By Rosalie Tirella
An important date: Tuesday, February 22, is George Washington’s birthday – and my late mom Cecelia’s birthday. Ma and her Polish family were very patriotic, and Ma never liked it that Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays were merged into one generic President’s Day holiday. For the three-day weekend, of course. Ma and her generation were not like Americans are today, with all our in-fighting and self-loathing. Ma hadn’t one iota of disappointment or shame in America, even though she saw the injustices around her and her life was hardscrabble from beginning to end. She loved America, the way she loved God: unconditionally. She used to brag to us kids about sharing her birthday with George Washington, our very first President. And he wasn’t some boring stiff to her, relegated to some boring text book at her alma mater, St. Mary’s Elementary School on Richland Street. To Ma, Washington was a hero, a brave military leader, a terrific first President whose presence could still be felt in her life. She seemed very Washington-ian when she often declared, in the middle of our big Green Island kitchen: “Ours is not to reason why!/Ours is but to do or die!” We kids snickered and went back to coloring in our coloring books Often Ma dug up her old St. Mary’s sixth grade notebook, which she kept with other mementos, and read the American poems the nuns had the students transcribe, for instance Longfellow’s CAPTAIN! OH, CAPTAIN! … Ma read the dusty poem with passion to us kids. Oh captain, my captain…! she said dramatically over the boiling pierogi. I think the nuns had the students diagram each sentence in their notebooks because I remember seeing lines in red pencil under the black ink of Ma’s penmanship. Ma’s sixth grade penmanship was in no way girly or pretty: it was severe, hard-edged. You got the sense from looking at the poem Ma had copied years ago and hearing Ma recite it as you watched the Monkees or I Love Lucy on TV that life was an arduous journey and you had to be brave as you sailed towards the craggy rocks and big boulders, holding on tightly to your pen and notebook. My mother was very brave. We kids watched the Monkees TV show.
Like President George Washington, Abraham Lincoln was worthy of adulation in our Green Island flat, too. Ma would often tell us kids President Lincoln (“Honest Abe”) grew up in a log cabin and didn’t have a chance to go to school, and he read his books by the fire of the fireplace of his family’s log cabin. This made me feel cozy – and want to read books! Ma would often retell the Washington myth she loved best, never embellishing it, keeping it to two or three succinct sentences. She said, President Washington said: I cannot tell a lie! I DID chop down that cherry tree! Ma declared this “fact” in the middle of our big three decker kitchen, the heart and soul of all three decker flats.
Today, and probably back then, I get/got the point. Abraham Lincoln was dirt poor and never went to school, but he grew up to be one of our finest Presidents. In other words: This is America, people! Aspire! … And Washington told the truth – no matter how hard truth-telling may have been at the moment. So, always be honest.
Ma’s parents, my Bapy and Jaju, were Polish immigrants who couldn’t read or write English – or even speak the language. They lived in a tenement in the Block on Bigelow Street, the heart of Worcester’s Polish ghetto, and didn’t have a clue about anything in their new world and relied on their daughters and son to do things like buy them a washing machine at the local furniture store or fill out paperwork for social security cards or Jaju’s union membership.
Yet they loved America, too! On Lafayette Street I grew up hearing their thoughts spoken in their soft, round-sounding language that wasn’t so much pretty as it was plump and soothing like a potato pierogi. But Bapy glommed onto PBS’s Mister Rogers Neighborhood TV show, watching Mister Rogers daily and learning her few American words from him and Daniel the Tiger… and she learned how to feel more … American. My Jaju had a quiet voice like Mister Rogers and seemed to like silence. Bapy was opinionated, strong-willed and feisty. She was a little ball of fire but the love of Jaju’s life. Jaju said a few sentences in Polish to my mother now and then, or teased Bapy in Polish about how he knew she watered down the glasses of beer she served him. But more often than not Jaju was busy building stuff on our front porch – so we could have the stuff many Americans had but were too poor to buy. He was an amateur carpenter and, after retiring from the Douglas textile mill, he went to town on a million projects, often with tools he made for himself! He once built us kids a big wooden glider swing that took up a third of our front porch – and really glided! He built wooden kiddie swings that he hung between the door jambs in our two bedrooms so we kids could swing inside our apartment! He looked at the daily newspaper – at the pictures – and watched TV commercials and he was inspired!
When Jaju wasn’t doing his carpentry, he was sitting in a big old chair in our living room, smoking his unfiltered cigarettes that he rolled for himself, sucking up all those carcinogens and American story telling. He watched “Gun Smoke,” “Bonanza” – all the American cowboy TV shows – on our old black and white Philco television. There were a ton of cowboy shows in the 1960s: Rawhide, the Lone Ranger, Big Valley… Maverick. This was the real America for Jaju. He loved American cowboys! He loved their horses! The rough and rugged terrain were a “draw,” too. And the do or die-ness of it all “roped him in”! Often I’d sit on his ankle (I was three) as he watched Gun Smoke or the Lone Ranger, and he’d grab my little hands and pump his leg up and down, and I’d be riding my very own horsey just like the cowboys on our TV! My own bucking bronco! Ma would come in and tell me curtly: Rosalie, get off. You’re making Jaju tired. … I would get off because I loved my sweet grandfather so much I would never hurt him! I still consider Jaju to be my one true dad, as he was the opposite of my violent, womanizing real Daddy-o. Jaju died when I was four, yet he showed me more affection than my birth father would ever show me throughout his 75 miserable years. I still think of and miss my Jaju!
Out of my heavy, wet, grey bars of modeling clay Jaju would fashion a little horse for me! No higher than four inches! Then he’d push and pull and roll that grey clay and make a little cowboy that he sat on the little clay horse! Jaju’d even make a separate little cowboy hat for my cowboy. Then he’d give me my little present, which I proudly displayed on the little foot stool he had made for me earlier. The clay would dry, but I never painted my grandfather’s masterpieces.
So from where did Ma’s intense love of the United States spring? She grew up dirt poor in Green Island. She was farmed out as a maid at 14 1/2 years old. Then she came back to Worcester and worked hard as a counter girl at a dry cleaners making minimum wage…for 35 years. Daddy abandoned us; we loathed the loser. But every day Ma lifted us up – every day, never falling, never faltering…always proud she kept her household afloat. Proud to be our mom. Proud to be an American!
I used to think she was nuts!She should have been deeply disillusioned with America.
Just the opposite! Ma sang, she danced. She whistled. She was an inveterate and first-rate whistler! Ma would go around the house whistling entire songs, verse chorus verse! After breakfast, every morning, she’d walk out to our third floor back porch, still in her pink flower print duster she had bought at the Mart, and she would throw the end slices of our loaves of Wonder Bread and stale bread to the crows, pigeons and brown sparrows outside our door. They waited for her every morning. They flew from the nearby telephone poles and three decker roof tops when they heard Ma’s cheerful – and loud! – whistling. About a year ago I was walking my dogs in the park and thought I heard my mom – it was her exact whistle, note for note! But it was a bird chirping. He sounded so like Ma! Or she had sounded so like him, learned his pretty, frantic birdsong, long ago! I cried as I felt my mom in a small, dusty, brown sparrow …