|Polish National Alliance Hall in Sumpter, Michigan.|
The meetings of P.N.A. Lodge 2984 were held on Sunday, once a month. My father would drive in his beautiful Desoto’s and later in his Buicks. My grandmother, Anna Blandowski, would sit in the front seat, and I would sit in the back. My grandfather never went and my mother was too busy taking care of babies. Grandmother or “Busia”, as we called her in Polish, always dressed in her Sunday best. She would open her pocketbook and take out a small envelope. Carefully opening the envelope, she would shake out a few pieces of “Sen-Sen”, a spicy, strange-tasting breath mint that made your mouth burn. I have heard that you can still find Sen-Sen, but I have not seen it since my childhood. When I entered the hall, I could smell stale cigarettes, old beer, and cleaning solution. It sounds like a terrible combination, but to me it was always slightly exotic. It was as if something I could know nothing about had taken place there.
After the meetings, there was usually a luncheon. It was hard to stay focused on the meeting when you could smell the aromas wafting from the kitchen. Maybe that was the plan. No one could focus on the meeting when they anticipated the good things to come. When the meeting was adjourned, everyone retired to the dining room. Songs were sung first: The Polish National Anthem, which roughly translates to “Poland still exists while we still live” and “The Highlander’s Farewell,” a song that brought tears to many eyes as it asked the highlander why he is leaving the mountains—the answer, for bread. And it also reminds the highlander to return, and many in the room know they shall never return.
Anna Blandowski had been the Secretary of the Lodge for a very long time, re-elected year after year, probably because of her ability to write in Polish with perfect penmanship and perfect recall. No one ever challenged her minutes of the previous meeting when they were read, except for a point of clarification. On the way home after one meeting I was troubled by something she had said in the reading of the minutes. The Polish words sounded like “Davem nosek” and I thought it meant that someone had punched someone in the nose. “Pan Wisniewski davem nosek!” “Pan Ziemba davem nosek!” “Pan Zaleski davem nosek!” What a free-for-all it must have been. And where had I been when it all took place? I did not remember a fight. I asked my father whether there had been a battle at the previous meeting and told him I had heard “Davem nosek” over and over again. He laughed and sputtered until I thought he would let loose of the steering wheel. “Davem nosek” meant “Second the motion!”
It is not to say that the meetings were all sweetness and light. There is an old Polish saying that if you get two Poles together you will get three opinions. Plenty of opinions were addressed at those meetings. The Polish National Alliance was both a fraternal organization and an insurance company. I do not recall the origins of the national organization, but I do have the information filed away somewhere. I wrote a historical and sociological study of the Polish people in the Detroit area during my senior year at college. However, that is another story.
Lodge 2984 served as a meeting place for local Polish people, most of them being farmers from the surrounding towns and villages, because they had no place else to go. Because of their language and cultural differences, they were not accepted by any other organization. In its heyday during the 1950’s the hall was expanded and refurbished—first a hall for dancing and bingo games was added, then a dining room and a state-of-the-art kitchen. It was always a busy place. The PNA members would run a bingo on Tuesday nights, later, the Polish Legion of American Veterans would host a bingo on Thursday night, and the Saturdays were booked for wedding parties.
I attended many a wedding at that hall. What joyous events! Those were the days when children were welcomed at weddings. Now it costs too much. Such a loss as children need to experience both weddings and funerals—it would give them a better perspective about life.
|Adam and Lillian Janowski|
Married, July 10, 1949
Both deceased, 1999
They were more beautiful than any dancers on the Lawrence Welk Show. When my parents waltzed they did not just dance, they glided, and when they did the polka, others stopped to watch. They were magic floating on the dance floor. Oh, the songs, The Julida Polka, The Blue Skirt Waltz, The Helena Polka, and Matka Waltz. “Mother, oh my dear mother, why are you crying so…You, who sang to me…You, who taught me…Now I am leaving you…Mother, please don’t cry at my wedding…I will always remember you.”
|Muguet was my mother's favorite perfume--the scent of Lilies of the Valley.|
(Photo courtesy MorgueFile.com)
The Blazak’s sweet corn. Oh, how tender and sweet! If it was a good year and the weather was right, you could count on the Blazak sweet corn at the annual Lodge picnic in August. Of course, they had hot dogs or hamburgers, but I only remember that sweet corn. An old horse trough was loaded with ice and soft drinks in glass bottles—root beer, grape soda, orange soda, ice cold and delicious. It would hurt your hand if you had to reach through the ice to the bottom for a favorite soda, but it was worth it. There were games for the kids. A sand pile seeded with coins and prizes. One year there was a carnival with a merry-go-round. It was so much fun. So many people were there. People you never saw at Lodge meetings on Sunday.
And the annual PNA Lodge Christmas party. That was a scene of utter chaos. Every member who had children or grandchildren was there. Hundreds, it seemed. The Lodge passed out an envelope with three crisp dollar bills in it to each child. There was a cutout in the envelope so you could see the face of George Washington. You came to the front, Frank Wisniewski, the Lodge treasurer, checked you off the list, and you picked up your envelope and a stocking of candy from Santa.
My grandmother retired as secretary of the Lodge in the early 1960’s. There was a move to run the meetings in both Polish and English. My grandmother, knowing she could not keep the minutes in English, retired gracefully. Others did not retire with such grace.
The PNA Lodge experienced a renaissance of sorts in the early 1970’s. This was the time of multiculturalism. America was no longer a “melting pot,” but a “stew pot.” Your heritage should be valued. New members took leadership roles, the old were retired whether they liked it or not. The meetings and the minutes were no longer read or written in Polish—even as a course in the Polish language was sponsored at the local high school.
Scholarships were awarded to students of Polish descent. I received one. Years later, I returned the money to the Lodge, when I was working in Saudi Arabia and flush with oil cash. I dedicated my donation in honor of my grandmother, Anna Blandowski. I probably was the only one to do so.
My grandmother began to fade. My father no longer went to Lodge meetings. I guess that happened in many families. Multiculturalism and its renaissance of pride in one’s ethnic heritage passed. The need for the Lodge and its sense of community was gone. Bingo was passé. Big weddings were no longer booked for Saturday night. Fewer people bought insurance. The PNA Lodge 2984 cobbled along for awhile until the members could no longer support the hall. The hall was lost, given to the town of Sumpter. Now it sits awaiting the wrecking ball. There will be no parties when it is gone. No one will dance the Anniversary Waltz one last time.
I finally arrive at my brother’s house. It is still and quiet. My brother and his family are gone for the day. I am alone with my memories. I am supposed to go to my sister’s house for dinner. I will be moody and distant. She will wonder why.
When I first started writing my stories, I called my sister because she had not let me know what she thought of them. She asked me, “Were you drinking?” I angrily denied it, but she was more right than wrong. Wine makes you remember, and it makes you forget. Memories are chasing themselves inside my brain and I have to let them out. I once read a line from the novel Hotel New Hampshire by Tom Wolfe about men who turn forty and learn to close softly the doors through which they will not be coming back through. I add my corollary:
Men at fifty
Hear the doors slam shut
As they pass through.
Note: Since writing the essay below in 1990, the PNA Hall, after sitting vacant for awhile has been reborn. It is still serving as a meeting hall, and a social venue for weddings, anniversaries and public and private parties. Click here for more PNA Hall history and information.
When I found the link to the Matka (Mother) Waltz, I also found at the same site a link to one of the most beautiful versions of Serdeczna Matko (Beloved Mother) sung in Polish with both Polish and English lyrics. This song evokes so many memories as it was so often in Polish churches, especially at funerals, as I was growing up.
Cucumber Salad with Sour Cream (Mizeria) or a Tossed Salad with Hard Boiled Egg Dressed with Sour Cream
Stuffed Cabbages (Golabki)
Smoked Sausage (Kielbasa)
Hunter’s Sauerkraut Stew (Bigos) or a Simpler Kapusta with Mushrooms and Onions
Polish Meat Balls with Gravy
Poppy Seed Coffee Cake (Strucla z Makiem)
Polish Wedding Strawberry Cream Pie
Angel Wings (Chrusciki)
|Stuffed Cabbage Rolls are often served at special occasions. They go by the name Golabki, or in Polish, Gołąbki (It sounds a little like Go-wum-key).|
Fold opposite sides, starting with one of the open ends. Set aside. Continue until filling is used up.
Adam’s Polish Wedding Strawberry Cream Pie
|I remember having a strawberry cream pie topped with strawberry glaze at many Polish weddings when I was growing up.|
1 package vanilla pudding mix, preferably the cooked kind
1 frozen pie crust
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon confectionary sugar
Bake pie crust as directed for one crust pie. Allow to cool.
Cook vanilla pudding mix, add to pie crust. Chill until set.
Combine strawberries with strawberry pie filling. Spoon over pie.
Whip cream with confectionary sugar.
Cover pie. Chill at least one hour.