on the wall, even as my grandparents themselves struggle with arthritis and heart conditions and knee and hip replacements.  They look at those sprawling families and point out those who died either from the war or some childhood disease that has never been on my radar screen because I was vaccinated a long time ago.

Yet some of the men who are pictured in uniform did return, including both my grandfathers.  I do not know exactly how my grandfathers, both very rational brilliant men even under the age of twenty, calculated that the risk of not coming back was worth it.  However, they are both such honorable men, such devoted husbands and loving fathers and, I have to imagine, doting sons, loyal patriots from all the opportunities that this country had given their parents, that they could have very well made that decision because it was the right thing to do.

My grandmothers posing at the beach are next to the pictures of my grandfathers’ in uniform.  I look at my grandmothers, and, though I am slightly biased, I think their beauty rivals any of movie stars from the same time period in which they were married, but I suppose that is only because I know their inner beauty as well.

From the black and white photographs, you cannot tell that my grandmother is a redhead.  You can however tell that she is confident by the way she holds up her chin and leans back and smiles for whoever is taking the photo, maybe a boyfriend whose name is long forgotten now, maybe my grandfather.  She would tell you she was not always confident.  Growing up, she always felt self-conscious because she was shorter than all the other girls (I never understood this when I was little, she appeared to be the universal grown-up size).  Then she started going to dances and learned that boys LOVED to dance with someone shorter than them, and she decided if it meant she was more attractive to future dance partners, she did not care how tall she was.  Of course, I must imagine my grandmother was attractive to future dance partners simply because she was, is, and will always be one of the most dynamic conversationalists that I have ever met.  Whether she is shopping in her hometown grocery store or watching a grandchild’s soccer game, she manages to find something in common with someone and strike up a conversation (once again, definitely my relative).  At one fateful dance that was part of many chance events that brought me into this world, she ran into a tall (this is one of her chief deciding factor in whether or not a man is handsome) classmate from Somerville High in a navy uniform, and I am sure she did not have to try very hard to finagle an invitation to dance from him.  My grandfather may have been a little more reserved than my grandmother, but every skilled talker needs a strong listener.

Rather, from my grandparents’ 50-plus year relationships, I have learned that it is not enough that people’s chemistry complements each other, it is not enough that there is a spark.  I look at these two successful marriages, and not only do I see how well my grandparents complement each other in their marriages, I see that they have “space in their togetherness”, as I hear quoted at nearly every wedding.

My father’s parents’ romance started when they met through mutual friends in the Polish community of central Massachusetts.  The attraction was strong enough, the interest was strong enough, the intrigue was strong enough that the relationship continued even once my grandfather, my “dzadziu” as he will forever be called, headed to Missouri for graduate school.  They continued their correspondence in love letters.  Perhaps of all the ways to date, I think a courtship via the US Postal Service, in which each side must have the patience to engage in the process of writing, sending, and receiving letters, can be the most telling of whether a relationship can truly last.

I have not decided about one photograph in my possession, about whether its place on the mantle would be more helpful or harmful.  It is my parents’ wedding picture, and I cannot imagine the mantle without it.  It would be like cutting the front page, or perhaps the editorial section out of a newspaper, and saying, “Here you go, this is the whole story.”  Because I still believe my parents’ romance, which ultimately ended in heart ache and was not meant to be, is the greatest love story of the twentieth century, simply because it brought, well, me into this world.

I have heard it so many times that you could wake me up in the middle of the night and I could tell it to you as it was always told to me.  It may not be audible, but I could tell it to you, as it was told me not hundreds, but thousands of times in my childhood.   I loved the story so much, sometimes I would ask, and other times my mother and father would freely share how they met, fell in love, and decided to make the commitment to spend the rest of their lives together.  Here is how I tell it.

My father and mother were both students at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  They were both the third child in families of six children, and they both so enjoyed caring for their younger siblings that they both decided to become nurses at a young age (yes, this was unorthodoxed for a man in the seventies, but my father has been a little unorthodoxed his entire life).

My father’s father prudently decided that rather than pay room and board while all six of his children attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he would build a house there (this also reflects the kind of man he is).  Here was my father, living at home with his parents.

His Uncle Joe, after whom he was named, gave him a business proposition.  Pick as many apples as you want off my trees, and you can sell them at the Amherst farmers’ market.

My father, who works hard and plays hard, could not turn this opportunity down.  He picked those apples, and he drove down to the Amherst Farmers’ Market, not nearly as organized as it is now, and he sold them.

He even convinced a red-headed University of Massachusetts student to buy some by “giving her an offer she couldn’t refuse”.  (At this point in the story, if we were all there sitting around the dinner table, my mom would say, “Joe, stop it.”)  He found my mother’s weakness for produce, and ran with it.

They dated on and off throughout their college careers, until finally they broke up for the last time.  My father lived in Cambridge and worked at Boston City Hospital in the year after he graduated, saving money for graduate school.  Eventually he chose the University of California-San Francisco graduate program.  He was prepared to drive cross-country when that red-head called him up and said she heard he was going to California and wanted to talk.  They rendezvoused on the pedestrian bridge near the MGH T stop and the esplanade, and made plans to drive cross-country together.

They loved San Francisco.  Their voices always became warm and all-knowing when they spoke of living near Golden Gate Park, and even as a little girl, I vowed I would go to this city, to San Francisco, to California some day.

Yet my mother especially ached for her family, ached for New England, did not want to spend her whole life so far from those she loved the most, and once my father finished graduate school, they drove back east, engaged, and my father was offered a job at Redington Fairview Hospital in Skowhegan, Maine.  At the job interview, they warned him that unless he planned to raise a family, he may be bored in central Maine.  He assured them that that was the plan for himself and his wife.

I am so happy that was his plan, and that that was also my mother’s plan.

That plan, and all the perhaps overambitious, wild, driven plans of my relatives and ancestors, is the reason that I exist.

“The Best Hat at the Tucson Rodeo”

She had a last-minute hat change before the Tucson rodeo. She had already bought one wide-brim cowgirl hat within 12 hours of landing in Arizona. She and her friends had gone to the rodeo parade on Thursday morning, and her friends did not have to work very hard to persuade her to try on hats and purchase one. Once she committed to one, she wore it to the Desert Museum, and the restaurant where Bill Clinton ate, and the Grand Canyon, and Sedona. She would have happily returned to Maine with that one wide-brim hat.

Yet every hat shop caught her attention. She continued trying them on and admiring herself in them in the mirror for the entire trip. As they were leaving the Tucson farmers’ market on Sunday morning, she noticed a hat stand selling, among other things, hats with the widest, most curved-up brims that she had ever seen. She did not hesitate to try on one but she had no intention of spending more money.

She looked at herself in the mirror. The entire hat did not fit in the reflection. It was silly and outrageous, yet she could not stop looking at herself in it.

“It’s Kentucky Derby meets the Tucson rodeo,” one of her friends said. Yes, yes, it was.

“I want to buy it for you,” one of her friends kindly said, and the hat was hers. The seller reassured her that the hat could be folded into a suitcase and retain its shape. She knew it would be bulky to bring home but she did not care. It was her soul hat.

She had trouble wearing it while getting into the car, and she worried how she would fit into a public restroom stall. The hat gave her a wider birth than she already had, and she feared no one would be able to sit next to her at the rodeo.

In fact, the widest brim hat made on earth turned out to be the perfect match for sitting in the uncovered rodeo grandstands under the direct rays of the Arizona sun. She and her friends had discussed the most appropriate rodeo outfit since none of them had ever been. Once they were there, they understood that boots and jeans and hats were not merely fashion statements but practical responses to the ever-present dust and strong sun. She realized that rodeo season fell in February and March because the sun would not be tolerable any other time of year.

They began walking through all the vendors outside the rodeo grounds, past stand after stand selling boots and hats and belts. They met someone who worked the rodeo, who went out onto the grounds and wrangled up horses after the vaqueros had been thrown off. He told them that the junior rodeo started at 12:30 and then the professional rodeo began at 2pm. He gently suggested that they all buy hats to survive sitting in the stands.

While her friends tried on hats, she stood and watched and took pictures. The salespeople began to admire her hat and say,”Wow, that’s the best hat at the rodeo”. She did not know about that. It was not what any of the locals were sporting.

Yet she was making this rodeo, her 30th birthday present to herself, her own. She felt attracted to how rough and rowdy she imagined the event to be, but once there, she felt comfortable because it turned out to be wholesome fun. She liked that the event drew families and seniors and young singles, just like a Southwestern version of the Blue Hill Fair.

Before the rodeo, her friends bought pulled pork sandwiches for lunch, but she passed, only eager to find a water fountain. She had to dump out her water at the gate, and she refused to pay two dollars for a small water bottle. In that heat, she would need to fill her Nalgene several times. No water fountains in sight, she sat with her companions while they ate under the dining tent.

They struck up a conversation with a couple from Idaho across the table from them. The couple did not know how many rodeos they had attended in their lives. “I was in a couple amateur rodeos,” the man proudly declared. They explained that these days, they preferred watching the junior rodeo. She tried to ask about the events that they would be watching, and they said that every rodeo showcases different events.

After lunch, the foursome made their way to their bleacher seats. Once there, her friends declared: “Look at the sea of hats!” Her friend took a picture, and even amidst the sea, hers stood out…..

Cucumber

Cucumber may wander and meander far from where she begin, but she sends out tendrils grabbing ahold of friends along her journey and she refuses to let them go. She abandons Facebook in search of genuine connection. She prefers the old-fashion romance of opening her mailbox to find a letter from a penpal or answering a phone call from a distant area code in the middle of the night. Her friends do not want to let go of her either, for as diverse as they all are, they all see themselves in her, in her faith, in her joy, in her acceptance. She soothes with her huge smile; it is her secret weapon. Whether ebullient or annoyed, she cannot help but embrace the world.

Cape Cod in February

She could not remember the last time she had slept in the luggage closet. As a child, she would sleep in the windowless space with her cousins every February when her family gathered at their Cape Cod timeshare. Then, she had loved sharing close quarters with cousins that she only saw a couple times a year. She had strangely looked forward to it, and her family would laugh about the lack of space. Now, she and her mother were the last to arrive, and the luggage closet was her only option at 11pm that Friday night. At the prospect of sleeping sooner rather than later, she took it.

She woke up at 6am, unable to stand up straight in part because of the slanted ceiling and in part because the cotton sleeping bag proved to be insufficient padding. At home, the lethargy of February was beginning to set in, and she never wanted to get out of bed until she needed to get ready for work. Here, she bolted out of her sleeping bag and wanted to leave the crawl space for the sauna and hot tub at the club house.

She swapped her pajamas for her bathing suit and slipped on her snow pants and down jacket. She trudged to the club house to find the pool did not open for another hour. Rather than return to the locked condo, she went for a walk in the coldest temperatures she had ever experienced in the Cape and returned once the building opened.

She did not gain clarity about her sleeping arrangement until she had soaked in the hot tub, and puttered in the pool, and stayed in the sauna long enough to glow. Being a goddess is not about lingering in bed, she thought. Although she savored lingering in bed, although it could feel like one of the most decadent luxuries in the world to sprawl across a mattress, there she felt more in a womb than she felt alive and invigorated. She needed this morning of slight discomfort and solitude to shake her awake in a way that she had been fighting….

The Beginning of Self-Love

things I love about myself: my mainstays of my wardrobe are clothing that my parents wore when I was a small child, so comforting and classic; my collection of hiking maps in the bathroom; the way that I decorate a room or arrange a produce shelf; that I truly do resemble a chicken in terms of both my excitability and panic; that I know my way around Acadia without a map; that my knees lock when I am truly joyful; that I found produce at an early age and rediscovered it at twenty and that will be a theme for the rest of my life; that I am so willing to share anything I have with anyone who needs it; that I consider picking up lots of hitch-hikers but only offer rides to the ones who remind me of myself; that dressed appropriately, I can spend an entire winter day outside…

Frozen Pipes

She woke up to go to the bathroom at 4am, and once she realized the water was not running, she knew she was awake for the day. For her, she could not crawl back into bed and shaking a husband or boyfriend or lover awake to fix it. She had no father or uncle or grandfather or cousin within 300 miles from her, and her landlord lived on a cranberry barren in Massachusetts. Should she ever have the decadence of having a man help her, she would be even more appreciative, but for now, at that hour, she would need to do what she could for herself. She thought of her friend writing a children’s book about being a “self-rescuing Princess”, and slipping on her snow pants and her muck boots and her father’s red-white-and-blue sweater, she fit the part….

First Ice-Skate of the Year

She had gone to bed hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve. She woke up at 4am on New Year’s Day, and stumbled upon something to celebrate: according to the Internet, the Ellsworth outdoor skating rink would be open for the first day of the season that morning, January 1.

Not a party girl, she could not feel excited about New Year’s Eve, but ice-skating!!! She had fond childhood memories of skating on an ephemeral pond on her neighbor’s field in Norridgewock. She and her sister would attempt to imitate the Olympic figure skaters the best they could, and score each other. She remembered Central Maine winters where every Sunday her family would go to a skating party at a different pond.

She had to be there at dawn. She would feel like an oddball skating amidst the small children inching their way along. She loaded her laundry into her car, and drove to her mother’s house, only to find her mother spent New Year’s elsewhere. She started her laundry, and carried her skates up State Street in the darkness.

At Christmas, only a week before, the rink remained a pool of water, and her sister pointed out the “rink not ready” sign. “Do they really need that sign? Anyone who would attempt to skate on that needs round-the-clock supervision.”

In fact, the “rink not ready” sign remained up but the smooth glassy surface suggested otherwise. “Arrest me,” she thought, and she took off her boots and slid on her skates and began tying them up.

After all, lest she forget her “wholesome badass” quota, some ridiculous concept she invented her sophomore year of college. She could not break the law but she certainly found ways to push the envelope.

Now was one of those instances. Even before she took off, she felt confident that she would not fall through. Sure enough, not a creak or a crack, not a bubble to be found. Shear perfection.

Having the ice to herself, she made figure-eights and raced from one end to the other and tried to scratch up every inch of the surface. She remembered how soothing the gliding motion could be, she who felt frustrated with certain parts of her life but not this, not now.

Around 7am, someone from Parks and Rec pulled in. She apologized, always her first instinct, and told him she did not know what time the rink opened. The sign only posted that it closed at 7pm.

“Oh, no, I am happy to have someone test the ice,” the kind man said. “How is it?”

Wow, not only was it okay, but she could be useful. “Perfect, no rough patches.”

“Last year we opened it too early, and it didn’t take the weight of ten people very well.”

She did a few laps closer to the edges, this time scrutinizing, listening for imperfections. She still could not find any.

She stayed a little while longer, the cold eventually reaching her toes. She waddled to the bench, removed her skates and slid her muck boots back on, and told the gentleman that she would be back.

Content and a little tired, she carried her ice skates down State Street. She held them by the string, for all the motorists to see, and they dangled as if she caught a fish. She felt the joy that one must feel catching a fish, how all of the cautious optimism becomes beaming certainty…

After all, lest I forget

“She would need to push her way out…”

She had pared down on sweet things, and begun to accept that some nights she needed to sleep alone. Some nights she would need to boil the water for herself, and fix a cup of tea, and shower while it cooled, shower and relax all the muscles in her high-strung body. It was that time of day when she would crave being held, but she was learning that just like with sweets, the less she indulged, the less she wanted it. She wanted peace of mind, she wanted to accept that no one was coming to save her, that she could not lay down and die in any spot of misery but she would need to push her way out…

Snow Pea

Every woman always told Snow Pea that she wanted to grow old with him. He would kiss each one on the neck, and hold her, and tell her everything she wanted to hear, perhaps because it was easier that way. No use in ruining the night or the afternoon by saying that he just wanted that moment, that he had no taste for forever. For as long as she stayed, he gave it all to her, the most he could be capable of.

Carrot

He was a carrot. You could see his life as plain or extraordinary. He was always pushing in the opposite direction than you would expect to become sweet or respectable. Yet who does not love a carrot, someone who concentrates his roots rather than spread than rampant yet shallow?