I look at my father’s face in this photo and I’m struck with two lightning bolts of memory.
Frank is happy.
Frank is happy because he’s once again brought his family to the tiny Polish resort in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.
I’m fairly certain I’m the one taking the photo. I think this may be the last of the couple-year stretch in which my father would load us three kids and mom Dolores into his wood-paneled station wagon and off Long Island, over the George Washington Bridge, up the Palisades Parkway and on toward that point exotic.
I wish I could pin down the name of the resort. Somewhere from the back of my memory I have come up with Valley View. I believe that was tagged behind a Polish surname that began with a B.
I have Googled many combinations thereof and come up empty.
I know it hired bands that played polkas at night. The restaurant served Polish foods. (The last year I had a bit of a crush on our waitress. Her real name was Joan, and her nickname was Pookie. I was 14 and she was 16. On a break between lunch and dinners services one afternoon, she swam over and splashed me in the pool, and I blushed. I can remember all that.)
Frank Bialczak was in his glory because of these Polish ties. He was a Baby Boomer American, born in Brooklyn, parents born in Brooklyn, but raised in a neighborhood where you might as well have been back in Warsaw.
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was called “the end of the pickle” because it lied next to the East River, at one end of the body of land that started across from Manhattan and stretched all the way out to Montauk Point of the fishermen’s Long Island. I thought it was in honor of the Polish dills you could get in every corner market and behind every neighborhood bar. From the many bakeries wafted the sweet smell of punchki, the Polish donut with prune filling.
I lived there until age 5. Our Catholic Church was St. Stan’s. That was short for St. Stanislaus. To get out of Greenpoint, a car had to cross the Kosciuszko Bridge. It was named after Tadeusz Koscisuzsko, a military hero who led Polish and Lithuanian troops against Russia in Europe, and then helped American troops in the Revolutionary War. Car radio reports about traffic always spoke of the Koz-key-az-ko Bridge. In Greenpoint, it was the Kaz-chis-ko Bridge.
I remember my great-grandmother, Rose, calling me by my Polish name only, Marek. She was born in Poland, spoke some English, and hugged me an awful lot. It must have been her maternal instinct. Frank’s mother, my Babci, was one of 10 of Rose’s sons and daughters, all first-generation Americans. His father, my Pop Pop Frank, was born here, but both of his parents were also born in Poland.
My grandmother on my mother’s side, my Nana, also was born in Poland, but she called my Mark and did not like to talk about her life before moving to America. Dolores’ father, my Pop Pop George, was an American of German descent.
My father clung to that Polish heritage. He loved to eat borscht, the purple beet soup, listen to the jumping polka music, hang out with his Polish friends from Greenpoint.
Babci taught my mother how to make homemade pierogi by rolling the dough and mixing the farmer’s cheese and potato filling, how long to boil the fresh kielbasa, how to bake it in the oven with the sauerkraut and onions.
So we ate Polish.
On Saturday mornings, Frank would fiddle with the FM dial until he found the weekly polka show hosted by his friend from Greenpoint, fellow musician Eddie D. That would be Eddie Dmuchowksi to the Greenpoint crowd. Hell, Frank would spin the Eddie D records between Chicago and Frank Sinatra and Chuck Mangione and Fifth Dimension and Trini Lopez and Herb Alpert. Eclectic playlist in our house, it was. On certain weekends, I’d load Frank’s drum set into that wood-paneled station wagon and he’d go play polkas and songs from those other folks at wedding receptions.
So those weeks at the Polish place in the Catskills were a dream come true for Frank, a throwback.
A last gasp, really.
You see, we didn’t speak Polish at home, at all.
When Frank signed me up for a month of accordion lessons, they didn’t take.
The visits with those old friends from Greenpoint were farther and farther apart.
Nobody in my family that was born here, to my knowledge, has ever gone back to visit Poland.
And for me, now, it’s just the food, a trip to hear Fritz’s Polka Band and my friend Fritz Scherz at the Polish Festival downtown, a play of FPB’s “Bialczak’s Polka” on my CD player when I’m feeling particularly wistful.
I remember that my name in Polish is Marek. A few other words I recall, but they do not creep into my vocabulary.
I’m proud that I’m a Polish American. But I have, say, a quarter of Frank’s drive to preserve it.
My wonderful daughter Elisabeth makes trips to Utica to buy me fresh kielbasa for the holidays. She knows how I love to cook my version of the special Polish meals. Yet I do not really spot her eating it these days. I know I have told her the tale of how Fritz and his dear dad, Fred Scherz, God rest his soul, composed “Bialczak’s Polka” because they liked the story of the music writer from the big daily whose father played drums in a polka band. I sent that CD down to Frank before he passed, and heard the smile in his voice when he called to say thank you. (Fred Scherz, by the way, was proudly Swiss.)
I do believe that her mother’s side lovingly jokes about Elisabeth being a “Polish Princess.” That’s something.
There are pockets of Polish heritage visible in Syracuse, too, around Sacred Heart Church. A social club stands proudly there on the west side, and Klub Polski is on the east side. I eat at several Polish restaurants, but that’s not really doing anything but eating Polish food.
I do not yearn to search for more reminders or connections.
Is that the way with many third- or fourth-generation Americans, I wonder?
Is there enough Polish in this Polish-American?
How much of your family heritage do you carry in your traditions today? Do you speak the language of your family origin? Have you ever gone to visit the country of your family’s origin?