As soon as we got home from church, my mom put on her apron and my dad turned on the local radio station. While the aroma of stewing meat and simmering golombki filled the kitchen, through slight static came the sound of bouncy accordions and blaring trumpets. There was Eddie Blazonczyk singing Hupaj Siupaj, my mother humming along off-key. There was Happy Louie emitting a woo-hoo-hoo! so thunderous, I could practically hear the veins straining against his red, flushed neck.
And in the space between those polka hits came that familiar voice of Sunday, Bernie Goydish, delivering birthday sto lats and anniversary wishes to his loyal listeners.
Comforting might not be the word that most would attribute to polka music. I wouldn’t even attempt to sell it as an acquired taste. It was more foisted upon me from childhood – on the tape deck during family car trips, under the tent of Jimmy Sturr polka festivals and, of course, in the kitchen on Sundays. Before I knew it, I was tapping my foot to the She’s too Fat for Me Polka. There was something uplifting about the music, about the voice on the polka radio that came into our home every week and introduced the songs that would become the soundtrack of my childhood. That voice wished us happy birthdays and congratulated us on graduations. It heralded every Easter and Christmas morning. And it greeted us whenever we called to dedicate a polka to our grandmother or send out a waltz in honor of our parents’ wedding anniversary.
Time polkaed on. My siblings and I grew up and moved out of the house. And Bernie’s polka program – the longest to air in New Jersey – ended. My dad found solace in the internet, streaming programs from polka hotspots like Chicago and Connecticut and Detroit. But it wasn’t the same.
Until a new voice popped up one day to fill the local polka void.
It was a voice we already knew, sweet and light as powdered sugar on a Polish chrusciki. As soon as I heard it one Sunday on a visit home, it took me back to the pews and processions of St. Joseph’s, to the dank church basement where I’d wince as my mother stabbed at my scalp with bobbie pins, fastening a crown of plastic flowers to my head for the Polish parade.
The voice belonged to a woman from our church named Marie. She was that tireless sort – the one who led the charge to mount annual parish picnics and penny socials. The one who organized our bake sales and decorated the altar on Easter and Christmas. It was Marie who pried me from my mother’s skirt hem, who pinned a blue doily to my head before thrusting me in line with the other parish girls to walk in our church processions.
And it was Marie who taught me how to dance the polka, who let me rest my head in the crinolined lap of her Polish costume on bus rides home from marching in the Pulaski Day parade in New York City.
Now on my weekend visits home, it’s Marie’s voice coming through the polka radio, introducing our favorite songs and wishing us well on birthdays. Years had gone by since I’d last seen her – at least 10 or 15. Still, when I hear that lilt in her voice, in my mind’s eye it’s 1986 and she’s dressed in her red lace-up polka boots, colorful ribbons dangling from her hair as she corrals us kids on stage for a performance.
A few months ago, I was standing beside my sister at my grandmother’s wake when a voice came from behind us. It was warm and sweet and soothing as honey, and called us by our Polish nicknames. We turned around, and after 15 years the voice once again had a face, no longer stuck in 1986. Though older, wearier, Marie somehow looked so much the same. She was dressed in a sweatshirt, having stopped to offer condolences before heading to the church to decorate the altar for Easter. Of course.
People don’t often realize the place they hold in our lives. And far too often, we don’t get around to the business of telling them. Come Sundays, Marie isn’t just queuing up polkas or parish girls for the church procession. She’s preserving something that would otherwise be easily lost, keeping the thread running through a community that so many – myself included – have grown too busy or distracted to tend to. So, consider this my little dedication, my sto lat, to Marie and all the polka deejays keeping the traditions, and the soundtrack, alive.