Babcia, my dad's mom, lived in the ground floor flat on Miller Avenue in Buffalo, New York. She had arrived via Ellis Island from a potato farm somewhere in central Poland.
Babcia's flat was quiet. There may, as I seem to recall have been a radio, because what sound like news reports in very quiet Polish float across my aural memory too. But there was definitely no television. Babcia's home was quiet as a church. It was also orderly, clean and dark—no lights were on where it wasn't absolutely necessary. The flat was long in shape and began off the back door and a small hallway that led into the kitchen. No one used their front doors. The most outstanding feature in her kitchen was the black coal stove. It had round heavy metal plates that were lifted with a tool to stoke the fire, then replaced for a pot to sit on. Babcia often stood at the stove cooking. I remember the smell of onions she was frying one morning with a few of my uncles sitting at the kitchen table. She then took the pierogi she had boiled from the ice box and fried them with the onions for her sons. They were stuffed with farmer's cheese. Another kind were filled with prunes. They were out of this world. I remember my uncles eating and having what sounded like a very serious, quiet conversation in Polish with Babcia. She was not eating. I wondered what they were talking about. I really wanted to know.
Babcia cooked a lot of soup too. Potato soup, borscht, chicken soup with homemade kluski noodles. I think she called chicken soup "rossue", but I am only writing that word phonetically as I haven't got a clue how to write it in Polish. She also made a soup called Charnina (again, this is a phonetic spelling, inspired only by my memory). This was duck blood soup. Babcia bought the duck live from the market, then killed and plucked it herself in the cellar. I used to follow her around a lot. Albeit, from a distance. I was never afraid of her, but she was so strong, and a little fierce to me. I followed her down the cellar stairs while she was busy with the duck. I didn't get very far down the stairs though, when Babcia, sat amongst a vision of white floating feathers, shouted some very angry words at me in Polish, making me do an abrupt u-turn back up the stairs as fast as I could.
The bathroom was located off the kitchen. I don't remember much about it, but I remember Babcia once, emerging from her bath, draped in towels and her bathrobe and slippers. Her face was so red it looked sunburned to me. I also remember the only soap she would use. It was a large, very heavy bar of soap in the shape of an oval with pretty twirling designs around the edge of the bar. It was called "Sweetheart Soap". She sent me out to the shop once to buy it for her.
Off the kitchen was the dining room. Inside was a gleaming dark wooden table and chairs that smelled of furniture polish—some of Babcia's civilising influence. The table was covered with a white, hand-made, crocheted lace table cloth. I remember the christening party that once took place in that room. It was a joyous occasion, very lively and noisy with all my uncles and their wives. I remember the smell of their Old Spice aftershave and their cigarettes. Their whisky "highballs", and the sound of ice in their glasses. Everyone was dressed up for the occasion. My uncles in suits and ties, my aunts in sleeveless black dresses and pearl necklaces. There was an enormous cake in honor of the christening of my baby cousin Wayne, the first born of Aunt Mickey and Uncle Norby. There was delicious looking food on the table, coffee, nice china, and everything smelled divine. Later, my dad or one of my uncles would get the accordion out and play. But my happiness was short-lived when I followed my aunts who were fussing over Wayne in his christening gown in the bassinet. He was getting his diaper changed and I remember staring speechless and in shock at the sight of baby Wayne's tiny penis. I had never seen anything like that before and I was sure it was something horrible. It seemed to me to be some kind of terrifying growth on his tiny body and I was certain this was why Wayne was crying his eyes out. I pointed to it in disbelief, begging my aunts to tell me what this was, and what was wrong with Wayne! But my supplications were not met with any satisfactory explanation except "for making shoo-shoo" or something equivalent. I felt it was all unbelievable but I received many kisses and strokes and consoling noises from my aunts who roared with laughter over this.
Located off the dining room was the forbidden room. This was Babcia's bedroom and none of us kids dared to trespass. Babcia was a kind and gentle woman but she was also stern and meant business. She didn't need to repeat herself to us. I was, however, in her bedroom once because I recall being sick and someone had carried me to her bed. I remember the bed's feather quilted duvet that Babcia had made herself from the duck feathers plucked in the cellar. The duvet was massive or perhaps just seemed so because I was small. It felt like being lost and found at the same time, in some snowy white continent. I felt safe and warm there inside the snowy continent. I wanted to stay in Babcia's bed under her duvet forever! I peeked out from under the duvet and saw the shrine that Babcia had created on a table opposite the bed. A votive candle inside a red glass holder was twinkling there. There was another votive candle in a gold glass holder. So it seemed Babcia's bedroom was also a church. There was a crucifix and two icons. One of the Infant of Prague, one of Our Lady of Czestochowa. There was also a picture of Pope Pius XII. There were smaller photographs too. Maybe of Babcia's family members still back in Poland. There were rosaries draped around the shrine and the candles burned day and night. I remember Babcia whispering the word "Boija" to us, many times in childhood.
The front room of the flat looking out on Miller Avenue, with the front door that was never used was the parlour. It contained large comfortable sitting chairs in a deep blue velvety upholstering. They were covered with hand-made white crocheted lace doilies that rested on the back and arms. There was a round leather hassock, or footrest and the floors were covered with a huge rug that had old-fashioned red, white, and black intricate patterns on it. We played with the hassock, much to Babcia's distress. We turned it on its side and rolled it around giving ourselves a ride. But it was all too much for her, and we upset her. She didn't like very much minding us. Her life had been a hard one and she had been through too much by then. I think she was happiest on her own. I watched her once when she didn't know I was there. She was sitting at the kitchen table, whistling a slow tune very low; making as she often did, perfectly shaped red crepe-paper roses…
About the author: Pamela Cahill now lives in London. This story was once published in '04 in a street magazine to benefit the homeless. She currently plays cello in an amateur string orchestra. Thank you, Pamela.