Monday, April 14, 2014

The Polish Easter of Sorrow and Joy - In Memoriam

A Blossom of Peace (Rose) by Maja Trochimczyk

It is quite surprising, if you arrive from Poland, to see the American Easter, with its Easter Bunny that lays chocolate eggs (this idea is somewhat disgusting, if you think what round objects of chocolatey hue come out of the Bunny's other end). Another surprise is the obligatory pastel coloring of the entire set of decorations - baby rabbits, baby chicken, baby ducks, puppies, kittens, and all sorts of baby everything, including pastel colored eggs and egg-wreaths that replace Christmas wreath. And, of course, chocolate. Tons of chocolate. It is astounding to see so many major holidays transformed into excuses for buying chocolate: St. Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween, Christmas... Then there are the pastel dresses and hats of children running around pastel yards with pastel baskets looking for pastel plastic eggs filled with chocolate in pastel wrappers... Actually, I've grown quite fond of this tradition and continue hiding my three dozens of eggs in my front yard for the neighborhood kids for Easter Sunday... We have a street celebration. It is fun to see the kids grow, have their own kids, year after year running to find the precious "golden eggs" with money inside. 

Sunbloom Rose by Maja Trochimczyk, 2014

For a Christian from Europe, however, the colors of Easter are different, starker. It is the hue of green palm leafs of the Palm Sunday, the stone bareness and austerity of Good Friday, the vermilion red of liturgical vestments on this day of cosmic suffering, the shadowy darkness and brilliant new flames of Easter Vigil, and the purity of white and gold of the Easter morning Resurrection Procession. I experienced these colors of truly religious Easter at the convent of Fransciscan Sisters, Servants of the Cross, in Warsaw, where I was baptized as an adult during the Easter Vigil on March 30, 1987.  There was not a pastel Easter bunny in sight. 

Listen: "O, Holy Cross" - A Choral song for Good Friday (14th C. Poland)

Listen: Easter Vigil's "Exultet" - with music and text (Gregorian Chant, tutorial)

Listen: "Chris is Resurrected" - A choral song for Easter Vigil (Polish children's chorus)

Listen: "A Joyous Day" - A Choral Song for Easter (Polish children's chorus)

Listen: "Wipe your Tears" - A Choral Song for Easter (Polish children's chorus)

Yes, there are less austere decorations in Polish homes for Easter - eggs colored in onion peel (dark reddish brown), with scratched out patterns; handmade "palms" with colorful dried flowers - a folk-art specialty, the first branches of willows with their soft yellow furry flowers ("bazie"), and the sugar lamb, the symbol of the Divine Lamb, decorating the table and waiting to be eaten, licked into nonexistence, limb by limb.... 

Easter table in Warsaw, 1981, with Marcin Depinski.

Of course, there is food: the meats, the breads, eggs and salt, blessed in Easter baskets. On our table first and foremost was the mazurka, the main Polish cake for Easter. There are many kinds of mazurkas, many flavors (you see three different ones on the picture above). I favored the Royal Mazurka, which, to Americans, resembles a very light and delicate fruit cake (baked without butter or any fat, but with tons of ground nuts, chopped figs, dates, prunes, and raisins).  I immortalized it in my poem dedicated to Chopin and my grandparents.

How to Make a Mazurka

            After Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4,
                        for my Grandparents, StanisÅ‚aw and Marianna Wajszczuk,
                        who could play and bake their mazurkas like no one else.

            Take one cup of longing
for the distant home that never was,
one cup of happiness that danced
with your shadows on the walls

of Grandpa’s house, while he played
a rainbow of folk tunes
on his fiddle, still adorned
with last wedding’s ribbons

            mix it – round and round to dizziness

stir in some golden buzz of the bees
in old linden tree, add the ascent
of skylark above spring rye fields,
singing praises to the vastness of blue

            mix it – round and round to dizziness

add chopped walnuts, figs, dates
and raisins, pour in some juice
from bittersweet grapefruit
freshly picked in your garden

            mix it – round and round to dizziness

add dark grey of rain clouds in Paris
that took Chopin back to the glimmer
of candles in an old cemetery
on the evening of All Souls’ Day

            mix it – round and round to dizziness

bake it in the cloudless heat
of your exile, do not forget to sprinkle
with a dollop of sparkling crystals,
first winter’s snowflakes at midnight 

(c) 2010, published in Chopin with Cherries

If you would like to know what kind of music is mixed like this, "round and round to dizziness" listen to the Prusinowski Trio. Event the dance of the shadows is just right in this visual interpretation of my childhood memory:

Easter Table by Maja Trochimczyk, 2013

My kids prefer chocolate mazurka on the layer of shortbread, "kruche ciasto"- with a thick layer of soft dark chocolate, decorated with walnuts and almonds. One year, in California, we put fresh strawberries on the chocolate-almond mazurka - the best ever!  Traditions change, the colored eggs are made of wood and put out year after year...

Strawberry Almond Chocolate Mazurka by Maja Trochimczyk

The Easter brunch comes, or should, after 40 days of fasting, giving up a favorite food, sweets, or deserts, or anything at all that we like too much.  Then, in a village tradition of "przednowek" - the time before the first harvest, the time of hunger -  the starved celebrants gorge themselves on cuts of cured meats, horseradish, eggs, egg salads, rye bread, and a variety of mazurka desserts. My Grandma and Mom also made Easter yeast-cake, "babka wielkanocna" - but those concoctions are too hard to do, in my busy lifestyle. They have to cool off on towels in a closed, warm room. In Grandma's house kids were banned from the house, lest they slam the door and the cake collapses on itself, resulting in the barely edible, ugly and squishy "zakalec."  One year, an attempt at a "babka" ended up with a zakalec that was not only completely flat and rubbery, but also burned. It was so bad that even a hungry dog did not want to touch it...

Family holidays with Marcin Depinski, Ania Harley, Aleksy and 
Henryka Trochimczyk, Maja Trochimczyk and Ian Harley, 1999.

It is fun to remember the holidays, the amusing mishaps, the laughter around the table. But all good things come to an end. For me Easter is and always will be also the time of remembrance, a sorrowful time changed forever by a family tragedy.

On the 4th of July 2013 as I was riding in the Poets' Convertible in the Sunland-Tujunga Parade, my Mom Henryka Trochimczyk, nee Wajszczuk, died in Warsaw, after an emergency surgery. Born on December 16, 1929 in Baranowicze, then Poland, now Belarus, she survived an escape from the Soviet occupation, spent WWII as a refugee with 20 people in a two-bedroom house, met my Dad while removing bricks from Warsaw's ruined streets afterwards, became a chemical engineer, worked for Foton (a photochemical company), took and developed lots of wonderful pictures, traveled, sailed, danced, loved people, loved her children and grandchildren, loved cooking and having parties, and loved life...

Shot in her home by robbers on April 3, 2000 (the bullet went straight through her lung, three centimeters away from the heart), widowed in 2001, she never fully recovered, but in poor health soldiered on. My dad, Aleksy Trochimczyk (born on September 25, 1927 in Bielewicze), fared much worse. The killer bullet went diagonally through his stomach, intestines, spleen, liver... After being tied up and left to die on the floor of the house,  he somehow freed himself, dragged his wounded body to neighbors' houses, but in vain... Nobody opened the door, nobody answered. Only the next day, fifteen hours after the attack, he managed to get help for himself and my mom, saving her life. His strength astounded the doctors who could not believe that for over a year, until May 11, 2001, his body simply refused to die, against all dire prognosis, against lost hope.  He recovered from sepsis, multiple dialyses, multiple surgeries, blood transfusions.  In the meantime, he managed to tell me some secrets during my repeated visits to the hospital in Poland.  The poem below was written on the way back from the first, shocking trip.

The Polish Easter

Chance. A whim of fate.
A wheel of Fortune
falling off its path.

The bullet pierces the lung,
blood spills in darkness:
shortness of breath,
mouth tied with tape,
agony in the basement
on the cold cement floor.
How does one live after that?

Does one live?
After a midnight stroll
on all fours, searching for help
screaming, unheard?

How does one live 
without the stomach,
kidneys, intestines and spleen?
Plastic pipes carry out
all kinds of liquid.
Seven drains and two IVs
for blood and feeding liquid.

The Polish Easter
is a celebration of
overeating. Food is life.

Would dad ever eat again?
Would mom ever breathe 
without gasping?

Honor your mother and father.
I do.

They did not.

(c) 2000 by Maja Trochimczyk

Written on a plane from Warsaw to Los Angeles, after the attack of April 3, 2000.

That's what Easter means to me: a baptism and two funerals...The end and the beginning.  My father just retired, it was  his first full year in Poland after decades of working abroad. My parents just came back from visiting me in California. They were here for three months - Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year... They went around, to San Francisco, the Grand Canyon, San Diego. They had energy. They had fun. After coming back home, they were getting ready for me to visit in the summer with children. They were planting roses, cleaning up - that's why they went to the summer house so early, when the area was still empty. My mom wanted to have a head start on spring cleaning, planting.  In the evening on that fateful Monday, the robbers cut the wire to the phone, broke in, shot them, tied them, left them to die. Took their wedding rings and the milk money from the purse. There were looking for gold. What gold? In a summer house? There was nothing else to take. The robbers were never found. Four months later, another elderly couple was found in their summer home, shot, tied, and dead. The murderers were never found then, either. 

My father, a half-orphan from a small village of Bielewicze (b. 1927, his birth certificate burned with the Eastern Orthodox church he was baptized in) lost his father when he was 12 and the war was just starting. The teen was resilient, he was hardworking and took care of his mom and brother. Only after the war ended he went on to finish the gymnasium, high school and college. He got a M.Sc. in electrical engineering from the Polytechnical University of Warsaw and worked in the high-energy area of power-plants. He started his doctorate, taught for a while, but then family duty called and he had to earn more money. He designed power plants and electrical installations and started travelling to building sites in the Middle East where Poland was constructing these power plants, water desalination plants, sugar refineries, and other infrastructure. He worked in Iraq, he worked in the Emirates. He was very good at what he did. He could not stand nonsense and found an engineering solution to every problem. People loved him, though he preferred books to company. Thus, he made his way through life; took care of two children; traveled to see the world: Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Spain. The funeral of Princess Diane in London. Trips to Paris. My parents had a rich, busy life and were looking forward to having even more time for having a rich, busy life,  in retirement. Then,  the two bullets ended their dreams. 

Henryka and Aleksy Trochimczyk, Abu Dhabi, UAE, 1980s.

But we never know when and how the end will come. Do we? We never know if the angels that watch over us are benevolent or maleficient... We, frankly, don't know anything about anything, or, to put it differently, know nothing about nothing. We just stumble in the dark, trying to make the best choice possible, catch a sunray while we can...

Easter Apocalypsis

           ~ After "The Discovery of Heaven" by Harry Mulisch

It is coming. The angels know.
They dwell in their Piranesi castles,
twisted spaces where outside
is inside. They are not indifferent.
Not too smart for their own good.
Not cruel. They don’t tell us.

The end is coming, it is near.
Not death, mind you, not that
ugly spinster without its twin.
No. The end of the end. Finis.
The satin fabric of a wedding dress
trails behind the veiled beauty
as she glides towards her beloved.

The river’s end tastes of salt
in its own mouth, opened widely
into the waves of the ocean.
Nothing we can do will stop it.
Just stretch your fingers,
let the water cool your skin.

Why resist? Heraclitus
dipped his toes in this river.
Shape-note singers praised it.
Saints dove in and swam around,
luxuriating in incandescent glories
that passed us by.

The end is coming, flowing
swiftly down the slopes.
Let’s sit on the porch, doze off
in honeyed sunlight,
before it, too, disappears,

Let us believe there will be
light enough inside us - 
that kindling of kindness,
a half-forgotten smile -
to keep us afloat in the final flood
coming, coming to erase the world
and remake it, anew,

(c) 2011 by Maja Trochimczyk, published in "Heaven and Hell" issue of The Scream Online.

Bench under the Cherries in Descanso Gardens, photo by Maja Trochimczyk
Bench under the cherries in Descanso Gardens, 2014.

When I posted the portraits of my parents on FB, 14 years after that fateful attack I was surprised by the outpouring of kindness from my friends. I thank them all for sharing their wisdom, advice and compassion with me. It is good to know we are not alone, after all...