On June 20, 2021, I thought I was almost finished with the novel I’ve been working on, which at that time was called Double Cursed. Former academic colleagues invited me to participate in Zoom lectures series at Cankaya University in Ankara, Turkey and Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, California. For both lectures, I spoke on the role of watercolor painting in my writing process. To supplement those presentations, I posted some of my “Process Paintings” in 2021, based on photos I took while visiting Poland in 2018.
My novel begins in 1861, in a village that lies on the border of the Kuyavian-Pomeranian and Warmian-Masurian Voivodeships. My male protagonist is a carpenter, his wife a half-Romani midwife. The subjects for my paintings are chosen to help me imagine their worlds.
I was wrong. The novel was not finished then, but now I am satisfied that it meets my initial conception.
Here is an additional collection of Process Paintings that capture the world of this novel, now titled The Double Souled Son, a magical realist, literary family epic.
In 2022, I found this cottage in Czarny Bryńsk, Poland advertised on Air B&B, and I screen-shot a photo of it. Over half of The Double Souled Son takes place in a cottage in Czarny Bryńsk that I imagined to look like this one. (I found this listing several years after I created my setting.) Maybe I’ll get to stay here some day. Maybe not. It’s not on Air B&B anymore. So I guess I’ll have to settle for painting it.
I watch the BBC Global News every night, and more and more, I’m thinking about Copernicus.
Nikolai Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (English translation: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), in 1543. And the collective human mind, so to speak, wasn’t happy. Before Copernicus, the general public thought of the earth as being the center of everything. The sun turned around our planet, as did the moon. We were the center of it all. So the idea of making earth peripheral to the sun was radical. Forty-one years later, Giordano Bruno expanded Copernicus’ model, arguing that the stars we see in the night sky are other suns, with planets revolving around them. He was executed as a heretic in 1600. Galileo published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632 “with formal authorization from the Inquisition and papal permission.” Still, he died in 1642 under house arrest for heresy.
During the tumultuous century or so between Copernicus’ model and a universal acceptance of it, the collective mind convulsed from the trauma of discovering its subordinate position in relation to space and time. This universal change of mind is commonly called a Paradigmatic Shift. Graduate students and college professors joke about paradigmatic shifts all the time over a beer, but I’m currently not laughing. I’d say we’re having one.
Thanks to the James Webb Space Scope and the emergence of global social media, people all around the world are currently being forced to change their perceptions of time and space in two different ways. First, and most significantly: with each new image from outer space, our planet and our solar system shrinks. That Sun In The Middle Of Eight Planets Solar System Carnival Ride-Like Celestial Model is no longer valid. Hell, we’re watching stars exploding.
Simultaneously, we’re able to watch global news as it happens: Russia, destroying the Ukraine as it tries to reclaim former empirical cities; national and world leaders acting like five year old boys on the playground. There’s social upheaval in Iran. In the U.S.A., we’re bickering over identity. Gender identity. Individual identity. National identity. Regional Identity. Social identity. Political identity. We’re hanging on a thread between Democracy or Autocracy, as Jonathon Capehart has said. As if anyone cares anymore. On some level, everyone realizes that thinking about Earth as separate states, nations, even continents, is not viable anymore.
The transition we’re going through, whether we like it or not, asks us to give up our petty differences and recognize ourselves as global citizens. The earth can still nurture us, if we nurture it. If we want our children and grandchildren to enjoy our beautiful home, we’re all responsible for our planet’s survival.
Based on the last time humanity shifted paradigmatically, it could take a century for humanity to make this intellectual transition. I wonder if we have that much time left?
So, Monday, June 6, was D-Day: the anniversary of the Normandy landings in 1944. I didn’t realize it until late in the day. Today, to honor it, I watched the address Eisenhower delivered to the men. Listen to it.
Looking at the faces of these enlisted men in the audience, I see my young father.
My parents – maybe yours, too- spent their adolescence witnessing unfolding reports about the second world war in much the same way we are today experiencing Russia’s assault on the Ukraine. In the 1930’s, as images of destruction and genocide became commonplace, the majority agreed that Hitler and Stalin’s facism was evil. My father’s generation was sent to save us.
Drafted in 1944, my dad did not see any actual battle. He was shipped out in peacetime as a military police officer. Stationed in Southern France, he was issued a motorcycle. His patriotism grew as the liberated world welcomed him. He was adored. He learned French quickly, because of Latin skills learned at a Jesuit high school and contemplations of priesthood. By the time he returned, he was fluent in French, and no longer confident in his vocation. He started college on the GI Bill before he married. He tried to earn his language credits by taking French backwards – French 4 freshman year; French 3 sophomore year; French 2 junior year; French 1 senior year. They caught up with him in the senior year, made him take another year of language. German. He struggled with it.
No matter, he had reason to be cocky. He was a member of The Greatest Generation.
Facism’s face is rising again. Genocide is happening in real time, and we have been asked to witness it. It’s happened before: either by choice or force, charismatic dictators have taken over when democratic government appeared to be falling apart.
This past Monday was D-Day. How did you acknowledge it?
I was probably eight before I heard one of my parents mention him.
Frank. My father’s only sibling, his half brother Frank.
What? Dad had a brother? My brothers and sisters and I thought he was an only child!
“Yep,” my father told us. “He ran away to join the circus. He was a circus barker.”
He laughed that ironic laugh of his. I always read it as both sarcasm and discomfort.
Why? To a kid, Circus Barker seemed both a viable and interesting profession.
“Don’t ask your grandmother about him, though,” he added. “She’ll get upset.”
My parents already owned a bungalow on the west side of Cleveland when my grandfather died. I was six months old, their second child. When I was three, we moved to a new house near Grandma. She lived in the house Grandpa built for her in Fairview Park. For their family. In her mind, that meant her son, Myron. Not Frank.
Myron – my father – grew up in that house. He spent a lot of time alone. In fact, he was probably one of the first “latch-key” kids. Grandma was proud to say she was a working woman.
Grandma was eighty-five when Myron died, at fifty-one. Many of her friends and family were already gone. My mother, my siblings and I all took turns visiting her. I enjoyed my Tuesday visits. We’d sit alone in her living room, drinking tea and talking. She asked about my schooling, my job, my boyfriend. (She liked my boyfriend and ventured to give me advice about how to manage him. I had a bachelor’s degree by then, too. She was awed by that.) But I was managing a medical office. Or working in a hospital. I was a secretary, just as she once was. What did I do to relax? Baking, I told her. “Iget up and bake if I can’t sleep.” “Metoo,” she said, her voice quivering. We talked a little more about things I liked to do – reading, music, being quiet. “You are more like me than I thought” she said one night.
Until those evening teas, I sensed that she favored my two sisters. They both inherited her dark skin tone and hair. Her rebellious spirit. She didn’t see much similarity between my father and me. I had my mother’s Irish complexion and nervous giggle. My mother told me later Grandma Hill made it clear very early in their relationship that she did not want her son to marry a working class Irish girl. When her attempts to block their marriage failed, she refused to celebrate with my mother’s family. On their wedding day, my parents had to attend two receptions, one in Cleveland, and one in Fairview.
In the 1980’s, my grandmother and I became friends on those Tuesday nights. So much so that on one night, I felt I could venture into forbidden territory.
“So, what can you tell me about our Polish background?” I said.
She stalked away from me, into the dining room. Before she disappeared into the kitchen, she turned and said: “Why do you insist on asking this again?”
“It’s because it’s who I am,” I answered, thinking it a weak reply.
It hit a nerve. Her face fell. She disappeared into her kitchen, returned with some cookies, sat down next to me and told me about her father, who came from a place called Suwałki. Yes, that’s in Poland now, but it was in Russia for a long time. I knew her dad’s grave said “John Doskey,” what she didn’t tell me was the name was changed. After she died, I discovered his name was Jan Dziedzikowski. (Another fake name, but that’s another story.)
I asked about my grandfather’s folks. She grew frustrated, tried to explain the Polish Partition to me, then said “his people came from all over. Germany, Austria, some Russia. Mostly Germany.”
When I asked about Frank, her voice rose and grew agitated: “He was a bad man! Don’t ever speak of him again! “
Frank haunted me. Came to me in dark clouds at night. Made appearances at Ouija board sessions. As a spirit, he was unpredictably nasty.
After hearing me inquire about Frank several times, my mother told me what she could: dad’s brother was “a little” older. He ran away to become a “circus barker.” Mom thought he was married for a while, maybe even had kids. Somewhere around Boston. He died in Florida, “where the circus workers winter.”
“So now you know,” she concluded. “Don’t tell your grandmother I told you.”
Frank died March 26, 1958; I was born that September; my grandfather died March 22, 1959. When Dad found Frank’s death certificate under some papers on his mother’s desk, he didn’t know his brother had died. Reportedly, it was one of the few instances he lost his temper with his mother. When he demanded they exhume the body so Frank could be buried in a Catholic cemetery, Mom said he encountered roadblocks. Read: his mother. Grandma won, like she won most of the time.
Frank haunted him, too, though.
Around ten years later, my parents were on their second vacation in Siesta Key when my father announced he wanted to look for Frank. He went alone. After some time, he returned, more silent than usual. Finally, he told my mother he found nothing.
I know all this because Mom told me. When I realized I had someone who was willing to talk, I asked for more details.
“Did you ever meet him?” I asked.
Yes. Once, after they became engaged, she went to the Fairview house to meet him. He was home. He’d totaled his car and he needed money. “He was really tall!” (My dad was 6’4.”) According to mom, Frank was taller, very handsome, very charismatic. He “checked her out” and made some comment on how my father nabbed a sexy babe. Or something like that.
“I didn’t think he was that bad, but your grandmother sure didn’t like him. Your father loved him.”
My father didn’t show much emotion towards anything. So, if Dad loved him, then Frank was worth knowing about.
2. How to do genealogical research on a Carny.
The death certificate was not in my grandmother’s final papers. She probably burned it. Around twelve years ago, I found our true family name – Gorzynski – and wondered if he used the name Frank Gorzynski, and that’s why my father couldn’t find him. No. With the correct surname in play, Ancestry.com kept yielding new insights. New family members. My grandfather was one of eight kids. At nineteen, when he was still Jozef Gorzynski, he married his first wife Sophia Rucinski , age seventeen. A year later, in July 1909, Sophia bore a son. Frank Joseph Gorzynski. In 1912, when Joe was 23 and Sophia 21, she died. Frank and Joe moved back to his parents’ house. There, three months after losing his wife, Joe’s seventeen year old brother Alfons died. Tuberculosis, same as Sophia. In 1914, six months after his sister Tekla succumbed to post-delivery sepsis, Joe’s father Marian died. From Diabetes. (Insulin hadn’t been discovered yet.) In 1917, Joe married Hatti Doski, formerly Jadwiga Dziedzikowska, my grandmother. Jadwiga and Jozef Gorzynski lived with their “son” Frank in the Gorzynski family home in Cleveland’s Warszawa neighborhood for ten years. During that time, Joe lost two more of his brothers. Frank didn’t finish high school. He worked as a “driver.” In 1927, the year my father was born, Joe and Hattie became “Hills” and moved to their own apartment, and Frank Hills moved with them. They shared the same address until 1930 when Frank was counted twice on the national census: in his father’s household and in the household of his Sophia’s sister in Elwood, Indiana, about an hour away from Peru, Indiana, which is where the circuses wintered at that time. By then, Frank Hill was 21. My father was 3.
When I found this museum, I wrote to them about possible records. The man who replied was very polite when he informed me no one kept records on the carnies. There were too many of them. I detected my father’s short ironic laugh in between his lines.
Six months ago, I found Frank’s World War II draft registration, dated 1940.
Though he was in New Orleans at the time, his employer – Amusement Corporation of America (AMA) – was in Chicago, and he was still using my grandparents’ home address as his own. I wrote back to the man at the International Circus Hall of Fame. All he could do was confirm AMA ran carnivals. He referred me to the International Independent Showmen’s Museum. They didn’t have records on individual carnies, either, but the link accesses a trade magazine article about the Amusement Corporation of America.
A year ago, a death document for a Frank J. Hill of Hillsborough County Florida appeared on Ancestry. I was hesitant to request it. I had found another Frank J. Hill who lived in Tampa and died around the same time. I didn’t want to receive some stranger’s death certificate. So I ignored that recurring suggestion, for a while. It wouldn’t go away. Finally, I requested it. Here it is:
3. Contemplations on a Death Certificate.
What was Frank’s life like before his corpse appeared in the ER that night? Who delivered him? There’s a street address: 1320 ½ Franklin Street. Today, it’s a parking lot. There’s a profession: Concessionaire Blue Grass Shows. No place of employment. My guess is he lost his job with the Amusement Corporation of America and had to freelance. (I can’t help but think about Nightmare Alley’s Stanton Carlisle. )
The details about Frank’s birth and parentage are correct, suggesting the information came from someone in the know. However, Edgar B. Walters, the informant, turned out to be no one significant: he worked part-time worker at the Walters-Howard-Farley funeral home, which handled the burial. The father of one of the partners, Edgar was a retired barber who had the people skills required to get information out of difficult relatives Lucky him. He got to call my grandmother.
The cemetery. Oh, the cemetery. Oakland Cemetery, aka Home Cemetery or Old Home Cemetery, was once grounds of an Old Folks Home, now gone. There are some marked graves in the lot, not Frank’s. There’s a large open field, with plenty of space to bury abandoned corpses.
My siblings and I wager that when my father saw the death certificate, he noticed the five days his brother’s remains spent in the hospital morgue. I’m guessing he copied the information. Several years later, on that hot summer day during his vacation, he came here. He beheld its emptiness. And for a moment, perhaps this parched open downtown grassy area had a rare glimpse of my father’s heart. He may have even cried. (My father rarely cried.) I’m sure he went to a bar and had a drink or two for Frank.
The click of my grandmother’s phone resonated across the years. Everything on the death certificate confirmed the story my mother told me. So strange. It was so long ago, and I’ve heard this story so many times. Why was my heart breaking so . . . ?
For one thing, I really had hoped to discover Frank died happily somewhere in Gibsonton, where all good carnies retire. I wanted to find him buried in a circus cemetery, alongside other one-time circus “talkers.” (No self-respecting carny would use the word “barker.”) As long as he was with other circus people, I didn’t care if his grave was unmarked.
Strangely, I felt responsible. As if I were the sole witness. A tardy mourner. Born six months after his death, coming to awareness sixty some years later, I arrived far too late to mark his grave.
I’m not pretending my Uncle Frank was a nice man, but I am suggesting he was a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Born into a Polish speaking first-generation immigrant family, eight years after a Pole assassinated President McKinley, he was orphaned at two, and likely raised by his immigrant grandmother during a time when “Polacks” in America were shunned. To my grandmother, who wanted to shed that label, Frank represented everything she disliked about Joe’s earlier life: his first wife and his family’s Old Country ways. With Joe, she wanted to create a new American family. She felt she was doing the right thing, for her son and for his children, to erase her story and start again. Her treatment of Frank, indeed her treatment of all of my grandfather’s immediate family, may have actually given me a “leg up.” As a Hill, I was born without that tell-tale “ski” name into a world where Polacks were still the butt of many jokes. I could pass.
4. Contemplating heredity and inheritence:
I’m grateful for the opportunities born on my grandmother’s compromises. Still, I now see her gallant decisions as acts of violence. She hated Frank. She hated the Gorzynskis.
The thing is: I’m a Gorzynski.
Researching my forgotten Gorzynski ancestors has revealed a pattern to me: Frank’s not the only member of this family to suffer an unmarked, unrecognized burial. It happened to Joe’s brother John. He died in a city hospital and was buried in their grounds when he was 35. Cause of death: Cirrhosis of the Liver. It took quite a bit of research to find John – I’d never heard his name before. He was the first in the family to use the name Hill. Nor had I heard about Uncle Eddy Gore, who died alone in Sandusky. Sudden heart attack. He had a wife in Cleveland who cared enough to bury him with a headstone, in a Lorain cemetery halfway between Sandusky and Cleveland.
Joe’s sister Helen’s burial raises suspicions, too. Though she married and had a child with Grandma’s brother, Clem, and they lived together until she died, wife and husband are buried in separate cemeteries. Helen was buried in the Gorzynski grave at Calvary Cemetery. Clem was buried on the other side of town in Holy Cross Cemetery, with my grandmother’s clan, now officially the Doskeys.
My father’s family has a pattern of division and self-imposed alienation. He suffered from it, too. He was an enigma, a man who said little and drank a lot to numb his pain. As he aged and produced more children, he grew bitter. In his 40’s, he took a job based in California. Mom and us five kids stayed in the Fairview house. Every year, he stayed away from us a little longer than the year before. One hot August day, his heart exploded, in the middle of our living room floor. For forty years he lay in a grave marked by the government issued military stone we got for free. No one visited.
I still love and identify with my father. When I was a girl, his friends joked that I was “Myron in a skirt.”
One of my life’s goals has been to earn a stone for my grave, and to help make sure a decent one appeared on his. Last summer, after mom was laid to rest, dad finally received his proper treatment.
Could this be my family’s inheritance? And our curse? Perhaps the accumulation of all our ancestors’ traumas, all balled up and covered with COVID-like spikes, lodged inside a gene, mutated, and manifested as what we are today: functioning, “passing” as normal, yet emotionally crippled.
DNA tells me I’m 100% European. In other words, Pure White. In 1950, when my parents wed, Poles were still treated as an inferior ethnic group. The Irish, too, but not to the same extent. They had a language advantage. In Cleveland, they also had a good hold on the police department. (My maternal grandfather was an Irish cop.). Still, something attracted my parents, as it attracted all the other cross-pairings in second generation European American families. Some “similarities” enticed them to venture into groups their parents prohibited. First, they shared a desire to discard their past and live the “American Dream.” Second, they shared troubled family histories. I have long felt that the most common feature of “White America” is that we are all products of people who, at one point or another in our ancestry, left a beloved homeland either by choice or by force to join the American work force. Once in America, they faced extreme disappointment. Some found themselves living in conditions far worse than what they left behind. The luckiest overcame. It took grit to do that, sometimes in less than one generation. It took pride. It took resilience. It also took a lot of compromise.
I believe that all Americans suffer from some degree of epigenetic family trauma. In fact, this is the conceptual core of the two-part magical realist family saga I’m writing right now. Since I didn’t know these people, I mythologized them, with the aim of getting them included in the canon of mythical Polish figures. In beginning the second novel, I realize what I’m really writing is an extended fable about the Polish immigrant in America. Thanks to Frank’s death certificate, I know how to end it.
Oh, and you wonder what Frank looked like. My grandmother left behind several books of stunning unmarked photos of herself and her relatives. After analyzing them in terms of era and context, I’ve identified four that I believe represent Frank. Here is one of them. I calculate his age to be eight or ten. This was taken at the Gorzynski home in the first years of my grandparents’ marriage. I suspect she dressed him up and put him on this donkey. She did something similar to my father, a dozen years later. (second photo). Dad got a pony.
I have been miserable this past week. Absolutely miserable. Cranky and achy. This winter sucks.
But! Every night has been wonderful! I’ve gone to bed early,
drifted off to sleep easily.
And dreamed vivid dreams.
All my dreams have been set in the same long, wood-framed, white-washed corridor. Leaflets and schedules flutter on the wall to my right. Wood benches line it. The other side? No benches. No wall. A void. Like a train station: this is a waiting place.
Since Monday, each night, I’ve returned to that same dream site, like returning to a theatrical set. People mill about. Mostly strangers. Sometimes, someone I know appears. Last night, it was the young couple whose cat we’re taking care of for a week. Then more strangers. A couple clowns. A sideshow talker. And each night, at one point or another, my mother has appeared. Everything stills, and we chat.
Anyone who has read my last few entries knows I’m mourning my mother’s death. I really feel like I should be done with this. She’s been gone for more than a year. And yet I’m not done. It’s as if she just passed.
I wonder if others who suffered the death of loved-ones during the pandemic lockdown feel the same way? Loss during lockdown for me was entirely mediated. There was no authentic passing – all was viewed through a frame. One day I was talking to her on Zoom, the next, leafing through photos for her obituary.
So it’s as if she never left. As if somewhere, the original for all my photos is still here. Memory has become actuality, merged with dreaming. Each time I realize I can no longer call her, I experience the shock of her death once again.
In my dreams this past week, she always looked like the Katie in this photo:
During my lifetime, I never saw her look this relaxed. Katie’s about 22 years old here. Judging by the ring on her finger, she’s engaged to my father. She has a full-time job. She’s planning on paying the bills while he finishes college. And she did. At the time of this photo, Katie and Myron were probably already looking for their first apartment in Lakewood. Yes, that’s a Last Will and Testament hanging on the wall. I think Ann and Katie worked at a law firm. Mom went to an all-girls Catholic secretarial high school. Her dream was to get a job like this. More than once, she told me how much she enjoyed being a working girl.
At my dream station, she’s wearing her nicest suit. She has all the money and time in the world and only one bag, but that’s all that she needs. She’s headed for all the places she always dreamed of seeing. Ireland first, I’m sure. She always wanted to see Ireland.
So, she catches my attention and we sit for a minute or two. She’d like me to come along. I tell her I’d rather not.
“It doesn’t matter, one way or the other. You’ll live on in dreams,” Mom said to me. “As long as there’s someone to remember you.”
“Don’t forget I’m writing about my ancestors,” I replied. “The forgotten ones. I’m not done with the Gorzynskis yet. I still have to get to the Thompsons.”
Her gaze suddenly stilled by a lifetime’s worth of wisdom, she nodded a familiar nod.
The older I get, the more I believe that eternity and memory exist in the same domain. What we remember remains eternal, as long as the capacity for memory lasts.
The internet and social media have become storage places for memory. The permanence it offers punctures the restrictions of a single human life. Once something is posted, it remains eternally. Imagine this blog, if you will, as a dot on a radio wave, arcing through the heavens at this moment, to remain there in an eternal loop long after this planet is gone.
I feel a great compulsion to remember forgotten people by writing about them, in one form or another, in order to give them their own little star in the constellation of universal memory.
So on this day, February 12, 2022, I remember my Mom, Katie, who shared her birthday with Abraham Lincoln. The last time I saw her, on her birthday, 2020, her Lewy Body Dementia was fairly advanced. She was prone to hallucinations and to saying exactly what she was thinking. During that birthday visit, I told one of her caregivers it was Katie’s birthday, adding: “Mom shares a birthday with Abraham Lincoln!” (The caregiver was young enough to not know February 12 was Lincoln’s birthday.) Mom’s immediate reply:”Yeah, Abe Lincoln. Lucky him!”
The caregiver said, in her sweetest voice: “why is Abe Lincoln lucky Katie?”
Mom’s reply: “He’s dead!”
Now, there are a few things I know about my Mom, and one of them is that she would hate that picture of her and me . Yeah, she looked pretty good for 92, but if she had her way, she would have never ended up old and demented. She liked looking pretty. She felt she owed it to whomever she encountered to look her best.
I suspect most people have a favorite age – an age when we felt most comfortable in our own skin. I liked my 30’s and 40’s. But I’m also quite content with now. For others, like Katie, it was their 20’s: the years when she worked, met my dad, and had her first two children. (She was happy with her other children, too, for sure. Unfortunately, I suspect things were dicey with my dad then. Though we would have never guessed it at the time, this also became apparent in the last year of her life, when, in her hallucinations, she yelled at him and complained about him.)
A significant difference between Lewy Body Dementia and other dementias is the hallucinations. While she was still at home, Mom was constantly seeing something on the roof of the neighbor’s house. Sometimes it was a man, just standing there. Sometimes he was mowing the lawn. Climbing a tree. Lighting a fire. The nights I stayed with her, I experienced her night hallucinations. She saw ghosts. They were often behind me. When I asked her to describe them, she told me they were making faces at me. The most common ghost was her mother, Christiana Thompson.
Now, this didn’t surprise me too much. A psychic once told me that my maternal grandmother was my guardian angel. I believed her, because I needed an angel like her.
When she appeared in my mom’s hallucinations, Christiana (Chris) probably looked like this.
Being married to an Irishman named Gus, Christiana became Chris.
Katie adored Gus. In the last months of her life, she told me he was with her all the time.
During those transitional months, I read Dr. Christopher Kerr‘s book Death Is But a Dream. As the Chief Executive Officer of Buffalo’s Hospice and Palliative Care center, Kerr and his team specialize in ELE’s – End of Life Experiences. In this book, Kerr walks a fragile line between pragmatism and and spirituality. Everyone, he reports, hallucinates as they approach death. Even the most tormented individuals end their lives in peace, accompanied by vivid hallucinations of those who loved them most.
Like my mother did. As she lingered at death’s door, Gus never left her side. Her mother Chris was there beckoning, as was her baby brother Jim, who preceded her by three months. Her sister Rose Marie probably greeted her with some comment like “what took ya so long?” Three months after Katie, her sister, my namesake Aunt Mary Lou, followed.
Considering the way my mom talked to me at the end of her life, I believe that in her near-death dreams, she saw herself as young again. (I asked her once how old she was. Her response: “well, I’m younger than you! Look at you! How did you get so old?”) Young, too, were her parents. Her brother. Her sister. Her lifelong best friend, Jeannie. Ultimately, my father. She had trouble with her memories of my father, but he was there in the end, too.
I have the photo album Katie kept, when she was in her late teens/early twenties. It was preserved well, and she meticulously labeled each photo. She looked at it often as she grew older, to remember who she was when she was happiest.
Today, as I look at it, I let myself believe that this is how my mother looks in her afterlife. Happy Birthday, Mom.
I’m experiencing my “year of firsts” after the death my mother. Mom passed away on December 25, 2020. That’s right: Christmas Day. I could write a whole article on the Curse of the See-Sawing Meaning of Christmas Day in my family. I won’t. You might be able to figure it out if I tell you that this year, my 27 year-old nephew Danny (who was born on Christmas Day) and his girlfriend are expecting a daughter, due on Christmas Day, the first anniversary of Mom’s death.
But back to my year of firsts. Thanksgiving. I was dreading this Thanksgiving. Preparing a 20 pound turkey for a large group was sure to bring back many memories, some painful. As it turned out, Phil and I participated in a Thanksgiving Eve COVID-friendly food exchange with Phil’s son and daughter-in-law, her mother, and her aunt. We exchanged our favorite side-dishes. Each attendee received a few cups of Mom’s stuffing. I baked theirs as a casserole. I baked our stuffing portion Thanksgiving day, under a five pound turkey breast. Phil and I ate alone, with the cats. Our solitude eased the pain. As did the stuffing. Making only the stuffing, I found myself engaged in a ritual that honored the time I spent with my mother on Thanksgiving. Today, I realize how grateful I am for stuffing.
I was the eldest child living at home on August 10, 1978 when my father suffered a near-fatal heart attack in our living room. Mom resuscitated him with CPR. He never recuperated. Dad died December 29 of that year. He was 51. Mom was 50. She and I were always close, but those years, we grew closer. A student at Cleveland State University with two jobs, I did my best to help her negotiate her own grief and the grief of my three younger siblings. (We had another elder sibling who was grieving alone at another university.) While many resorted to excessive drink, I did not. I became anorexic, but that’s another story. Mom leaned very heavily on me during those years; I helped with housework, cooking. If she had no income or fell short, I paid bills for her.
I’m not sure any of us were fully mended in 1985, when I left for Syracuse University’s Creative Writing Program. Mom was remarried to a patient man named Bill, which added six more daughters to her clan. Mom escorted me to Syracuse twice: first to help me find a room in the house of a young, female lawyer. Second: to help me move. Her oldest and best friend, my Aunt Jean, came along. Jean presented me with a soup pot as my going-away gift. “You’ll always be fine if you have a pot to make soup in,” Jean declared. She was right. I still have it. After I was secured in my new home, we all went down to my mother’s father’s family farm in Stowell, Pennsylvania. We stayed with mom’s aunt and uncle for a few days before Mom and Jean headed for Cleveland, and I returned to Syracuse. My mother cried. Probably because I did not. I was eager and ready to go.
I never moved back to Cleveland. Except for the four years during which I lived in Ankara, I spent every Thanksgiving that I could with my mother. The Thanksgiving routine became part of me: unless I-90 was snowbound – and if it was, Mom insisted I stay in Syracuse, or Buffalo, or where ever I might live at the time – I would drive on Wednesday. The years passed and my Cleveland-based siblings’ lives became more demanding, so I was often the only person with Mom the night before Thanksgiving. I always brought a bottle of wine. I am grateful to both of my husbands, first Bill and now Phil, for agreeably joining me on these visits. Both enjoyed Mom – Katie, to them. She was very good company. On Thanksgiving Eve, she and I sipped wine together while we broke the dried stuffing bread into the roaster. (How much? Oh, about two loaves’ worth.) Also the night before, we sauteed an onion with a few sticks of celery and some garlic, cleaned out the bird, boiled the giblets. Retained the broth for the stuffing, strained the giblets, and cut them up for the cat. We laughed a lot. Those were sweet evenings. The following mornings were pleasant too, when we rose together, made bacon and eggs for whomever was there to eat them, then readied the bird for the oven.
As she aged, Mom could not stand for long because she had spinal stenosis. So, she sat at the kitchen table with a loaf of good bread, fruit preserves, a slab of butter, and a cup of coffee. Each year, she spent more time sitting at the table. She monitored my actions. By the time her dementia was noticeable, I knew the basics, but I always had to check with her for the finer details. No matter if she was hallucinating a man pushing a lawnmower across the neighbor’s roof, or a knight chasing a giant golden chicken around the backyard, she could always tell me how to make stuffing.
As I gathered the materials for my stuffing this year, I felt blank. I found myself googling how to make sausage stuffing. I found a recipe that looked a bit like Mom’s and suddenly realized. I didn’t need a recipe. My Mom’s recipe was my inheritance.
Phil brought ciabatta bread from the co-op. As I sliced it and lay it flat on cookie sheets, I knew my Mom was with me, and she was a little aggravated that I was going to make the stuffing and not put at least some of it into a bird. It’s going to be very bland. You’ll have to work hard for the flavor. I had chicken broth I’d made from the remains of a whole chicken a few nights before. That will help. Still, it’s not enough.
Mom was disappointed too, to see the sausage from the co-op was precooked. We sipped some wine, stripped off the sausage’s thin casing, cut it into pieces, and sauteed it enough in a little olive oil to make a juice. Removed the sausages, then sauteed a large sweet onion in its drippings with some garlic and celery. Always olive oil. A little butterwould help! I couldn’t argue.
The next day, continuing the ritual, those memories of mom continued whispering in my ear: Wash your hands, and keep washing them as you work. You always make a mess of things! I washed. Between each stage, I washed again, rinsed well.
With my hands, I mixed the bread crumbs with the sauteed onion, garlic and celery. Added the cooked sausage. Cracked one egg into it. Only one! (She always reprimanded me, when I reached for the second.) My fingers worked it into the mix.
Then I poured a cup of the warmed giblet water into it. You never know how much you’ll need, so have at least two cups more ready. It doesn’t matter if some of it is cold. I added the rest slowly, until I had no more crunchy pieces of bread. I smooshed, started to mush. Don’t let it get too mushy! she scolded.
In those latter years, when Mom needed a walker, then a wheelchair, I always realized, too late, that I had forgotten to set my seasonings out. She’d be sitting at the table, coffee in hand, unable to help. My gooey hands left bready goo all over the cupboard door, the poultry seasoning container, and the salt and pepper shaker when I went to get them. Mom would shake her head and mutter, Mary Lou! This year I had my poultry seasoning, salt and pepper ready before I did anything else. Once the stuffing was ready for the seasoning, I started adding, first a tablespoon of each. Then a bit more poultry season. How much? So much relies on taste! Mixed it in with my hands, then we both tasted it. Mom knew the adjustment every time. More poultry season and salt! Taste again. Mom had the final word. Our last few years making stuffing together, I had to bring the roaster full of stuffing over to her for her approval. Her quivering, arthritic fingers would pick some out, raise it to her lips. She’d nibble. “That’s good Babe,” she’d say. “I think you got it.” Then she giggled that silly laugh of hers, and urged me to sit down and drink coffee with her.
I reminded her we still had to stuff the bird and get it in the oven. 375 degrees, I believe. She let me handle the bird. She really didn’t like touching raw poultry. She didn’t like the taste of turkey, either. So it was my job to make sure our bird was clean and buttered inside and out, before I started stuffing. I stuffed both ends and bound them carefully. Secured the openings. I always used a cooking bag. Mom held it open while I slid the stuffed bird in. That was a feat, believe me: we rarely had a bird less than twenty pounds.
It was usually around that stage that we always realized we needed the roaster – which still had plenty of extra stuffing in it – to cook the bird. The extra stuffing went into casserole dishes, dotted with butter. One of us cleaned the roaster. The turkey went in. The extra stuffing joined it, for the last 45 minutes.
Around then my siblings would begin to appear, Mike with his pies, Chris with salads, rolls and home-made blue cheese dressing, Nancy with the potatoes. Vegetarian for Dan. Even after Mom’s second husband died, his daughters brought their families. Partners, spouses, children. Dogs. Grandchildren. A busy house. That was when my mother was happiest.
My stuffing this year was extra special, even though none of it saw the insides of a turkey. As I was preparing my materials, I realized I had no poultry seasoning. None. Mom scowled in my head. “Don’t you dare go to the store,” she said. “You can make it.” I had never made poultry seasoning before. I googled it. The recipe I found had nutmeg in it. Sounded interesting. I used the proportions of rosemary, thyme, pepper, celery and onion powder, and salt that it called for. And sage.
It didn’t seem like enough sage. It isn’t, Mom whispered. Use more. I’ll tell you when to stop.
This is a photo of my 3X Great Kashubian Polish Grandmother, Mary Januzik Skorz, and her daughter Aniela.
Aniela Skorz-Szweda was my grandmother’s grandmother. My grandmother worshiped her grandmother, and told me often about her reputation as a midwife. A few years ago, when abortion was becoming more polarizing than it has ever been, I wrote a story about a fictional situation where abortion may have been both the right and the wrong answer for Aniela.
The story is set in the early 1900’s, in a Polish immigrant community. The main character is Aniela, an aging midwife who finds out that her 13 year-old granddaughter Lodja is pregnant, having been raped by her older cousin, another of Aniela’s grandchildren who she considers to be the embodiment of evil. By modern standards, Lodja might be considered emotionally challenged.
At the same time, Lodja’s mother Pelagia (Aniela’s daughter) is pregnant with her sixth child. Aniela fears for both daughter’s and grand-daughter’s well being. She decides that the pregnancy that will cause the most havoc is her grand-daughter’s and chooses to induce an abortion. She does not tell Lodja what she is doing, just asks her to come stay with her for awhile. Aniela’s choice is not easy. It tortures her. Her method – tansy tea, administered over a few days – gives her the opportunity to abort her abortion attempt. She does. Lodja loses the child, anyway. The story hopefully leaves a reader in total grayness.
Writing this story helped me put the abortion question into a historical perspective. I am curious about that world not so long ago where abortions happened outside of the realm of politics, in the private realm of women, where the decision could be made discretely by pregnant woman in collaboration with midwives who knew natural remedies. Of course, both midwifery and herbal remedies are now held in suspicion by many, thanks to a profit-driven medical industry. And of course, abortion – the most troubling decision any woman ever has to make – is politicized beyond discretion.
Not until 2021 USA has the woman’s body and her personal decisions been so totally violated. In the Texas SB 8 ruling, that grandmother could be turned in and prosecuted.
I ask readers of “Tansy Tea” to consider the moral dilemma the grandmother is put in, to recognize that rightness and wrongness have gradations. Sometimes the “right” thing to do is actually the “wrong” that comes closest to being right. I’m sure the story and its scenario could be read in a number of ways. I invite friends to read the story, and share comments below. Don’t simply spout off 2021 political memes. Get inside the historical moment where such a story is possible. Consider every aspect of the grandmother’s decision before saying anything.
“Tansy Tea,” was a finalist for december magazine’s 2018 Curt Johnson Prize in fiction, judged by Ann Tyler. It was published and is still available for purchase in Zone 3 magazine’s Fall 2020 issue.
I’m working on what I hope will be final drafts of my novel. The book is called Doubly Cursed. I’m working on a concise summary, since I’m preparing to pitch it at the end of next week. Once I’ve concocted one, I’ll include it.
The first half of the book is set in late 19th Century Poland. The area I’m focusing on was in West Prussia then. The village is Czarny Bryńsk, which is the last place my Górzyński ancestors lived before they immigrated.
The main characters? The Górzyńskis, of course. Absolutely fictionalized. Mythologized, even.
The Górzyńskis were woodsmen, and carpenters. In order to access an intimate know of woodworking and building in Poland, I did paintings. All of these paintings are based on photos that I took during my 2018 visit to Poland. One is based on a building still standing in Czarny Bryńsk. The others are buildings from the region and the period, now located at the Museum of Folk Architecture, Olsztynek, Warmia and Masuria, Poland, Europe.