Fill, pinch, repeat. My grandma is at the kitchen counter, diligently making pierogi. I hover near her elbow and watch her hands, her veins snaking around spots where the sun kissed her skin. I’m 9 years old, and I can’t wait to eat this Polish feast. The paper-thin dough succumbs to her muscle memory, sticking exactly where she applies pressure. She learned the recipe, which is stored in her head free from the constraints of measurements, from watching her mother.
Today she’s making them with strawberries the exact red of the lipstick I use to play dress-up. She lines the pierogi up like little soldiers, a thought I keep to myself in case it makes her sad.
My grandma is often worried. In no particular order, she worries about me, my husband, my dog, and probably Pope John Paul II when he was alive. She also worries about my mother, who has gone through her own set of ordeals as an immigrant, such as being dismissed by hiring managers with rigid smiles when they hear her accent, or people talking down to her.
This strain of anxiety can be traced on our family tree—a branch of neuroses that have been passed from my grandma to my mom to me. But the difference between them and me is that the women in my family worried about real-life nightmares, whereas I live with the ghosts of catastrophes.
While my grandma witnessed enemies flying overhead to drop bombs, I get startled by my own shadow. While my mom moved to a country where she didn’t know the language, I ruminate about a dumb thing I said at a party years ago.
War broke out in Poland when my grandma was just a toddler. She’s 82 now, and she doesn’t talk about it unless someone asks, which doesn’t happen much, especially when you’ve got strawberry juice dribbling down your chin. Because she still lives in Poland and I live in Atlanta, her cooking is such a rare treat that I consume it until my blood turns to sour cream. Growing up, I never really knew what she’d been through. I never asked.
But there are a few things that I’ve gleaned over the years: I know that after the secret police took her father from work, she never saw him again. I know the smell of burning bodies would sometimes keep her up at night. I know that she witnessed people being shot. I also know that she was so hungry and cold, her small legs would carry her to a nearby farm to steal potatoes and coal. That’s when soldiers would shoot at her.
Most of my interactions with my grandma are through the phone, because it’s rare that we get to visit one another. We don’t talk often for a mixture of reasons: The generational gap is apparent when I shyly explain my work-related woes, but because she’s an empath, she still experiences my distress as though it’s happening to her. It’s also expensive for her to call the States, so the onus of calling falls on me, a phone-averse wallflower.
But when we do talk, she’s overjoyed for days, even though she tries to quickly end the call in case I’m busy. This gesture is sweet, but it also makes conversations about anything substantial quite difficult. She likes to end our talks by reminding me that she’s praying for my mom and me—and inquiring whether we’ve yet eaten the five gallon bags filled with frozen handmade pierogi.
My mom is often worried. In no particular order, she worries about me, my husband, my dog, and, I’ve confirmed, Pope John Paul II when he was alive. She also worries about my grandma, who has recently had multiple surgeries.
My mom grew up in a small city in southwestern Poland, well-fed and rosy-cheeked. When she turned 19, she auditioned for and got into Mazowsze, a famous Polish folk song and dance group that took her all over the world for six years. High on adventure, and because Poland was under martial law at the time, she decided to stay in America. It wasn’t until a roach fell on her head in her Chicago apartment that she realized how alone she was.
But, like my grandma, she did what she had to do to survive. She taught herself English and went to college while she was raising me. In the meantime, she’d sing at gigs in nightclubs all over the city to make ends meet. Despite the aggressions of people who detect her accent, she smashes retail sales records wherever she works.
She cooked for our family, but she never made pierogi. As she so eloquently puts it, “Mam to w dupie,” which roughly translates to “I don’t give a shit.” I don’t blame her for not wanting to make them, because it takes a lot of patience to methodically make a hundred dough bags—especially when your dog is prone to eating them when you turn around to wash your hands.
My mom’s anxiety is more palpable to me than my grandma’s, mainly because we talk almost every day. When too much time has gone by without me contacting her, my bones start to tingle, so I’ll pick up my phone. As expected, there are 14 texts waiting for me asking me if I’m dead.
I’ve always been worried, too. In second grade I would sob in school thinking I had a fatal disease. In high school, after 14 moves in two states, my parents’ divorce, my dog dying, and a break-up, my depression ran deep, and in cycles. The panic attacks started in college. I lost so much weight from the butterflies in my stomach that my mom would bring me Ensure protein drinks just to bulk me up.
It wasn’t until the insufferable bouts of insomnia in my 30s—and the right therapist and psychiatrist—that I was finally diagnosed as mixed bipolar, which is when you experience both high and low symptoms at the same time. When I took my new prescribed pills one night, I went from being unable to fall asleep until 10 in the morning to getting a full night’s rest. After a year of scant employment, I interviewed for two jobs and got offers for both. Small mishaps no longer opened up mental sinkholes. I had new, more tenacious skin, and a couple of years later, I’m still in the process of learning how to live in it.
Our shared anxiety rarely comes up in our conversations. It’s just a thing that resides in us, living and breathing with us, keeping us hurt and tired but also alert and alive.
This year my grandma broke her hand and is still recovering, which means she can no longer make pierogi. It wasn’t until this happened that I realized that without her culinary masterpieces, she has little to communicate her deepest love with, because food has always been her language of choice. It’s why when we were done with our meals, she’d come around and offer us a second or third helping. After being hungry for so many years, she wanted to make sure none of us ever felt the pangs of panic that she had.
So this last Christmas, after my mom moved to Atlanta, I decided to treat her to some pierogi because she was missing my grandma. I couldn’t let this tradition die—not after everything our family had been through. It wasn’t just a recipe: It was an honor. After rapidly Googling recipes, I tossed together some flour, water, and an egg, hoping for the best.
Fill, pinch, repeat. I press the fork into the dough, but it won’t stay, so I dip my fingertips in water, hoping it’ll coax the flour to stick. Still, nothing.
I call my grandma. This time, I ask about the soldiers.