It was a time when Polak jokes ran rampant and I didn’t want to be one of them.
As a kid, I found my Polish heritage to be a source of embarrassment rather than pride. Our neighbors were the Butlers, the Johnsons, the Millers, and the Jacksons. My surname stood apart in its wild morphing of two incompatible letters from opposite ends of the alphabet—a “C” and a “Z”—guaranteed to slide the Mayflower-arriver’s tongue into spasm. And, to put the final shred of cabbage in the pierogi, my defiant last name finished up with a vowel which, mysteriously, seemed only tolerable if you were Italian.
My playmates had stick-straight blonde hair while I sported a mop of unruly dark curls. Myron Floren’s In Heaven There is No Beer and Too Fat Polka blasted loud and proud from our house in the suburbs when The Polish Cousins came in from the city to visit. Exotic aromas of Kielbasa, Pierogi, and Galumpki permeated the neighborhood. One time cousin Stosh (Stanley, had he been American) delighted us with a batch his homemade kidney stew— tainting S. Hickory Drive’s Anglo-aromas of fried chicken and meatloaf with the hot reek of an August Port-a-Potty.
The next day: “Do all Polaks drink piss?”
Oh, yeah. The neighborhood kids were a laugh riot.
Christmastime was special. The parties were usually hosted by my parents since my dad had built a family room large enough to accommodate The Polish Cousins, eight Polish-American aunts and uncles, and their families. What a wonderful mob! Myron Floren took turns with Perry Como and Dean Martin spinning ’round on the blue plastic record player as everyone danced, mixed high-balls and sang along.
Later, after the adults had acquired the necessary buzz, one of my portly uncles, Nick or Mac, would don a Santa Claus suit. He then would swagger-stumble from my parent’s bedroom through the kitchen and into the family room, thundering, “HO-HO-HO!!! Yak zhee Maszh!!” (Polish for “How are you?”). It never failed: the raucous Polski Santa would “HO-HO-HO’!!!” at least one of the younger kids to tears and damp underwear.
Not remarkably, the traumatized child’s angst only worsened when we veteran Polski Party attendees revealed the identity of the Polski-Santa-uncle. Admittedly, for the kid who was not in the know, his or her first Polski Christmas could easily knock the stars from one’s eyes. The inebriated Santa in my family room was a startling contradiction from the refined Santa at the mall. One by one, Santa would pull us onto his lap, and give us a crinkly gift and a bourbon-breath hug and let us go. Once a kid got used to it, it made for a happy Christmas memory and fun fodder for writing assignments.
After The Polish Cousins and the rest of the crew had departed for the city, my dad and one particularly hard-drinking uncle partied on. Swaying and crashing into one another like sloppy sailors, they’d try to sing On the Good Ship Lollipop and We Three Kings. So what if they didn’t know all of the words?
No one was listening but me.
Mom was in bed asleep, but I lay awake; ears straining to catch a drop or two of what drunk adults natter about when kids aren’t around. To my chagrin, Dad and my uncle babbled in unison. In Polish. So I fell asleep.
My people had come from Poland and immediately and politely assimilated. They’d learned English quickly, but held fast to Polish language and culture, making sure their children were armed with both alphabets and knew how to use them.
My people had always known exactly who they were and are, while as a woman of a certain age, I remain on the verge of “Susan.”