When my grandmother was 4 her father got on a boat for America, leaving behind his native Poland, his wife Sophie, and two young daughters. Three years later, he had raised enough money to pay their passage. They left behind the two room dirt floored thatched home shared with several generations, the chickens and the goat, and everyone they knew and loved. They followed my great-grandfather to a new life, working in the woolen mills of Massachusetts. My grandmother left behind her Polish name, Katrzyna and took the American version, Catherine. It was a small concession. Sophie, however, left behind a third daughter, Rose, conceived and born after her husband had left for America.
A typical Sunday would find Babcia in her expertly coiffed garden, hairnet in place over her pin-curls, house dress covering her real dress. Both dresses looked the same to me. She usually wore shoes that looked for all the world like slippers, with nylons rolled neatly around her ankles. She and my Dzaku was not elegant people, but always so proud of their yellow two-family spotless house, the first owned by Polish immigrants in this community. Hard work was their savior here, and they welcomed it. Babcia’s smile was pure joy, her cheeks rosy and her eyes twinkling. She reminded me of a little Mrs Clause. In her broken English, she would ask me about my doll, or the picture I had made, and no matter what I said, she would laugh and hug me. When we went inside, the linoleum floored kitchen smelled of cabbage and cleaning. She fed us bread, thick and yellow and speckled with raisins. She was my Babcia.
But as much as I knew she loved me, I also knew she had no tolerance for entitlement, laziness or disrespect. When I was 7, my younger brother and I went to spend a few days with Babcia and Dzaku. Babcia tried to teach us the Polish names for all of the objects we touched. She played poker ( and cheated) with pennies. We worked in the vegetable and flower gardens. I helped her hang out the wash with wooden clothespins kept in the red and white painted box that lived on the back porch. But at night, when I was lonely for the feel of my own home and cried, she told me I was a baby. When she was at our house one weekend, and my friend Cathy Bean yelled, “Hey Butcha- make us some lunch!” my Babcia rose slowly to her feet, the waves of disapproval piercing through my friend like needles, sending her running home with not so much as a word in response, or for that matter a crust of bread. When I was a teenager, and dropped a half of a sandwich on the floor, I picked it up and was making my way to the trash can when her words brought me to a sudden halt. “You no throw dat. You pick dat up and kiss dat food. Den you say prayer and eat dat.” And I did.
My Babcia had passion, and spunk, and a sense of appreciation. There wasn’t much she couldn’t deal with. But in the end, at the age of 99, she couldn’t deal with the idea of spending a century on earth. And so, she didn’t. Ninety-nine was good enough for Babcia.