My grandmother, or Babcia as we called her, died in February. I took the overnight bus from Montreal, where I go to university, to attend her funeral. It was a tiring weekend filled with Polish lunches, stories and emotional aunts. And, for me, a change in how I looked at my roots.
My father was the sixth of eight children, the first of his siblings born in Canada after his parents emigrated from Poland in the early 1960s. He was the only son in their family to get married and have children.
Over the years, I always felt a bit estranged at family gatherings. My five aunts and their families seemed to have a much stronger affiliation with their Polish culture than mine did. I felt more of an affinity with my Canadian mother's side of the family, preferring her meat, potato and vegetable dishes to the foreign-looking cabbage rolls and mammoth sausages presented on the buffet table at my father's Polish family get-togethers.
Interestingly enough, although we're the least influenced of my paternal cousins by our Polish ancestry, my siblings and I are the sole recipients of the Zwicewicz namesake - pronounced sweetsavich. It is a name with which I have always had a love-hate relationship, generally viewing it with a sense of pride but never denying the frustrations it caused. Only a few people I've met have not groaned with anxiety after seeing it written on paper for the first time. In elementary and high school, my closest bonds were cemented when friends could display their knowledge of my surname's spelling and pronunciation.
When I was a kid, my dad sent me over to learn cooking secrets from Babcia on various occasions. I stood at the edge of the kitchen counter, watching timidly as she pushed her wrinkled hands into pierogi dough and mashed potatoes with a powerful ease, even after her body began to weaken. The age and cultural difference between us intimidated me, and I couldn't get over the feeling that I was interrupting her quiet workmanship. She never measured anything. Every pot of borscht and every batch of pierogi turned out unique, yet had some distinct quality that set her work apart.
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After the funeral, I returned to Montreal to settle back into life at school. The next day, on a whim I ended up at the Polish deli two blocks from my house, ordering kielbasa and Polish ham and a bag of frozen cottage cheese pierogi. My sudden obsession with my heritage had begun.
I started looking into universities where I could take a minor in Polish. I bought my friends chocolate-filled paczki on Valentine's Day instead of heart-shaped chocolates, writing on the oil-soaked paper bag, "The amount of grease in this Polish doughnut is akin to the amount of love I have in my heart for thee."
It wasn't until my return to Montreal that I recalled the last time my whole family had spent time with my Babcia. It was last Christmas Eve, a rare occasion when my two brothers and I were home at the same time. My dad drove us the two blocks over to Babcia's old house. We sat in a circle in the dining room, the cord from Babcia's oxygen tank trailing into the next room.
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My brothers and I found the silence slightly uncomfortable, but my parents both understood. Babcia was 81 and her heart was failing, her knees were sore, her breath laboured. Still, between deep breaths she recounted stories from the farm in Poland. How isolated from the city their farmhouse was. The bike that couldn't get my two-year-old Uncle Henry to the hospital fast enough to save him from appendicitis.
Hands trembling, she sorted through Christmas cards that relatives and friends from Poland had sent her, stopping when she reached one that that contained a Christmas wafer, or oplatek. My dad spoke softly as he told us that family and friends sat around in their Polish farmhouses just as we sat in Babcia's dining room, breaking off small pieces of the rectangular, Virgin Mary-embossed wafer. It was a symbol of sharing and forgiveness, he said, and a time to think about the importance of family.
I am a little disappointed that I only became drawn to my Polish roots after my grandmother passed away. I didn't take the time to write down how many beets she put in her borscht or what she added to the spinach soup, so my versions of her famous recipes will never be identical to hers.
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But maybe it is better this way. Instead of following a dictated recipe, I have chosen - the same way she did - to throw the ingredients in based on feeling rather than recipe. I do not expect to be my Babcia. My versions of her classics are infused with a different tradition - my own experience. I've created a Canadian-Polish version of the knowledge that I was blessed to learn from her, even though it took me a while to realize the value of the treasures I received.
If she were still with us, I'd walk the two blocks to her old house with a pot of my soup. Babcia would stand over the stove like she does in my memories, spooning a bit of my borscht broth and lifting it to her mouth in that elegant way of hers. I can picture her now, nodding as the beets and dill and parsley mesh together slightly differently than in her recipe, but in an equally acceptable way.
Alicia Zwicewicz is from Woodstock, Ont., and lives in Montreal.