Keeper of the Flame

In our Polish-American family the approach of Easter resurrects old traditions. This is especially true of Holy Thursday, when everyone joins in the preparations for swiecone, the traditional Polish breakfast served only on Easter morning. There are eggs to color, small lambs of molded butter to prepare, food baskets to be brought to the church for a blessing, and kielbasa—spicy Polish sausage—to make.

For as long as I can remember, every member of our family gathered at my parents’ home on Holy Thursday after attending evening Mass. My mother, grandmother, aunts, and sisters would work in the kitchen, making sweet chruscik pastries and fillings for pierogi dumplings. The men were relegated to the cellar to prepare kielbasa and horseradish sauce.

But this year things are different. This year, my parents have passed the torch to me. Now it is my turn to keep the fire of tradition burning brightly and to carry on our family’s sense of unity.

For the first time relatives are arriving at my house on Holy Thursday. So are the boxes of food and baking goods, extra pie tins, and platters.

In the kitchen my wife and the other young women of our family are making placki—Polish sweet breads—under the watchful eye of my mother. In the basement I prepare the meat, marjoram, and other ingredients for kielbasa, just as my father has done for untold years. My thirtysomething “kid” brothers wash sausage casings and ready the stone crock where the seasoned meat will lie until ground for sausage. My teenage son and nephew are grating horseradish root—my job in years past. The pungent odor of horseradish causes tears to stream down their faces. In seeing their tears I remember my own of yesteryear.

Our family is smaller nowadays. Time and distance have dwindled our numbers. Then, too, there have been changes once unheard of in a Polish family: single parents, divorces, “significant others,” faithlessness. Most startling is the obvious scarcity of children. For the first time I realize our family is now composed of more adults than kids. The absence of youthful shrieks and shouts is more than unsettling. It is haunting.

But Dad is there as always, making sure that I don’t tamper with things. But already I’ve jeopardized tradition: Instead of buying pork loins to ground into sausage, I’ve purchased pork steaks.

“We always use pork loins for kielbasa,” he says.

“What’s the difference?” I ask. “Pork is pork.”

“It’s not the same.” My father shakes his head and gives me a look to let me know that I’ve failed him. His personal motto could be the dictum of Pope St. Stephen: “Let them innovate in nothing, but keep the traditions.”

He’s too nice to say it aloud, but I know my father has never trusted me to do things the right way—which is, of course, the way he did it, and the way his father did it before that. He doesn’t trust the glass bottles of marjoram I’ve bought, “The kind in the paper box tastes better,” he claims; my eye in selecting meat, “Too much fat”; or the butcher from whom I bought it, “He isn’t Polish.”

Together with my father, brothers, nephew, and son, I trim fat from the meat, cut the pork into cubes, place it in the crock, and season it with spices. The garlic cloves are huge, and just one would be enough. But Dad insists on using a half-dozen “That’s the way it’s done.”

Neither am I using enough salt to satisfy this finicky old man. “Use more,” he tells me. Then, in a fit of exasperation, he grabs the salt from me and seasons the meat himself. I pour a little water into the crock to mix with the meat and spices. But it’s not enough to suit Dad. He insists on adding more.

I am almost fifty with a family of my own and a career in which I’m responsible for millions of corporate dollars. Yet in my own home my father makes me feel like a child, and not a bright one at that. But I have no resentment—only a warmth in knowing that this old man will forever think of me as his “kid.”

The horseradish fumes are overpowering and we break to step outside for air. It is late, and time is passing quickly. I look at my father—white-haired and stoop-shouldered—the last surviving elder of our clan. Yet despite the differences in our age and experience, tradition has given us a common history.

He and I are the only ones standing there who remember meatless Fridays, Tridentine Masses, Forty Hours Devotion, and the days when a picture of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa hung in every Polish home. Perhaps because of that he has passed the torch of tradition to me. The legacy is mine now, but only for safekeeping.

We return to the basement to finish making sausage, but my son and nephew have tired of tradition and sneak upstairs to watch TV.

“Where are those kids?” my father growls. “Don’t they care about tradition?”

I say nothing.

As teenagers and young adults my brothers and I fled from tradition at every opportunity. We bristled under old people’s insistence that ritual be preserved, and laughed at their adherence to what we perceived as silly habits.

I know we broke their hearts, especially at Easter. We were the ones who refused to accompany them to church for three hours of Polish prayers on Good Friday. On Holy Saturday, we refused to take food baskets to the local Polish friary for Father Grajewski’s blessing. At swiecone, we smirked at the table’s centerpiece: a lamb of molded butter symbolizing Christ, holding a miniature Polish flag. After all, my brothers and I were Americans, a new generation in a new land.

It was easy to reject the things our elders thought important. It was easy to rebel against timeless tradition, especially since the old folks were there to preserve it. But now that most of those people are gone—as are meatless Fridays, Tridentine Masses, and devotion to the Black Madonna—I have a different perspective.

Tradition must be lived, or lost. It is not something passed on—it is something taken up. It is the conscious decision to keep alive the ties that bind and meld generations, and which give people—whether it be one family or an entire Church—a sense of belonging. Each person must choose to accept or reject tradition; if he rejects it, tradition fades away like an echo. And when the echo has finally vanished, nothing remains but rootlessness.

I think of this and look at my family. Tradition has drawn us to my home to prepare for another Easter. Like a frail net it pulls us together over time and distance, despite changes, estrangement, and otherwise irreconcilable differences. It is the thing that makes us more than just a group of relatives who share the same surname. Tradition gives us a common past and a common ground. So long as it thrives, we will always be one.

We finish making sausage and the others go upstairs while I linger in the basement. Others will visit on Easter Sunday as they always do, but this time they will visit my house. Now it is my turn to make them feel welcome and to offer a home where they will always belong. There may be pork steak in the sausage and the marjoram came in glass bottles—PII get it right next year. But Mom and Dad will be here, as will the lamb of molded butter with its tiny Polish flag; and so, too, will be my promise that tradition shall prevail.

Author

  • Jack Kulpa

    At the time this article was published, Jack Kulpa was writing from Wisconsin.

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