Today is my mom’s birthday.
I am going to be respectful, and not tell you her age.
She prefers it that way.
Today our family is celebrating someone pivotal in all of our lives.
Someone who has shaped this family into the dysfunctional mess that we are today.
But I digress.
I am roughly the same age now that she was, when along with my father, my eight- month old sister and me (adorable at four) my mom fled communist Poland for a chance at a better life for her family. While waiting for our visas, we were sheltered in a house with several other families, each occupying only one room. I made some lasting friendships there (Ohmommy for one) and my mom did her best to keep us afloat and protected. I find myself questioning my own courage when I think of her; would I have left everything I have ever known in order to begin anew, in hopes of a more secure and safe future for my kids? (If I had to stand in five hour long lines for a stick of butter and a stale loaf of bread too, then yep, I would probably entertain the idea of leaving). She dove headfirst into the unknown and carried burdens that only mothers could understand.
I remember when we were finally given the green light and were on our way to live with a sponsor family in Houston, Texas; my mom was sitting next to me and the stewardess came over, mouthful of braces, to ask if we needed anything. You see, in Poland, at that time, there were no braces. My mom’s reaction was swift and natural; she pulled me back and cowered in her seat, muttering under her breath, which decades later I can only loosely translate as “where the @#% are we going and get me off of this crazy train.”
She had an engineering degree back home, and cleaned houses for engineers in America. She would do anything to makes sure we had food on the table and clothes on our backs. She spoke only broken English but would use what few words she had to network and make friends in all the right places. She began to move us up in the world.
She assimilated where she could and refused to culturally give in when she felt it wasn’t right. She became an unofficial Polish Ambassador to anyone who would listen to stories about her beloved country. She woke up everyday missing those lush green fields and broken sidewalks but she never let us see her pain. She went to work, studied English and tried to make peace with frozen t.v dinners (the latter has yet to happen). She was a wife, a mother and an immigrant and when neighbors came by to visit, she offered them pickle soup with her head held high. Everyone loves pickle soup, right?
She overdressed for everything. That’s how we roll in Eastern Europe. You do not go out in yoga pants. Not even to get your mail. She wore scarves and heels to borrow a cup of sugar next door. Full makeup, bouncy hair, the works. She was allergic to anything that was improper, like women out in public with curlers in their hair. It was an offense equivalent to theft or murder. It still is. We wore our Sunday best to the grocery stores and the parks, and when my dad took her out to the movies for the first time, she wore a dress fit for an opera. She came back that night, her face pale and voice shaky: “They wore jeans with holes and ate popcorn!” “At the cinema!” That naïve streak was both a blessing and a burden for my mom. And for our family. She would make social faux pas but was quickly forgiven because she was such a cute and lovable immigrant. She was adopted by coworkers and friends and they tried in vain to teach her the ways of the American Citizen. They fed her fast food, taught her four-letter words and welcomed her into their world. But she would come home every afternoon and cook three course meals for her family, avoiding the McDonald’s down the street like the plague because she refused to feed us anything under a heating lamp.
She embarrassed us to no end in front of friends and classmates. She talked too loudly, with a heavy accent, mispronouncing common words; the glazed stare of our peers made us cringe. My friends always thought she was yelling at us when she spoke, even though it was only about half the time. My sister and I prayed that she would be cooler, less herself. (God, kids are cruel). In high school, she would pull up in her blue diesel Volvo, leopard print pants, lips painted some shade of coral, and she would yell out my name in Polish: “Asia!!” (pronounced Ashya), honking her horn and blocking traffic. Lord only knows how I made the cheer squad that year. She paged my friends when I missed curfew and developed a reputation for being just a tad bit overbearing She didn’t succumb to my selfish wails for more money, less chores, fewer rules. Thinking back to what a wonderful and easygoing teenager I was, I would have shipped myself off to boot camp in a second, but she held on and kept grounding me, trying to mold me into a decent human being. She knew I was going to be a teacher years before I realized money shouldn’t define a career choice, and she yelled at me to write a book already (hold your breath Mama, it’s gonna happen someday).
Today she is more than just a mom. She is a friend and a confidant, someone I can cry with, someone who still drives me to the brink of insanity, someone who pulls my sons’ pants up way too high. She freezes Superman’s favorite dessert so that he can have it anytime he wants, and weeps when she sees Monchichi reach a new milestone. She still mispronounces “vegetable” and “available” and gets pissed when I don’t listen to her “suggestions.” She “reminds” me to suck in my tummy when we take pictures and thinks I waste too much money. She returns Christmas gifts for more “practical” items and leaves the cheese out on the counter for too long. But she would give you the clothes off her back and risk her own health and safety for her grandsons. She is everything a mother should be and so much more. She is controlling, loving, sensitive and predictable.
And I love her dammit.
Sto Lat Mamusiu.