By Kathering Bielawa Stamper
The image on the small card is of a little girl, wearing a blue cape with tufts of reddish hair peeking out from under her hood. She stopped on a snowy path to pet a deer. Her basket of apples rests near her feet. A little brown rabbit watches from the distance.
One Christmas, when I was around eight years old, my father gave each of his four daughters lovely little foil cards in envelopes bulging with coins, tips he’d earned tending bar at his second job. The printed message inside my card read, “A Christmas wish for happiness.” My father signed in his distinctive Polish script, “from Daddy.”
Even as a little child, I recognized the specialness of this gift, one Daddy had hand-picked for each of his daughters. I kept the card; it eventually landed in my scrapbook.
I remember saving some of the coins for collections at church, perhaps at the urging of my father. The rest were likely spent on treats at the local Richdale convenience store. I probably loaded up on malted milk balls and Bazooka Bubble Gum, the kind with comics on the wrappers.
My immigrant parents worked hard to create a nice holiday for our little family on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. With Poland burdened by a failing communist economy and doomed political system, there were never gifts for us from grandma, aunties or uncles. We shared what we had in America in packages sent to family in Poland. Coffee, chocolate, peanut butter, Cremora and Spam were common inclusions. My mother also sent clothes in heavy cloth parcels she stitched shut by hand.
Christmas Eve arrived with our house smelling of sweet yeast breads and pastries with poppy seed, prune and apricot fillings. Mushroom soup and cabbage soup and dumplings called pierogi all made appearances at our family table. We shared a special Christmas wafer called oplatek, wishing each other health and happiness in the coming year. We’d each open one present by the tree and then take a nap before rising to attend Midnight Mass at the Polish church.
As we got older and moved to college, we looked forward to travelling home for Christmas to partake in the food and traditions of our childhood. Walking into the house, feeling the warmth of the stove, and smelling familiar, festive aromas were welcome treats following the intense stress of exams.
My father, normally a man of mild disposition, tended to grow grumpy as the holiday festivities neared. This became more apparent as we entered adulthood, or maybe we just noticed it more then. He was never violent, just grouchy and seemingly sad.
Finally, one Christmas, my father told my younger sister, “There was no Christmas in the camps.”
Our father spent the Christmases of 1941, 1942, 1943 and 1944 as a teenager in slave labor camps in Nazi Germany. The Germans stole four years of his youth as he was imprisoned, abused and isolated from his family. The trauma left its indelible mark.
This will be our 18th Christmas since my father passed away. There is no more midnight Mass at the Polish church of my childhood. The Archdiocese of Boston closed St. Joseph’s in Peabody in 1997. Every Christmas with my daughter has been a Christmas without my dad.
We no longer travel to Massachusetts for Christmas, opting to create our own holiday traditions at home in Vermont. We’ll attend our church on Christmas Eve, sharing oplatek and traditional Polish foods in a candlelight picnic beside our illuminated tree and fireplace. We’ll share Christmas dinner with friends and sing carols while feigning British accents. I guess that’s become our tradition.
The holiday season can be a particularly sad time as memories of sometimes unhappy Christmases past can darken the experience of Christmas present. Similarly, memories of happier times can magnify grief for those experiencing loss during the holidays.
Holidays are meant to be happy times of sharing and good cheer. It is important to be patient with ourselves and others as we navigate the calendar through this expectation-laden, memory-conjuring time.
Decades later as I read the card from my dad wishing me happiness, I can say, with gratitude, “Thanks, Dad. Your wish came true.”
Dear readers, I wish you happiness, too.
Katherine Bielawa Stamper, a Williston resident, was a 2013 finalist for the Coolidge Prize for Journalism. Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]