It’s high noon, Memorial Day Weekend, and the car is packed with beer and bathing suits. Just as we start cruising toward Corpus Christi, the praying begins.
“Let’s start with the blessed mystery.”
My brother and I are headed to the beach with our great-aunt, Emilia, who happens to be a Polish nun. We exchange a slight eye roll from across the car, but we know resistance is futile. We’re hustled through a refresher course on the Stations of the Cross, and then she hands me a string of Rosary beads and we begin. Midway through the first set of Hail Marys I’m chastised for my silence.
“I thought I was just supposed to be following along!” I protest. As soon as I say it, I realize that just about sums up my history with Catholicism, not to mention my Polish heritage.
To me, being Polish and being Catholic is rolled up in one big nalesniki. As an infant, I was baptized at a strictly Polish Catholic church on North Saint Mary’s, and during my precocious toddler years, I was regularly outfitted in traditional Polish garb (picture lots of red velvet, fluorescent embroidery, and intricate hats). Us kids were even sent to Polish-language Sunday school, for exactly one unsuccessful Sunday.
Growing up, what we learned about Poland we learned from the nuns. Their convent, square in the middle of Woodlawn Avenue, was our playground. Each and every one of the them immigrated to South Texas, of all places, from Poland, and together they managed to preserve a seamless Old World atmosphere. They produced pickles by the 10-gallon barrel, and there was never a shortage of potato pierogi.
As lay-children running about a convent, we had access to a whole backstage of religious culture that is rarely glimpsed by the general public. I remember being deeply confused by packages of Communion wafers in the freezer, sitting so commonly alongside industrial quantities of vanilla and strawberry ice cream.
We received a catechism education second to none around the dinner table and in the convent’s tiny library. The Catholicism was so thick in the air, you couldn’t help but absorb it. I remember the day of my first Communion. It was steamy hot outside, and I was eating ice cream in my lace gloves before posing for pious portraits in the nuns’ dining room.
But hanging out at the convent wasn’t all holy water and solemn reflection. After a wary first viewing, all of the nuns wholly embraced the 1992 runaway hit Sister Act, starring Whoopi Goldberg, and we would all curl up on the couches together and ingest lighthearted American pop culture together.
Despite all the cultural upbringing we received at the hands of the nuns, to this day I feel like fraudulent fringe on my father’s Polish suit. I jokingly refer to Poland as the motherland, but let’s be real: My first solid food was a bean-and-cheese taco. What do I know about the Old World?
In less than a week, my brother, my dad, and I are boarding a plane to Poland. We haven’t been there in more than 10 years. I’m terrified to disappoint my family on the other side of the Atlantic when they witness firsthand our new denim and spoiled American ways. What will they make of two American kids who can barely be polite in their ancestral tongue? When I come back, I might be a whole different person, but most likely, I’ll still be an American. •
Life with Dad appears the first Wednesday of each month.