Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pen Pal

Ever since she was a child, she thought it would be cool to have a pen pal. She had never had one. Partially, she didn’t know how to go about finding one not incarcerated and partially she was afraid she wouldn’t know what to say. A friend of hers introduced her to an exchange program of sorts. A couple of weeks later she stumbled upon the Pen Pal exchange. With no more excuses, she gave it a try. She was positively giddy about the opportunity. She sat down with pen and paper and began to write:

"I should probably start telling you about myself. The truth is, I’ve never really had to introduce myself in this manner before and I am feeling a little lost. Kind of funny, huh? I am already stuck. I think I will give you a history of why I am who I am. Personally, I really enjoy the why’s and how come’s of people’s lives. In this case, we will have plenty of time to share where we currently are and where we hope to be in the future. I’m hoping by sharing some of my past, you will understand why I have the perceptions I do and why some think I am a bit strange.

I am going to start with my great-grandparents. My knowledge of them is limited and I can’t even guarantee it is accurate. Stories and experiences have a way of skewing themselves after time has passed. . I don’t know either of my great-grandparent’s names as they both died before I was five years old. But I believe these brief histories have impacted the person I have become. They certainly had a heavy influence in how my parents were raised and thus, raised me.
My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was a Native American Indian. I’m not sure of which tribe as that information was buried with her. If I had to guess, I would say either the Chippewa or Miami tribes. Both were present in the area my great-grandfather lived prior to his marriage to her. My great-grandfather was, of course, a working class European American. I do know their marriage took place at a time when it was not acceptable and they were in love until the day they died. Their children were raised in a very prejudicial world with a very different outlook of the world and its connection to nature than the other children in their neighborhood. No one has ever said, but I suspect they were subjected to a great deal of ridicule. My great-grandmother lived to be in her mid-eighties. She was a stern woman who stood up to adversity. I am told I inherited my eye color and my easily tanned brown summer skin from her. I’d like to believe I also inherited her stubbornness and sense of social justice from her as well. I never met my great-grandfather.

My great-grandfather on my father’s side was of the first generation of immigrants to be born in America. When his father came over on ‘the boat’ (no, I have no idea which one), his name was changed from Wabichski to Wabich. My great-grandfather was raised primarily by his uncle after both of his parents died. It was often said that he was raised “in the tradition of being Polish.” That is, he was raised under a watchful and frequently vengeful God, a supple branch, an iron fist, and knuckles. He was devout Catholic to his dying day. He raised his children (my grandfather) under these same rules and a heavy dose of alcohol.

My great grandfather died of smoke inhalation. His entire two-story rickety house burned to the ground one cold winter night. No one knows what started the fire. The only thing that stood recognizable amongst the ashes was the rocking chair he was found in and the bible that lay across his lap. Also, the wall with the window was half up. I would think this story was used to scare my sister and I into behaving had I not been there to shift through the ashes myself. Then again, I was very young and this memory could have been easily manipulated.

I’d met my grandfather on my mother’s side as a child. (The son of my Native American great-grandmother.) I have two memories of him. One is that he lived in a house on a lake and had a rowboat and paddle boat tied up to his short pier. My father may have taken us fishing in the rowboat at times, but I am not certain of that. My sister and I loved taking the paddle boat out on the lake. We were too young to be unsupervised doing such an activity, probably being 7 and 5 at the oldest, but that didn’t seem to matter to the adults. On one such joyride, we paddled the boat to shore and ran to the house. On the way, one of us disturbed and underground hive of bees. They swarmed us. I was beyond terrified and neither of us knew what to do. (I was allergic to bees at that time, an allergy I may have outgrown.) My grandfather came rushing from the side door leading to the mudroom. He covered me with a heavy quilt. It smelled strongly of bleach and was a bit damp. I survived without a single sting.

He rescued my sister in the same fashion. She suffered five stings. I remember counting them over and over until they disappeared. Even after they were gone, we would relive those moments in our life and ultimately compare the damage we received. My grandfather didn’t fare so well. I remember angry red bumps covering his arms and cheeks at breakfast the next morning. We also recounted this in our telling of the story.

My other memory is of an old cradle he had in his home against the short wall that led from the kitchen to the living room. I spent hours rocking my baby sister and baby dolls in it when we would visit. It was a deep walnut color and had scratches that showed it was well used. I adored this piece of furniture above all else, including his attention. When we were expecting our first child, my husband began fashioning a very similar cradle out of a light colored oak. My grandfather is still alive somewhere in Florida. He moved there a year or two after the bee incident. My sister’s and I never heard from him once he moved. I have any memories of his wife (not my maternal grandmother) other than she was always present and usually very near his side.

My maternal grandmother on my mother’s side had a love of gardening. I remember going to her house frequently. We spent a lot of time in the garden eating food directly from the vine or picking string beans and tomatoes by the bushel to be canned. Holidays were hectic. Tables were piled with food. There wasn’t enough room for all the relatives. We were always the last to leave and therefore saw more of the domestic abuse she received from her second husband than any other family member. At the time, I remember being scared and nervous to make too much noise. I felt in my gut it was not okay, but kept my eyes averted and my mouth shut. They divorced when I was in early elementary school, I think. I stopped seeing much of my grandma, partially because I was getting older and partially because I didn’t want to be introduced to any more mean new grandpas. I suspect she and my other had a falling out as well. Still, her gardening seems to have stuck and now I enjoy planting a small garden with my children, watching it come to life and blossom, and eating the vegetables and fruits directly from the vine. My grandma is still alive as well. She lives somewhere in Michigan, but is fairly transitive. I see her at Christmas for an hour or two each year. We pass about 15 minutes of polite conversation before she moves on to the next relative she hasn’t connected with. Her fourth husband seems very nice and is incapable of beating her as he is wheelchair bound. Sometimes I wonder if he verbally berates her as her third husband did.

That leaves my grandparents on my father’s side. My grandmother was born half of a set of twins among other siblings. I loved my grandmother and found a great deal of comfort being with her. She was the epitome of a farmer’s wife. She was patient, kind, a chain smoker, and thin as a rail. For a while, she worked in the factory that made Hush Puppy Shoes. We would get a pair for Christmas every year and I looked forward to opening that package most. She also had a passion for genealogy. She’d traced her roots back to the time of the Mayflower, if not further. It was a beautiful book. It was overflowing with newspaper articles that had yellowed and black and white picture of people who looked way too serious. There were tons of documents that I couldn’t identify. I desperately wanted to read that book, but it was off limits to the grandchildren. I sometimes wonder if this is what instilled the desire to know the why and what of people’s lives. Much of her work was lost in the fire that claimed her home. She was lucky to make it out alive. The fire changed her life, forcing her to live the remainder of her years connected to an oxygen tank. She died almost 10 years ago. When she died, I swear her spirit visited me. It said nothing, but I felt a calmness in this bright light no one else seemed to notice.

My grandfather was my life blood in some respects. I loved listening to the polish phrases he would fling around and that he called his cows kielbasa to get them to follow him. He had leathery skin from spending so much time in the sun mending fences and bailing hay. He chain smoked as well. He always had a joke or would pull a quarter out from behind our ears. He loved country music and all the kids new how to dance to Elvira when he turned up the volume on the old radio cabinet. I vied for his attention and felt like I owned the world when I was allowed to sit next to him at meals. His children seemed to respect. He died 16 years ago. I was in his room when he took his last breath and his funeral is the first one I can clearly remember going to.

All of their children and their kids were at the house on weekends to help with the farm work. The children played outside climbing trees, chasing cats through the barn, standing on fences, picking dandelions, and playing Red Rover. (Yes….. I was included amongst the children.) The woman watched the babies, cooked the meals, and washed the dishes all the while chatting about life and love. The men plowed the fields, sorted the cows and pigs, and cut the firewood. I didn’t know what a weekend away from the farm was like until I was in high school.

It wasn’t until after my grandfather had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while I was in college that I learned how terribly abusive he had been to his wife and children. Much of this came up as more and more rescue missions were required to keep my grandmother safe from his wrath. This is when the stories of his alcoholism, physical and verbal abuse, and cheating ways seemed to get kicked out of the dust. What I always took for respect was an emotion born out of fear and gratefulness.

Phew! It appears I am no longer stuck. I am tired, my back is sore and my hand is cramping. And to think, all I have provided you with is a sketchy background. You still know nothing of my childhood or life. I want to get this in the mail soon. I probably will not have time to continue the story for a week or so. But, I promise to do so! I will send another letter that actually introduces me at least the me I am today. Consider this installment number one!



She signed her name in small scratchy letters that no one could actually read, uncertain if this was the right way to start a long distance relationship.

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