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).
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”.
Oh my God, that’s when I knew.
My Grandma was a communist!