birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

My busia

What I know:

She was fierce when it came to her backyard garden and how the rose bushes and tomato plants and radishes stacked up against those of the neighbors, whose own rows of summer vegetables could be seen just inches beyond the chain link fences that bordered her yard in the old neighborhood. My brother and I were regularly enlisted during the summer months to first till the soil and then to weed and harvest the crops, usually with a beckoning shout from her first-floor digs up to us on the second floor: "Brian! Marky! Come pick my tomatoes!!!"

She was Polish and proud of it, and that was saying something in an area that garnered a visit from Pope John Paul II and had a street renamed after him. And she loved that my brother and I were learning the language in grammar school and that we and all of my cousins were once corralled by our parents into learning — and then actually recording — a Polish Christmas carol for her.

She had lived through the Great Depression, and her walk-in pantry in the house on Mozart Street and the shed in the basement were stacked with canned and dry goods, many long past their expiration dates ... in case.

She visited the 1933 Chicago World's Fair — not the famous 1893 Colombian Exposition known for Ferris Wheel and serial killer H.H. Holmes but the later one — and the postcards and notes exchanged with some friend we do not recall show her clear delight in sampling its snapshots of the bigger world.

What I suspect:

That my busia endured terrible hardship, embarrassment and pain in those lean years and later thanks to a husband who was an alcoholic and an abuser but got away with it because it was an era in which the dudes always got away with it.

That my busia always wished, and worked, for more — not for herself so much as her children and their children — determined enough that at most Christmases, even when things were lean, she had a gift for every kid and most every adult, even if it meant dropping a raw onion ("cebula" in Polish) into a stocking or wrapping up a can of shaving cream in tissue paper for the dads.

That someday there will be some oblique confirmation or nugget of insight into the longstanding family speculation that my Busia once dated a member of Al Capone's gang, and some tiny perspective on the unabashed enjoyment of flirting at the edges of convention that she clearly enjoyed.

That no one in our family, even my mother, who was her closest and most trusted progeny and took care of her until she died at the age of 92, had more than a basic appreciation of the shadings and nuances that underlied her character.

Even the hints of the things not known make me long for a time machine.


Blue Jay