During that December trip home, my Mom and I went to visit my great aunt Betty. She is a frail, white-haired Polish woman in her late 80s who scoots and hunches over when she walks. Aunt Betty is a devout Catholic. Aunt Betty is devout Polack. She will be the first to confirm both things.
As a pre-teen, Aunt Betty had given me my first and only rosary when she caught me admiring hers. To tell the truth, I thought it was just a necklace — a beautiful string of beads with a bleeding Christ medallion hanging from the end. I went to Catholic high school for a year where I learned how to use my rosary to plead with the Virgin Mother to talk to her Son about the ails of my life and see if he could help me out. I liked the part of praying the rosary where I could assign a bead to each person I loved or each issue that troubled me. I hated repeating the phrase “fruit of thy womb” fifty times. All I could think of were those dumb guys on the underwear commercials dressed like grape clusters.
The gift of the rosary from Aunt Betty mainly just hung from my bedpost. Something about the shiny pink crystals being within reach in the dark was comforting to me as a young woman.
|Photo via The Wooden Wagon|
Aunt Betty could be found at Polish-language mass each week at St. Stanislaus cathedral. Her Christmas cards always featured the virgin Madonna atop a donkey on her pilgrimage to Bethlehem with a message from the book of Luke, which many Catholics maintain is the most accurate of the Gospels. Aunt Betty made meals for the sick and poor. Until she could not drive any longer, she ran errands for people in the neighborhood who couldn’t get to the store. She had a dog named Rufus.
Aunt Betty was a single mom. Her only child Steven was about my dad’s age. Over the years I never knew the real deal with that story. At one time I believed that Betty’s young lover had gone off to the Korean War and never returned. I had also heard something about a bowling tournament in Ohio that led to a baby boy nine months later. I didn’t know the details. I knew better than to ask. All I knew was that I had always admired my Aunt Betty, no time more than now — my first Holy Advent season as a single, pregnant non-virgin.
On this visit Aunt Betty was sprucing up the house for Christmas. Nativity scenes sat in every room of the boxy two-story home that had been the birthplace and growing-up backdrop for her, my grandfather and their six siblings. Betty was the youngest girl. Their mother Anna had died shortly after discovering that a large tumor in her abdomen was not actually another pregnancy. Aunt Betty was returning home from Confession and Mass with a friend at the age of 15 when a neighbor broke the news.
My great-grandma Anna had run a tight ship. The kids trudged through the snow two miles each morning to attend Catholic school at St. Stanislaus. They walked home together at the end of the day. All of the Powalski kids spoke fluent English but Anna never learned it.
Per my grandfather, if one of the kids spoke an English word at the dinner table, Anna would smack them across the mouth and (in Polish) say “You speak Polish at the table.”
When all of the Powalski clan had grown and moved out, Betty and her son Steven remained in the house. Since Betty was a single mom decades before Angelina Jolie made it cool, no one complained when she became the unquestioned heir of the family home.
So Betty remained in the house as the decades went by. Black and white photos of her parents and brothers in military dress lined the walls. A large round table filled the kitchen/dining room area, making it difficult to pass in to other rooms.
On this particular December day I felt the weight of the house. I could feel all of the Powalski babies born and raised within these walls. I could envision great-grandma Anna being laid out for viewing following her death in the very living room where we sipped tea today. I could make out the childish sounds of my dad and his cousins running up and down the stairs as the older generation played gin rummy and drank beer on the weekends.
The home sat in a neighborhood called Hungry Hollow. The sand dunes rising around the neighborhood provided a sound tunnel. Hungry Hollow had been a traditionally immigrant, mostly Polish, neighborhood decades ago. My dad told me that until he went to elementary school he was under the impression that everyone in the world spoke Polish and was related to him. My great-uncle Frank lived five houses down from the Powalski homestead with his wife Kate. My grandfather settled around the bend on Washington Park Boulevard where he raised four children.
The oldest of my the Powalski siblings was Victor, a half-brother that my great grandfather took on when he married Anna. Victor had been born in Poland — the only one of the clan not be birthed within the walls of the American homestead. Victor left Hungry Hollow for Maryland where he worked on a farm. When the farmer died, Victor married the farmer’s widow Pearl and returned to Hungry Hollow with his new bride.
As original and inherited owners died in the Hungry Hollow neighborhood, new families of all ethnicities bought the sturdy homes that were considered small, starter homes by modern standards. Despite protests from residents, a riverboat casino had been built just around the bend from Hungry Hollow. At least the sand dunes provided a barrier between the rows of post-WWI homes and the neon blue lights of the gambling mecca.
Aunt Betty was still going strong – holding on to her little piece of Hungry Hollow history. While my mom had framed this visit as something to perk up my aging relative, it soon became clear to me that this trip was intended to give me a shot of inspiration instead. Aunt Betty asked me questions about the pregnancy. She asked me how I’d been feeling. She told me in a soft, unbalanced voice that I needed to take it easy and be careful during this pregnancy. When questions of the baby’s father arose, I gave my usual, politically-correct answers.
“I’m doing this alone. The baby’s father has decided parenting is not for him.”
I’m not sure if Aunt Betty had been briefed, or if my great aunt had already sensed my situation, but she didn’t flinch.
“When I came home pregnant many years ago, my father told me ‘The Lord will help you take care of this baby.’ And the Lord will help you take care of yours,” she said.
She stood up and walked to the television, an old wooden set that sat on the floor and had a large screen. Betty grabbed a four-inch alabaster angel figurine dressed in a thin pink tutu. She told me to put it in my little girl’s nursery.
“Oh, well I don’t know if I’m having a girl yet. I’ll find out at the end of the month,” I said before accepting the gift.
Aunt Betty shoved the delicate angel into the palm of my hand, much the way my grandfather was always handing me unwanted Tupperware containers of boiled mushrooms and onions.
“Well, take it just in case.”
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