I had never had the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with any member of my "real family." I went through my youth and most of my adult life, not even knowing I had a family I could call my own.
2001 and 2002 were years of discovery and brought many extended family members into my life. I had found and met my cousins Dorothy, Roger, David & wife Ann, and Carol. It was a time of discovery and joy I had not experienced before.
I had met my cousin Carol (Luczak side of the family) during a visit to Michigan in September. She issued an open invitation for me to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with her and her family. Since I was relocating due to a new job at the time, Thanksgiving was not possible. However, I would be in the Chicago area for Christmas and could have a few days off during the holidays if I wanted. I gave her invitation serious consideration. The wound of 1998 still had not healed, thus I was apprehensive and hesitant to accept the invitation. In the end, I accepted, thinking it could never be as bad as 1998. I would go to Carol's house from December 20th-25th. I would have to return to Chicago late Christmas Day so I could work that night. Thus, begins my story of "First Christmas."
I worked through the night of December 19th and early morning hours of the 20th. I then began the five hour drive to Midland, Michigan, where Carol lives. The hesitancy and apprehension I had immediately melted away as I was greeted at the door with a huge, long bear hug by Carol. The holiday was at least off to a good start.
Despite my being exhausted, Carol and I sat at her kitchen table talking and filling ourselves with coffee. After a dinner of homemade chicken soup, we moved to the living room to watch a little TV. As I made myself comfortable on the couch, I knew I was not long before falling asleep. I wasn't, as soon I was dead to the world. Carol shared with me the next morning that I laid there with my arms across my chest and she thought of going to get a rose to place in them as she knew I was definitely done for that night.
The next day, after taking awhile to get ourselves in gear, we decided to go over to Frankenmuth, Michigan. Frankenmuth is an old German community and also home to Bronner's. Bronner's is a year round Christmas store with thousands of square feet of display, for anything you could ever imagine wanting for Christmas. People travel there from around the world. I would make sure to keep my credit cards in my pocket! Bronner's, also does enormous Christmas displays outside year round. We were there during the day, thus didn't see it lit up but could tell it would have been magnificent. After strolling through the store we made a visit to their "Silent Night Chapel" and then to the Bavarian Inn Restaurant for lunch.
Here are a few pictures taken of the day.
Cousin Carol, outside Silent Night Chapel
That evening, we attended mass at the local parish, St. Anthony's, and then met friends of Carol (Jerry & Debi) for dinner. It had been yet another full day, a good day and I was ready for sleep.
Sunday, Carol got the best of me twice in one day. While we were just out and about during the afternoon she indicated we needed to go to a fabric store to pick out material for a gift her daughter Dee was making. She wanted me to go in the store with her to give my opinion. I should have known better! She was looking for a bear pattern for the front of a blanket with a solid pattern for the reverse side. I ended up picking the fabric, the pattern and the color..boy, was she willing to have me do it. Christmas Day I would find out why.
Carol was running behind on her gift wrapping. Figuring there couldn't be that many, I opened my mouth and volunteered to help. Once I started they just kept coming out...more, more and more until I thought it wouldn't end.
She got me twice in one day but I enjoyed every minute of it!
Monday, Carol and I had set aside for a trip into Bay City, MI. We both had some research we wanted to do, as well as make a couple of visits. It turned out to be a special day in more ways than one.
We started out at the Bay County Courthouse to do some tracking on my great grandfather's homestead. We were able to find various records, except for when the two lot property was actually divided.
Since it would be the only day I would be in Bay City, we had to go to Krzysiak's, a local Polish restaurant, for lunch. It was worth the trip!
I had met my cousin Dorothy earlier in 2002. I decided I wanted to make a surprise visit to her to wish her a Happy Holidays. While at Krzysiak's I picked up a box of "Chrusciki", a Polish pastry to take her.
I must say I definitely surprised her, but she had a surprise of her own in store for me. She had me go into her bedroom to get a box she had planned on sending me after the holiday rush. Inside, was a handmade afghan she had made for me. It was beautiful. I consider it a family heirloom and something I will treasure for years to come.
Dorothy recently turned 89 years old. Though she is limited in her movements due to health problems she is still alert as can be. It is a delight when I have a chance to spend time with her. It was one of the memorable events of the holiday weekend. After an hour or so, it was time to move on.
1st Cousin Dorothy and Me December 23, 2002, 89 years old
We proceeded on to St. Stan's Cemetery. Both Carol and I had visits we wanted to make. I wanted to make a stop at the grave of my great grandparents. I am sure it had been many years since someone last paid their respects during the holiday time.
Another highlight of the day now was about to happen. I had been by the family homestead every time I had visited Bay City, but had never worked up the courage to go to the door and knock to see if the current owners might let me in to view the house from the inside. Carol had done this in November and said a few things about it, however, it's not like doing it oneself.
The outside of the home has changed significantly over the 112 years since it was built. There used to be four entrances into the house; one on each side. Now there are just two. The wrap around porch has been removed for a separate small front porch and a back porch.
However, the inside has seen little change. I walked into the living room where my great grandparents, their children and many relatives had gathered so many times. To the left of the front door was the bedroom of my great grandparents. As one proceeded you entered the dining room. Off to the right of the dining room is the bedroom where the two girls of the family slept. To the left of the dining room you walked into the kitchen. I could picture the huge round table in the kitchen that my cousin Dorothy had described. I also could see the old stairway leading up to the second floor. Here eleven uncles had once slept dormitory style. The upstairs has now been divided into two rooms. The stairway to the upstairs by the kitchen had been closed and a new one made off the living room. I could picture where the stairway was Dorothy had described, leading to my great grandmother's special closet and also down to the fruit cellar. I did not take pictures of the inside of the house as it would have intruded on the privacy of the current owner and I was just grateful he had allowed me to walk through the house. One can only imagine the thoughts and pictures going through my mind as I walked through the house...unbelievable, awesome!
Christmas Eve, 2002, began as any normal day would except it was so peaceful out in the countryside of Midland, MI. We would be going to a Midnight Mass, though celebrated at 5:00 p.m. Few parishes celebrate actual Midnight Mass anymore. We would then gather at Debi and Jerry's for food, drink and merriment.
Before the celebrating could begin, it was realized that despite all my earlier wrapping efforts, Carol was still far behind in having gifts ready with Christmas just hours away. Again, I volunteered myself, and again Carol just kept bringing out more, more and more. Each member of Carol's family gets their individual Christmas stocking and each thing had to be individually wrapped. Carol now of course is in wrapping debtors prison with a lengthy sentence to endure....hahaha.
By 3:00 p.m. it was rush time to get ready to be at church early so we might participate in caroling before mass. We made it by the nick of time. Towards the end of the carol program three Christmas songs were chosen to have one verse sung in English followed by another in Polish. It was the first time I ever had heard Christmas carols sung in the native language of my great grandparents. A moving experience for me as were other parts of the mass as it progressed.
Mass ended around 7:00 p.m. and we drove to Debi and Jerry's. As we drove we mentioned that it didn't appear it would be a white Christmas as no snow was on the ground. A disappointment, but for me a small one, as this was turning out to be a Christmas for me to remember.
The house was full of people throughout the evening. A wide variety of foods presented themselves, including some traditional Polish dishes. At one point all gathered in the living room for an exchange of gifts. Debi even saw to it that there was one under the tree for me. Here are but a few of the pictures taken that evening.
Sanctuary of St. Anthony's Church
Carol & I relaxing a bit, then us in a Christmas portrait
Generations of family gather & another shot of the evening
Shortly after midnight we gathered our things to head home, as within a few hours it would be the beginning of a long day.
Merry Christmas 2002! The morning dawned early for me. After getting the coffee pot going I looked out the window and what a surprise! It was a white Christmas after all. It had snowed in the few hours I had been asleep. The dream of a "white Christmas" had come true and just added another layer of memories.
A White Christmas
Carol awoke not long after I. To be honest, I banged on her door to wake her :) Soon the house would be filled with her children as well as their children. We had the chance to spend some quality time talking before we were over run.
Carol's family has a tradition for Christmas. They gather for a Christmas brunch, open presents then go to other families for visits. The breakfast consists of potato pancakes, Polish sausage, meatballs, eggs, toast. I got volunteered again this morning as a hungry mob filled the house and brunch was not quite ready.
Brunch over and all gather in the living room for the excitement of trashing wrapping paper throughout. I received some very, very precious gifts this day. Ali and Marissa, my nieces, besides each buying a small gift, made special signs for me. They hang framed on my bedroom wall today!
If you remember, Sunday of the weekend I told you about buying fabric. I found out as I opened a box, that I didn't just pick a fabric, but picked fabric for my own gift...they got me! Inside was a tied blanket with bears on one side and a solid blue with bear imprints on the other, which Dee had spent hours making in the few days since the fabric was bought. There were other gifts, though I asked Carol not to do so, but those two are the most memorable.