Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Reflections On a Chicken

When my grandmother was a young teen in Poland, she was rounded up like an animal and thrown in a cattle car. They stopped at Auschwitz, which in Polish is known as Oświęcim, and were all commanded to disembark. There were two lines. One to the camp, one to the showers.

 For some inexplicable reason, my grandmother was told to get back on the cattle car and they went over the border into Germany.

Hannah, now known as 'Anna' was sent to a private farm which had been seized by the Third Reich for its produce to feed the troops. Grandma was assigned to be a field hand. This didn't go over well because her job was to walk a giant picnic basket for miles to a specific field for lunch and then return and repeat it for dinner.

 She spent so much time meandering through woods and on roads and then talking with the boys and men in the fields that they never got dinner and she'd return home after curfew which put the farmer and his family in jeopardy because spies, officials, and officers were always around.

They tried to put her in charge of the chicken coops.

 One day an official demanded they all line up outside and she was to count all the chickens and return to him, waiting there outside. Each chicken, you see, was also a displaced worker, of sorts. Any that didn't provide the expected number of eggs would become a meal for some soldiers or officials. Either way, work or die.

For all the chickens this farm had, the family, and none of the workers were able to enjoy eggs much because everything went to the military.

My grandmother had to learn how to do two more things at once: ride a bicycle, and go into town with it, with all the day's eggs in a basket to be relinquished to a military depot.

So Grandma began counting chickens and reported back to the official (who also served as the telegram messenger) and the farmer, who had an affection for her because she was quite young and he had only sons, both of whom were serving on the front lines.

She told them there were so many chickens and seven roosters.

The official asked her why were the roosters not counted as chickens and it was explained to him that roosters could not lay eggs, only fertilize them to make more chickens, so they served a different purpose. He was satisfied, told the farmer how many eggs were expected daily and departed.

Soon after he was out of sight, the farmer said, Anna! Why did you tell him we have seven roosters! You know we have only two! She told him since the official didn't know the difference between roosters and chickens, they could now have more eggs because five of those roosters were in fact, chickens. So they got to eat eggs, albeit clandestine, after all.

The farmer's wife grew to love Anna. The woman had a seizure disorder and was homebound. She asked her husband if  perhaps my grandmother could be like a nurse to her. He was afraid of spies, and initially and reluctantly denied her request.

Anna, meanwhile, was learning to ride a bike. And carry an open basket of around a hundred eggs in it.
The first day of her several-miles long trek, she fell into a ditch and arrived at the depot covered in dirt with nothing but eggshells and tears. They let her go, and the farmer decided they might want to rethink the nurse thing.

However, there was another snag. No one was allowed such a luxury and this family had no influence. So they came up with something else. They would make her a kitchen maid and teach her to cook (and speak) German. This worked out splendidly and she enjoyed cooking and serving their meals while tending to the wife, who she called Mother. My grandmother's own mother died in childbirth along with twins, when my grandmother was only three, and was tossed between sisters not much older than her, her father having died of tuberculosis, so she had no mother-love, except from the farmer's wife.

Grandma ate at table with them. The telegram messenger spy arrived one evening at dinnertime and he was stunned to find her sitting there. He raged and demanded to know why she wasn't eating in the barn with the other animals (commonly, barns were connected to farmhouses) and the farmer explained that she didn't even understand German, so couldn't know what was discussed, plus prepared all their meals, so it was only fair.

He was reported and had to go to town to pay a fine and receive a stern warning.

He did it again when they discovered five roosters were indeed chickens.

Eventually the war ended and my grandmother was invited to stay with them. Their son who was against the war but drafted anyway had wanted to marry her but he was and would remain MIA. Their other son who was a hardcore nazi survived and made life hell for her, whom he called an outlander. She had met my grandfather by then, a casanova from another farm, and would marry him and find their own way, so they all parted tearfully.

When the Red Cross appeared to find new homes for all the displaced workers, they discovered that all the countries required the men to go first for six months to a year and then could send for their families. My grandfather was all for it but my grandmother, now a mother of two little girls, was completely against it and she sabotaged his every attempt at going to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Finally, a country opened up that would take entire families, even those unsponsored, and that's how they found their way to the United States.

Grandma could grow anything. Out of necessity and at times in Europe when she was starving, she would go down to the river and eat weeds to fill her stomach, so the moment they were able to, she planted a small potted garden and then after saving money, they purchased a house where she grew a larger garden. I would see her take a snipping from any plant and it would flourish with her love.

Many times when money was tight  my siblings and I would eat sandwiches made with white bread and beefsteak tomatoes grown in her garden. In the city she could not have a chicken, so she was content with dogs and two cats, both named Peter.

Many years later, she was a great grandmother, three times over, and the military base where my mother worked, closed. She was transferred to an army depot in Pennsylvania which delighted my parents and my grandmother. My parents bought a small house and hired a contractor to make half of it a studio apartment for Grandma. She had her own little place, separated from my parents by only a door, and a beautiful garden to grow and spend all spring and summer in and that's where she would be found whenever I'd visit.

She bought a poly-resin chicken and painted it yellow and sky blue with red polka dots and proudly displayed it in the garden.

My father was fined, received a stern warning about distasteful garden ornaments, and we all went to the administrator to fight for the chicken.

The chicken stayed.

Now Grandma is in a nursing home. After my dad's stroke, I was unable to take care of his needs, hers, and my own. I barely took care of physical needs like her insulin injections but was emotionally drained and she had no one to talk to all day except Wonton and my dad's cat, Schnookie. She watched a lot of crime shows and Walker Texas Ranger. I knew she was lonely. I knew I was fading away myself and was too isolated and after coming up with no help from state agencies, decided I had to leave.

My uncle got involved and he and my aunt found a nice assisted living facility and once again she flourishes. I asked her for the chicken, and she said, of course, but there was a lot of family drama and I needed to make a quick getaway with Wonton. I packed everything I could into my Outback wagon, my aunt and uncle took Schnookie and Grandma's parakeet, and Wonton and I took off for a 4000 mile roadtrip.

That was in July.

 In October I returned to another area in Pennsylvania on another lake and am unspeakably happy except making ends meet financially is a challenge. In some ways I love the challenge. And friends upon friends upon friends are helping out in so many creative ways.

 Nothing I do or have experienced hasn't been an adventure but there are days that I won't eat not because there's no food, but because I'm so afraid there won't be food in the future or my electricity will be shut off so I meditate and take deep breaths.

 I call my dad in his nursing home and we chat. I call Grandma sometimes when she isn't socializing in the lounge. I text my aunt and uncle and thank them for taking care of things. I thank God a hundred times a day and chant, I am grateful, I am grateful, I am grateful and I am.

But still, no matter how positive your outlook, or looking back you see your mistakes and vow to never make them again or give yourself a break and say, those weren't mistakes, those were lessons that needed to be learned, you sit down and weep over some colossal losses. And loneliness. And are you ever going to make good on your debts.

You hear the couple upstairs making love and you aren't jealous at all but happy that there is love in the place you dwell but you ask God to wrap His arms around you just this once as you cling to a stuffed black lamb and fall asleep with tears counting your blessings and telling yourself tomorrow is a new start. Look what Grandma survived.

Yesterday I could clearly see my little dieffenbachia is not doing so well. I talk to my plants and tell them they're alive and flourishing but this one is feeling a bit down. No matter what I do, it's fading. So I do some research and the experts weigh in: immediately re-pot in good soil.

Only problem is, I'm days away from having my electricity cut-off. I have one emergency gift card I'm saving for gas for the car, and a Starbucks card. I'm not asking my friends for another penny, they've given so much and have their own needs. I'm screwed. Think, think, think.

I drive to the area I lived with my dad for something and make a call to a friend who owns a garden center on the off-chance he can spare some potting soil and two little pots (the pothos needs re-potting too), I don't care if they're cracked, I'll take them, but I just get voice mail. And then I think, the chicken.

I'm in the area. It's time for me to go back to the house and get that chicken. I don't care who the hell thinks it's an ugly lawn ornament. It's taking a place of honor in my living room because it represents determination and endurance and GOOD that it's flamboyant and plastic! I don't care if I have to dig under six feet of snow, I'm getting that chicken and I drive through security and pull into the driveway and sitting there in the sun is the chicken. And a bag of potting soil. And two flower pots.

Picking up one of the pots, I see that it was one of the centerpieces from my wedding reception. I painted over thirty with my sister-in-law a few nights before my wedding and I took them to my grandmother and we bought flats and flats of impatiens to fill them with. On each pot I painted the words, Let Love Grow.

And I bought stones to scatter around the tables at the reception and painted words on them too. And in that one pot was one of those stones and it said, Reflect.

My eyes filled with tears and I thought of the promise of love and a new marriage and where it all went horribly wrong but I knew with all my heart I had tried my best. And now, starting over was the hardest of the hardest things I'd ever done in my life and I realized that 'reflect' wasn't just about looking back.

'Reflect' is also about looking at myself and seeing how far I've come and what is yet to come. Promise, and joy, and yes, love, real true love. 'Immediately re-pot in good soil' is excellent advice.

And the funny thing is, that my prayers were answered that I got that potting soil and two pots

And Grandma's chicken.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Guilty Pleasure Confessions

As a card-carrying second-generation Italian-American raised ten years in an old neighborhood where everyone married everyone else (my dad married the girl across the street, my aunt married the guy who lived next door to my dad, etc.) and then raised in another town with a very large Italian population, it was a very big deal who you went to for your beef, pork, sausage--oh the sausage wars, and my dad's side of the family owned a chain of butcher stores, so woe to the neighbor who shopped anywhere else---canned crushed or whole tomatoes (Tuttoroso if you knew what was good for you) and God forbid if you EVER were seen in the supermarket with jarred sauce in your cart or at the cashier. You were a BAD ITALIAN. 
I didn't know what the inside of a McDonalds was until I was 10. I didn't even know what Spaghetti-O's were until I was 15. My Irish best friend would eat it everyday for lunch where we'd eat at her grandma's a block away from school. I'd sit there with my pb&j which I guess is universal. 

My saving grace is that my mom was Polish. They never let her forget the shame of not being born Italian, but she rebelled in her own ways and with her mother's help, because her parents owned the house we lived in, across the street from Italian Nonna. So yeah, Mom learned to shop right, and cook Italian like an Italian but we got lots of Polish food too and my Polish grandma could strike fear into the heart of grown men (and did) so no one would stand up to her. Mom just was being a good wife in those days. 

Story is getting long so I'll wrap it up--I had my first can of Spaghetti-O's when I moved into my first apartment at the ripe old age of 32, swear to God. With meatballs. The first time I tasted those fake meatballs, that fake sauce, those little rings of sketti, I thought for sure I was going to hell AT 32! was delicious, delicious hell. 

Yeah, I make my own sauce. I also buy Prego. Fuck anyone who doesn't like it. Still, I use Tuttoroso tomatoes. Some habits are hard to break. 

And I keep six cans of Spaghetti-O's with meatballs in the back of a shelf on my baker's rack/pantry. It's like candy to me. Comfort food to the nth level. If you touch them, I'll break your effin' fingers. 

THAT'S Italian.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Lamb

An excerpt from a letter to a friend:

You said to pay attention to signs as they would be very strong. I think I told you that while I was neglected and abused, I had a younger brother who was weaker, so more of a target, and as he got older, he turned to drugs to feel numb. We were very very close and things had turned well for him for some time when he put distance between himself and my parents and other brother. 

He got married, a good job, and an apartment. Then, he was in an accident and very injured and lost his job, his apartment, and his wife worked many many hours and wasn't home for weeks at a time (although the love was real) and he had to return to my father's home because he had nowhere to go. 

My husband wouldn't allow him to live with us, and I told him that he would have to give up drugs or go to rehab and I would take him anyway. By that time he was too addicted but I would let him stay at my house for a couple of weeks at a time, then go back to my dad's, then return back to me to some peace again.

 He died accidentally in his sleep from the drugs. They all believe it was suicide but I don't. He was too good for this world, too sensitive in a world that devoured him.

 When I left my husband, I begged my father to take me in because I had nowhere to go. My brother was dead only a few months. I felt as if my father was a main cause of my brother's death and in anger I told him that, during a verbal attack by him.

 I slept in my brother's bed, on his pillows, under his blankets, in his room. I held his things that my other abusive brother hadn't already picked through like a ghoul. I asked his wife for something, anything, that I could have that belonged to him and she cried and said that my other brother took it all.

 When I had to escape my father's house because my other brother was trying to trap me into staying to take care of my dad after his stroke, I began packing everything I had into my Subaru Outback wagon.

 I looked under the bed and found a plate, knife, spoon, a piece of granite from the World Trade Center, a few photographs and I was so grateful. The night before I left, I reached under the bed one last time and found a stuffed black lamb. It was my brother's and it was meant to go with me. Everywhere I went, I would sleep with the lamb and hold its paw. 

And when I came to this new apartment and I would worry, I would hold the lamb and talk to Donny, my brother. We had the first snowstorm coming and I couldn't locate my shovel. It was a mystery and I had no money to buy a new one. I had only a broom but it was worse. The way my door is shaped, I would be unable to open it if there was more than a few inches of snow.

 I went to sleep with the lamb praying that everything would be okay. I got up in the morning and went to the door to see what I would be facing, but the snow was cleared away from the door, the path and down the steps. Gravel was thrown so I would be able to walk down the incline.

 I was so surprised and I went back to my bedroom to get my cellphone and the lamb was laying not where I left it, on the side, but in the space where I had been sleeping. My cat hadn't moved it because she was in the window watching the snow. I called my neighbor upstairs and asked him and he said, Yes, I did it. I knew it would be hard for you so I did it. I thanked him and started to cry in gratitude.

 Today was another snowstorm. A friend brought me a beautiful new shovel and gifts for my cat and me for Christmas and we had a lovely time, a week earlier, so I was ready but again, I thought, I need to open that door a few inches to get out to shovel. I woke up again, and I heard shoveling and my neighbor was at my door clearing the snow again. He apologized for waking me and I assured him he didn't. I thanked him again, God bless him. I pray always for him and his little family and dog.

 I went back to my bedroom and the lamb again was in the same place in the center of where I had been sleeping, again moved but not by me or the cat. I knew then that it was not a coincidence. It was Donny.

 I was reminded that he was always the one who shoveled the snow at my father's and my father had no mercy for him, that they had a long driveway and my brother had no gloves and his hands would bleed but he did it anyway out of love. And I knew this time that he had been doing it again, through someone else, out of love. Happy New Year. Keep warm, my friend. 

I see the signs.

I see the signs.