Things I’ve Learned from Iggy the Plumber (Part 2)

Iggy the Plumber

This is Iggy the Plumber (circa 1980s). He's my dad. He's got some advice for you. Listen up.

Things I’ve Learned from My Dad
*And what he really meant

(Find 1 – 3 here.) 

4. You don’t need so much makeup. You not going to a Hollywood,  you going to school.

When my sister and I were in high school, our morning dressing routines were lengthy productions that technically began with the planning of outfits and hairstyles the night before. I was the more laid-back of us; it was my sister who kept a wardrobe calendar, recording each day’s outfit like a Jenny Craig dieter tracking her daily caloric intake. She consulted her calendar with the planning of each new outfit, taking care not to repeat an ensemble within a two-week time period (lest someone notice that Tuesday’s leggings were also worn last Friday).

Come morning, my sister and I took our places in front of the double-wide mirror of our bathroom and set out to the hour-long business of beautifying ourselves for school. Our faces were exfoliated and moisturized, our hair spritzed and scrunched and pinned. We’d lug out our Caboodles kits (makeup organizers that looked to be a handyman’s toolbox, only the color of cotton candy), opening their multi-tiered compartments to reveal our drug store-brand powders and glosses. Unskillfully, we smeared our faces with color, an act that stopped my dad in his tracks every morning. Like a rubbernecker slowing to gawk at a pileup, he stood at the bathroom door and shook his head.

“Why you puttin’ so much makeup?” Continue reading

Polski Kitsch: Things You’ll Find in a Polish-American Home

Sheepskin Slippers


My grandmother used to shuffle around the house in Polish sheepskin slippers just like these. She called them her slippesy, and for the longest time I thought that was actually how you said “slippers” in Polish. It is not. In fact, there’s no such word in the Polish language as slippesy. (The correct word, I came to learn later in life, is pantofle.)

It’s a phenomenon I think all cultures can relate to. The Spanish-speaking have Spanglish, for instance. And my grandmother had her Penglish. (Or should it be Polglish? Or Polenglish? We’ll work on that.) Navigating a new tongue while still leaning heavily on her old one, my grandmother started speaking a mashup of Polish and English. She threw random y‘s onto the ends of English words, using them in casual Polish banter as if they were perfectly acceptable. Shoesy, socksy, cabinety, peachesy, friendy. These were the nonsensical vocabulary words of her invented language, words that even my mother and aunt started using. They embedded themselves in my ear, and I’d reached for them to communicate each week in my Polish Saturday School, earning scowls and tisks from my instructors. My grandmother’s gibberish worked in the reverse, too. “I’m be go na walk,” she’d say, slipping into an (im)perfectly good English sentence the Polish word for “on.” And always, at the end of a visit, she’d pelt us with kisses, coerce from us an appointment for our next encounter , and part with the words, “I’m be see you.” Which isn’t a Polish-English mashup, but another stock phrase in a language all her own.

Polski Kitsch: Things You’ll Find in a Polish-American Home

I’m thinking this should be a regular series. Placards of Pope John Paul II. Dried palms, dusty from last year’s Palm Sunday and tucked, inexplicably, behind wall-mounted mirrors and photo frames. Kitchen calendars from the local Polish meat market, each month’s featured ring of kielbasa reclined on a bed of parsley, its bronze, glistening skin rivaling that of a swimsuit model.

We could have fun with this, yes.

Add to the list a sign like the one below, typically hung above door frames, asking God to bless this home. Go ahead, just try to sound out the jumble of letters. My husband’s been working on it, and it thoroughly amuses my parents. Thing is, the letters aren’t what they appear. That l in the second word, with a slight line running through it? That’s pronounced like a w. The w at the end of the word? Why silly, that sounds like a v. Don’t even get me started on the sz of the third word. I’m not sure you’re ready for it this morning.

God Bless Our Home

This has hung in my parents' house as long as I can remember.


Iggy Responds: Looks Like My Dad’s Been Reading the Blog

Tata on computer

My dad, pretending to know how to use a computer at an internet cafe in Krakow. These days, he uses his fancy iPad to send me voice memos.

After coming home from Sunday Mass yesterday, my dad powered up his iPad to get in his daily dose of the blog. I didn’t realize how much he was following along. Here, Iggy responds, via a voice message sent over e-mail, to my post about church (and my absence in the pews the last few years).

At least he liked the post about kanapki (Polish sandwiches).

Listen to what my dad had to say.

It’s Sunday: Did You go to Church?

Holy Cross Church in Bogdanowice

Yeah, me neither. But let’s not go there. Kind of a sore subject for my parents. (My mom: “Priest had beautiful homily today. Too bad you weren’t there to hear it.”)

Just because I don’t go to Mass doesn’t mean I don’t find comfort in churches or in the religious imagery of my childhood. Catholicism is strongly intertwined with Polish culture, and hence, the novel I’m working on. So, on this Sunday I give you this picture of Holy Cross Church in Bogdanowice, the village in Poland that my mother is from, and the inspiration for the setting of the novel I’m writing.

Ordering a Sandwich in a Polish Deli

I love me the Louis C.K. This is super short, but spot-on. And heads up Louie, we call them kanapki.

Kanapki were a staple of every family excursion as a kid. Because God forbid we were en route to a mall or an uncle’s house upstate and one of us children reported experiencing the mildest sensation of hunger. Whether we were headed down the shore or up to a polka festival at Action Park, my mom would wake an hour early to prepare sandwiches as if, wherever we were going, they hadn’t yet invented food. Into a giant red cooler went a jar of pickles, a jug of iced tea, peaches, apples, whole tomatoes for slicing and stacks of kanapki, each one wrapped in paper towel like a little package, then sealed into what my mother calls “zippo lock” bags. Always, she made three times as many sandwiches as there were mouths to feed. It was as if she were stockpiling for an impending total breakdown of society.

As Louis C.K. points out, the kanapki really could be whatever was in the fridge. Kielbasa and a thick slice of tomato on rye. A chicken cutlet on a hard roll with a dash of A1 Steak Sauce. Roast beef and American cheese…on raisin babka. But always, and for reasons I don’t understand, a slather of Temptee whipped cream cheese. Standard. Always. A must. And it’s totally not a Polish thing. I’m thinking it was a double coupon thing.


Writing Anka: Old Photos Inspire Novel Characters


This photo of my mother (first row, left) is the inspiration for Anka, the main character in my novel.

Meet Anka. She’s a 12-year-old growing up in a small village in 1950s Poland, and she’s the main character in the novel I’m writing. She also happens to look a lot like my mother. That’s because the character is based on her (albeit loosely), and the village in which her story unfolds looks and feels a whole heck of a lot like Bogdanowice, also where my mother grew up.

But this isn’t my mother’s story (which I have to keep reminding her every time she proudly tells people, “My daughter is writing a book about me.”) I didn’t want the responsibility of historical fact, didn’t want to be married to family stories as my mother recalls them. I wanted to start from a place I knew well, from characters and people I had met in my life and could draw upon, and then be given free reign to play, explore and tell tall tales. The photo above is perhaps my strongest inspiration. It’s a photo of my mother in grade school. She’s the one on the left in the front row. I’ve been drawn to it since I first saw it – to the little girl in the photo who seems to know some things that we don’t, who looks a little too world-weary for her age and ready to discover something more. It’s from this photo, and others like it from my mom’s early years, that I draw Anka.

Evelyn Nesbit

Photo of Evelyn Nesbit by Rudolf Eickerman, published in The Metropolitan Magazine, September 1903. From the Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute.

Whether discovered in family albums or through Google images, I find old photographs are a great help in crafting characters. And I’m not alone. I just recently read that writer Lucy Maud Montgomery did the same, finding inspiration in magazines photographs. She clipped this one of Evelyn Nesbit from The Metropolitan Magazine, hung it up in her writing room and used it as the model for the main character in the literary classic, Anne of Green Gables. I love that. I never read the books, but was a huge fan of the movie series as a kid, sneak-watching it on PBS when I was supposed to be doing my Saturday chores. I had been thinking of finally reading the books, since the texture and tone of my novel feels similar to Anne’s story, when I stumbled on this tidbit. Now I most certainly will. Anne of Green Gables, Anka of Bogdanowice. Love it.

Break me off a Piece of that…Christmas Wafer


Oplatek - the Polish Christmas wafer. "We're cool?"

For most Poles, Christmas Eve is the most important holiday of the year. A major focus of the evening is the Wigilia, the Christmas vigil supper that begins with the appearance of the first star in the night sky. (Or, in my family, whenever my mom finishes cooking.)

Wigilia is meant to be a day of fasting, and as such the meal is completely meatless. But lest you worry that we Poles go hungry on the eve of Baby Jesus’ birthday, we’re a little loosey-goosey with the concept of “fasting.” Yeah, there’s no chicken or beef or turkey. But there’s 12 hearty dishes of all-you-can eat fish, soup and sundry boiled foodstuffs of the dough, potato and cabbage variety. So, you know. It’s no Ramadan.

But one of my favorite Wigilia traditions is the breaking and sharing of the oplatek (o-pwat-ek) Christmas wafer, which is pretty similar to the Communion wafer Catholics receive at Sunday Mass — it’s tasteless, snaps off like thin cardboard and leaves a glue-like residue on the roof of your mouth. The concept is that, before the meal begins, the head of the family passes the wafer around to those gathered, with each breaking off a small piece. It serves not only as a blessing for the holiday, but a symbol of forgiveness for any wrongs one might have committed against the other in the previous year. It’s basically the Polish version of, “So we’re cool, right?”

Getting ready to put 2011 behind me and move forward to a fresh 2012, I’m energetically breaking the wafer with everyone in my inner circle, and extending that to basically anyone I’ve come in contact with the last year. Including that woman I was walking behind a few weeks ago — the one who was climbing up the subway stairs a little too slow for my taste because she was busy putzing on her iPhone. I’m sorry I brushed rudely past you. I’m sorry I grumbled something not so nice. We’re cool, right?

Twirly Curls Barbie: The Breaking of a Child’s Christmas Spirit

Twirly Curls Barbie

My sister's Christmas dream, about to be shattered.

December 25, 1983. That’s when my sister stopped believing in Christmas.

You can see the precise moment on a fuzzy VHS recording that we cue up every holiday season, like a bunch of trauma tourists returning each anniversary to ogle at the wreckage. It’s all very “The Day the Music Died.” The Christmas Edition.

We scampered into the living room early that morning, my sister in her Holly Hobbie housecoat and sensible Isotoner slippers; my brother, the oldest, quiet and moody in his flannel robe; and me, slightly disheveled in a high-necked blouse that could have been straight out of wardrobe from the movie Tootsie. My father set up the camcorder, trained the lens on our over-tinsled tree, then unleashed us to the business of tearing open our gifts.

Now it must be stated that my sister and I explicitly requested that Santa bring us a Twirly Curls Barbie. Not one to share. One for each. If Santa claimed otherwise, we had documented proof in the hand-written lists we’d hung on the refrigerator a month earlier.

That Christmas morning, as my sister collected hugs from my parents for a stained glass ornament she’d made them at school, scraps of wrapping paper rained down around me. I was making my way through my gifts, tossing boxes of clothes from Bradlees to the side like product rejects on a manufacturing line. And then, there it was.

“Twirly Curls Barbie!” Twirly Curls

My sister’s ears perked like a dog’s. She flipped her feathered blond head and found me locked in an embrace with the pink Barbie box. If you watch the video, you can see the hopeful flicker in her eyes; there’s one under the tree for me, too! She knelt on the mustard-colored carpet and tore through the rest of her gifts. But minutes later, all her boxes stripped of their paper and lying forsaken on the floor, the harsh reality set in: there would be no Twirly Curls for her this Christmas. Sensing her disappointment, I sought to console her. You can hear me repeatedly on the video offering, “I’ll share with you! Don’t worry, you can play with my Twirly Curls!” Continue reading