Saturday, March 11, 2006
Happy Birthday, Wanda Witowski Koretzky
Egad, I just realized that yesterday was the anniversary of my maternal grandmother's birthday. Ah, Grandma always knew I could run a little behind, so I am sure she would understand . . .
Wanda was the first child of Polish immigrants, Apolonia and Stanislaus Witowski, their new baby born March 10, 1908, in the United States to where they had immigrated only a few years before, coming through Ellis Island.
After living for awhile in New York City, the family - now with three more children, John, Stanley, and Edward - moved to Michigan. It was there that Wanda went through an episode in her life that she never forgot - the dreaded Spainish Influenza that raged after WWI. The picture above is a digital collage I did, showing Wanda at about the age she would have been during the plague, and her memories of it that years later she told me: "I remember the white sheets, blowing in the wind, that people hung to show there was sickness in the house." I believe her father and a brother contracted the flu, but thankfully recovered.
The family moved back to New York City and years later Wanda attended nursing school and became what is known as an "infant nurse," because she loved the babies. While working at a children's hospital, a Polish man came in to visit his young nephew who was recovering from having his appendix removed. That man, Michael Koretzky, noticed the handsome young nurse and began his courtship. They married and their first child, Dorothy, would later become my mother.
Wanda loved her family. After the death of her mother in 1960, she brought her father into the two-family row house she owned with Michael in the Bronx. It was a cozy arrangement - in the downstairs apartment lived her and Michael, her father, and her oldest son, Michael (who, as a dutiful Polish son, would not move away from his parents until years later when he finally married), while in the upstairs apartment lived her daughter, Dorothy, with her husband Frank, and their three children. For us kids, it was an ideal situation, as we had the run of the house and Grandma was never too busy for us. Her kitchen was a magnet for us, and the nightly "coffee and cake" was a tradition. I remember Saturday nights - Mom would set Grandma's hair in pin curls for church the next day in her living room, all eyes glued to "The Lawrence Welk Show" on the TV.
Wanda was a faithful member of St. Brendan's parish and she would correct us if we even remonstrated, "Aw, geez . . .", insisting we were still taking the Lord's name in vain. On Christmas Eve, she would prepare the traditional 12-course viglia, and her cooking could rival the top chefs of the world.
She was a strong, strong woman and when I briefly served in the Army as a young woman, she told me how proud she was as she had wanted to serve during WWII but could not because of her family. Of course, during the war she sternly lectured my mother to cross the street if a sailor or serviceman approached since they could "seduce" her. My mother didn't quite know what "seduce" meant but if her Ma thought it was something bad, she's better do it.
During a brief hospital stay in 1978, I visited her one fall day after leaving my classes at New York University and walking up to Mother Cabrini Hospital. When I got to the hospital, I sensed a buzz in the atmosphere. I went to my grandmother's room to find her standing on her bed, tears running down her face that had a huge smile on it, and excitedly watching the TV set hung from the ceiling. When I asked her what she was doing, she turned to me and began babbling in Polish. "Grandma, please, English!!!" She realized what she was doing, and switched back to English to joyously tell me to give thanks to God because a Polish Pope had been elected.
She buried her parents, her younger brothers, and her husband before she finally died in 1983. At the time, before her death, she had undergone a routine medical procedure that required she receive some transfused blood. Soon afterwards, her immune system began to fail and pneumonia set in, yet the antibiotics she was given had no effect. She became more and more frail until finally a heart attack took her life - now, looking back, we realize that in 1982 no one was checking the blood supplies and doctors were still trying to figure out the new disease called "AIDS" that seemed limited to gay men and Haitians, but no one suspected that a little old lady might have it.
Grandma, you were my hero. I kept to the promise you asked of me and so never named any children after you . . . but then, with a name like Wanda, that wasn't hard (she never liked her name). I do find myself using your expressions, including the whispery "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes . . ." when I get exasperated. I still have your babka recipe and make it on occasion, and the smell of its baking makes me smile in memory of you. Now I share my house with my mother, just as she shared one with you, her mother - funny how things don't change, do they?
Sto lat, Grandma - your memory will last 100 years, it will last forever.