Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Globalisation: what my cosmetic case has to say

The other night I was rummaging for my toothbrush and toothpaste and was caught by a message my cosmetic case was telling me. A few years ago, my parents gave it to me for Christmas in response to my comments that for as much as I traveled, my dozen plastic bags, one for each liquid product, were beginning to feel a bit unreasonable. This handy bag has simplified my life enormously! But what struck me the other day was the diversity of objects it contains. Check out this list:

- the case itself: from the UK
- toothbrush: Cyprus
- toothpaste: Jordan
- dental floss: can't remember
- facial creams: UK
- toner: UK
- cotton wipes: Cyprus and Jordan
- cotton q-tips: Brazil
- mud masque: Jordan
- hair clip: Egypt
- ibuprophen: Syria
- shampoo: Cyprus
- conditioner: US
- bath sponge: Brazil
- deodorant: Jordan
- facial powder: Lebanon
- other makeup: US
- mirror: Syria
- hand cream: US
- antibiotic cream: Jordan
- hair clips: all of the above

So here are my two resulting thoughts on globalisation:

First, What a privilege I have to get the best things from all the best places! The best hairclips I've found are Egyptian, Jordanian mud masque can't be beat, and the UK has Boots products! (If you're not familiar with Boots, don't look it up. You'll get spoiled too quickly.

Second, Most of the things I have could have been bought anywhere. As little as five years ago, I stocked up on the basics - shampoo, toothpaste, medicines - in the U.S. because everywhere else things were either in short supply or too expensive. Five years ago, my cosmetic case would have been much less diverse! But now, I can get the same products for comparable prices just about anywhere. So I don't travel with a full shampoo bottle anymore, I just buy a new bottle wherever I am. And it's usually the same brand and not too different in price. The diversity of origins in my cosmetic case are a blatant reflection that the world is becoming less diverse!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Welcome to the world, President Obama

Just about every non-American I know was thrilled by what happened on Tuesday. President Barack Obama took the oath of office to lead Americans, but billions of non-Americans are eagerly looking forward to his leadership. There's a lot of hope that he will enact a foreign policy that will be to their benefit in one way or another. I worry about this, because no world leader would possibly be able to do half of what the world expects of Obama. But on the upside, I do look forward to traveling in the Middle East without having to be quite as concerned about people's reaction when they catch sight of my passport!

But for the U.S. citizens and U.S. residents who read my blog, I thought I'd go ahead and outline here what I see as being the reasons non-Americans like our president so much, and what their expectations are for him.

Why do people like Barack Obama?
- His last name is not Bush, he doesn't look like either of the Presidents Bush, he's not related to any Bush's as far as we know. Sadly, this single fact is probably his biggest selling point.
- He is a Democrat. Most non-Americans probably don't know what that means, but they know it means he's from the other side of the aisle as the Pres.s Bush. And that he is allied politically with Bill Clinton, a guy much of the world remembers fondly.
- He's Black. Which I think subconsciously translates to many Americans as "he doesn't look like an American."
- His dad's from Kenya. A non-American. And even more intriguing, a non-Christian. Most non-Americans I've spoken to about Obama don't really think of that fact as having any deep consequence, but they do seem somewhat intrigued and excited by the prospect. Maybe it gives them a sense of ownership in the United States.
- He seems like a nice person.
- He talks about having an open foreign policy in which he actually engages other people. He says he's going to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq. Not all of his comments about foreign policy have been appreciated, notably what he's said about the situation in Palestine, but most non-Americans still figure they're going to like his policy better than that of his predecessor. (And, to be honest with ourselves, the fact that they expect to like his policy probably means that they actually are likely to like his policy, regardless of what the policy actually is.)
- Because people remember Bill Clinton fondly, they are looking forward to Mrs. Clinton (Senator Hillary) heading up President Obama's foreign policy.

What are people expecting out of Barack Obama?
- World peace and prosperity
- Salvation
- The end of the AIDS pandemic
- Peace in the Middle East, probably next week
- The end of the global economic crisis
- Cash gifts
- Adulation
- Heaven

Most people seem to really expect the U.S. to provide all that now that our president's name is Barack Hussein Obama. However, those who actually think carefully about these things probably have more realistic expectations, including the following:
- Middle East talks which involve all players: Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, and all the other "scary names" sitting at the same table with the United States' allies. The hope is that, under Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton's leadership, real peace talks can ensue in which each entity is given an equal voice and respect.
- A U.S. pull-out from Iraq. The wise know better than to expect that that will mean peace is restored in Iraq tomorrow, but they resent the fact that the U.S. ever got involved. Which means they are desperate for the U.S. to stop being involved.
- Much less U.S. spending on military, and greatly increased spending on international humanitarian concerns. I personally haven't interpreted Obama's speeches to promise this specific switch, but many people I know who support Obama also support a policy of moving spending out of military and into development. We'll see how much of this actually happens: will Obama actually give as much as, or more than, Bush to health and relief in Africa?
- Efforts on poverty reduction in the U.S., including universalised health care, coupled with economic policies that help get the global market back on track. I'm not sure how non-Americans expect Pres. Obama's domestic financial policy to help them, but I think they do expect it.

As everyone is saying, it's a long road ahead...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gaza: a few random thoughts

An abrupt change from talking about my grandmother, I know, but I have a bunch of thoughts floating through my mind about the fighting in Gaza and am also very interested in learning how to care more, in the right ways. So, for those of you who are interested, here are some jottings on the topic. Please do share your thoughts in response if you're so inclined!

Hi! Thanks for asking for my thoughts on Gaza. I'll probably post some version of this on my blog, but in the meantime, here are some random thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head during the past few weeks.

- Someone sent me an article from BBC Brazil with a letter written by a woman in Gaza and her daughter. It was a great reminder to me to try to put my heart in their circumstances. They spoke of hopelessness, of their inability to go on with life, of feelings of guilt for not being able to handle the emotionally difficult situation more tactfully. The girl is processing what it's like to know her good friend has died, but that compared to many of her other friends her personal experience of loss is so little. This is a depth of emotions that is so hard for me to get my mind, much less heart, around!

- On Monday, a google news search told me that the death toll was up to 888 palestinians killed (in a mere 16 days of fighting), 4080 injured. Almost half the deaths have been women and children. Besides the sheer enormity of these numbers, it is also tragic to realise that this means well more than half the casualties have been civilians. And it's also tragic to think that a whole generation of husbands and fathers is in risk of being wiped out. Just to add a bit to the horror of this statistic, think about the fact that the population of Gaza is approximately 1.5 million (and is the stretch of land in the world with the highest population density). So in 2 1/2 weeks of fighting, more than 3% of the population has been hit. If something's not done quickly to stop it, within a few more weeks, ten percent of the population of Gaza could be in hospitals, and 3% dead! This is a little bit staggering.

- The UN reportedly stopped trying to send food aid to Gaza last week. Gaza has been dependent on UN food aid for decades, as its economy is awful and its access to foreign trade severely restricted. But apparently, the UN aid shipments were hit a few times, at least once actually targeted by Israeli patrols, and came very close to the fire several other times, so the UN decided a few days ago that the potential benefit no longer outweighed the risk. Schools are closed, businesses are shut down, religious establishments are keeping a low profile, all out of fear of attack. It's like even those who are still physically alive are not really living.

- I found out that in Jordan all public New Years day celebrations were called off in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and I've also heard that people across the Middle East are protesting their own governments for not sending aid to Gaza.

- On the other hand, many people have been quick to point out that Hamas has been devious, scheming, belligerent, and violent. In other words, Israel is the victim, not Gaza. There's a lot of truth to that statement. Hamas doesn't really play by the rules and has really pressed Israel. But I guess I think of it kind of as an employee with a domineering boss. Maybe not a fair image, but bear with me. The boss wants the company to get ahead, but is very hard on his employees. No vacation days, no breaks, no overtime pay, cubicles with no windows, all social networking sites barred from computers, no coffee room, etc. Like the film Office Space, times ten. The employees are increasingly disgruntled, but they can't really leave the job (in the analogy, I'm not sure why, but in Gaza, not only are Palestinians not given freedom of movement or granted entry to other countries, but there's also a lot of loyalty: they don't particularly want to abandon their homeland), so they have to live with the boss. So they start sabotaging their workplace. Like in Office Space: they beat up the copier, they blow a hole through the wall so they can have windows, they take breaks when they're not supposed to, and they boobeytrap the boss's office. Sure the employees are completely deviant, but most of us will really sympathise with them because their situation was so horrid in the first place. And we're unlikely to think that the boss is justified in tying them to their chairs and giving them a good whipping as a means of disciplining them - even though he's doing it because he feels threatened by his staff. I don't know if this analogy would hold up to close analysis, but I hope it at least gives a little picture of the types of emotions involved.

- This conflict is getting a lot of attention from people all over the world. There's a lot of political pressure on both sides to bring resolution. (Sometimes I mourn that there's not more public pressure, especially when I see how excited many of my U.S.-based Facebook friends are about football and the new season of 24.) But this leads me to two thoughts:
First, why do I personally not care more? Shouldn't I be on the streets protesting, or calling my government officials? The sad fact is that I have emotionally distanced myself from things, largely for the sake of self-preservation. It takes so much heart to care about these issues, and I'm still recovering from my emotional investment in other recent Middle-East conflicts!
Second, what about all the fighting and violence and bloodshed that has happened, and even now is happening, in other parts of the world? The media is not giving those as much hype even if the tragedies elsewhere are just as bad. Again, there's just too much pain and suffering in the world to fully care about all of it, but the whole thing sometimes seems so unfair.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Babci gets an ID card

Around the time that my brother got married, Babci was nominated as Woman of the Year in their small town. It was a simple honour, but it meant a lot to my aunt and to the members of her community who loved her and knew that they were loved by her. She didn't win, someone else was given that honour that year.

Meanwhile, my aunt was making arrangements to get to my brother's wedding. Because it was far away, they had to fly. Babci, who was now in her late 70s, had never been on an airplane, so this would be a new adventure for her. But there was a little problem. Babci had also never bothered to obtain U.S. citizenship. Her paperwork was not in order: she had a long-expired passport hidden away somewhere in the house but no one knew where; she also had a Green Card, but it too was long-expired. To travel on an airplane in the U.S., though, one needs a government-issued ID card. That's usually a drivers license, but Babci never got one of those either. Her life was too straightforward to bother with such details.

So my aunt went to the government office that issues ID cards to request a card for Babci, something that would make it possible for her to travel to her grandson's wedding on an airplane. She had some paperwork, but the normal documents were not in order, so she was refused. My aunt told me that she went, dragging the short Babci who loved simple things, from government office to beaurocratic office to official office. They kept being given more paperwork to complete, then receiving more refusals.

Coming on the heels of a failed nomination for Woman of the Year, my aunt was getting increasingly defensive of Babci who, as she trailed along, kept telling my aunt that she could stop trying to get the ID card. "No, Anush, it's ok. It's alright if I can't go." She pointed out that my brother would forgive her. But my aunt insisted, telling my grandmother that she deserved this. Woman of the Year may be insignificant (plus, there may be a lot of little Babci types out there), but to miss her grandson's wedding was unthinkable. After all she had given to her community, the least her community could do was give her an ID card.

Finally, in one office, the person they spoke to was rather cruel in her refusal, and my aunt was so upset by this time that she told her off, saying that Babci is just one woman, a little quiet woman, but who has done so much, and is it really too much to ask for her to get a card with her name and photo so that she can travel? She's certainly not a risk... Well, it worked. Finally, this beaurocrat was won over by my aunt's arguments and my grandmother's sweet demeanour, and a few weeks later Babci flew for the first and only time in her life.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Babci's example of growing old with grace

Most of my memories of Babci were not of a particularly happy woman. She seemed content and committed to the things she did in life, and she clearly loved us all a great deal, but it seemed like, through everything, there was always this underlying sadness. So I asked my Aunt if she thought Babci was a happy person.

She said she thought yes. Her childhood memories were of a mother who was cheerful and happy. Babci had a very hearty chuckle which, it was true, one heard less and less in her later years. During the final years, my Aunt always found herself trying to get Babci to laugh, to let out that chuckle, because it was such a happy memory. Though Babci may not have told many stories of her childhood, when she did talk about her life as a child she spoke of a time full of fun and joy. Besides carrots and bread, I learned that little Zoshka loved her horses. My aunt told me that, in fact, in the dementia of her final years, sometimes those memories came alive - for example, my aunt sometimes heard Babci making horsey-type noises in her sleep! And when my mother and my aunt were children, Babci would play with them and smile.

But after my grandfather died, the laughs and the smiles became less frequent. She really missed her husband. Sometimes she'd say to my Aunt, "Sometimes I feel like Daddy's here. I talk to him." But over the last two or two-and-a-half years, she it seemed she began to fall into a depression. There was a deep sorrow which was probably enhanced by her heart medications, which left her rather confused. So part of it was in her heart and part of it was from her meds. For example, did she, aided by the meds, start reliving some of what she'd seen in the war years? This must have been very difficult for her.

Her sadness may have increased as her age led her to have to live with limitations. Her desires were never elaborate or luxurious, but as she got older she began to lose some of the simple joys which had always meant so much to her. As her husband and many of her friends, left this life, she increasingly missed the people who had become her close companions. But perhaps even more difficult than that was coming to grips with the fact that her strength was leaving her and her ability to give was diminishing.

She was terrified of becoming a burden to people: she often said she would prefer to die in her sleep early in life, before she became too old and a burden to others. She never became physically dependent on help for her most basic physical functions, so that was a grace for her. But it was difficult for her when the dementia came and she did begin to depend on others. She would often say, "I just can't think clear today. My brain must be tired." She'd get frustrated with herself for forgetting, and scared of the potential consequences of her forgetfulness. She never lost her spunk or her passion, just her ability to put those to good use.

My aunt told me that Babci did manage to keep giving, up to the last day of her life. In her final month, Babci lived in an adult care home. My Aunt sent her there with a box full of pictures, each one labeled with the name of loved ones on the photos. At night, one of the caregiver women would show her the photos to help her remember the important people in her life. During one of those interactions, Babci turned to the woman and asked her, "Do you pray?" The woman said that she'd stopped praying because she would pray once and get no answer, so she decided it didn't work. Babci replied, "That's not how it works. You need to keep praying. Five time pray for it, maybe even more. Keep praying because that'ah how the Lord works." The woman took Babci's words to heart and went home and started to pray repeatedly for a concern, and sure enough God answered. She never had a chance to tell Babci that, but she told my Aunt later on that Babci had truly touched her life by restoring her faith in God.

Everybody at the home was touched by Babci during her lucid moments. During her dementia moments she may have been a burden, but in her lucid moments she shone so beautifully that her new, and final community, fell in love with her. They knew, they could really sense, that there was a beautiful person in that frail short body. That's why they didn't give up on her, even though she was probably so far gone she should have been taken to a more full-care facility, because they could still see the Babci in her.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Babci and her sister

Babci didn't talk all that much about her life as a little girl. When she told a story, it seemed to me that usually there was a reason she was telling it, some lesson to transmit. Or else, some innocuous happening would remind her of a past event and she'd tell whoever she was with about it. But she didn't generally see any point in uncovering bandaged wounds. She'd talk about her life in Germany from time to time, but only occasionally did she tell us stories from Poland.

Sometimes it almost seemed that there was something she was hiding, but most likely it was just too difficult for her to talk about a life that she'd had to turn her back on. Babci never talked to her family after she left them as a young woman. There had been a few letters from home. They were written in Polish, so none of us know what they say, but we do know that they were the only news Babci had from her home for many decades. And Babci didn't write back. From what I understand, she was reticent to send them letters postmarked in the U.S. because she didn't want her loved ones who were then living in the Soviet Union to suffer any consequences for having family in America. So when she came to the "new world", she really did put the "old world" behind her. It must have been easier to keep her eyes on to the future and avoid gazing at the past.

In the late 1990s, her sister's daughter came to America to work for a few months. During her first visit she stayed with Babci's cousins on Long Island, and during her second visit, she lived in New Jersey. On both trips, she visited my Babci often. My grandmother was glad to have someone to speak Polish with, and appreciated finally seeing someone from back home after so many years! At that point, it had been nearly sixty years since she left her little house on the farm.

When her niece was over, Babci would offer to let her use the phone to call her family back home. Babci would busy herself with household chores while her niece chatted with her mother, my Babci's sister. But Babci never asked to speak with her sister, and her sister never suggested it either.

My Aunt told me that she asked Babci several times why she wouldn't talk with her sister. Finally, after all these years, she had a direct connection to someone so beloved! We don't know much about Babci's relationship with her sister, but we got the impression that they were very close when they were girls. So why would Babci not want to talk to her now? My Aunt kept asking Babci, and Babci would reply that she couldn't. She didn't know why, but she just had no desire strong enough to force herself to bear the utter pain entailed in picking up the phone and talking to her sister. There was something deeply personal that kept her from talking to her sister. But my Aunt kept insisting, suggesting that it would mean a great deal to Babci's sister to talk to her long-lost sibling.

Finally, Babci was convinced that by picking up the phone she would be doing something special for her sister, and so she did so. But the conversation didn't last more than a moment. She said hi, her sister said hi, then both choked up, apparently overcome by emotion. Babci gave the phone back to her niece.

Babci never talked to her sister again. Her sister died in Belarus, her home of the last fifty years, one month before Babci, so the sisters went to heaven together, but neither knew of the other one's illness or passing on from this earth.

Babci took an approach to life that may strike many of us as unusual. She'd do anything but didn't often want to be asked about herself. She would give everything that was in her power to give, but she did not particularly desire to talk about her past. She would talk about everything else that didn't dig into her personal concerns, but she had little interest in the difficult communication. That was the one thing that she desired to do. If she had thought that it would help others, she may have told more - which may be why my cousin and I got more stories than her own daughters sometimes: because we would ask her to share with us in order to help us on school projects and the like. But probably also because we were a bit more distant from Babci's own reality, so maybe it was a bit less painful to delve into the emotions of her life.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Babci's tuberculosis story

Babci had another story of God preserving her life which held for her a very deep nugget off wisdom: we need to just do what needs to be done, because attempts at self preservation are doomed to failure.

When Zoshka was a teenager, there was a tuberculosis outbreak in her little village, where many of the residents were related to her in one way or another. Several households in the community were hit with the disease. Entire households were sick, and many people were dying. Many of Babci's relatives were affected.

In the homes where everyone in the house was ill, someone was going to have to come stay with them to care for them. However, tuberculosis is a highly contagious disease, so no one really wanted to do that, and whoever went to nurse the patients would have to stay in quarantine with them. Naturally, there was an even higher chance chance than normal that that person would also catch the disease.

My Babci volunteered, but her family said no. They thought someone who had already lived her life, someone who might die soon anyway, would be more appropriate. So they called upon one of Babci's aunts, an older woman. They asked her to step forward and take her responsibility of caring for the ill. But Babci's aunt protested. She in fact refused, pointing out that she was a mother and had children, that there were people who depended on her and who would miss her if something happened to her. She argued that someone young and without ties would be more appropriate. And so it was decided, by default, that Zoshka's offer of moving into quarantine in order to care for her relatives ill with tuberculosis, would be accepted. She did so, and for several weeks she went from house to house, helping people cough up blood, giving them cold compresses for their fevers, changing their bedsheets, trying to feed them.

Several people died, and other people came through. Babci survived. She actually never contracted the illness. But her aunt, the one who had insisted on preserving herself, became one of the victims. Though she tried to keep herself safe, she contracted tuberculosis and passed away. From a young age, my Babci was learning that God saved her for a purpose and that it was only God who could save her, not herself.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Babci and the day her life was spared

Babci was taken to Germany to work in a factory near the beginning of the war. Apparently, once Poland was occupied, every family with four or more children was expected to send one child to help with the war effort in Germany. It seems that Zoshka from her teenage years took a self-sacrificial approach to life, so she volunteered for the scary adventure. Her youngest sister was probably the one everyone expected would go, but she was still in high school and there may have been some other reasons why Babci didn't want her sister leaving home. So my Babci worked hard to eventually convince her parents to let her make the move to Germany.

There, she joined the ranks of hundreds of other women on an assembly line - we think they were making soap. The manager of the factory was apparently a bit of a flirt. He was always chatting up the women working in the factory, and may have been quite liberal in his relations with them as well. One day, Babci scolded him, saying, "You're a married man. You shouldn't do that," and from that point on she beligerently called challenged his sense of morality.

So after she'd been working at the factory for a little while, perhaps a year, the factory manager's wife asked him to help her find a new maid. Their maid was pregnant and so was going to take some time off. But she was a good maid, so the manager's wife only wanted to find someone temporary to work in their house while the regular maid was on maternity leave. The factory manager thought through the women working on the floor and remembered the Polish girl who didn't give him a break. He called her in and offered her a job, saying, "Because you won't let me cheat, I know you won't cheat me."

I'm not sure what happened to the other maid, but we know that Babci never went back to working at the factory. Once working for the manager's wife in their home, she kept that job for quite some time. She became friends with a young German about her age named Anna. Whenever Babci mentioned Anna, she referred to her endearingly as her "German spiritual sister." Anna took her to her church, where Babci became quite involved. There were several single women there and they became good friends. They went on outings together: we have a photo of them bike riding. These women became like family to each other. Zoshka was very happy during these years, which extended well beyond the end of the war. She never wanted to leave German. In fact, when she did settle down in America, her closest friends were Germans. She remained a part of the Polish community, because those were her family, but the people with whom she chose to associate were mainly German.

I'm sure there was a great deal of adventure during those years in Babci's life, but she didn't talk much about the difficult memories. There was one story that she shared, though, because God really spoke to her through the way he saved her life.

Apparently, at some point during her life in Germany - maybe during the war, maybe after - she had a job that entailed going to an apartment building daily to turn on the oil burner. She had to let herself into the building, which was right across the street from her, at a specific time and check to make sure the burner was on, or else turn it on. It was a simple job, but it had to be done at the same time each day. One day she couldn't find her key to the building. She searched high and low and couldn't find it. Being a tremendously conscientious employee, she got very upset. She began to worry that she'd be in trouble because she was going to be late. As the hour for her to check the oil burner approached, she fretted and searched, worried and looked everywhere she could think of. Then right at the appointed hour, she heard an explosion. She looked across the street and saw that the apartment building had blown up (been bombed?). A few minutes later, in the aftermath of the explosion, she happened upon the key as if it had never gone missing.

On that day, she realised that God had sparked her life for a reason - not necessarily anything grandiose by human terms, I now realise, but for something meaningful nonetheless.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Babci and bread

Yesterday, I wrote about Babci's love for carrots, which led her to a minor childhood rebellion. Well, when I started chatting with my mum, she told me another naughty-Babci story. In this story, though, there was also an element that I really admired: pushing the limits of cultural presuppositions!

Apparently Zoshka, a middle child in a family of four, three sisters and one brother, was a bit of a impish little girl. She told my mother that when she was a little girl, probably no older than eight years old, she and the neighbourhood children befriended a lady who had recently moved to their village as a young bride. There was something about this woman that appealed to Babci and the other children, so they would often go over to play at her house. Apparently, though, from a grown-up's perspective, there was a lot to pity in this woman's demeanour and life situation. First of all, she apparently wasn't very well brought-up. She didn't know how to make bread! Second, apparently, she had not married well. She and her husband were quite poor, possibly even the village charity case.

But Zoshka didn't care about these things - she probably didn't even notice - so she often went around this lady's house and brought her friends with her. And Babci just so happened to really like this woman's bread. The newlywed may not have known how to bake, but as a dedicated young bride, she still tried. She would bake her bread, but she couldn't master the art of getting bread to rise and stay risen. So when she took it out of the oven it collapsed. Collapsed bread is very doughy, thick and chewy. Ymmm, chewy! Zoshka loved the chewy bread, so when the poor uneducated young bride offered little Zoshka and her friends some bread, she eagerly accepted, and her childhood friends followed suit.

Apparently this went on for several weeks, then one day my mother's Babci, Zoshka's mother found out. We're not exactly sure how. Perhaps one of my Babci's friends got a tummyache and so my Babci, who was very honest as far as mischievous girls go, confessed. Or perhaps lunchtime came one day and my Babci said she wasn't hungry, innocently explaining that she'd already eaten her fill of bread that morning. But my great/grand-Babci asked her daughter why: "Why would you eat that poor woman's bread? We have plenty of bread here at home! She must think I don't feed you at all." And my Babci replied, "But her bread is so much better than your bread, Ma! Hers is nice and thick and chewy, but yours is all light and fluffy." My great/grand Babci probably rolled her eyes as she tried to explain that my Babci still shouldn't eat other people's bread, much less bread that is such a precious commodity for a poor family and not well-made in the first place!

That afternoon, she took her daughter and marched off to the young bride's home. She apologised to her new neighbour and she made her daughter apologise. Then she instructed the woman to never serve bread to my Babci again. Next, she apparently asked the young woman why she made her bread so thick and chewy anyway. At this point, I imagine the young woman bursting into tears out of frustration for trying so hard to make good bread for her husband but having it inevitably collapse as she took it out of the oven. So my Babci's mother found herself giving the younger woman a lesson in breadmaking and everyone was happy. Well, except for the disappointing fact that my Babci's commitment to going against the flow was summarily dismissed as irrelevant.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Babci and carrots

Apparently, my grandmother looooovvvvvvveeedd carrots. Or maybe she just loved the idea of carrots. Either way, I've learned that when my mum and aunt were growing up, Babci's love for carrots was an on-going joke.

By all accounts, little Zoshka (that's Babci's Polish name) had a happy childhood. She grew up on a farm in the countryside. The house had a farmhouse kitchen and a garden that she sometimes talked about. There were animals on the farm, and she apparently loved the horses in the way that only a farm girl can. She loved her father and mother, and she said that they never yelled at her, though they did have their rules. Apparently her father was a leader in the community, known as an honourable man. Zoshka had to do her part around the house - there were specific chores assigned to her. Babci loved to play, she loved to read, and she was apparently very good at mathematics.

And she absolutely loved carrots. In fact, she would sometimes sneak into the neighbour's garden to steal some - just like Peter Rabbit! Once, she got caught in the act and got in trouble with her parents. She told this story to my mother and my aunt, and they would tease her endlessly about her rumouredly insatiable love for carrots.

The details of the carrot story may have become one of those mini-blown-out-of-proportion legends in the family. For example, it's possible she stole carrots only once and got caught eating them. Or it may be that she did it all the time and didn't even necessarily bother to eat them - she was just trying to see how long it would take her before she got caught. Or perhaps she just grabbed one now and again on the fly, hoping no one would ever notice.

Either way, when she got caught, her parents made her go to the neighbour and apologise, and they most likely disciplined her in other ways too for her thiefdom. It seems that her own mother grew carrots in their family garden, so she really wasn't at a loss for carrots. But she loved the things! And apparently, as good and stubbornly kind and loving a woman as she became later in life, turns out she was a bit of a naughty girl...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Babci and the drummer boy

Before the holidays, I wrote about the meaning of the song Little Drummer Boy. In summary, I am always inspired by this boy who feels he has nothing to offer except for pounding out a rhythm on his drum, so he cheerfully does this for the baby Jesus, who in turns smiles back at him. (Click here to read that post.)

After writing that post, I had some time to think through some of the stories my aunt told me about Babci, and I realised that she was always to me the perfect example of a real-life drummer boy. She was a master of just doing what she could, or would, do anyway, but doing it well and for God. Her goal was to do a task, whatever the task was. Each thing she did, no matter how little it was, was her calling.

When Babci arrived in America, she soon realised that she would not be going back to Europe. So she established a life of living in New York. She had extended relatives nearby, and was surrounded by a host of other immigrant communities, so she may not have felt as displaced as she might have had she gone elsewhere. But living in such a community also meant that she had little trouble finding people with needs whom she could help.

My aunt described her as a master of time management. She never said no and in fact she found plethora things to do on her own, simply because she felt they were the right thing to do. How she managed to do it all was impressive to my aunt as she was growing up. But she did. And she did it all with joy and boundless energy.

I believe she did it all because she mastered the secret of the drummer boy. Each little thing was done out a heart overflowing with a desire to give something to the Lord, and such wisdom that told her that God enjoyed her gifts of the little things. She could just never get enough of that playful exchange, so she refused to stop!

My aunt began to list some of the things she did out of her heart overflowing with a desire to give to man and to God. To start with, she had a full-time job as a seamstress and she had two daughters. Besides sewing for work, she made my aunt's and my mother's clothes for them throughout their childhoods. She also did hemming and tailoring for the women's auxiliary, a church group, on a regular basis. She sewed costumes for parades. One woman recently wrote my aunt and told a story of how my Babci made her communion dress for her. The list of her sewing productivity goes on and on.

But Babci found plenty of time to do more than sew. She believed that washing machines were wasteful, and her house had a septic tank that easily flooded, so she either handwashed her family's clothes or took them to the laundromat. She never learned to drive, so she'd load up a shopping cart and trek off to the laundromat. My Dzia-Dzia, who did drive, was often a willing accomplice. He'd take her on errands, or else she'd send him to pick things up or lists of things to buy. There was lots of food shopping to be done, because she frequently cooked for large groups, throwing dinner parties for people from the church or extended family members.

Then there was her work with kids. For as long as I know, she took full responsibility for the nursery at church. During summers when my mum and aunt were children, she'd take her daughters to Vacation Bible School at church. But she also wanted to make sure that all the children in the neighbourhood were able to go if they so desired. So she had a little red wagon that my mom and aunt could ride in as she toted them off to church, about a fifteen minute walk. As they passed the neighbourhood children, she'd invite them to come along. When they got to the big busy street, she'd cross with her two daughters, and perhaps another neighbourhood child or two, sitting in the wagon. Then she'd tell them to get out and wait for her while she crossed the highway again and loaded the wagon up again with another batch of kids. I love the mental image of a five foot tall woman traipsing back and forth across the six-lane highway toting a red wagon loaded up with kids when southbound and empty when northbound, waiting patiently for the light to change while she carefully and quietly instructs the children to "wait here, shatzees."

Babci also had a way of collecting used clothing that people she knew were giving away, then giving those clothes to people in need. She also always had an ear perked for people in the community with other needs. When a family needed a babysitter, she was at the ready. If Dzia-Dzia couldn't deliver something for her, she'd call around the church and find someone to take it. Or she'd walk. She would walk miles to take care of her chores if need be.

My aunt explained that Babci had a gift of being an achiever. And she had a strong will. She never made to-do lists and she didn't put up post-its or other reminders for herself. She just somehow always had the time to do what needed to be done. And if she didn't have time, she made time. That's where the strong will came in. But she wouldn't have done half of what she did without faith, for my aunt told me that she would always be praying, asking God for help to do what she needed to do. She would even pray, "Dear Lord Jesus, make the day go longer."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Back to blogging

It's been two weeks since I've visited my blog! Happy 2009! May it be a special year for everyone.

During the past few weeks I've had the chance to chat with my aunt and with my mum about my Babci. They have told me some interesting stories and also a bit more about what made her who she was. I'm going to write up some of those stories in the next several days, so I guess I'm back to blogging again!