My grandmother lived in a small town in Pennsylvania. Her name was Veronica but everyone called her Babci. Even her sisters, who all lived in the same town, called her Babci in her later years. The word “Babcia” means grandmother in Polish but somewhere along the way, it became more than her title.
“Babci,” without the extra “a,”
became her name.
Babci lived in a very small two-story house. The kitchen was furnished with a small wood table and three wobbly mismatched chairs. There were homemade shelves over the sink filled with cups and glasses of various sizes and shapes. Her living room had two chairs, a sofa, and a black and white Philco television which got exactly three stations. Upstairs were two bedrooms, each with a lumpy, squeeky mattress, but in winter they were topped with a thick homemade comforter that kept you warm even when it went below zero.
Babci cooked everything on a giant coal stove that sat in the middle of the kitchen and she could perform miracles on that stove. She made fantastic grilled cheese. She could deep fry city chicken in a skillet on the top and make perfect beef roasts in the oven on the bottom. Her home baked toasted bread made with a wire rack and then slathered with butter was a special treat.
She also used the stove to heat great buckets of water for washing the dishes and filling her cast iron washtub that would be dragged in from the back porch when it was time to bathe. That stove was the only source of heat in the winter but made the house almost unbearably hot in the summer so everyone would hang out on the front porch.
Only one of her sisters had a phone. When you needed to call her, you had to make a preemptive call so her sister could get her to come to the phone and wait for the next call that would soon follow. Except for the cold-water spigot that hung over the kitchen sink, the house had no indoor plumbing. She was therefore forced to use an honest-to-goodness backyard outhouse and in the winter she used a chamber pot.
But Babci never complained. She did not care about modern conveniences. She never missed what she didn’t have. She had lived through the depression, two world wars, coal mine disasters, and the Black Lung that took her alcoholic husband. She was a tough lady, but as tough as she was, she was always sweet to me.
Staying at Babci’s was always a bit
like going back in history and learning
to live without all the modern comforts
I had become so accustomed to.
And yet, I looked forward to it.
Starting in the early-sixties when I was seven years old, my parents would drop me off to stay with Babci for a week every summer. It was usually the week of the Parish Picnic – an enormous five-day event in social calendar of this tiny Pennsylvania coal town. When I was little, she would take me herself and hold my hand and buy me potato pirogies and stuffed cabbage rolls. People from town would say, “Hi, Babci – who’s this little guy?”
She let me stay up late to listen to the live polka bands that performed there nightly. One band was called “Johnny Dranczek and the Coalminers.” The star was Johnny, himself—an old man with snow white hair who wore a bowtie and suspenders. Watching him open the velvet-lined case and handle his pearly-blue accordion with such reverence taught me an early lesson about musicians and their instruments. I was mesmerized at how his fingers flew over the keys and buttons while he pushed and pulled it apart at the same time. The way he blasted that polka-loving crowd into a frenzy imbued me with a lifelong love of accordion polkas.
As I got older, in my teens, I started to hang around with my second-cousin, Walter who lived three houses away. His friends called him Wally but Babci called him Walushka. I don’t believe there is any such name, but Babci had a way of translating every name into her own Polish version. We had the same birthday but he was two years older. Babci was confident that we would stay out of trouble as long as we were together. But Wally wasn’t quite the angel Babci thought him to be.
The first time I was in a car doing
over a hundred miles per hour
was on Wally’s 16th birthday.
He bought a yellow GTO for $500 and took me for a ride I will never forget. He drove the mountain back roads like a Hollywood stunt driver and on a long stretch of road along the cemetery, he yelled out, “Close your windows so we’re more aero-dynamic.” I rolled up the window, heard the engine growl like a tiger, and held on for dear life. Soon we were doing well over a hundred. The grave stones were whizzing by in a blur out the side window. I promised god that if he just got me home in one piece, I would never masturbate again.
Wally’s friends were also a wild bunch of guys and they always included me in their adventures. Many of those adventures proved to be quite dangerous. Once, we hung by our hands from a bridge 30 feet over a river, just to prove we weren’t scaredy-cats. We explored an old abandoned coal mine, ignoring the “Danger – Keep Out!” sign blocking the entrance. We did crazy things with fireworks that make me cringe when I think about them today. The only reason I made it through some of those summers alive and uninjured was because I was lucky.
I can’t really attribute being lucky to
any promises I may or may not have
made since the whole masturbation thing
completely fell through – actually, the
very night of the car ride,
if my memory serves me.
They were too poor to own bicycles so they walked everywhere – mostly along railroad tracks to the neighboring towns. It wasn’t unusual for them to walk over 10 miles every day. They would do odd jobs to make pocket money but they weren’t above minor pilfering, if times got tough. It made an impression on me how guiltlessly they did it. And they were funny – oh man, were they funny. They would get one of their rummy uncles to buy them a case of beer and we would sit around a campfire, get drunk, and tell outrageous stories that still make me laugh when I think about them.
At night, when I got back to Babci’s house, she would ask me where I had been. All I had to say was, “I was with Walushka,” and everything would be just fine.
When I returned home to New Jersey from those summer visits with Babci, I always had a new appreciation for my middle-class life - back in the land of color televisions and stingray bicycles and weekly allowances and Touch Tone telephones and sensible drivers. I appreciated it, but I still loved my visits with Babci. And even though it was only one week a year, those visits helped to shape my character.
Babci passed away in 1996 at the age of 88. She suffered at the end and it just about killed me that she never got one freakin’ break in her whole life. And even though she got to see a lot of new gadgets come and go while she was still alive, I often wonder what she would think of the current world of smart phones and Kohler toilets with four different flushing technologies and non-heating induction stoves and 55” high definition 3D LED television monitors.
I believe she would tell you that it would not have made her life better at all.
I guess I’m just lucky to have experienced her world, if only for one great week every summer.
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I love you, Babci.