The cityscape rapidly transformed itself as we approached Chicago’s predominantly Polish community. Storefront marquees advertising Polish-specific goods stood out in the bright noonday sun while babushka wearing women scuttled through the entranceways. I was entertained by a shop owner who looked to be chasing after his own shadow as he swept the sidewalk in front of his establishment. The neighborhood possessed a unique character all of its own. They were a “salt of the earth” type of people with a strong sense of cultural pride.
The buildings narrowed as we approached the rented two-flat where my aunt and uncle anxiously awaited our arrival. Uncle Joe was tall, quiet, and decidedly Eastern European looking. His newsboy cap accented a large cauliflower nose and genuine smile that crinkled at the corners of his eyes. Aunt Genevieve was short, plump and quite animated. She had a high shrilled opera-like laugh that bordered somewhere between infectious and maddening—I never entirely warmed-up to her.
They lived in a crowded old neighborhood adjacent to an industrial area. It dramatically contrasted the open suburban lifestyle I was accustomed to. Here there were no yards to play in, just long rows of houses separated by narrow gangways. It was all so alien to me.
These family gatherings spotlighted the genuine endearment my dad’s siblings had for each other. The kind of bond one would expect among those who had out-lasted some long-suffering hardship together. These were more than just visits, these were celebrations—reunions full of laughter and great food.
Mom and my aunts brought along their mouth-watering homemade delicacies—the kind of food that spoke to my soul! Kiełbasa, pierogi, mizeria, gołąbki, the list goes on. I considered my mom to be the best cook of the bunch even though she wasn’t Polish. She was Dutch, but she prepared those old world entrees to perfection. On the other hand, my Polish Aunt Genevieve’s signature dish was jello—vats of it. Not just any jello, she preferred raspberry jello and assumed everyone else did as well. I didn’t much care for raspberries.
Ignoring the fact that I clearly said, “No thank you” my dear aunt would proudly present me with a bowl of her rendered animal collagen drenched in a pool of pink stained milk. I longed for a kołaczki, or one of those cheesecake squares my mom brought, but those delicacies seemed to have vanished into thin air. With a beaming smile and a pat on the head, she’d leave me to the unsavory concoction that resembled a pile of guts more than it did a desert. I downed her raspberry slop and left the table before she could offer me seconds.
After the meal Dad and his brothers would settle down with a few bottles of Meister Bräu, while the women yammered away as they cleared the table. With little else to do, I would gravitate over to my aunt’s religious figurine collection. It stirred my curiosity because I also collected figurines—baseball players like Nellie Fox, Louie Aparicio and Yogi Berra. But unlike mine, her collection had some deep spiritual meaning.
Religion was somewhat of a puzzle to me, I didn’t get it. Faith was some mysterious entity my family identified with. I failed to see anything other than colorful statues, burning candles, and a golden tabernacle where they kept God locked away for safe keeping. Thoughts of the hereafter was a concern I chose to ignore—until Aunt Genevieve died.
She was the first of my aunts to pass. It was sad, but her loss raised a reality I never considered before—the others were destined to die as well. With each subsequent death, the family’s old world ambience gradually faded. A faint emptiness could be noted as the family continued to move on. It just didn’t feel the same—we didn’t share the bond our parents built through that Great Depression Era struggle.
Aunt Genevieve’s death also caused me to contemplate what might be waiting for us on the other side. I wondered if the family would be reunited? Would Uncle Wally still dance the “Too Fat Polka”? Would Uncle Steve still smoke cigars and speak with a bit of an accent? Maybe Uncle Joe would finally own a pair of pants long enough to cover his ankles.
I could almost see it—together again, laughing as we gathered around a scrumptious Polish feast—complete with Grandma Kiepura buns, potato pancakes, and Mom’s pierogis…
Then I had the most awful thought…
God wouldn’t put Aunt Genevieve in charge of dessert, would he?