Pani barely made it past Ellis Island. Her hunchbacked sister was ordered back to Poland. Pani had to plead officials to allow her sickly husband into America.
by David Kowalczyk
She insisted on being called 'Pani' (pah-knee) , best translated into English as 'madame', rather than 'Babcia', Polish for grandmother.
Pani pulled her frosty gray hair back in a bun so tightly coiled it could explode.
She dreamed and schemed of ways to keep her family alive. She scraped to put porridge on the table. She scrimped to buy shoes for her sons. She squeezed every penny until tears of blood trickled down
Lincoln's cheeks. How she saved!
Life improved for her brood after they departed the dirt and din and clutter of Buffalo. They settled forty miles to the east, outside the small city of Ossuary, where they sharecropped with other Poles until they could afford a small farm of their own with pigs, geese, chickens, and
a cow or two.
When times were lean, here they could forage for food: sour gooseberries, withered turnips, stray possums, wormy apples. Anything which could serve as cement for the gut. Every scrap of rancid meat, every stale bread crumb, was salted and spiced and made into stew.
Thanksgiving dinner at the Kowalczyk abode was usually an unholy broth made from some vile and ancient hen which was full of tumors and could no longer lay eggs. Pani never ate Thanksgiving dinner, claiming always that she had 'a bug in my stomach.' My father recalled, decades after her death, finding her in the kitchen one year, sucking the marrow from the chicken bones left in the kettle.
After dinner, Pani would don her wire-rim glasses and write long
letters to the relatives in Poland, bragging that the crows shit gold in Ossuary, and the sparrows silver. She sent magical American dollars, to prove she was a wealthy woman, blessed by God.
Perhaps it is true we see life most clearly as small children. In grade school, I always pictured Panis as made from pig farts and donkey brains, snake eyes and cobwebs. Thistles, thistles, everywhere around her...
Now, forty years after her death, no human face comes to mind whenever I try to remember her. Instead, the dust upon my back slowly turns to stone.