It was my mother’s birthday a few weeks ago. We had ice cream and deep dish pizza (her favorite).
This past Mother’s Day, she remarked as we drove to church, that her mother (my grandmother, Cecelia or, as I knew her, “Grandma D”) would sometimes remember the day my mother was released from the hospital.
Grandma D hasn’t been with us for over ten years now (may she rest in peace), but my mother could still remember the words she would say, “When I went into the hospital,” Grandma D. would tell my mother, remembering the story of the labor and delivery of my mother, “the world was cold and dead–it was winter.”
“But,” Grandma D. would remember and tell my mother, “when I got out of the hospital…the world was in bloom and the trees had blossoms and the flowers had arrived, and it was springtime, and you were here, with me.”
It was a miracle, I tell you.
Spring and flowers and babies are all miraculous, miraculous things.
A few Fridays back, someone asked me what I was planning to do with my family for Mother’s Day. I said that my mother wanted to go to the cemetery and and clean off the graves of our ancestors.
Said-person was like, “That seems like an odd thing to do.”
But I just shrugged and said something about it being my mom’s choice.
On Sunday, off we went. Cousins and siblings and aunts piled in our slowly rusting 12-passenger homeschooler van. We found the graves. We stood around them. My dad had brought a shovel, and he dug around the edges, so that the stones were clean and clear. My mom told the stories.
The graves seem to be a bit helter-skelter throughout this cemetery. But that’s because life isn’t as simple and straight-lined as you would think it is, judging from the perfect rows that separate the cemetery plots, one from each other.
My mother’s grandmother was a widow. (This is an example of one of the stories) She, my mother’s grandmother, was to be buried near her deceased husband. One day, while caring for his grave, she met a widower caring for his widow’s grave. And, they fell in love, I guess. So then my mother’s grandmother and this widower were wed themselves, and, from most reports, lived a happy and content life together. My mother would visit them, when she was a child. My mother, as a child, would walk to mass with her grandmother. They probably ate the Polish fare that is terribly common and marks hospitality in this culture–maybe bread, maybe pickles, maybe sweets made with poppy seeds or prunes.
But, anyway, that’s one reason why the graves are mixed in a funky pattern–because the course of true love never did run smooth, and because she didn’t expect to be buried next to this happy surprise of a good husband.
This is one of many stories.
These are the stories that weave the pattern that makes up my genetic code–Polish immigrants making their way to Detroit in hopes of a better life, a better love. And, as life often goes, you win some and you lose some. For all the happy stories of fun dances and windows-fogged-over Christmas parties, there are those who died too soon from illness or war, and the harsh reality of alcoholism.
Still, memory is important, so we walked up and down the rows of graves, prayed at the spot of each of our relatives (praying for our dead is important in the world of Catholicism), and afterwards ate at a Thai restaurant.
(Polish fare was suggested and denied. Mostly because of my dietary intolerances. But, the pad thai was appreciated nonetheless).
This past year I needed a new coat. Only, I couldn’t find one that I liked. I’m picky about certain things that I wear. Shoes, for instance; I like them to be well-made and sturdy. Coats are similar to me. I get too cold in the Michigan winters to accept cheap fabrics or shoddy tailoring. It’s a matter of survival, almost. The cold is brutal. And I have cold blood in these veins.
My mother took an old coat of hers from the closet and told me that I could wear it. She bought it in Canada, when she was newly married to my father. She saw a similar coat on a friend, and learned that it could be purchased at a shop that was found a few hours over the Canadian border. She convinced my father to join her on this adventure, and they drove to the shop. Apparently there was only one coat left. So, she bought it.
“Are you sure?” I asked her, when she presented it, on a hanger, to me. “I can find another one.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “it never fit me that well anyway.”
It fits me well, though. My mother became pregnant with my oldest brother not long after her wedding day. I have never born a child, so my hips fit inside of the knee-length coat with more freedom, undoubtedly.
The coat is a soft, woolen blue, the color of my eyes. It has two pockets, each with the applique of a beaver on the front. The spacious hood is lined with a soft, fluffy white-grey fur. It’s double or triple insulated, and very warm. I wore it all winter.
I foresaw being warm all winter–the Canadians know a thing or two about winter. What I didn’t foresee was my brothers’ response to the coat.
“Hey,” they all said, at different times, “what are you doing wearing mom’s coat? Take it off.”
“Mom gave it to me,” I countered, “she said I could wear it.”
They eyed me suspiciously.
I reflected on their response. Maybe it’s because the coat is the coat our mother wore during our childhood. In that sense, it has a link to memories. I remember watching her zip it (the zipper is notoriously finicky). I remember the sight of the blue hood in a crowd.
Now, since I’m roughly the same size, a grown adult, I see it in a different light. People stop me on the street, “What a lovely vintage coat,” they say.
“Thanks,” I respond, “it was my mother’s.”
I’m reminded of my mother’s boldly classic and artistic sense of colorful style. In many ways, we share a sense of fashion, just like we share this coat.
There is a baby in my family, a baby girl. She is a toddler now, really. She is the next generation in our reality.
At gatherings, birthdays and the like, we still sing to each other in Polish, a remnant of the past that brought us where we are today. Her head perks when anyone sings. Maybe one day she will sing it with us, too.
One day, when it was chillier than expected, my sister dressed the baby in a sweater, a sweater that happened to be striped. The baby had been wearing floral leggings.
My sister laughed, “This baby has never looked more Polish,” she said.
A few weeks ago, I was remembering when I was a child, and my mother’s friend brought me a doll from Poland. The doll was dressed in rich and deeply colorful woolens. She had a skirt striped in vibrant primary colors, a shirt embroidered in small, pink flowers, and a head scarf in colorful floral. Florals and stripes. Vibrant love of life.
My mother fed this baby her first pickle. We cheered when she liked it (and why wouldn’t she?). Last weekend, I danced her around the room with her first polka. My mother joined me. The baby looked a bit dizzy in the end…dizzy but happy. (It is as a polka should be).
When I was a child, I would visit my grandmother’s house, just like my mother has memories of visiting her grandmother’s house, just like this new baby is slowly cementing memories of her very own, visiting my mother.
My grandmother had a sign hanging over her back door. In Polish it read, “God bless this house,” with a very white Jesus extending a blessing over a cottage. I remember trying to read it, when I was just learning to read, and being confused because Polish and English are two very different languages.
My grandmother would serve me toast with prune butter, a jam of sorts made from dried plums. We would sit around her table, the sunlight from the only window blocked by her fiberglass curtains.
A few weeks ago, I bought a jar of prune butter for one of my friends. It was his birthday, and he likes both jams and prunes and I thought, “Well, why not?”
He texted me a heart-eyed emoji.
The sign from my grandmother’s house now hangs over my mother’s back door. The white-Jesus extends his blessing in new ways.
I often think about the construction of our great cathedrals, how those who began the project knew they would never see the ending; how those building at the end never knew the start. We, though, are like those in the middle. We didn’t know the beginning, and we don’t know the end…we can only continue the story.
Once, at the funeral of a friend’s grandparent, someone talked about the ripples in a pool, forever outward, forever outward.
There’s a new ripple, now. There are new babies. There is new life. There are new memories of trips, just like my parents once made a trip to Canada for a soft, woolen, blue coat. There are new moments. This is a new spring, just like the spring where my grandmother brought my mother home. There are new stories, and even newer ones waiting to be told.
The ones that have yet to be told, though, will need to wait. For now I just have the old ones, ones that brought me here.
And, with those, we remember. I am a woman from this same line of women. My jaw line is harsh, my hair blonde and fine, my feet ever ready for the singular polka played at a given wedding.
Memory and story and significance.
Loss and life and love.
Floral and stripes.