These are memories of my beloved Bochi, encompassing Ellis Island, sexual harrassment, a gun, church hats, and lots of love.
Spending the night at Bochi’s was to experience the joy of being spoiled like an only child who is well-behaved. Needless to say, this wasn’t in the realm of my normal deserved experiences.
Bochi made my favorite foods, such as salt pork and potatoes, fried in a heavy cast-iron skillet with bacon fat. My offer to help cube the potatoes was received with orders to sit in her rocking chair in front of the television, with a lap robe over my legs. Washing the few dishes from our supper was met with appreciation and praises worthy of Cinderella.
Bochi was my maternal grandmother; a stout Slavic woman who came with her sister, Catherine from Poland, through Ellis Island as a teenager in 1912. While waiting in the immigration line, Bochi was told to pinch her cheeks to appear healthier. It’s impossible to imagine, but she never saw her parents again.
Her future husband, Dmitri, came from Russia and died while their five daughters were young. Their firstborn, their only son, was stillborn.
When speaking, Bochi often lapsed into Polish without realizing it. I’d sit listening and nodding, enjoying the language.
“Oh dear, I’m not talking the English. Why you no tell me?”
I’d answer, “I love listening to you in Polish.”
She’d shake her head, “But you don’t know what I say.”
I’d just smile.
Bochi’s side-yard held an old stone fireplace. I tried to get her to cook our supper on it, but never succeeded. Across from the fireplace, a flower bed grew beneath her kitchen window. In the front left corner, Bochi planted mint. We picked the leaves and boiled them for tea. I didn’t like it as much as tea-bag tea, but said it was delicious anyway.
A thick hedge bordered Bochi’s front yard. Uncle Albert, her son-in-law, trimmed it with hedge clippers that looked like a lot of fun to use, but I never got the chance. Once or twice each summer I’d weed out intruding plants infiltrating the hedge. I’d like to say I did it on my own, and I would have if I’d ever thought of it, but Bochi had to ask first.
During my overnights, I slept with Bochi until Annie, Barbara Kay, and I started descending on her together. As we lay side-by-side, talking, Bochi gave me great advice–such as, sleep on your back so your face and neck won’t get wrinkled. One night, before removing her teeth, Bochi reached into the top drawer of her nightstand.
“Mary Barbara, look what I found.”
My sweet little Bochi pulled out a black derringer.
“I am alone, and sometimes I get afraid. This is a toy, but don’t you think it looks real? If a bad boy comes into my home, then I’ll point my gun and scare him away.”
I took her toy weapon and turned it around in my hands. My gun-toting Bochi, already at the top of my admiration list, jumped into heroine status. I couldn’t wait to inform Mom that her mother owned a gun.
Mom and her sisters helped Bochi find a boarder to keep her company and provide some security. After a couple of false starts, they settled on a wonderful companion, Al, who watched over her for many years. He also let David and me return his wagon-loads of beer bottles to Mike’s Grocery and keep the deposit refund.
Although a devout Catholic, who faithfully said her rosary and never ate meat on Friday, Bochi and I attended service at every area church at least once.
“It’s interesting to learn about other religions and see how other people worship,” she explained.
We always sat in the back, so as not to intrude. After leaving a new church, I felt like we peeked into a foreign country. We compared the service and interior design during our walk home. Our church, St. Mary’s, always came out ahead, although the other churches scored minor points, here and there.
“The Methodist service is nice because they don’t kneel,” said Bochi. “Sometimes my knees hurt very much after church.”
“But Bochi, I see lots of old people who don’t kneel. They just slide to the edge of the pew. Why don’t you do that?”
“Sometimes I do,” she confessed. “But I don’t like to. I’m thinking it doesn’t make me look like a good Catholic.”
Bochi’s church hats were quite stylish. One had dark silky flowers around the brim. My favorite had small pheasant feathers flying backward.
My own best church hat had a grown-up veil. However, my crinkly veil scrunched up past my eyebrows. I wanted to be like the pretty ladies in magazines, all mysterious, with only their mouth and tip of their nose showing. Ever inventive, I came up with a solution. I poked my finger through a hole in the netting to widen it. Then I stuck the tip of my nose through the hole to hold my veil down over my eyes. Mary Barbara, lady of mystery.
Woe was the Sunday I misplaced or forgot my hat. A handkerchief, or worse, a tissue, got bobby-pinned to the top of my head. No more mystery, just someone handy if your nose began to run.
My favorite thing to do was to sit on Bochi’s porch glider with my head in her lap, while she told stories about the old country, or when she first came to America. It always began the same way.
“Tell me a story about the old days, Bochi.”
“You don’t want to hear about me.”
“Yes, I do.”
Bochi’s education ended when the boy sitting behind her dunked the end of one of her long braids into his ink well. The ink stained the back of her rare new dress, so she never returned.
As a young teenager, Bochi snuck across the nearby border into Russia to work with a small group of other Polocks. She carried big bags of grain from trucks to a warehouse. One cold evening, on the way home, the clatter of horse’s hoof beats warned them of approaching border guards. Everyone lay flat in a marsh on the side of the road. Bochi was terrified and thought she would be shot. Wet and frozen, she had a long walk home.
Before Bochi was married, she worked at a restaurant in town. The owner’s wife misplaced her ring and accused Bochi of stealing it. The ring was soon found, but Bochi never received an apology. One morning, when Bochi was in the basement sifting flour for the morning baking, the owner came up behind her. He put his arms around Bochi and squeezed her tight. Bochi threw the flour up in the air, screamed, ran home, and never returned. I was indignant upon hearing this story, but even more upset that she never got her last wages.
Fast forward: I continued spending many nights at Bochi’s until moving away for my junior year in college. At a Christmas party, after Bochi’s passing, younger cousin Nancy (as opposed to older cousin Nancy) asked, “What on earth did you do when you stayed at Bochi’s all the time?”
“Sometimes I drove her to visit her friends and I’d enjoy listening to them, or we’d walk next door to Mrs. Sexton’s and sit visiting on her porch. Surprisingly, Bochi loved wrestling, so I’d watch it with her. Her favorite wrestler was Big Moose Sholack, because he was Polish and didn’t fight dirty. She’d lean forward in her chair with her fists clenched, boxing the air and scolding any dirty-fighting wrestler. Warnings of watch out punctuated the air. Mostly we liked to sit on the porch glider in good weather, or if it was too cold, we’d sit in the front room with a Polish record playing and talk.”
“What could you possibly talk about?” asked my younger cousins.
I began telling them some of Bochi’s stories. There was silence when I finished. It was too late to sit and listen to any more stories.
Bochi was gone.
Lesson learned: Every person’s life is full of interesting stories. Older people have lived longer and have that many more stories. Don’t wait until it’s too late to listen.
Now it’s your turn: Were you extra close to one of your grandparents?
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