One of the best things that came out of one of my first jobs was befriending a woman named Krys Chlebek. I’d like to think we became friends because we shared similar intellectual interests, but honestly, I think we bonded over our mutual Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that we disguised as some sort of deep, meaningful, existential angst. Training for marathons, hitting Chicago events and sharing online (and offline) dating stories did not link us like the daily conversations involving the question: “Why the hell are we here and WTF is going to happen to us when we die?” ….and repeat…..
Krys tells me that her last name “Chlebek” in Polish means, “little bread”. And how appropriate, because when I would visit her family home on the Northwest side of Chicago her babcia (grandmother) from Poland would have about eight Polish bakeries worth of cakes, breads, and cookies out on the counter for us to eat. I loved visiting that home because after running around Chicago, trying to hunt down the perfect profession or the best mate, I’d open the door to the Chlebek house and suddenly the world was comforting: it had order, answers, and baked goods. When you entered their home, you never knew what smells would waft your way ; her mother and father would come to hug you and say “Hello Suzi! Come in, have something!” (Their Polish accents, thankfully, were not affected by living in this country for over 40 years). After walking up the stairs, Babcia would stick her head out of her bedroom and wave, only to go back to listen to Polish radio with a large replica of the “Black Madonna” hanging on her wall.
Krys’ frustrations with dealing with her ties to Poland always fascinated me because I never had ties to anything beyond my immediate family. We know only a bit about our European ancestry, so listening to stories about the Chlebek’s home village in Poland was like listening to fairy tales. One day Krys called me in tears after she came back from a 13-mile run. Apparently, her babcia patted her belly and said, “All of this running around! When will you have baby?” I was horrified, but in some strange way, it also gave me comfort knowing that sort of thing was still present in a world of , “It’s your life, do what you want!” Listening to Krys describe her experiences in Catholic school and learning new words in Polish also took me far away from my open- ended, anxiety- filled questions about work and relationships for the “modern” female. Once, after trying to date a really sweet guy I just wasn’t attracted to, Krys took away my guilt and my fear with one fell swoop by saying, “Oh Suzi, he’s not for you – he’s too drewniany.” (pronounced Drev nyan ay) “What does that mean?!” I asked. She replied, “It means wooden, dead……boring!” God, I felt the biggest relief after learning that Polish word. The sound of the Polish language is so definite, so absolute and final. It’s comforting. And it was comforting to know I didn’t really want drewniany in my life.
Having two generations of Polish natives in one house means a lot of culture, but it also means generations die out in front of one another. My grandmother died in a nursing home in Florida – far, far away from my reality. Sad, yes, but I did not have to confront death like those who must confront it in their own home. Krys’ grandmother is now 95 and a few years ago she told me that her babcia was fearfully asking her, “What happens when we die? Where do we go?” I stopped Krys when she told me and I yelled, “Wait, wait, the woman who sent her children to Catholic school, prays the rosary every day and has a picture of the Black Madonna over her bed is worried about where we go?! Then where do I get MY comfort?!” Krys and I laughed …..and then we sighed and stared blankly out the window.
I took these photos of Babcia last year after insisting that I wanted to have a permanent vision of her on that bed, listening to Polish radio, in that room where she spoke to my friend in a mystical language I’d never understand. I remember being a bit disappointed with the shoot because I had a particular vision of what I wanted that photo to be. Krys’ little girls were skittish and Babcia didn’t quite understand where I wanted her to sit. But, when I look at them, I like them. I see certainty through the chaos. I see Babcia’s full history and rooted belief right there on the bed – solid, unwavering as she looks right at my lens. I look at the miracle of the years on her face and all that she has been through – she is a living example of strength and resilience. And that, in and of itself, is enough for me. She’s a pillar.
One of my greatest sources of anxiety after becoming an adult was realizing that no one had all of the answers : not an adult, not an institution, not even a babcia dipped in years of holy water and wine from the Eucharist. When I look at this photo and when I’m actually standing in the Chlebek home looking at Babcia and that Black Madonna, a variety of things go through my head. I realize I find comfort in those old institutions and rituals, and I remember the elders like my own grandmother who would speak in very black and white terms, ” You listen here Buster, what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. All you need to do is listen to The Man upstairs. He knows it all.” And, I also hear my own mother answering back and completely confusing my grandmother by asking, “But what if He is a She?” And then I hear myself ask, “Well, what if He or She is not there at all?” And when my eyes glaze over and that sinking feeling of doubt creeps up on me, I turn around and know that Babcia’s plate of Polish cookies and sweet rolls are right behind me on the counter, ready for the taking.