by Andrea Lianne Grabowski
with inspiration drawn from “Iowa (Traveling, Pt.3)” by Dar Williams
“when i go see my family i wear a mask / made from the face i was born with.”
— Joshua Jennifer Espinoza
family, n. any group of persons closely related by blood.
dzień dobry! a few guttural words handed down from the old country. jak się masz! tiny grandmother and tall grandfather. loud uncles talking bluff. aunts with organic vegetables. and a baker’s dozen of kids. well, a baker’s dozen in theory. there are eight of us here in Michigan, the others tossed too far for us to know their lives beyond scattered summer visits.
there is me, and there is the Alkire Road neighbors with siblings, dogs, and blurred parental lines. the curses and blessings of a proximity I will never know. children and goats packed wild into a suburban for adventures I only hear of when I am twenty.
I sit tidy in my coat, row of dolls beside me, hands clutching Mama’s skirt. solitary only child; youngest girl. aberration of timidity. I don’t get shared horseback rides, only songs about spring and dirty carpet under my feet at Christmas.
the rest of the Great Lakes third generation has gleefully snarled hair and daring fed by sourdough. I follow Papa around the yard in braids and Mary Janes for snowy egg hunts. there’s a butter lamb, treasure of peanut butter and rice crisp chocolate eggs, beeswax crayon drawings on the windows. chickens run in the yard, laying eggs that will be collected and dyed in boiled cabbage, shells bleeding robin’s egg blue.
I don’t know I’m not the only one who hates the noise.
family, n. a group ruled over by a matriarch and a patriarch.
Busia and Dzia Dzia are heading to the city in their Polish eagle sticker van. they pass right by my house on the hour-long trek north. they come see us after the doctor, frail but hearty, bearing gifts of oranges and stickers cut off address labels, calling cheerful hellos, but hardly ever coming inside. is it the steps that plague their arthritic knees? or is there something about this place, my loner father, my sensitive mother, myself?
but they are so proud. so proud of all of us. when some of their granddaughters begin to move away, to study engineering and medicine, to date good boys. when some of us sing on a stage or stop throwing snowballs and become a mathematical genius. in their eyes, we are all a golden child.
but I do not feel like something to be proud of. I am the cousin turned invisible by thirty-six miles of distance, by choosing books and obscure historical references over ski boots and cross country meets. the girl with cryptic deficiency of social dexterity.
there is something I must prove — that I am worth being visited. after the Christmas party, the pierogis and laughter, the cousins and aunts say they’re coming to the city. they pass right by my house on the forty-five minute trek north. they say they’ll come. and I hope it’s true — that my little house, my little life, bears merit of attention. Busia and Dzia Dzia believe it to be so. they believe we all love each other equally, for how could it be any other way?
there is something I must prove — that I am not a child, not quiet, not anxious. but one can’t disprove the truth of oneself.
and no one ever comes.
family, n. support relied upon during tumultuous changes or pain caused by outside force.
Marjorie Rose. Anna Rose. you carry this middle name shared with Busia across state lines with you, Anna, as you leave behind Alkire Road and horseback rides. faded pink petals stain your hands as you pull desecrator stars and stripes from sacred Abenaki soil. thorny stems pricking your heart as you stand accused.
when your dad was twelve, your uncles tried to run away. my dad the leader, calling Canadian forests salvation from the suburbs of Detroit, seeking Tom Bombadil. now, you have learned states and nations are but myths, and you will pay the consequences. Rose. you take this name to save yourself from google search scrutiny and slander. you are barely adult, drowning your father’s name, your mother’s name, in the waters of Lake Champlain, stormy waves of college suspension crashing over your feet.
when you come home to Lake Michigan — is it really a home anymore? — nobody understands. which is worse, having no one know, or having everyone know and being afraid to ask? did you hear what Anna did? it’s a whisper, a crack in the facade. all the Grabowski ballots are blue, but when the children step to the front lines of anarchy, it is too much to bear.
I am fifteen, and I have no idea of what you have done, nor of the coming grief I will carry for all our lost years. our heartbreaks are the greatest thing of this suspension year, but I do not know their name. you do not know hers. we sit eating pierogis and Polish sausage and laughing in our gray sweaters. I would not dare tell you all I am thinking of is when will Hannah text me back? you would not dare say Avery’s name in the Catholic dust of this house.
the only time you bring home someone you are dating is when it is someone tall, voice a timbre lower than any other lover. we are only allowed to be happy here. happy, happy, and loud. don’t let anyone know our mothers are angry. dry our tears, come for the carols. and then go home and burn up from the inside.
family, adj. unconditional acceptance.
in this dynasty, we are made up of what they choose to see. defined by what they remember. you said a single thing as a child, Silvia, and it defines you even when you are twenty-five. this clever saying that will never die. even in your absence, it is declared at every meal:
“we are all friends and relations.”
for years, I hated being the girl obsessed with the Romanovs. but I’ve crushed pearls under my heels for a hammer and sickle. burned ivory lace to rise from the ashes as combat boots. you know what I mean. you are not just the vegetable oil car or that-one-time-Silvia-got-arrested. getting into trouble, just like her sister and those flags. we are Russian dolls. onions pulled from your mother’s garden. poster girls typecast by our silence, our fading hair. would anything shift if they opened the first matryoshka? but I don’t know if they’ll ever try to find your painted skateboard or my favorite poems tucked between the onion layers. so you become a nomad, Appalachia to O’odham land and anywhere in between. and I stay in the same room as always, and we change, and change, and change.
do you remember when we ran around the cemetery, chasing Guzikowski and Dahlke and the 7th Street house? Aunt Nancy tried to tie a bow of connection with that treasure hunt. veneer of inherited allegiance. but it was the 4th of July, and she was hardened by a life born from the era of dutiful eldest daughters, so far gone she cannot even believe you are her niece.
we are not all friends and relations. even as we stand in the cold around Dzia Dzia’s grave. there is no more cranberry pecan sourdough coming hot from your father’s brick oven. they all understand that much. but will they ever see you? Anna Rose’s tall little sister, dressed in a white shirt scattered with thorny red blooms, hiding in the room where we used to walk in age order, carrying a tiny statue of baby Jesus to the manger. but I will always see you. even if you keep disappearing.
what I wouldn’t give to be eighteen by those headstones again and know the truth of you. before you led me down the beach in search of wild tiger lilies and told me you don’t have it all figured out either. if the anarchy is to descend like dominoes, I will be the next to fall. and I know that you can catch me.
the air is thick with awkward mourning, cardamom sprinkled into coffee, maple sap buckets overflowing the tears we cannot cry.
family, n. wherein one knows they will always belong.
as Busia lays dying in her hospital bed, Anna Rose makes the forty-five minute trek north to the city. we talk more than we ever have, and at last, pull into my driveway. it is overdue, perhaps, but neither of us believe in too many regrets.
the first Christmas without Busia and Dzia Dzia wraps us in an unfamiliar blanket of possibilities. I still wear a gray sweater, but there are no pierogis. my shoulders are stronger. no more braids and Mary Janes. I beckon Anna to the cottage that was once the sourdough oven, but which has changed, just like us. I open my mouth for the confession of my deepest secret, and Lake Michigan waves begin to splash the shore clean. for the first time in twenty years, I have nothing to prove.
take as long as you need, says Silvia, because of course she already guessed, knows how to spot the fellow black sheep, how to see queerness, loneliness, defiance of success. and how those are sometimes one and the same.
in the spring, another Alkire Road girl marries her good Polish boy. we run away from the wedding, carving a space for ourselves in the shadows outside the glowing party. laughter skipping like stones across the golf course frog pond. the bride’s brother, brave baby of this whole damn dynasty, comes to find us. he is changing too, learning how to listen. his three blood sisters have chosen suburbia. but he knows he does not want that. his brother is a black sheep too. and there is us, another trio of girls. together, we are the heirs of our fathers’ woodland delinquency. we know Tom Bombadil’s pristine world is burning, sliced through with tar sands, and we must try to protect it.
we will never be in the middle of the party. but we will try to make a better one. even if it takes years of unpicking old stitches. even if it takes decades to sketch new window-pictures, beeswax vignettes of welcomed pain and burned tradition.
the second Christmas, I give Silvia earrings — oak leaves for the tree-girl. for the first time, I sleep at her parents’ home. her dad is shocked I’ve never gone on a proper dynasty outing before. Alkire Road neighbors: the curse of a proximity I will never know. he buys my movie ticket. a too-small apology, but I must take it. on the way back, I rest my head on Anna Rose’s shoulder, finally knowing why she had to shed our surname. I finally know how the ache has healed.
it took us so long to find each other. the truth is out: I am not the only one who hates the noise. who goes home and cries and shouts and burns. only after Busia and Dzia Dzia are underground can I say I have sisters.
it is exactly what they always believed of us, that we can say I love you and mean it.