I remember exactly when the truth that there were two different kinds of people in the world first introduced itself to me.
We were standing around the kitchen – Mom, Aunt Irena and I peeling bag after bag of russet potatoes for making pierogi. How I loathed peeling potatoes. To this day I cannot hold its hard form in my hand without shuddering... remembering the untold number of cuts from the slip of the paring knife on my finger, the endless “thunk” of the wet, heavy peel hitting the bucket, lancing the ugly warts from its bumpy skin. Even the smell of potatoes takes me back to those long tedious hours spent in the warm, steamy kitchen, warping the elastic dough around chilled potato stuffing and the precise, excessive pinching required to properly close them with stiff, floury fingers. In the Nowak clan, pierogi making was the last lingering tradition of our Polish ancestors, outlasting the lives of my late Babcia and Dziadzio.
My Dziadzio had died before I was born and Babcia had lived with us for as long as I could remember, occupying the back bedroom of our small house. She was a stern and demanding woman, with a sharp salty tongue and though I have no doubt she loved us in her own reserved way, she struggled to show it to us in a way that was easy to recognize. Babcia was a staunch Catholic, and the display of her religious zeal showed itself in a manner that held more law than grace. She snapped at us often, whipping our sensitive feelings with her harsh observations, and I really think our childish antics rattled her deep need for precision, order, and decorum. And yet despite all of this, I always sensed that under her steely resistance to affection, she held a soft spot for me, evidenced in the softening of her tone when she spoke to me, or her seldom and unexpected, but timely defenses of me against my brigade of brothers.
In her final days, when her cancerous lungs kept her bedridden, I took to creeping into her bedroom after school to sit by her bed and tell her all about my day or anything else I could think of that might interest her. I told her about how I didn’t really like school – how some of the kids teased me because of my frizzy hair and lisp and scrawny legs. I complained to her about my brothers and their merciless taunting and how I hated sharing a room with them. Sometimes I cried, confessing to her the ugly truth that I didn’t know if my parents loved me and that they were impossible to please. I told her how I dreamed of maybe one day getting married and having kids and moving somewhere far, far away. Babcia was the only person I really talked to. I knew my secrets would be safely concealed behind those tight, silent lips. And whenever I finished, I would slip her rosary beads into her hand. My Protestant mother would remove them soon enough, but I think for the few moments she held them, she was at peace.
One day, I sat on the edge of her bed, holding her hot, thin hand in mine, when she suddenly broke the silence that had characterized her illness.
“Evelyn,” she said, in a low, deep voice that frightened me. It was hindered by a terrible, gripping restraint.
She tried to speak again, muttering, but I couldn’t hear her over the rattling whirl of the electric fan.
“What is it Babci?” I whispered leaning closer to her. But she was silent. Instead she gripped my hand tighter and nodded her head. I can’t explain it. But somehow I know she was trying to say that she loved me.
She died the next morning.
I was the only one who cried at her funeral. Even Aunt Irena didn't shed a tear.
Aunt Irena had come with Babcia as the oldest, unmarried daughter to help care for her. She was a buoyant and outspoken woman, often sparring with members of the family openly and unashamedly. She drove hard and fast stakes in the ground regarding her responsibilities. Though she cared devotedly for her mother until the last, her free time she invested in soap operas and nights out playing Bingo. In this, she clashed royally with Mom who believed that every member of the household must earn their keep.
Life had been hard for my mother, evidenced in the harsh, deep lines across her broad face and an inclination to react roughly and speak cuttingly when provoked. When her anger was roused, her voice thundered to fearsome pitches and my brothers and I would scurry to avoid its deafening threats. In my young, childish penchant to please, I yearned for her affection, often creeping beside her as she worked to slip my small hand into her strong, calloused one. I would stare up at her solid, stoic profile and wish her to smile down at me. She would continue to work silently, her firm jaw twitching.
There was not a lot of love in that little house on Carlton Avenue.
Ever day my father came home from work and sat in his chair silently until supper was ready. More often than not, he slumped into deep sleep either from tiredness or an inclination to shut out reality, I could never tell.
Mom and Aunt Irena’s mouths moved as quickly as their fingers, their tongues working around gossip as smoothly as their knives rounding the potato. Aunt Irena was witty and frank, Mom dark and cautious. Those two wreaked havoc on any story or tidbit tossed between them.
“Did you hear the Hunter’s got religion?” Aunt Irena said. Her long, perfect curl of potato skin dangled from her knife, testifying her skill.
“Doris Hunter religious? That woman’s about as godly as this here potato.” Mom threw the heathen vegetable in the pot of water with a splash.
Aunt Irena shook her head. “I met her the other day at the salon. She was getting a perm...again. I asked her what for, and she said she was leading the woman’s bible study next Tuesday. And I say to her, ‘What bible study?’ and she went off on a bunch of hooey about God and divine intervention.”
“I bet she feels more entitled than ever to her porcelain pedestal,” Mom sniffed.
Aunt Irena snorted. “There’s only one piece of porcelain she’s entitled to as far as I’m concerned.” The two women laughed heartily, their thick arms bouncing with mirth.
Mom wiped her eyes with corner of her apron. “Now that she’s in the know, we’ll have to put up with her endless condescension I suppose.”
For a while there was just the sound of the whirling ceiling fan and the bubble of boiling water.
“What does that mean?” I piped up from my corner. Both women turned to look at me. I was quiet by nature, quieter when in their presence. They seemed surprised at my interjection.
“What does what mean?”
“Being ‘in the know’. What does it mean?” I asked again.
Aunt Irena sighed heavily and laid down her knife. “Look Eve, there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who think they know everything and those who know they don’t. Those ones that think they do, the religious, God-lovin’, always smiling ones like Mrs. Hunter, act like they are in the know about something you ain’t a part of.”
“Oh,” I said, still not understanding.
Mom nodded her agreement. “They think there something with their so called joy and contentment. Well, I wonder what would happen to their joy and contentment if they had a husband who couldn’t pay the bills.”
Regret punctuated her every forced word. A familiar squeezing sensation filled my chest at her words. I glanced my father’s way to see if he had heard my mother’s bitter, scarcely veiled accusation, but his eyes were still shut tightly.
"They are in their world and we are in ours. Best leave it that way."
It was ten years ago but I remember that day like it was yesterday. It marked the moment when my thinking changed...because it was the first time I became aware that there were other people out there who did things differently from us...as if they had their own world, separate from mine, a reality that was beyond my reach.... And maybe in their reality, maybe in the know there were no lonely nights or poverty or bickering parents or mean siblings. Maybe in the know girls didn’t have frizzy hair and skinny arms and a cavernous pit of fear in their stomachs.