By Angela Stockman
My great-grandmother, whom we always called Babci, didn’t want to be a bride. So, one early September evening, she left her small village of Zalesie, Poland, with a falsified birth certificate and her brother’s solemn promise: He would follow her to America soon.
He didn’t know that war was coming or that it would take his life. Babci was 15 years old when she came to our country alone. She was surprised to learn that the streets were not really made of gold.
I spent many weekends and summers in Babci’s little kitchen on 14th Avenue in North Tonawanda. This is where my uncles would talk about politics and cars with my father while my Aunt Jean cooked, cleaned and crocheted around them. Few spoke English in that kitchen unless they were addressing me.
One summer, Babci tried to teach me her language, but it was too late. She was the first in our family to have cable television, and I wanted my MTV. She grew to love it, too.
Babci married young, but I never met my great-grandfather. I imagine that their young relationship weathered the best and the worst of immigrant life: brave wins, brutal losses and dreams that were never realized.
Babci raised eight children alone. She also buried two: her first son and her last. Her babies were birthed in her living room and warmed with the same oven in which she baked placzek each spring. They were taught forgiveness and the importance of trying to mend what was broken.
Babci sent her sons to war and her daughters to work. She helped women through labor, and she wept over the dead, making a living for some time as a paid mourner. She died almost 30 years ago.
Babci loved the Sabres, Perry’s Parkerhouse ice cream and tending to her rose garden.
I remember the worn linoleum floors in her kitchen and the sour smell of the bleach she used to keep her counters perfectly clean. I remember playing with my dolls on her living room floor under the careful eye of Pope John Paul II, whose portrait stood beside prayer cards and palms.
I can still see Babci seated on her tiny porch, feeding the finches, and waiting for company that always came. She would press a dollar bill into my hand whenever I leaned in to kiss her goodbye. We barely spoke, but her eyes communicated everything she needed to. These are the things I’ve never forgotten.
And this is something I had, until recently: There was a small bedroom just off her breezeway. It was once a porch, but she had it enclosed. It served different purposes throughout my childhood, but at one point, it was a room that she made for travelers – those who were down on their luck. If they had nowhere to sleep, they knew they could come to Babci’s. She would give them a bed, a meal and her ear.
My cousin shared fond memories of one man who knocked upon her door, pressing a button to the glass as my great-grandmother approached.
“Ma’am,” he asked politely, “can you sew a shirt on to this button for me?”
I have no doubt that she did her best.
I think of Babci so often now. She was an immigrant, a single mother and poor. I wonder if her America was greater than the one I know, or if those who had hearts like hers simply made it seem that way.
I wonder how I might honor her legacy and everything she sacrificed for the children and grandchildren and travelers she left behind.