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MAY 17, 2010 1:16PM

Summer Vacations with Babci - If She Only Knew...

Rate: 31 Flag

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.


 * * * * * * * * * * * * *


DuaneArt 2010


 I love you, Babci.



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Oh D Art, thanks for sharing Babci with us . . . I'm not surprised you had the good sense to appreciate your time with her . . . what a priceless experience . . .
Duane, this brought goosebumps to my legs and almost tears to my eyes. The love you felt for your Grandma poured out throughout this delightful post. I love the way your writing brings to me glimpses of your world and your heart. You are such a lovable human being and I'm happy that you are a part of my world.
Loved this. I have surprisingly similar memories of my cousins and Grandma Matson.

" I promised god that if he just got me home in one piece, I would never masturbate again."

Can't tell you how many times I made (and broke) that one.
I love this..Made me think of my grammy.
Rated with hugs
What a blast through the past D - so well remembered. I have an aunt and uncle with a farm in Kentucky where that side of the family hails from. Although they eventually built a 'modern' farmhouse with electricity and plumbing a few years back, the original house still stands and serves as a guest house now. They consider it a year-round destination because there is a wood burning stove downstairs, a pump in the galvanized kitchen 'sink', feather beds and quilts, windows that open on all 4 sides of the house, an outhouse within decent winter walking distance, but not so close as to discourage guests from using it in the summer, and for house guests who just won't go out at night - a chamberpot under each bed. I love it. And guess what ... no dsl or cell service! There is something to say for the good old days. Not that I don't appreciate every little thing that makes my present life a pleasure, but time travel is underrated.
wow, lots of visuals there! blurred headstones flying past the hurtling car, coal stove cooking, outhouse or chamberpot! and on. thanks duane, for sharing bapci with us. you make her proud.
What a wonderful story! And what memories...wow. I can certainly see how that time spent with her shaped you. How could it not? What a contrast of worlds. Ahh, the love of our Babci's....
Oh, you were lucky indeed. I don't guess they make women like Babci anymore.

What a fine nostalgic and loving essay this is.
A delightful post! Puts me in mind of "A Long Way From Chicago," a YA book that made me laugh so hard my scalp hurt.
This was such a great read - sentimental without being cloying, sweet and sentimental balanced against the irreverence of a teenager...just fine in every possible way. I wish I'd met Babci.
I know this part of Pennsylvania, you describe the people and life wonderfully and of course, your Babci. Tough woman, they were.
Loved deep.
Babci was right, my friend. :-)
Very good. Transported to the town in the photo and the small boy, growing, speeding, remembering.
This was wonderfully evocative, D. I could smell the coal and feel the heat. What a special blessing to have reached into another time with her so that you better understand the moment, and what counts and what doesn't. So well told.
Absolutely loved this. I drive thru eastern PA coal country off the interstates whenever I visit "home." I love looking at the knick-knack-y things placed in the living room windows so close to the street, all the patriotic geegaws, wondering who lives there, who lived there. (Frackville, etc. is my frame of reference). This story gives so much texture to my thoughts. Sweet and real. (r)
Nice work. We're lucky you wrote this. r
A wonderful memoir. I have known a few "Babcis" myself and it's true, things are not the measure of a person. We can get along with surprisingly little if we have to. I also have a confession to make -- I studied the accordion once, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for polkas.
I love Babci, too. She is just like how I would envision a grandmother if I were lucky enough to ever have one. What a truly transcendent world; being able to step back in time in terms of conveniences and yet all the nourishment was still there. Warm piece Duane - thank you.
Very well written. And such a wonderful subject to work with. How did Walushka turn out? Does he have all the modern cons?
What a lovely tribute. And very entertaining too. I think people used to be a lot tougher in general but the drudgery that women had to put up with...we're so lucky today. Really enjoyed this.
D, thanks for introducing us to Babci. What a lovely tribute.
This was a great read, Duane. Your love for Babci comes through loud and clear and makes me nostalgic for my great-grandmother who lived on a farm and, like your Babci, had no use for modern conveniences.
Thanks for sharing this - it's wonderful.
PS Loved the part about rolling up the windows of the GTO to make it more aerodynamic and your promise to God that fell through. Good stuff.
Poignant, beautiful way to remember your Babci! R
When I was between 2 & 3 Y/O, we rented a flat from a Polish couple.
He was Polish and from the U.S.
She was born in Warsaw.
This was during WW!!.
Her name was Annette.
She was about 5' tall and weighed a good 220 or so.
She was beautiful.
She was the kindest, warmest and most loving human being I had ever known, other than my Grampa who was born in Chicago and was German.
Annette could cook like nobody I've ever known since.
I was in my teens when she died and, I did cry.
I can still vividly remember so many things about being around her, things I am so glad that I'm able to remember.
I remember going to the Polish weddings on the west side of Chicago around 26th & Pulaski when it was a great neighborhood.
What great parties and terrific food.
She was happy and had a good life in the Chicago burbs.
I am fortunate to have known her.
She loved me and I loved her ri8ght back.
Thanks for bringing these great memories back.
This is a gorgeous bit of your personal memory album. I love that you share the wonder and acceptance of her world with us. It is no wonder Babci loved you, you respected her. Great piece.
I still remember Babci's hand on your arm at that Christmas dinner. You loved each other. This was great. Probably most of us who lived through our teenage years are alive because we're lucky. I used to drag down icy winter streets doing doughnuts on the corners.

Hell, anyone who's still alive is lucky.

“Close your windows so we’re more aero-dynamic.” For some reason, that really got me. Oh, memories.