Donna Stramella is a fiction and non-fiction writer from Baltimore, Maryland who recently completed her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Tampa . Her work has been published in Columbia Magazine and The Baltimore Sun. She breaks away from her writing room to travel, hike and listen to live music.
When I remember Grandma Josie, she is not the blind woman with the swirls in her eyes. She is not the frail woman fitfully trying to sleep as her amputated leg mysteriously aches. She is not the woman in the nursing home, in the still, lonely morning hours before her family visits.
The Grandma Josie I remember is holding me on her hip, dancing a polka. Her head drops back as she laughs, her bright eyes an impossible shade of blue. My Busia is soft and plump and lovable. She is moving from person to person, giving hugs and kisses to the people crammed inside her tiny, neat home--passionate people whose ideas, opinions, stories bounce off the walls all at once. They talk about their favorite subjects—politics, family and faith.
She is the one neighbors visit—for food, for homemade herbal remedies, for prayer, for compassion. She is the conductor of a spirited orchestra, knowing what to ask of whom, smiling as everyone gives the maestro their best, and in turn, she gives her best to them. Her appearance is humble, but her presence is royal. Yet she is more servant than queen. She is in this place not merely through fate, but through courage and the countless tiny decisions that swept her over thousands of miles of sea, from a land that held every answer, to a land that held only questions.
Josie Czaja was just 12 when she made the passage with her mother, father and siblings to Ellis Island, their names signed neatly on the ship’s manifest. I don’t know why the Czajas left their homeland. The early 1900s were turbulent political times, but it would be nearly a decade before World War I ravaged Polish lands.
They arrived in 1905, part of the first of three waves of Polish immigrants who settled in Polonias—Polish communities across the United States. They were among the earliest group who navigated to Baltimore. By 1940, nearly 9,000 Polish immigrants lived in the city.
The family settled in the growing neighborhood of Canton, a place with brick and flagstone row houses where the children sat outside with friends on marble steps, which their mothers scrubbed clean each weekend.
I had no details about how Grandma Josie’s parents made their living in Poland, but since they opened a confectionary store in Baltimore, I assumed they had business experience. At the same time Josie was helping her parents at the shop in Baltimore, her future husband Walter was making the same journey from his native Poland to Ellis Island. I pictured him pulling a scratched, dented trunk onboard the ship. The trunk held his past. His shirt pocket held his future--five dollars and a slip of paper with his brother’s address in New Jersey. Eventually, Walter Koros settled in Baltimore and met Josie.
The couple married when they were in their mid-20s and their celebration would be a grand affair. They would carry on the same traditions they saw at their parents’ weddings, traditions continued at my mother and father’s wedding, and at my own. My grandmother’s lovely long veil was replaced with a small lace czypeck—a small caplet that indicated the bride’s role had changed. The groom’s hat, a wish for fun and laughter in the marriage, was hand-made. My own husband’s hat was adorned with large yellow roses. “Necklaces” fashioned with ribbons and tiny plastic babies were placed around the bride and groom’s necks—an acknowledgement that children would be welcomed into the family.
In their wedding photo, my grandparents had movie star good looks. Josie held a massive bouquet of white roses tied with a thick white ribbon, fit for a Hollywood wedding. In their eyes, I saw a flash of light that reflected their joy, but also their resolve.
The newlyweds bought a large corner row home in Canton, divided in two. The first half was for living. The second half, walled off from the residence, contained their corner grocery store.
In the half where they lived, there was a cozy living room where all five children, spouses and grandchildren squeezed in, sometimes all at once. I remember trying to find space on the floor to sit. No one had to tell us that the chairs were reserved for the grownups.
The small kitchen was often filled with neighborhood friends. The Polish women with fair skin, high cheekbones and toothy smiles played cards, drank coffee, talked, and laughed loudly. The men with the weathered faces and crinkled eyes watched Orioles baseball or Colts football games on the small television as they smoked cigars and drank vodka, the clink of their glasses echoed as they toasted, “Sto Lat”—a phrase we sang on birthdays to wish “100 years.”
Often, the Saturday night family card games of pinochle or pitch continued all night and ended in time for the family to dress for church.
On the other side of the row house was Walter Koros Groceries, the family’s name painted professionally on the large storefront window. The deli case held homemade kielbasa, stuffed into casings by my grandfather who used a machine kept just above the store, in the hall outside my grandparents’ bedroom.
Each week, Grandma Josie negotiated prices with the man in the straw hat, whose horse drawn wagon delivered soft golden mushrooms, sweet onions and firm brown potatoes for the pierogis; cabbage for the sauerkraut.
We often visited my grandparents on Sundays, when the store was closed. Sometimes the living quarters seemed manic with so many loud people crammed in such tight space.
When we opened the door between the two parts of the rowhome, we entered a different world. Inside this new world, there were only muted sounds from next door. The aisles were empty, the cans stacked neatly, all labels uniformly facing front. As children, our eyes were drawn to canned colas, peanut butter treats, and chocolate candy bars. The floor’s immaculate tiles reflected our saddle shoes.
The ledger sat directly next to the register. I never looked inside, but my father told me the books kept an account of money owed. Most customers, who worked at the American Can Company and other Baltimore factories, brought their accounts up-to-date on payday, but some took longer. My grandparents continued to give them food, even as bills accumulated.
Life was simple. To escape the summer heat of the city, the family took day trips to “the shore” -- Baltimore County beaches just a short drive from the city. Sometimes my father and uncle would gather up nets and chicken livers for bait, then launch a small rowboat to go crabbing. They built a fire on the beach and boiled water, tossing in the live crabs with handfuls of spices. Josie covered splintered picnic tables with newspapers, spreading out the steamed crabs for lunch.
As a child, I thought Grandma Josie’s life was perfect. Now I know that life is never perfect, even when it’s good.
When I was older, I learned that Grandpa Walter was seriously ill for many years before Tuberculosis finally took his life. I learned that Grandma Josie simultaneously ran the grocery store and worked at The Packing House in Baltimore, canning tomatoes and green beans. She worked the assembly line so she could collect Social Security checks when she turned 62.
My grandparents buried two sons. One was still a baby and the other, Michael was 18 months old. At that time, birth and death were revealed in the same place—at home. Mothers delivered their babies in their bedrooms. The deceased were presented in coffins in the living room for visitors to pray over, so that God would accept them into heaven.
Grandma Josie dressed her two sons for eternity, in simple white garments. As she raised their small heads to put on the clothing, threaded their tiny arms through the sleeves, did she think of the first time she dressed them? The same family and friends who visited the house in joy to welcome the new children would be the same people who came to grieve their loss.