My parents brought us kids up to be Canadians. Mom was born in Poland but came over with her family as a young girl. Dad was born in Montreal. His dad moved to Canada from the States at some point along the way. He used to live in Chicago where he worked as a musician, “in the pit bands”, as my dad liked to say. He was a violin maker and repairman and he was in the glove business – an oddball combination I know. Grandpa was Polish too but I don’t know if he was born in America or in Poland. I guess I never thought to ask.
Dad didn’t speak Polish. Mom did, but her Polish had lots of holes in it which she would fill in with English words. She mostly only spoke Polish on the phone with her sisters when she didn’t want us kids to know what she was talking about. We would try to piece it together by the English words in the conversation. She would also swear up a storm in Polish from time to time.
On the high holidays, Mom would spend a couple days making Polish food – cabbage rolls and pierogi and meat on a stick, marinated, fried and roasted. It was these meals – feasts really – when our Polish heritage came out.
Dad would take me down to Queen St and we’d line up for the best kielbasa in town at Czehoski. And then we’d buy fruit, loads of fruit. Mom used to tell me that the first time she had an orange in her life was on the ship coming over from Europe. I think for her fresh fruit came to represent the opportunity that Canada provided for our family, because Dad would always load up with bags of the best fruit he could find, especially oranges.
Christmas cooking was always a big production. I remember sometimes Aunty Stella would come over and help Mom make pierogi. Stella was the fastest pierogi maker I had ever seen. They would make dozens of them, which they would freeze on trays, before transferring the frozen pierogi into bags with a dozen in each bag. Freezing before bagging meant the pierogi wouldn’t stick to one another.
From time to time, usually around Christmas, I make some Polish food. It’s like a time machine, and it transports me right back to my childhood. I remember watching Mom line her big roasting pan with the outside leaves from the cabbage before laying in her cabbage rolls to roast. Then she would put pieces of back ribs on top, allowing the pork fat to drip down through the cabbage rolls as they cooked. I went to grade school just down the street from our home. When Mom was making cabbage rolls, I could smell them from the schoolyard when we were outside playing at recess. Those outer leaves would caramelize and become like cabbage candy. I remember my sister and I fighting over this treat.
Mom had a stash of 4 or 5 Li’l Wally polka records. This included one record of racy polkas sung in Polish, which turned Mom’s face scarlet red and caused her to laugh and laugh. She didn’t bring these records out often. Usually the console stereo in the living room was dominated by Dad’s Dixieland or maybe The Mills Brothers or Jimmy Rushing, Mr 5X5. Sometimes though, when she was doing Christmas cooking or baking, she would pull out her records and have Dad put them on for her.
Here’s the late great polka king, Li’l Wally, performing Johnny’s Knocking on the Lawrence Welk Show. I love his beautiful Chemnitzer concertina!
Sometimes I regret that we were not immersed in more old country traditions, and I also wish I had the language. At the same time I grew up as a Canadian kid in a country of opportunity and privilege and I’m grateful for that. Here’s one more nod to my Polish roots. Listen to the fabulous Scrubby and The Dynatones, from Buffalo NY, playing Zosia – my favourite polka – and watch those crazy dancers.