Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Made From Real Turkey Eggs, or Only a Pole

My ancestral past has always intrigued me. Being a late addition for my mom and dad -- at ages 42 and 44, respectively -- I never knew my grandparents, who died before I was born. My parents didn't seem to know much about their parents' pasts, or at least they didn't talk to me about it.

Here's what I gleaned: Mom's dad was from Minsk, now in Belarus, and her mother from Vienna. They came over on "the boat" when he was about 17; she was several years younger. I have no idea if they knew each other before they sailed, or met on the vessel. He apparently was illiterate, and an agent at Ellis Island gave him his last name, I imagine based on how he pronounced it, as it would have been written in Cyrillic.

My dad's mom was born to Polish immigrants; his father came from Warsaw. My dad knew Polish. I never learned, but he was proud of his heritage, and early on I became familiar with the Polish eagle, which adorned his license plate (in Delaware, you are only issued a rear plate and can put whatever you like on the front). A miniature Polish flag flew on my dad's desk and his tie tack. I joined my parents on annual pilgrimages to the Shrine of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pa., and shared "oplatek" on Christmas Eve. You can imagine my father's pleasure at the election of Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope.

On my recent trip to visit my sister, we made a pilgrimage to the Shrine and fell in love with it and all things Polish. Separately, apparently, my brother also had been investigating his Polish roots. And, he placed me on the mailing list for a catalog of all things Polish. How convenient.

I began this post with my reverance for my Polish roots, because from here on, it's going to sound like I'm poking fun at them. But only in the "I-can-make-fun-of-my-sister-but-you-can't" kind of way. Because while I find these things about the catalog hysterical, they endear me even more to my people, because this makes it even clearer that Poland is from whence my DNA came.

I will start with the date of the catalog I just received: Winter 2007/2008. It's August. Well, I figured, it is rather an arcane subject; perhaps they just don't publish often. So I looked on their Web site*: There was an Easter 2008 catalog. Which they didn't send me; instead, shortly after receiving the first catalog from last winter, I received another one. For last winter.

This catalog is so juicy, I spent several minutes on the cover alone. Beginning with the free gift for those who order at least $100 worth of items: A Polska dog tag, retail value of $14.95. Limited to the first 750 orders. Now that, my friend, is an incentive to purchase!

Then there are the hand-painted turkey eggs, which, the catalog says, are "Made from real turkey eggs!" (Well, I wasn't inclined to doubt you, but just the same, glad to know there's truth in your advertising ...)

Being a religious culture -- and, well, it being the (last) Christmas catalog and all -- in addition to the egg ornaments, we have our pick of a variety of creches (that would be a manger scene to you uninitiated). Ah, here's one now, perfect for the eco-obsessed Californian: A creche handmade out of natural products. "The artist uses wood, plaster, paper, bark, moss and selected grass planted for hay." That suits me -- I can't tell you the number of hours I spent in my childhood picking plaster. Good times.

As you may or may not know, Slavic folks tend to be a tad pessimistic. (As my father used to say, "I'd get excited about this good turn if I didn't know the other shoe was going to drop.") Hence, the "Typhoon sub clock," originally made for the Soviet Navy's nuclear subs and warships -- until the Reds fell on tough economic times. The catalog folks "cajoled" the factory into making "a few just for us," and voila! you, too, can own a clock that can "survive depths to 2,000 feet" as well as "depth charge concussions." That takes a load off my mind (you who have heard me snore will understand).

Indeed, there are a number of military replicas -- some authentic -- including "East German Police Submission Handcuffs" (incidentally, now banned for German police use). Ah, the good old days! When these cuffs were used to subdue "troublemakers" by "non-lethal" means. "With a quick flick of the wrist and a sharp twist, even the most obnoxious hooligan comes along quietly." Come to think of it, these might be of use on my reporters ...

Another tempting item is the "2 way Polish Army telephone," with whose discovery I began to doubt my dad was really Polish, as my engagement wasn't really necessary for most of our conversations. But I digress. If you choose to purchase one of these items for $29.95, be assured that, "All phones are used but are in good condition. These are probably in working order but are not tested."

Again, being a religious culture, we have our page of rosaries. The descriptions make it easy to pick which one I want: Only the Amber Rosary can be used "for all your praying needs." I, for one, am tired for having a separate rosary for everything.

And what's a rosary without a rosary box to keep it in? May I suggest the "Mary feeding" motif? Yes, that would be Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus. (If you are taken with this motif, but already have a rosary box, you might want to take a look at the silver-plated wall mounted icon of the same theme.)

But let's get down to brass tacks, so to speak, and flip to the crucifix selection. Here, I am happy to report that two of the three models offered are "ready to hang on your wall." Which is a relief, as it was a real downer to have to hammer in the nails myself on my old one.

But wait, there's more. I would say in one-quarter of the items, the catalog either ask you to "please allow us to select a color for you," or -- in the case of hats -- a size. After all, "Who am I to know what I want, or expect to get what I pay for?" (said in Eeyore voice.)

Indeed, the catalog pulls no punches; it even warns that your item -- once they pick it out for you -- might not even arrive intact. Take the "Spider of Straw" decoration. "Although we pack carefully to minimize movement, some crushing may occur," the description reads, adding, "Size is approximately 16"x 28", but may be different." ("I'm lucky to get what they give me," my inner Eeyore intones.)

Then comes the order form, which addresses "limited quantities and copy errors," advising that "All prices and discounts listed may change at no further notice," but you're responsible for whatever the "correct" price is.

Oh, and all defective merchandise? Must be returned in "factory condition." Um, if it was in factory condition, I wouldn't be returning it! Of course, in any case, expect to pay a 15 percent "restocking fee." To put the defective merchandise back on your virtual shelf, to sell to someone else?

The takeaway: Choose what you want; you might get it, might not. It might work, might not. Might be at the price listed, might not. Might fit, might not. And if they permit you to send it back, you'll have to pay them.

What?

As my friends and I say ... Only a Pole.

Still, I can't wait to see what they pick out for me.

* What, you think I'm going to give you the URL? And have the first 750 Polska dog tags gone when I order? What do you take me for? A Pole?

Monday, August 04, 2008

You Can't Go Home Again -- Or Can You?

Growing up, I couldn't wait to get out of Delaware. Now that I've been gone 15 years, I can appreciate its charm, the memories I built and the friends I made there long ago.

It's been about two weeks since I returned from visiting my sister, with whom I had a heck of a time. For many people, this would mean partying, drinking and ill-advised hijinks (which otherwise I highly condone), but we Haven sisters have our own style of fun. We're total dorks.

One of the high points (I'm still awaiting video to post, ahem) is when we discovered that the mercurial calico cat my sister inherited from my father not only loves hanging out in cardboard boxes, but being pulled around the house's hardwood floors in them. This led my sister to create a sled ("sanki" in Polish, which in our dorky manner we studied as well), complete with cloth placemat affixed to the bottom so as to smooth the ride. Marcella would hunker down and lift her head to feel the breeze as I raced through the house with her, much like a dog sticking its head out of a car window.

"I Love Lucy" was watched and pored over, with such lines as, "As soon as I'm feeling up to it, I'm going to kill myself" and (when she and Ethel are stranded on the roof of their building), "I know, one of us can jump and tell the crowd I'm up here" oft repeated.

We had Bing's cookies and chocolate-covered pretzel-shaped shortbreads (OK, well I didn't get a taste of them. Ahem.), subs, cheesesteaks, iced tea (with a straw) and Friendly's peanut butter cup ice cream (the proper number of hard pretzels to include in the bowl was debated).

We hid the Noah's ark Christmas ornament I gifted my sister years ago and which I won't let her get rid of in various places -- most notably, I like to think, at the bottom of the peanut can. But then, it was pretty funny I didn't feel it when I unwittingly slept with it in my pillow case.

We became addicted to Dexter, and watched all episodes using the divine "on-demand" cable feature.

And we sought out places our parents used to take us: most notably the National Polish Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pa., and Hollywood Beach on Maryland's Elk River.

I leave you with these pictures taken at the same spot outside the church, one at age 10, one at age 40. Guess which is which: