I never asked my children how I measured up as a mother. By comparison, my Mom is an excellent Polish cook and baker, gardener and creative artist. She designed and sewed my Sunday clothes and hand painted beautifully elaborate holiday decorations on the side porch windows. Mom threw magnificent family gatherings, where we connected with our first and second cousins both at home and at our cottage on the lake.
Her mom, whom I called Nanny, was an authentic gem of Polonia. After dziadzia (my grandfather) died suddenly from an aneurysm on the sidewalk after Mass, I offered to move in to help her deal with his departure. I was her caretaker for the next 10 years. Nanny didn’t drive, but she was tremendously active in the Martha Washington Club, among other benevolent religious societies.
What I learned from both women I now attempt to share with my grandchildren, such as the proper thickness of rolled-out pierniki dough, dancing the polka, oberek and Rhinelander, and hysterical family foibles from days past.
Those 10 years provided me with myriad memories of Nanny at her Westinghouse stove preparing czarnina and kluski noodles, spare ribs and sauerkraut, oven-roasted picnic hams and chuck roast soup, which I nicknamed mustard meat soup because the tender beef was so delicious and it was served with a side of Weber’s mustard for dipping.
Just like a cooking show contestant, Nanny rolled out the best pies, kruschiki and pineapple horns. My soul still savors her canned pears, which were stacked vigilantly in the fruit bin along with green beans, tomatoes and her family-famous recipe for Polish dill pickles. Smacznego!
So much was hidden in those old family photographs, I learned. This one was the drunk, this one the philanderer. It was both frightening and funny from my perspective. As a child I wasn’t taught to speak Polish (their secret language) because Mom and Nanny spoke so often about those delinquent family members and their run-ins with the law. Sometimes those clandestine conversations went crazily into the wee hours of the morning.
Whenever I visit Mom in her lovely and expertly landscaped home, I relive those tender moments with Nanny vicariously. I see the same strong hands, the Olsczewski diligence, the Stefaniak culture and a loving heart. Although she walks a bit slower now, the similarities are remarkable. I miss my babcia and dream of her. Mom’s sense of humor is stupendous and she is at once tenacious and caring. Mom is the yardstick by which all moms are measured.
Nanny died on my watch of a debilitating and untreatable cancer, which I imagine was painful to conceal. Her death was slow, but at her last moments, she was at peace. The wealth of what I’ve learned from both women is that work is hard, and death inevitable. But at night in bed, your blanket is a clean house, a table of Polish culinary treasures and a back yard of rose bushes, calla lilies and delphiniums.
I never asked my children how I measure up as a mother. I see in them the same strong hands, diligence, creativity and unconditional love.