Late Blessing

Creative Nonfiction
Linda C. Wisniewski


Photo Credit: Jodi Green/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Jodi Green/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I slid a pan of cornbread into the oven and blessed it, like my mother, who made the sign of the cross over every cake, bread and pie she baked.

In middle age, I took up the practice in homage to her and because I could finally do it without cringing. I believed I had put down the heavy load of pain she handed me through a religion I now saw as outmoded and rife with meaningless ritual.

In my eyes, my mother was a long-suffering martyr, verbally abused by my father and devoted to a fantasy of happiness in the hereafter. She read books about saints who endured hideous torture, and quoted their stories to me, her little girl. Suffering earned points with God, and justified staying in a bad marriage. Even then, I didn’t buy the message. My friends’ parents were loving, their homes quiet and safe, and they went to church too. I thought it should be easy for her to leave and take me with her.

I saw her as cold and uncaring. When a big girl pushed me against a locker in junior high, I came home after school in tears and told my mother. She shook her head for a second in sympathy then told me to get over it and went back to cooking dinner. She had to, after all, live the life she had chosen. I planned my exit every day. I would leave for college and be free and happy, nothing like her.

Although she told me to get over my hurt, I don’t think she ever let anything go. No insult was too small to add to her storehouse of suffering. Bitterness colored the stories she told as far back as I remember: My father stood her up when they were dating. Her mother told her to marry him before he changed his mind. He tried to hit her and knocked off her glasses while teaching her to drive. As I listened to her woeful words, I disappeared to myself and became her sounding board, for she had no close friends. Her own mother often told her, albeit in gentle Polish phrases, to calm down.

In the era of women’s liberation, I recalled the walk on our knees down the aisle of the church on Holy Thursday to kiss the feet of the crucifix. To me, a young woman now, we were the image of humiliation. I didn’t know then that humility has the same root.

Now I bless my bread, knowing there was more to her, each memory another facet to her complexity: Her merry laugh when her brother Johnny told a joke. Her worn hands making me pretty dresses after sewing all day in a factory. The Saturday mornings she led me through five stores to find the right Easter shoes. The grocery list she filled for her elderly mother every Wednesday. And the way, in her own old age, she tried to learn and grow.

She shared her disappointment in her lifelong friend.

“Agnes is so prejudiced. She hates the Puerto Ricans on the East End.”

“Didn’t you live there when you were kids?”

“Yes, I guess we were the ‘spics back then. She just can’t see it.”

One Christmas Day she made all the food herself. With a full serving dish in each hand, she whispered: “I feel like I’m going to pass out.”

“For heaven’s sake, sit down.”

“I can’t.”

“It’s okay, we love you.”

Her eyes filled. Horrified for making her cry, I carried dishes from kitchen to table and cleaned up afterward.

When I was a young wife, I could barely stand to be around her. She was so anxious, so eager to please and so easily cowed. She offered me leftovers to take home.

“If you don’t take them, I’ll have to throw them away.”

“So you’re giving me your garbage?” My disdain hit its mark.

I winced at her downcast face, never dreaming I would ever be like her.

Now she is gone, and I know just how hard it is to change. Lifelong habits, even as they hurt us, even as we are aware of that hurt, are easier to continue than to act in a different and completely conscious way. I chase after my grown kids with bags of leftovers as they leave my house. I grab stuffed toys and children’s books to entertain my nephew’s children, to keep them with me just a few minutes longer, believing those minutes are all I need to make them like me. It doesn’t cross my mind that they already like me. Even love me. There is always more for me to do. By myself, without the gifts and the doing, I am never enough.

When my baby cried in his crib, my friend asked if he liked to be picked up. Yes, I said, staring down at him. When she held him, he turned his head to me.

“He knows your voice.”

I didn’t believe her.

When he fell, at three, and shrieked in pain, I frantically asked him what happened. His little playmate spoke up.

“Why don’t you just give him a hug?”

A smart and easily-bored teenager, he kept his nose in his Game Boy for days, making me look like a bad parent to my friends with high-achieving kids.

“Go outside, call a friend,” I said.

A quiet and bookish girl myself, here’s what my mother said to me: “Why do you always have your nose in a book? Go outside and make some friends.”

She must have felt inadequate. Her child was not popular enough and it was her fault. Now it was mine.

With cornbread in the oven and my apron folded over the back of a chair, I long to take her hand.

“Let’s sit,” I would say. For just a moment or two, we could step off the treadmill of worry, and stop caring whether we are working hard enough, doing enough, being enough.

God knows, now that I’ve been all the things I didn’t like about her, I understand. It took a lifetime of therapy, meditation, being loved, and actively, consciously loving others who are fraught with worry, just as they are patient with me.

I used to worry about my son. We rarely talked. He clammed up around fifth grade, the year I had major surgery after painful bouts of diverticulitis.

“Who will take care of me if you go in the hospital, too?” he asked his dad.

That same year, my mother was a widow sliding into dementia hundreds of miles away, and I could do little to help her. My marriage hit a rough spot and I criticized my husband at home, not caring to hide it from our son, believing I was sticking up for myself. Unlike my mother.

During those anxious years, I pushed my boy to be more like the active, popular children of my friends. I made him volunteer at the theater and join the track team. At dinner one evening, I snatched a Left Behind novel from his hands. What I knew of those books was fear and punishment and not being saved. Judgment and suffering for choosing the wrong faith.

“You’re not reading that crap,” I said.

He rolled his eyes but did not argue. Now I am haunted by his downcast face. I want to go back and have that helpful parent discussion, the one where I let him read the book and we talk about it, but he’s 25 now, and living on his own.

The other day, I pressed his number into the keypad on my cell phone. As before, our conversation had long pauses but I let them be, recalling the long comfortable silences between his father and I when we were dating. When my boy finally spoke, I imagined reaching into the phone, touching him.

“I’m sorry for asking you to repeat yourself. My hearing is getting bad.”

“No, it’s all right. I was mumbling.”

In a long sweet flow of words, he told me about his girlfriend, his work, and his plans to travel. It took a long time for him to say these things, and a long time for me to listen, breathing.

“It was good talking with you,” I said.

“Yeah, definitely.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Mother Teresa said: “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”

Before my mother died, I told her about the work I do at my church, where all are welcome. Because I just can’t stop going to church.

“You’ll have a special place in heaven,” she said.

With heat and time, dough rises, transforms into a loaf. The oven timer pings. I open the door to a miracle.

pencilLinda C. Wisniewski shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband in beautiful Bucks County, PA. She writes for a weekly newspaper and teaches memoir workshops. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Visit her online at lindawis.com. Email: lindawis[at]comcast.net

My Grandfather’s Ear

Creative Nonfiction
Linda C. Wisniewski


I hold in my hand a shell, brown and white. It curves inward; light purple colors the shadow inside, like the dark depths of my grandfather’s ear. I long to crawl inside it.

I want to know him again and for the first time. Who was he, what were his innermost thoughts behind that shell-like ear I remember?

I believe I could get to him, his essence, through his ear. At the end, he lost his hearing. The details of his final illness are vague to me now; I was only fourteen. I knew he was ill. He was seventy-four. Standing together in the middle room of the second-floor flat he shared with my grandmother and their son, my uncle, I was almost as tall as he was.

“I can’t hear you anymore,” he said, waving a hand toward the side of his head. Did I comfort him? Probably not. By then, I was already practiced in the stiff upper lip, never “breaking down” if I could avoid it. I may have said, “It’s all right.” I felt his love in his grieving.

We weren’t alone in the room. There was always someone else, my mother, grandmother, sister, uncle. My mother, trying to cheer him, told me to show Grandpa my nails. I had polished them in the popular color for eyeshadow and nails that year. “Blue!” he said and smiled. But then we were silent again, not having the words.

My grandfather was a small, quiet man, a peaceful presence in the life of my extended family. When I was a child, he was often in our house, taking care of me and my sister while our parents worked. One day, she and I got into a fight over something I’ve long since forgotten. We ran around the house, yelling and crying. Grandpa was at least as upset as we were. He followed us from room to room, pleading, “Stop,” “Don’t cry,” “She didn’t mean it.”

My grandfather’s ear was well-trained in Russian. He learned the language as a boy growing up in Poland. Which words did he learn first, the Polish or the Russian? I wish I knew more. Polish at home, I think, and Russian at school.

Once he read to me from the New York Daily News. In a page one picture, people carried signs printed in Russian. It was during the Cold War, 1960. Americans were interested in what was going on in Russia, but I’ll never know what it was that day. Grandpa was pleased, I know that. He pointed to the signs and carefully pronounced the Russian words for me. If I sat here forever, I would still not remember what they were, or the sound of his voice reading them to me. I wasn’t interested, then. Fourteen, and head of my class, I didn’t need to know any of the things he tried to teach me. The Old Country stuff was for old people like him, and though I loved him, it was a patronizing kind of love for an old man whose time had come and gone.

At the end of a typical day at St. Stanislaus School, I walked into the little club where Grandpa tended bar. Dark wood, sparkling bottles and a big mirror behind him, he reached under the bar and brought out a Hershey chocolate bar. He took me as a toddler on his lap, and showed me liquor ads in men’s magazines like Esquire, teaching me to recognize Old Crow, Four Roses and others.

My grandfather’s ear was small, like him, and always open for me, like his face. A half-wreath of black hair encircled the back and sides of his otherwise bald head. Even at the end, his hair never turned gray.

My mother told me a story that happened when she was a child. Grandpa worked in a butcher shop and one day, a man walked in the door with a young lamb in a sack. He asked Grandpa to butcher the lamb. Grandpa didn’t like the idea, but he agreed. Alone in the shop, he cautiously peered into the sack. The lamb looked up at him. After a bit of time, he gathered the courage to put the sack on a table. He then removed the lamb from the sack, took out his knife and quickly cut the throat of the lamb, but not before the lamb looked at him again and baaed.

Grandpa later told me himself that it was a true story and that the lamb was crying “Mama.” He told the man to never again bring a live animal to the store.

I saw him smile, I saw him cry, but I never saw him angry. With him, I felt safe. I wish I could feel that way again.

My grandfather’s ear was clear, translucent so that light came through the outer shell and lit the tiny black hairs inside.

Now that I am sixty, I have time. Done with school and career, my days are my own creation to do with as I wish. And what I do now is sit and look at this little brown-and-white shell in my hand, turning it over.

What I am now is a woman frustrated by my inability to know the only man who loved me without condition, who died the year I was fourteen, long before I realized that who I was might have something to do with him.
pencil

“I am a librarian living with my family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I teach memoir workshops at the local community college. My work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, Mindprints, The Rose and Thorn and the Philadelphia Inquirer. I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Mindprints. In 2008, my book-length memoir, Off Kilter, will be published by Pearlsong Press.” E-mail: lindawis[at]comcast.net

A Connecting Thread

Creative Nonfiction
Linda C. Wisniewski


In the thirty years after I left my mother’s house, I never missed her. Yet it pleases me now, in my sixth decade, to find a connecting thread.

Mom was an excellent seamstress. She made her living at a sewing machine, and came home to sew most of our clothes in the evening. She had decidedly mixed feelings, proud of her skill but trapped in a life of manual labor. I remember her frequent complaints—her thread broke, there was a mistake in the pattern, she couldn’t find her scissors.

“Goldarn it!” she’d mutter.

Though she seemed to take little joy in it, she always produced a beautiful garment. The prom dress she made me had a white lace fitted bodice, apple green slim skirt, and thin shoulder straps. The other girls wore dresses from Holzheimer and Shaul, the local department store, and two of them showed up at the dance wearing identical models. Mine was an original, custom made for me.

‘Why did you tell them it was homemade?” Mom scolded. “They’ll think you can’t afford a dress from Holzheimer’s.”

“But they liked it,” I said. “No one else can get one anywhere.” She hadn’t thought of it this way, and I could see that she wasn’t sure what to believe. Her philosophy was to work hard, not enjoy it and never take credit for what you’ve done.

My mother’s fingers cracked and bled from long hours in the factory, feeding parts of men’s work pants into industrial machines. For a few years, she worked on basketballs; I can’t imagine how she did it. She welcomed the occasional layoffs, though we needed the money. I was with her one day when she left the unemployment office with a job offer.

“Goldarn it!” she muttered as she grabbed my hand and marched out the door.

At home, Mom sewed in the tiny bedroom she and Dad shared. Her old Singer machine stood at the front window, looking out on the street. She slid a small padded bench Into the two-foot space between her machine and the foot of the bed. In the weeks before every major holiday, she’d make new clothes for herself, my sister, Judy and me.

“Linda, come and try your dress on!”

Uh oh. Time for another endless fitting. Mom dropped the dress over my head. I tried not to move as she tucked here and folded there, pinned the darts and removed the pins and did it all again, shaking her head in frustration. A curvature of the spine made my left shoulder lower than the right, my left hip higher, eliminated my waistline and condemned every sewing project to countless alterations. I grew bored and impatient. Unable to resist squirming, I got stuck with a pin.

“Ow!”

“Goldarn it! I told you not to move!”

I tried not to wet the dress with my tears.

“Just go. ” Mom lifted the dress over my head and turned away. I barely glanced at the back of her head covered with short, dark curls. Both of us tried so hard and failed. She couldn’t make the perfectly tailored dress. I couldn’t be the perfectly quiet little girl. I turned the glass doorknob, pulled it toward me and ran out.

Where was the picture of a happy mother and daughter sewing together? I’d seen them in McCall’s magazine, and on the poster in the fabric store window. I wanted to be the little girl in that picture. I wanted a different mother. Maybe Betsy McCall’s mother, the one that came with my paper dolls. Betsy and her mother were always having fun.

At the time, I thought that both sewing and I were a huge pain in the neck. Mom tried to teach me, but I never got the hang of it. I suspect it felt too close to being her. I didn’t want to be so harried, so trapped in a difficult job.

Years passed without my sewing more than a loose button. I had a career, two children and a husband, and a house in the country. We needed new window treatments, but the cost was so shocking, I decided to make them myself. And that is how, shopping for drapery fabric, I fell in love with a computerized sewing machine. It threaded itself, came with six presser feet, and remembered your monograms. It did everything but make coffee.

I wished that Mom could see it; other memories came flooding back. The smell of sizing from the aisles filled with colorful bolts of cloth. The filing cabinets filled with patterns in paper envelopes. The huge catalogs on tables with high stools to sit and browse from, turning the pages, dreaming up a new dress… I remembered her then, leading me through the store, and I knew I was not my mother. I would not become her by learning to sew. And I had found something we shared, something about her I wanted to keep.

When I sew, each sound, each item I touch, becomes a memory that connects me to her. The feel of the tissue paper pattern, the placement of the pins attaching it to fabric just the way I watched her do it. The chop, chop of the scissors taking me back to the kitchen table that was her cutting board. The soft whir of the machine as my foot presses down on the pedal. The way I focus on my work, snipping loose threads and letting them fall..

I love all my tools—the rotary cutter and mat, the spools and bobbins, the snips and scissors, my stash of fabrics. I have some things from Mom’s old sewing cabinet—patterns in her size, bindings and trims, her paper cutter. I like to see them nestled among the notions I bought for myself. Because my mother was so skilled, I believe I, too, can be good at this, and I want to be.

When I’m sewing, I feel like I’m standing on her shoulders, as she stood on the shoulders of women who sewed through the ages, making clothes, making art, making memories. And if only by a thread, I finally feel connected to my mother.

pencil

“My work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mindprints, the Rose and Thorn, the Green Tricycle and other print and online publications. I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2003. I am a former librarian living with my family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I also teach workshops in memoir writing for adults at Bucks County Community College.” E-mail: lindawis[at]comcast.net.