notquiteold

Nancy Roman

The Horrible, Though Imaginary, Family Secret

My maternal grandparents came to the US from Poland before World War I. They came separately – they didn’t meet until they were here for several years. As a matter of fact, my grandfather met and married someone else first, a young woman who died in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918. I don’t know her name. But my mother thinks that she was a friend of my grandmother, and that is how Dziadzi (Grandpa) met Babci (Grandma).

Mom, Babci, Dziadzi, my two sisters and me (the baby on Babci's lao), 1951.

Mom, Babci, Dziadzi, my two sisters and me (the baby on Babci’s lap), 1951.

Babci, whose name was Agata (Agatha), came to this country in 1912, when she was about 19. The Titanic sank in 1912, so I am glad that she managed to avoid that boat. She came with a girlfriend, I think. No family.

She was mysterious to me. Long black hair that she wound into a bun with long hairpins and even a hairnet. She drank whiskey sometimes. And she didn’t go to church, even though that was a mortal sin. I don’t think she had much formal education, and her English was limited, but she sat with the Polish language newspaper and a magnifying glass for a long time every day.  I found this suspicious.

But then again, she made pretty dresses for me and my sisters with a treadle sewing machine. And she baked wonderful raisin bread, although she prepared meals that I thought were just awful – I would love to taste one of her Sunday dinners now to see whether I would love it now, or whether she truly was a horrible cook.

My mother told me that Babci resented the limited opportunities for a women back then. She hated housework, and did not make my mother or my aunt help her. “You’ll be doing this boring stuff the rest of your life,” she told my mother. And yet, when my mother decided to attend nurses’ training after high school, Babci was against it. She thought that women should accept their lot in life.  This from a girl who left everything and everyone to come to a new country to start a new life. Yes, she was a mystery.

The imaginary scandal happened when I was about eight. I had a teacher who was obsessed with Communism.  This nun told us little children repeatedly that the Communists were on their way, and their first target would be us Catholics. Once she brought us over to the church and showed us where the communion hosts were kept. So that if the time came, we could run to the church and eat them before the Communists could desecrate them. She warned us that the Commies might kill us, and we should be prepared. “They will want you to renounce God. But you won’t.” (Secretly, I thought I would.)

The Communist menace and my sweet, enigmatic grandmother coalesced for me that summer.

I always spent a week in July with Babci and Dziadzi. How I loved being an only child for a week, even if I couldn’t stand blood sausage and the apartment was always about 100 degrees. Babci bought me paper dolls and lacy anklets and comic books and Hershey bars. And I would watch her let down her long hair every night, and wonder about her.

And one day, I went to the bank with Babci.

And the sign on the bank building said:  “People’s Bank”.

People’s Bank!

Oh my God, that’s when I knew.

My Grandma was a communist!

babci and me.jpg

33 Comments

  1. We Irish were Commies too. That’s where we banked. Or maybe it is simply that it was an early sign that Connecticut was a blue state!

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  2. Too funny. Did you ever tell you mother about this? But hexes on the teacher…what was she thinking?

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    • No – never told my mother. But I’ve been negotiating some company business with People’s Bank – and it suddenly all came back to me.

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  3. Nancy, we’ve always gotten along, right? I have a teeny weeny point to PICK with you. YOU have STOLEN my people! How can you tell my story when I haven’t even shared it with you? Does this mean I’m the ‘adopted’ (wink, wink) daughter?

    So many years and miles apart, we share a similar history. WOW. But then lots of immigrants did also. Wow, again.

    Dziadek and babcia constructed their house on the ice.
    Dziadeck farted; Babcia farted
    And their little house slid off the ice.

    (consider this a loose translation)

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    • I never heard that little rhyme. But then, I only know enough Polish to say “hello”, “thank you” and count to ten. My mother sometimes used to switch to Polish with her sister in the middle of a discussion. I knew that something Very Interesting was being discussed.

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  4. Wow. That explains so much about you 😉

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    • Yes, having a Commie Menace in my own family is what led me to a fashion obsession.

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  5. Oh, I absolutely love this post! It is so much like my family – my father from Hungary and the others from the old country. 🙂

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    • I think that many folks our age have ver similar experiences – with mysterious grandparents who didn’t speak much English. When I was growing up, all the kids in my neighborhood had grandparents who spoke a different language – French mostly, but also Polish, German and Italian. It was completely natural to us to have people living in our house that we didn’t understand.

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  6. I absolutely adore horrible, imaginary family secrets. Great title and blog. I think I’ll blog about some made-up family stories, too. Thanks for the inspiration.

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  7. dragonhavn (@dragonhavn)

    Giggly laughter. Lovely story. Unfortunately, my ancestors left Ireland during the potato famine and England soon after the idiots crashed into Plymouth Rock and Scotland … not a clue why. (I had a friend who insisted his Irish ancestors left the Auld Country due to shooting sheriffs out of season … there’s a season on those things? LOL) Love your imaginary family secrets too.

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    • I have heard that my Grandfather left Poland at only sixteen because of conscription. He did not want to be a soldier.

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  8. Love this story-especially learning how to protect the communion hosts. When the commies march in, that’s the number one priority!

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    • And I lived close to the Chuch, so it was a big burden on ME.

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  9. Love this story; you made me think again of those who’ve gone before us and how much we don’t know about them. If only I’d asked when they were still around!

    MJ

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    • I know… how I regret not having more of that history! WHO WAS that woman my grandfather first married? How did my grandmother end up in Detroit – and then Pittsburgh? What was she reading about so intently? Maybe she realy was a communist?…..

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      • that’s when I think time travel would be neat .. to go back, sit with them and just listen 😉
        MJ

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        • So true. Why didn’t we know what we had until they were gone? I guess that’s what they mean by the old expression “you don’t find old heads on young shoulders.”

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  10. Great story! There was a lot of fear about communists back then….whenever things went wrong at our house… we jokingly blamed the communists. On of my favorite sayings (still to this day) is “It;s a communist plot!” Of course my kids and grandkids have no idea what I am talking about.

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    • Everytime I heard a plane fly overhead I was sure the Commies were coming.

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  11. Oh dear, we had the same nun….

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  12. I envy you and your readers their stories. Meeting my birth father’s family as an adult I often wondered about what it would have been like to know them as a child. They are all Ukrainian and I sit and look at pictures, old brown pictures, of these sturdy people as someone says, “oh, that’s your grandmother and your Uncle Joe”, etc. They all look like they could have been commies. The pictures are a bit scary.
    I think Archie Bunker was the guy who really added the word “commie” to my vocabulary. He was always talking about “commie pinkos”.

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    • Even though they were right there with us, there is so much we never talked about. And I have memories of what little they did tell me – but now i am not sure how much came from them and how much I just assumed.

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  13. Thanks for this post. I loved it. We knew little about my grandfather’s family who came to the UK after the first world war. We met very few of them as he was estranged having married a gentile girl rather than a Jewish girl. My older sister has some memories of infrequent visits to or from members of that family but we never thought to ask grandfather about them. Many and wonderful stories were made up about them by three small girls , and some things that we overheard adults talking about made us think that it was a large family that originated in Poland. But now there are only guesses about them

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    • I asked my mother just this week how old my grandmother was when she came here. And that’s when I heard that she originally settled in Detroit. I had never heard that before. I need to ask her so much more.

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  14. I really missed out not attending Catholic schools. My mother did and recalls fondly a priest saying how women are “near occasions of sin.”

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    • OMG – I haven’t heard that expression in 50 years! But oh yes! “near occasions of sin” was a daily warning.

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      • I love the succinctness of that line. I use it, in my head, all the time. Like when I decide to skirt the Little Debbie aisle at the grocery store I tell myself I’m avoiding the near occasion of sin.

        Only SOME women fit that description, Speaker. Some of us don’t have the equipment to rise to that level even if served up on a platter in a negligee.

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  15. What a fabulous memory. Love the mystery of your grandmother.

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  16. love the post and love, love, love “near occasions of sin.” I went to catholic school, but maybe too late for this *lovely*?

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