I am third-generation, full-blooded Polish-American. My great grandparents arrived here in the early 1900s and settled into a neighborhood with other Polish families in Buffalo, New York, and there they stayed. My parents were the first to leave when they moved west to Denver when I was 9. Denver was quite a change from my insulated life in Buffalo. In Buffalo, I’d been surrounded by people with names like Rzeszutek, Michalak, and Trzaska. There were three full phonebook pages of folks with my maiden name. We were practically Smiths. In Denver, there were seven individual listings for Nowicki in the phone book, and one of those listings was our family.
My childhood in New York was steeped in Polish culture. We broke and shared oplatki (a communion-like wafer) with our family at the Christmas table before our meal. We filled baskets with everything we planned to eat at Easter breakfast (hard boiled eggs, sausage, rye bread, horseradish, and a butter lamb with a peppercorn eye and a red ribbon around its neck) and took them to our Catholic parish to be blessed by a priest the day before the holiday. My parents and aunts and uncles, in a quaint tradition was meant to foretell their child’s future, would place a shot glass, a rosary, and a silver dollar in front of their children on their first birthday to see which they would reach for first. The shot glass represented social skills, the rosary deep faith, and the silver dollar wealth. (Legend has it that I reached for both the shot glass and the silver dollar simultaneously. I’ll let you decide what that says about me.) There were the Polish carols, the celebration of saints’ Feast Days, and the occasional uttering of whole phrases in Polish by my grandmothers. I thought all these things were part of everyone’s childhood.
Once we moved away from our Polish family, though, these traditions slowly faded into our history. My children have heard me mention these things only in passing. There is just one Polish tradition we continue to hold. Every year we make pierogies and serve them with fresh Polish sausage (not to be confused with its smoked cousin, kielbasa…horrors) for our Christmas meal. My mother, sisters, and I have done this every year for as long as I can remember. We have taken turns making the pierogi dough and carefully stuffing them with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, or farmer’s cheese, before boiling them. We trade off these duties. Last year, I made the pierogies. This year, I was tasked with bringing the sausage and fresh horseradish to our Christmas Eve dinner.
With all that has been going on with the new house, the holidays, and my husband’s birthday on December 20th, my trip to Tony’s Meat Market to fetch the Polish sausage got delayed until December 23rd. Honestly, I was grateful I hadn’t let it slide until the 24th. At approximately 11 a.m., I got in a long line at the butcher shop. After standing for ten minutes to reach the counter, I finally got close enough to ask for fresh Polish sausage. The gal looked at me like I had asked for filet of Tauntaun. She consulted with the guy next to her in a hurried whisper then replied that they didn’t have any. It had to be special ordered a week in advance. Deflated like one of Tom Brady’s footballs, I turned and headed out of the store. This was not good.
Making pierogies is a day-long endeavor. I had gotten off easy with sausage task and I was about to blow it. In my family, you don’t want to be the one who screws up the only tradition we have. I would hear about it. For a long time. I was already running a litany of the expected and predictably critical comments on an audio reel in my head. We’re a lot better at “I told you so” than compassion in my family. I opened the car door, plunked myself down and, hand to God, started to cry…over goddammed sausage. My sons must have thought I was losing my shit because they dared not say one word while I quietly wept. When I at last pulled myself together, I called my sister for my fair comeuppance.
“Tony’s didn’t have the fresh Polish sausage,” I lamented. “They told me you have to special order it.”
“That’s what I usually do,” she replied. Of course, I thought, bitter at my error.
“I’ve never had to do that before,” I squeaked. “They’ve always had some in the refrigerator in the back,” I told her.
“No. You have to order it in advance,” she reiterated.
“Well, crap. I’m not sure where else to look for it. And my day is packed. Luke has a haircut at noon, I have to be downtown at 2 to meet Steve, we ran out of toilet paper, and we haven’t eaten yet.”
“Do you want me to do it?” she asked. “I can take care of it,” she said, sounding about as annoyed and condescending as I would have sounded if I had been in her shoes. The only thing worse than screwing up in my family is screwing up and needing someone else to bail you out.
“No. No. I’ll figure it out,” I said, pulling on my big girl panties. “I’ll call you if I I can’t get it somewhere else.”
After hanging up the phone, I wracked my addled brain trying to figure out the next logical place to find Polish sausage in a town not known for Polish anything. The name of a store downtown came to me. I searched the number for Marczyk’s Fine Foods and called. If Marczyk isn’t a Polish name, it must be close enough because the guy in the meat department told me the fresh sausage was available for $6.99 a pound. I told him I was on my way and drove the 20 miles to the store to make things right.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my little, pre-Christmas meltdown and I’ve decided it’s a borderline insane how stressful we make the holidays with our wanting things to be just so. And, no matter how well-intentioned they are, traditions are things that we expect to be just so. Our lovely custom of sharing a Polish meal would have been marred had I shown up with Polish kielbasa from the fine Hillshire Farms simply because it would have fallen outside of tradition. Aren’t the holidays stressful enough without raising our expectations at a time when we’re already overwhelmed and likely to let things fall through the cracks? The truth is that people mess up. Relatives make inappropriate comments. Christmas trees get taken down by overzealous cats. Holiday cards get lost in the mail. And at the end of the day none of it matters because it just doesn’t.
I declare 2016 the year of letting go. No more sweating the small stuff. If I show up with the wrong sausage next year or my pierogies are a little thick skinned, you can just deal with it. I’m moving on, baby.
Well, I never knew we were practically neighbors, possibly, at one time!
I was born in Dansville, my brother in Warsaw, when we lived in Groveland, New York until about 1961. That’s within about 50 miles of Buffalo! By ’66 we moved to Fonda, then Broadalbin, closer to Albany.
On the tradition note: I can’t recall exactly how it started, but some time when my eldest daughter was a teen I gave her a box of cordial cherries wrapped as a Christmas gift. Yes, an ordinary $2 box of a dozen chocolate-covered cherries. She said she liked them, and this was small, symbolic gift that showed that I paid attention to what she told me and cared about it. Important messages to a teenager of any gender, perhaps moreso a daughter from her father. As years passed, I continued to wrap a little box of cherries each year, almost a gag gift, or so I thought. One year, Christmas was convoluted somehow between her house and mine, siblings and the usual holiday affairs. Somehow, the box labeled “Miranda, Love from Dad” got stuck behind something under the tree at my house. I can’t remember exactly how she caught up with the little gift, within a day or two after Christmas. Now approaching forty years old, I couldn’t believe how her face lit up when I pulled out the package and explained how it was missed. I swear I saw a little tear well up in her eye as she took it, saying “I thought you forgot about me.”.
I haven’t missed a Christmas yet in 20+ years that didn’t include cordial cherries. Eventually it had to become two boxes, one for each daughter, so Kerry didn’t think I favored her sister!
It’s not the object of a tradition itself, necessarily.
It’s the thought that you didn’t “forget about me.”.
Sausage or no sausage, it’s the remembering that counts!
May the new year bring good fortune,
Thanks for sharing your story, Paz. It’s got me thinking about the little traditions I can create with my sons too. Your daughters are lucky to have such a thoughtful dad. As always, your comment on my post is something I deeply appreciate. Thank you for taking the time to share a little bit of your life, experience, and wisdom with me. I am grateful.