My aunt called on the weekend and asked me if I wanted to hear the two pieces of bad news that she had. I could guess one of the pieces of news because my sister and I had talked earlier, but I was hesitant about the other.
“Sure,” I said.
“You sure?” she asked.
“Yes.” What was she building up to?
“Your Ciocia Nina has COVID,” she blurted out.
“I know, I spoke with my sister.”
(Polish possessive adjectives sound strange when translated into English.)
“Oh, you spoke with her.” Dramatic pause. I hear a sudden intake of sucked air from the cigarette she is smoking. I picture where she is most likely sitting, at her kitchen table, the overhead fixture glaring down on her. There is that thin knife next to her because it is evening and she likes to eat fruit in the evenings. I always recoiled in horror when she offered my kids a piece directly from her knife to their mouths. There is an open book of Polish crossword puzzles in front of her with a pencil in the crease, pointing at her. The African violets in her kitchen window obscure the glass. Her right index finger taps the cigarette over the ashtray. I can smell the smoke as if she were next to me.
“She’s better now. No fever.”
“That’s good news.”
“Yes. Good news.” Then she switches to English. It’s jarring.
“I’m not gonna make any pierogi this year. Sorry, Ania.”
Well, it’s not surprising. Her hands have been aching from arthritis recently. For as long as I can remember, she made pierogi for Christmas Eve and shared them with us. Growing up, my sister and I were sent to her house on rotation to help make them. Every family has their traditions, and Polish traditions can span the whole culture or be specific to a family. I know some Polish households make pierogi in advance and freeze them, and other families still wait until the 24th to put up their tree. In our family, the tradition was that my aunt made pierogi on Christmas Eve. Always.
I’m sure my mother and my aunt made this arrangement so that my sister and I could learn because making pierogi for six people is hardly an enormous task. What is enormous is my aunt’s work for the past twenty-two years or so: she made enough pierogi, both cheese/potato and sauerkraut/mushroom, to feed ten on Christmas Eve and enough still to gift three other family households. I am also forgetting the uszka we add to the barszcz; calling them mushroom tortellini smudges the imprint the Polish word has on me. She made those as well. Thing 2 has ears like uszka.
Christmas lost some of its Christmassyness (how do you spell that nominalization?) when my father died. All the Things brought the joy back to the holiday, but the last few years have exposed sadness again: a person missing at the table, growing memory loss, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and this year, COVID will make our table the smallest in my memory. But some things have remained constant over the years, and most of those were the food.
I made kapusta this year. I have made it in the past, but only in small batches in the kitchen. I went to my mother’s house and asked her to give me the stoneware crock from her basement. She gave it to me, along with the szatkownica with the homemade guard which doubles as a press to release the juice from the cabbage. The szatkownica has the last name “Onucky” written on it. I remember my mother borrowing it from that family to make the kapusta each year. They were friends of my aunt’s. I guess my aunt took it when the lady died.
My mother also had the rock that my father found forty years ago. He searched the beach in Lafontaine for a week before he found a rock flat enough and wide enough to fit into the stone crock. In case you think it was all happenstance, my mother had the measurements with her. I took the rock to weigh down the cabbage below the surface of the released juices.
I did that Polish thing that mortified me growing up. I swore in my early twenties that I would never have the smell of fermenting cabbage in my own home and I am finally eating my words. The taste of the kapusta is just like my mother’s, and the children’s complaints of odour are exact echoes of my childish ones.
I was ready to make kapusta. My mother hadn’t made it in a few years. I wasn’t so ready to hear my aunt say that she can’t make pierogi anymore. It almost seems too much to bear this year.
I told her I understood. I went upstairs and called the kids. I said,
“We have to make pierogi this year. I’ll do the fillings and we’ll make them together on the weekend. We can get them finished in one morning. We can make enough to share and take some to your aunts and your grandmother.”
I’ll be damned if I let COVID steal the Christmas pierogi.