Busia’s house always felt foreign to me. I was used to shag carpets, floral wallpapers, and watching Hogan’s Heroes on our white Zenith television back at home. Busia’s, on the other hand, was more like a relic from the postwar housing boom. The wallpapers were khaki-colored, spotted red as if someone just erratically flicked paint at the walls. With this was the gaudy baby blue couches, protected by plastic slipcovers, and white doilies that sat on every spot that had the potential for drink placement—not that I dared to place glasses anywhere other than the kitchen table. The shrine to my Dziadziu sat in the corner of the family room, displaying souring black and white images of him next to Jesus, military medals, and little Polish flags. It felt like a centerpiece. Why are there medals? Why aren’t there American flags if we won the war? I would think every time I looked at it. Didn’t the Nazis kick Poland’s ass in World War II?
“Don’t touch that, szczeniak!” Busia barked every time I got too close to the shrine.
One time when I was younger, my mother brought me over and I accidentally shattered a frame that held a photo of Dziadziu kissing Busia when they were teenagers. Busia never seemed to want to forgive me.
I felt the same on that day as I did on this one: frustrated and bored. My mother dropped me off at Busia’s on the same Thursday as her first shift at the diner down the road. I wasn’t frustrated because she got another job; in fact, a small part of my eleven-year-old self knew that money had been tight since dad shipped out to kill the Viet Cong. No, I was frustrated because Busia had a little wooden radio instead of a television, and I didn’t know how to use the archaic thing. On top of that, Busia told me I couldn’t leave the house.
“It’s sunny! I want to go outside…” I groaned.
“Cicho bądź!” she snapped. Her accent was harsh like lumberjacks chopping wood, “your mother said watch you so I will watch you.”
“But it’s boring here. There’s nothing for me to do—”
“Then you will do nic!” She shook her head, and muttered to herself, “why must chłopcy always distract themselves?”
My Busia always spoke in what my mother called Poglish, a blend of Polish and English speech. This was because the Polish population in Hamtramck was aging and their kids never learned to speak Polish well.
After making it clear I couldn’t leave the house until my mother came to pick me up, I decided to flip through Busia’s book collection, looking for anything remotely interesting. Naively, I hoped to come across some random Sgt. Rock or Superman comic book, but I knew it was wishful thinking. Shortly after, the doorbell of Busia’s shoebox-sized home rang, shaking the entire structure. Busia scurried over to the door with her hands clasped behind her back, like royalty, and opened it.
“Dobry wieczór! Dobry wieczór!” She exclaimed as two other blond-haired and stern-looking Poles came in.
My Busia guided the two visitors, both gripping large paper bags close to their chests. The one who wore a polka-dotted green dress spoke, “who’s this one?”
“Lena’s boy…” Busia replied. Her lip fidgeted with reluctancy, “Angelo.”
“He’s very ładny,” the old lady lengthened out. “The girls must love his olive skin.”
I shyly blushed, but when I looked over to Busia she was sneering at the comment, pushing the ladies into the kitchen.
I sat on the rough carpet for a few minutes, opting to flip through dusty books full of Polish words I didn’t understand. I went over to the window and watched kids who looked around my age run in the street, burning their feet on the blacktop playing army with imaginary guns. Although I couldn’t join them I smiled, that’s what dad is doing. I imagined myself in his boots, stalking the enemy through the rice fields like a water snake, carrying a taped-up M16 while attack copters whirled above. I wondered if he felt as uncomfortable as I did.
The ladies’ Poglish bickering echoed from the kitchen, which broke my imagination.
“Why so szorstki with the boy, Maria?” one of the ladies asked.
“He’s ignorant like his ojciec! He talks back. No manners, none at all!” Busia shouted.
The metallic clinks and clanks of pots and pans followed their voices. Is Busia talking about me? I thought.
I continued to listen to the ladies, and the more I heard the more I thought Busia was criticizing me behind my back. Even though I only understood half of what they were saying, being a 6th grader at the time I could easily tell when someone was trashing-talking me, and it made me furious. Busia’s talking continued, and the more she spoke the faster and harsher she sounded. Rage grew inside me like a fire, so much so I jumped up from the carpet and marched into the pink and white kitchen.
When I entered the old ladies glared at me like I was an intruding mouse. Words my dad used before he shipped out sprung up in my mind like M-14 toe-poppers.
“Are you shit-talking me, Busia?” I interrogated.
As the last words came out, my face flushed and my body withered like a corpse.
“Ai! You speak to me like that?” Busia yapped with an appalled expression, “usiądź!” She said, snapping at an empty chair at the table.
Even though I didn’t understand her word I got the message. I shamefully meandered to the empty pink chair and sat down. My feet couldn’t touch the ground, but I stopped myself from swinging my legs. I was definitely in time out.
Since I was further limited to just sitting in the kitchen and being quiet, I had nothing to do except watch the old ladies. They had pulled flour, eggs, and pre-boiled potatoes out of their grocery bags that they had brought in. Beside them were large reflective bowls and wooden cooking boards. As I sat quietly, I watched the ladies ready their stations: moving bowls, flouring the cutting boards, and getting out the peelers and rollers. The set up was ritualistic, moving in a way I imagined my dad would before he went out to fight. Once they were ready, each of them began to prep. My Busia began peeling the potatoes while the visitor in the polka-dot dress began throwing eggs, flour, and water into a bowl, stirring the ingredients with motherly care. Once she finished the mixture she threw the doughy result onto the cutting board for the hunchbacked third visitor, who began to knead it like massaging a tight muscle. The movement was like a Ford assembly line, with each lady having her own role and then passing the material to the next. After finishing up peeling some of the potatoes, my Busia’s blueberry eyes hawked at me. I could tell she was still angry with my outburst, yet she knew I had questions about what they were doing.
“We’re making pierogi for the fish fry tomorrow,” she said without looking up.
“Fish fry? What’s that for?”
“Ai-yai-yai,” she sighed, her pale face hardened even more. She scolded the air with her peeler, “put him in Catholic schools I tell his mother! Public is gówno. Boy doesn’t even know it’s Lent!”
“Lent?” I questioned. I knew it had something to do with church but I didn’t know what exactly.
The two visitors snickered as they worked. Busia grew red, angry with my ignorance. For a moment I thought that maybe her shit-talking wasn’t actually shit.
The hunchbacked lady turned around, bug-eyed through her coke-bottle glasses, “that’s a shame, Maria. My kochanie is volunteering tomorrow, and he’s so smart. Angelo here could always come and learn from him.”
Busia’s eyes narrowed on her friend, as if she needed to tread lightly too. Then, Busia looked at me, “you make sacrifice during Lent,” she held up a potato, “no meat on Fridays. No meat! We make potato pierogi for St. Florian’s. Goes with the fish and sauerkraut.”
* * * * *
For the next few hours, I sat in my time out observing the old ladies roll out potato pierogi like they were preparing meals for nuclear fallout. The North Vietnamese don’t have nukes, do they? I thought. The sun leisured its way to sleep behind the auto factories and the kids playing in the street went inside for supper. I was in a trance watching the old ladies move with an ease of structured familiarity, like their work was both an offering yet commonplace. Pounds of pierogi, prepped to look like little rising suns, began to overwhelm the rickety kitchen table. Just as I thought one of the table’s metal legs would give, the oven top began to click-click-click before a small flame jumped up. A lady placed a large pot of water over the flame, letting it come to a boil. Once it was ready, the two visitors began dumping the prepped pierogi into the boiling water.
“We fry them tomorrow afternoon in the Florian’s kitchen,” Busia said, sitting down in an empty chair next to me. She sounded calmer, which made my situation better: I never thought about what my mother would do when she found out I cussed at Busia. Nonetheless, while the visitors boiled prepped pieces Busia finished up prepping some of the last pierogi, wrapping the dough around the dollop of potato filling. She held the completed one up to me between her floured pruney fingers. Her eyes gleamed with pride.
I think I was supposed to be impressed by the completed pierog because when Busia saw my blank expression she grunted. Why am I supposed to be impressed—it’s just food? I thought.
With a speed I’d never expected from her, she seized my hands and shoved a circular piece of dough into them, “weź to!”
Before I could speak she then placed a dollop of potato into the dough, “I will show you how to seal pierog.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You must know how to make Polish food,” Busia declared, grabbing the same ingredients for herself, “your mother was never good at cooking. And your Italian father knows not how to make Polish food.”
“My dad’s not Italian, he’s American!” I proudly declared.
She gave a half-snicker, “burgers and fries aren’t Polish food either, dziecko.”
She held out her ingredients and pointed them to mine. “Your Dziadziu and I,” she started, delicately pulling the dough around the potato dollop like knitting, “used to make pierogi together in Otwock before the war…”
“Dziadziu made pierogi?” I asked, stunned because I had never seen my dad make real food before, unless Wheaties and milk counted as real food.
“Tak, tak,” Busia said, continuing to fold her pierog, “taught me how to in fact.”
There was a small pause in the conversation. Even though I was young I still felt like Busia was dancing around something. I glanced back into the living room and remembered the shrine to Dziadziu. I remembered the medals and the black and white photos, in one of which Dziadziu blended in among a group of gun-toting soldiers.
“Did Dziadziu die in the war, Busia?” I asked sheepishly.
She seemed to pretend to not hear my question, instead putting emphasis to the fact that she finished sealing her pierog. Without responding to my question she cleared her throat, “your turn.”
Part of me wanted to ask the question again. I could clear my throat and speak louder the next time. But in a way Busia’s avoidance of my question also answered it for me. Immediately I thought of my dad. Will he come back like Dziadziu, I feared, as a pile of photos and medals, nothing left of his body?
Busia’s eyes beamed at me, patiently waiting for me to start making a pierog. I shook the thought of Dziadziu and my dad out of my mind. I tightened my hands and focused my attention on making a pierog. How hard can it be?
I massaged the doughy base, which felt flabby and thin between my fingers. Playing with the pieces, I tried to move the wobbly potato dollop to the side. Then, as I yanked one of the sides of dough over, the base split down the middle like tissue paper. The potato dollop plopped onto the table as I held the doughy remains, one in each hand.
I had failed.
My lips began to tremble in irritation and my face heated— angry and upset simultaneously. Why am I about to cry? I thought. Be a man, it’s just food. But for some reason I couldn’t resist my emotions. Maybe it was the fact that Busia didn’t have Dziadziu to make pierogies with her anymore or that my dumbass dad volunteered to join the marines. Could a man who barely knows how to make a bowl of cereal be able to survive a war? I thought this as I felt my tear ducts begin to bubble.
I looked away from Busia, thinking she would yell at me for failing. It was so simple to do yet I failed on the first attempt. But when I looked up at her she didn’t look angry; she looked determined, like Steve McQueen when he escaped the POW camp in The Great Escape.
“Nie, nie, nie,” she firmly pointed, “you will not be upset for little mistake.”
“But it’s ripped in two!” I said, feeling the tears thicken in my eyes. “I have to throw it away.”
“Not true,” She exclaimed, the peach fuzz under her nose gleamed in the kitchen light.
Almost instinctively, Busia ripped her freshly-prepped pierog in two pieces, creating a mess of dough and potato. She then began to intricately separate the potato from the dough until she had two separate balls in front of her. She nodded to me, signaling that I needed to do the same. She collected some rolling flour from the table and rubbed it against the dough. I took my split dough pieces and covered them in flour also, then mashed them together.
She spoke without looking up, “just because something is split does not mean it cannot be mended, your Dziadziu would say.” She squashed the dough between her hands, placed the potato ball inside, and prepped the pierog. “You will see the split, true, but the split builds character, makes you stronger—”
I flattened my mash of dough, now scarred with the error I made, just like Busia did. She then held out the potato dollop that had landed on the table and placed it in the center of the dough. Again I attempted to seal the pierog. This time I was slower, more delicate, trying to weigh and feel the dough’s tension. I balanced it between my fingers, imagining what a field medic would do when stitching someone up. Gently, I shifted the potato dollop to the other side of the pierog, then carefully shifted the dough over like closing a book. Gradually I made my way around the dollop, creasing the edges with my pointer finger and thumb over and over until I had successfully sealed the potato in the dough.
I looked up to Busia with the largest grin I had ever had. Her thin lips creased slightly.
“Do widzenia, Maria!” The visitors said, carrying out the large trays of prepped pierogi. Throughout the entire time I had completely forgotten the old ladies were in the same room. They gave me warm smiles as they walked out.
“Pa, pa, ladies.” Busia said, waving.
The house shook again when the front door slammed shut. Busia looked back to me and then down to the leftover pierogi on the table. In an instant she got up, opened a pink cupboard door, pulled out a cast iron skillet, and put it on the stove. The flame melted the butter as Busia spun the skillet like a hula hoop. Once ready, she placed the leftover pierogi into the skillet and let them sizzle. A short moment later there was a plate of golden-crisped pierogi, with a side of sour cream, on the table.
Busia grabbed two forks and handed one to me, “eat, Angelo, eat.”
By Jonathan Mann