A Polish Christmas

My father was born in Poland in 1932.  He was only 7 when Germans invaded Poland, occupying the house his childhood home in Bielsko Biala.  The family were forced to flee onfoot hauling a wagon containing their worldy possessions.  They found refuge with my father’s grandfather, Eugeniusz, who had a flat near the train station in Krakow.  His family later went to a work farm in Kempten, Germany, then fled to Italy and finally moved to England as a political refugee after the war.  They got visas to come to the US starting in 1949, first moving to Chicago and then later to Menlo Park, California.

At Christmas time, dad and I would make Polish “porcipines” and brightly-colored paper chains.  We’d decorate the Christmas tree with apples, blown eggs, foil-wrapped chocolates, walnuts, and a foil star, traditional Polish decorations.  Sometimes we’d put lit candles on the tree.  He didn’t talk much about his childhood, and when he passed away in January 2007, I found myself hungering for stories of his early life in Poland.  I’d tried to ask him in the past, but had quickly learned not to pry as he would react defensively.

So I was left to ask the survivors.  Uncle Jurek, my dad’s oldest brother, and his wife Marysia were happy to regale me with stories after my dad died.  Three years after my father passed, Jurek died, leaving his wife Aunt Marysia as the only real family historian.  She grew up with my father’s family beginning in 1939 when the Karpinski family moved into Eugeniusz’s flat in Krakow.  Marysia lived in an adjacent apartment, and a few years later, without telling her parents, she left with the Karpinskis to work on a farm in Kempton, Germany.  I have spent many hours sitting around her kitchen table listening to her memories of life in Poland.  I can almost see myself there, taste the golumpki and wild strawberries, smell the cold wet ground, hear the whinny of horses pulling a milk sled, and feel the thick leather fur lined jackets of the highlanders.

Last night was no exception.  Two days before Christmas, I asked Marysia about her memories of Christmas’ past.  At first her delivery was wooden, but soon she was swept up in the story and came alive.  Her eyes sparkled as she recounted the Krakow churches that she and her brother Anjay would visit on Christmas week.  It was traditional that around the Christmas holidays, churches would display a creche complete with figures of the Christ child and the scene in Bethlehem.  Perhaps as a reminder of the approach of spring, churches would fill their halls with caged canaries.  Marysia still smiles remembering the canaries overpowering song.

She described the horse-drawn sleigh that they would take to her grandparents’ home in the countryside near Krakow, where they would go every Sunday for the main meal after church.  She remembered looking out from under heavy blankets as they passed the snowy winter wonderland and frozen scenes outside of Krakow.  I could imagine myself there. And imagined that perhaps my father also had had the wonder of a child looking out at a snow-covered world.

I wrote the following poem for my Uncle Jurek, Marysia’s dear husband, on the eve of his death:

My last memory of you was perched in the kitchen on your favorite chair.
From your vantage point
You directed us to construct an elaborate garden
A hillock of rare succulents, vegetable garden brimming with tomatoes and zucchini
A patio of hanging plants and vines
An indoor jungle of rubber trees and orchids
Each plant with specific instruction for watering and care

You told us how to build a platform for the doves to roost
Reminded us to feed the songbirds outside the kitchen window
Your memory of childhood in Poland was vivid
Reminiscing as if you were there yesterday
You and Ciocia Marysia correcting one another
About where you went on a particular day in 1942

You had an innocence about you that was charming
Believing that it was enough to work hard, love the natural world
Have fathered children and grandchildren
To watch interesting shows on TV

You were a strange mix of kind and blunt
You cheered me up when I was inconsolable about my father’s untimely death
Recounting the garden work he had done years ago,
Digging hills and valleys by hand
Planting the blue spruce now towering over your Eichler
Then criticized my choice of a husband
Saying he was no good for me

Your critical eye caused you to strive for perfection
And goad others to do the same
You were generous with judgment
Especially in the culinary realm
Yet your heart was that of an artist
Your leaf arrangements, silk screening
Living room cabinets and shelves
Whose dove-tailing you described in proud detail

In earlier years
You worked as a metal finisher
Inspired you daughter to do the same
You loved to travel
And camp in Yosemite and Tahoe
You hiked mountain trails
Sang songs around campfires
Telling stories of other times, other places

Your love of nature
Ran deep
Surrounding yourself with driftwood, stones, leaves, plants
Your father, a biologist, collected plants and animals
While your mother loved plants and a duck named Petunia
Childhood summers spent in farmhouses in the Polish countryside
Are burned into memory
As are long walks, wildflower and mushroom picking,
And hay wagons

You welcomed family and friends
Told us to visit more often
Little did we know
That one day it would be our last

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