Gateway to a Better Life
Memoir by Beverly Sce
“My father sent me to America for a better life,” recalled my grandmother, or Babci as I called her in Polish when she reminisced about her journey to the United States. “I saw the statue of the lady in the water holding up a light with her arm. I knew this meant something better.” My grandmother viewed the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island as the gateway to a better life than what her homeland of Poland had to offer. Her sentiments were echoed along with Dziadek (grandfather in Polish) and thousands of other eastern European Polish immigrants who arrived in America in the early 1900’s. Even though my grandparents were not in their familiar Poland, they were ready to tackle the challenges of their new homeland adapting many Polish customs and folklore to their new life.
Babci and Dziadek arrived separately from Poland crossing the Atlantic by iron steamship and settled with their respective cousins in Trenton, New Jersey. While they had little money in their pockets and no understanding of the English language, they had an abundance of courage and determination.
Babci and Dziadek met in Trenton. They courted for a few months, married, started a family and embraced the better life America offered. Hard work of any sort from picking bits of coal along the rail lines in Trenton, to collecting and selling rags were opportunities to earn a meager living.
Dziadek also raised pigeons in a backyard coop. He trained the birds to leave the pigeon coop and glide through the sky around the north Trenton neighborhood. When Dziadek gave the pigeon call, the birds flew back into the little backyard building that housed their comfortable nests. While Dziadek and other Polish immigrants in north Trenton raised and trained pigeons for sport, the birds were more than pets. “Go see Big Frank and buy one of his pigeons for soup,” was repeated by his Polish neighbors. Pigeons were a source of food and pigeon broth was considered a medicinal cure for whatever ailed a person according to the Poles in Dziadek’s north Trenton neighborhood.
With the help of earlier settled Polish immigrants and the few words of English he spoke, Dziadek was able to get a factory job in Trenton. The type of work didn’t matter, but survival and making a go of it did. Babci and Dziadek were blessed with children who arrived almost every year, eleven in total. Large families in their north Trenton neighborhood were the rule, rather than the exception.
Hard work, family and a strong faith linked with church attendance were the priorities. Money was tight and extra was scare. A weekly church donation during Sunday Mass at their neighborhood Polish parish of St. Hedwig was never missed even if only a nickel or few pennies were contributed to the red velvet-lined wicker collection basket.
America was home, yet traditions from their homeland were not forgotten. Cherished customs were embraced with an added smidgen of American newness to complement their new life in the United States. To my grandparents, America was the doorway to opportunity that would open through sacrifice, hard work and perseverance.
Dziadek passed away in October, 1962 and Babci on Halloween, 1979. I think of them often, especially during holiday times that remained rich with the Polish customs they brought to America. With their passing, part of the chapter of my heritage closed.
In the years after their passing, I often reminisced with my mother about the traditions Babci and Dziadek brought from Poland that were carried on by their children. “Wigilia was never the same without them” said my mother her eyes moist with tears. “I’ll always remember all the traditional foods we ate only on Christmas Eve.”
“Wigilia was our Christmas. It began with the sighting of the first star shining in the night sky,” mom shared. “It was solemn. We felt it was a holy time.”
As old age creeped up on Babci and she was no longer able to prepare the feast of traditional foods, my aunts did a splendid job carrying on the Wigilia tradition. Babci of course provided special hints for her special food dishes. When Babci passed in 1979, my mom and her sisters vowed to continue the Wigilia tradition for the next generation of the family. My mom remained faithful to the Wigilia ritual until she passed away in 2010.
The Wigilia began around 5:30pm as daylight gave way to the darkness of the evening and the first star was seen shining in the night shy. The traditional breaking of the Christmas wafer or oplatek which resembled the Communion wafer of Catholic Mass signified the start. Relatives gathered round breaking off a bit of the wafer and wished each other good health, happiness and all the best for the coming year. Thoughts of immediate family members who passed away were recalled and a few tears shed as the wound of family loss opened.
The hearty meal followed with traditional foods plentiful on the table. Meat was never part of the menu. Religious custom was to fast from meat on Christmas Eve. Foods served for Wigilia were common in the region of Poland where Babci and Dziadek were born. These foods became our Wigilia staples. Herring (sledz) in cream sauce along with fresh sliced rye bread slathered with butter began the meal. Steaming bowls of lima bean soup were the second course followed by kapusta and grzyby (sauerkraut with imported Polish mushrooms). Plates piled high with cheese or sauerkraut pierogi glistening with melted butter and crispy home fried potatoes rounded out the meal. After everyone ate their fill of the carbohydrate rich foods, bowls of stewed fruit, coffee and tea ended the meal. Sweets, especially the assorted Christmas cookies were not served. The butter, Toll House, and lekvar-filled cookies would wait for Christmas Day.
When Dziadzek lived, he carried out the family Polish tradition of calling for Santa Claus (Swiety Mikolaj) to make a visit to everyone’s home on Christmas morning. But Dziadzek did not call for Santa using the title of Swiety Mikolaj. Instead, he used the word uncle or (wujek). “Wujek, Wujek przychodza do nas zobaczyc (Uncle, Uncle come to see us). Dziadzek repeated this two or three times as he rapped his knuckles on the window. Silence stilled the room as everyone listened to Dziadzek’s words especially the grandchildren who eagerly anticipated a visit from the white bearded man in a red suit. When Dziadzek passed away, American newness was added to the Christmas Eve Supper that became part of the family Wigilia tradition. The knocking on the window pane and calling for Wujek was delegated to my Uncle Moe, the oldest living son.
With the Wigilia meal finished and without fail, Santa Claus who apparently heard the call from Dziadzek or Uncle Moe arrived with an enormous white sack overflowing with gifts for all. Brightly colored wrapped packages and the obligatory Christmas money envelopes were distributed by Santa to the nieces and nephews who insisted they were good throughout the year. Holding Christmas envelopes that contained crisp five dollar bills from aunts and uncles, my cousins and I believed we were rich. Throughout the years I’ve often speculated what uncle donned the red suit, jingled red sleigh bells in white gloved hands and belted out a hearty, “Ho, Ho, Ho.” I never figured it out.
By the late 1980’s, a number of my aunts and uncles had passed away. The family unit was smaller and Christmas Eve Supper was done by each aunt or uncle in their own home. Marriages of grandchildren brought other ethnicities into the Polish fold and with it American food choices were added. The imported Polish mushrooms used for kapusta and grzyby that came from Babci’s sister in Poland throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s were long gone. Fried flounder became a menu item on many Wigilia tables. Somehow, pierogi always appeared. Foods were added and family members changed, yet the traditional sharing of the Christmas oplatek was never lost.
The sharing of the Christmas wafer was symbolic for Babci and Dziadek, their children and grandchildren. It represented hope for good things to come as the current year was soon to close and the door to the New Year opened. The good wishes shared reminded everyone of Babci and Dziadek’s early years in America when they arrived at Ellis Island, their gateway to the United States and a better life.
My mom and dad have passed on too, but I keep the Wigilia tradition in our family alive in honor of my parents and grandparents. My sister makes cheese and sauerkraut pierogi, I make the crispy home fried potatoes and my husband who is an Italian from Brooklyn buys the creamed herring. I too have added some newness by serving spaghetti with anchovies and bread crumbs in honor of my Italian in-laws.
Whether it’s the Christmas Eve Supper in English, Wigilia in Polish or Vigilia di Natale Cena in Italian, it’s a tradition ancestors brought to America when they entered the doorway of the United States on Ellis Island for a better life.
Beverly Sce, Ph.D., author and inspirational speaker, has been featured in health care publications and enjoys writing stories that inspire. From thought provoking essays to memoir that entertains or brings a tear to the eye, her work has appeared in magazines and books including “Christmas Moments #3” and “The Extraordinary Presence of God.”