After I moved to Thailand to teach English to rich schoolchildren, my mother took up letter writing, and often she enclosed old photographs with her letters. "Remember when we took this picture?" she'd write. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't.
Of all the photos she sent, I kept only one, a picture of my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and me, six or seven years old, lined up in front of my great-grandmother's stove, taken maybe twenty years ago.
It was my great-grandfather's camera. Just before he pushed the button, I remember him saying, "Four generations of Krawczyk women. Will you look at that."
My great-grandmother said, 'These are Marchewka women," using her maiden name. "That's who we are, Marchewkas. Marchewka women." As she spoke, she squeezed my shoulder hard, pressing almost down to the bone, and I wasn't used to thinking of myself as part of this tiny, tightly made woman I saw only once a year.
My great-grandfather took the picture, and the four of us stepped apart, shaking back our hair, plucking at our clothing, bending away smiles. Someone checked on my sleeping baby brother, maybe the phone rang.
We were at my great-grandmother's house because she was surprised my mother had never learned how to make pierogi, Polish dumplings. "There's no secret," my great-grandmother said as she opened and closed kitchen cupboards, barely glancing in them to set her hands on exactly what she wanted. "Don't all the time be looking first for shortcuts." I loved how she talked, her thick words like blocks stacking into a story.
"There must be a secret," my mother said. "Some special trick you can show me."
"No," my great-grandmother said. "No secrets. Everything is here in front of you. Just watch. That's the secret, for you who must have one. Watch and listen."
My mother tied an apron around her waist. "I'm watching," she said. But I saw her face turn to the window. She didn't care that she'd never made pierogi.
My mother didn't like Detroit; and as soon as she could, she'd left for the farthest place she thought of, which happened to be Phoenix. She loved the flat, wide city, the desert enclosing it like a moat. When she said, "Valley of the Sun," you could almost see it the way she saw it, waves of sunlight rolling down the mountains to collect in a warm shimmering pool.
But once a year she went back to Detroit.
Everyone in my mother's family lived in Detroit or its close-in suburbs: aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, great-aunts, great-uncles. Any relation you could think of. Our stay in Detroit was a string of visits to houses that smelled and looked identical, musty dollhouses left behind after the little girl grew up. You could count on finding the same things inside each: A glass dish with cellophane-wrapped candies on the coffee table. One or two lamp shades still shrink-wrapped in plastic. The freezer packed with Tupperware and old bread bags holding enough food to last two winters.
Conversation in these houses moved around and around in loops, but it never tightened into a knot. Or maybe we were the ones who didn't fit. After all, their news was shared over cups of coffee in the kitchen instead of through mimeographed Christmas letters jammed last-minute into a card. We were always "Ginger's kids, way out west," and no one from the family came to visit us.
Many times I asked my mother why she left Detroit, and sometimes she said "always that same gray sky overhead" and other times she said "too much bustle" -- but once she told me she had to escape the clock on the fireplace mantel. My great-grandmother had given it to my grandmother as a wedding present, and it struck every quarter hour, the chimes stretching themselves longer and longer as the quarters passed, and my mother said there was never a moment that she was not aware that time was slipping by, and that every chime meant something had been lost. I remembered that clock on my grandmother's mantel, but I liked following its steady march through day and night.
My great-grandmother rolled up the sleeves of her dress and smiled as she gave me a small knife and a mound of mushrooms to slice. "Do you cook, Amy? When I was a girl, my mother took sick one winter, so it was me and my sisters working to feed a family of eight three meals a day."
"Amy bakes cookies," my mother said.
My great-grandmother said, "Cookies won't feed a family. You pay attention now, learn yourself some good cooking."
"We can be thankful she doesn't have to feed a family," my grandmother said.
"There was no choice for me, Helen," my great-grandmother said. "If I didn't cook, we didn't eat. Life was simple that way. There were two choices only, cook and eat, don't cook and go hungry. No, like this," and she took the knife from me and turned the mushrooms into tiny pieces with a quick tick-tick-tick.
I watched my mother and grandmother pass a look between them, each blaming the other for what my great-grandmother had said.
'Those are the old ways, Ma," my grandmother said. "Times have changed." They seemed to be words she'd spoken many times.
But my great-grandmother continued: No one said so, but we all knew. There was no shame in only two choices, living or dying."
My mother stroked my hair. But things are different for us," she said. "We have choices." She was almost talking to herself, not to me, not to my great-grandmother, who moved around her kitchen, finding a frying pan, unwrapping a stick of butter, no pauses to stop and think what to do next.
My grandmother said, 'Are we here for pierogi or nonsense chatter?"
Then my great-grandmother dropped handfuls of flour onto a wooden slab, sending up a white cloud that made my mother twist and sneeze into her shoulder.Pears on a Willow Tree. Copyright © by Leslie Pietrzyk. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Pears on a Willow Tree by Leslie Pietrzyk
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