Adam Galanski

I remember my mom taking me to the Austin neighborhood of Chicago’s west side in Dziadzia’s Oldsmobile one February. She told me she was picking up a package from a dear friend. Many of the buildings were boarded up. Only some of the street lamps lit. The roads were empty save bums waiting on corners in tattered coats and the occasional bus lurching across the potholes through the cold, headlights shining through the frost like a lighthouse on foggy waters.

In the idling car the billowing smoke of my breath mixed with the cloud of my mother’s cigarettes. She left me there alone with the radio playing “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”. Two black men in puffy coats waited for her in a doorway. They opened the door for her and the three of them disappeared into the building.

A half an hour went by and Dziadzia’s Oldsmobile was running out of gas. The radio was fizzling with static, cutting through the rhythm, disrupting the sweeping melodies of the Motown songs. I stared out the window towards the door my mother had entered, feeling like it would never open again. I focused my mind on it, trying to manifest her to exit back out into the street safely. When manifesting didn’t work, I tried Babcia’s way and prayed and prayed. But as all answered prayers go, they are never answered quite like you imagine. And when my mother came out that door again it was with her hands cuffed around her back. A deal gone bad, busted by the CPD.

“That’s your mother?” an arresting officer asked me. “She’s been a very bad lady, little girl. She’s going to be going away, okay? But we’re gonna keep you safe. We’re going to get you home safe.”

“Your mother’s on smack, kid,” remarked another policeman, with less regard. When Dziadzia picked me up from the local precinct to see me there sitting alone, and coughing from the cold, I thought he was going to cry. But Dziadzia was too tough to cry on the outside. His face too weathered and ugly. Too stoic. He was too much of a man. An old steel worker under the Soviets. Still, I know there were tears in his heart. Inside he bawled like a little boy.


“She’s gone for good this time,” I sobbed into my Baba’s bosoms as she wrapped me in her arms standing in her living room. “She’s not coming home, is she?” Babcia massaged the fair hair of my skull with her wrinkled fingers, thick and stubby as sausages. She pressed her round face into my forehead and gently kissed my brow, not once, but twice. On my skin I could feel the chill of her silver crucifix dangling from her neck and swinging just below my chin.

“Your mother is very troubled woman, Oliwia,” she told me. “She will come back. She will. Mother Mary watching over her. Always… Look, kochanie.” Babcia lifted my face to view the portrait of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa on the wall, holding Christ, the child, in her arms, adorned in crowns of jewels and the two infamous scars slashed from the sword of a Hussite, before the soldier fell to the ground on the riverside struck down by the hand of God.

Below the Virgin’s image, lay a portrait of my mother as a young woman, propped up on a shelf. She was laughing, still graced with the beauty of youth.

A wooden matryoshka was placed on the shelf on either side of her. Bulbous faces of babushkas painted with head wraps, and plump bottoms decorated with floral patterns and filagree. They watched me with wide eyes of blue and green, curved into an arch of maternal joy. Their cheeks forever rosy. Lips smiling scarlet. Seven smaller versions of themselves replicated in the womb of their wooden bellies.

“Get ready for bed, Oliwia. In times like this, is best to sleep. And pray…” Babcia said to me. She let me go from her arms and moved towards the couch to drag open the pull-out mattress. I still whimpered as I brushed my teeth. I wiped my eyes as I changed into my pink fuzzy pajamas. And as I laid under the off-white sheets of my bed protruding clumsily from my Babcia’s floral thrift store couch wrapped in a casing of cheap plastic, the matryoshka on the shelves, tables, and cases around the room watched me with gentle eyes and budding lips. More tenderness than the Black Madonna ever seemed to show.

Hanging on the walls around them were scattered crucifixes, some of wood, and some of metal. On some, Christ’s figure wept for God’s children and their ocean of sins. From his side he forever bled from the wound of a Roman spear. It should have been comforting, but it made it hard to shut my eyes.

Before I fell asleep that night, Babcia sang me a song. A song of the old world, in the old language I still barely understand. Her voice was deep and sad. It almost trembled, entrenched in the stoic comfort of a prayer. By the time she was done I forgot the looming eyes of Christ, the round faces of the dolls whose eyes never closed, the clock in the far corner that chimed a trebly ditty on every hour, the mother who was capable of disappearing and reappearing with the change of the winds. All I could hear in the blackness was the warm humming of my grandmother, reverberating in my dreams. And she was right. Through a night like that it was better to be fast asleep. And to pray. Yes, to pray.


I remember when Babcia first showed me how to open all the matryoshka. Twisting their bodies in half circles with her weathered hands one by one. She chuckled softly to herself as she placed each version of the doll from large to small out on the kitchen table in front of me. The smaller the matryoshka got, the less detailed the painted design on its body was. The tinier ones were unable to fit the blooming flowers.

“Fertility…Legacy….Maternity….” Babcia told me. “This is matryoshka. Right now, you last in line, Oliwia. But someday you be first. Someday you take care of the rest. Like Babcia.”

“I want to play with them!” I told her, reaching across the table. My Baba laughed.

“Put little family back together, one by one, kochanie,” she smiled, watching me fumble to twist the dolls back into shape inside their nests.


I remember one year in school when she was gone around Mother’s Day. The teacher had us go around the room and talk about what we loved about our mom’s.

“My Babcia carries me in her arms when I’m sad and sings me songs in Polish. She never lets my Dziadzia get angry at me. She bakes me kołaczki and lets me help make the dough. When we go to the park, I run faster than her and she chases me like a penguin trying to catch up,” I told my class, reciting what I wrote in chicken scratch on a piece of lined white paper.

“What’s a bob-cha?” a boy interrupted me mid-sentence.

“Babcia is my grandmother.”

“Then just say grandma,” said another girl.

“It’s Mother’s Day, not Grandmother’s Day” the boy called out and the whole class laughed. My face flushed red with embarrassment. I tried to imagine where my mother was, but she could’ve been anywhere in the city, in jail or on the streets. I remembered watching the doorway to the dilapidated building while she scored drugs on the west side, wishing it would open. Wishing she would come back. Come home.

“Class, calm down,” the teacher told us, “A grandmother is a mother too. Everybody has different family situations. It’s nothing to joke about.” Her words did not soothe my shame. Instead of finishing reading my sheet, I stepped back down to my desk and sunk into my seat.


Money comes and money goes. My mother was the same way. I remember the Wigilia, the Christmas Eve after my Dziadzia passed. My mother showed up in our building’s hallway, slamming on the door. Babcia opened up it up with the chain latch attached, making way for my mother’s scabbed and sore ridden face to shove between the crack. From the front room I looked to the portrait of her laughing in her youth, under the watch of the Black Madonna, then to the destitute woman shouting for us to let her in from the hallway. I looked to the collection of matryoshka on the shelves and their forever smiles felt like silent laughter.

“Let me in! It’s Christmas! I want to see my daughter!” my mother yelled. “It’s my right! It’s my right to see my daughter! She came out of me, didn’t she? You’d think that you’d want to see your own daughter on Wigilia, Mama!”

“If money what you want, you won’t find it here,” my Baba told her, “You took it all when you left. Is all gone. Leave! Leave us in peace! This no way to see your daughter!”

“Oliwia, come here honey!” my mother called to me, “I just want to give you a kiss. I just want to give you a little kiss. I want to see my daughter…” With these last words she began sobbing and cracking her voice. She crumpled on the ground and held her face with her palms. But I did not want a kiss from a mother covered in scabs and sores. A mother who wanted money and drugs over love. I stood in the front room in my pink fuzzy pajamas, the red, green, and white glow of the Christmas lights hazing the dim apartment like a dream, reflecting off the gloss of our eyes.

My mother lamented in the hallway while Babcia put a Chopin piano concerto on her old record player and turned the volume up until it hurt my ears. She shut the door, making sure both latches were locked. I could no longer hear or see my mother. The piano danced up and down it’s scales, first delicately, then with more resolve. A string section backed it up. There was almost too much going on for my young mind to understand. The music made a decrescendo to a brief silence and in that space in the sound I could no longer hear my mother’s sobs in the hallway. She was gone. Off again to wherever it was she went to on cold Christmas Eve’s in the city of howling wind and snow.


I remember being curious about one of the matryoshka placed up on a higher shelf. Instead of flowers painted on its body, it held a wood burning of an old monastery across its belly, the turrets of the arches painted a pale gold. I moved a kitchen chair to the front room and stood it near the wall of crucifixes. As I stepped onto the chair to prop myself up, my Babcia’s old clock went off on the hour, playing its trebly folk tune on the glockenspiel, surprising me enough to almost slip back before catching my balance.

I grabbed the matryoshka from its perch and brought it down to the coffee table where I struggled to twist it open in a circular motion like my Baba had once taught me. The wood ends were crafted tight together and it took some strength to open. I feared I would break it, but eventually it jarred loose from the pressure and the bottom fell out onto the table surface, making way for a green wad of rolled up and rubber banded cash, where the seven other bodies of the doll were supposed to be nesting. I picked the wad up and inspected it, running my fingers across the bills.

“So you find Baba’s hiding place,” my Babcia said from the kitchen doorway. I looked up to her in shock, expecting to be scolded. But there was no anger on Baba’s face. Just a calm, sunken, tiredness. “When Dziadzia died, he left me money. Some for you too, Oliwia. Your mother, she know all my old hiding spots. The woman she become, she take everything if she could. This is not the daughter I remember. Yet, the woman she become. She is not interested in matryoshka like you. I doubt she will ever look on the highest shelves.”

Babcia walked up and put the doll back together. On her tip toes she reached and slid it back onto the highest shelf with the others. I watched her in silence as she grunted and readjusted her dress, making her way into the kitchen. “When you old enough for family of your own someday, I give to you,” she said to me, without looking back.


I remember seeing my mother outside the methadone clinic while I walked down Milwaukee Avenue in Avondale one Saturday afternoon. At least I thought it was my mother. I called to her as she stood in line with all the others. Her face was unnaturally seasoned for her age. She was old, like Babcia, but skin and bones, not round with dough. She looked to me with eyes curved down in what I perceived to be an expression of shame. “Mommy!” I called to her again. The addicts in line around her grumbled and turned their heads towards me then looked away. Only my mother held her gaze. But she did not say a word. She did not even move her lips. She just stared through me, pale as a ghost, the solemn expression of the Black Madonna in her blue eyes. There was nothing to do but walk away.


I remember when mother died. They found her in an alleyway in early March, face frozen stiff with a look of surprise. Doctor said her heart had failed from drug use. It was over a day before anyone found her out there. It was a quiet funeral. Babcia’s friends from the church. Some of my mother’s old friends that I never really got to know. Baba had her cremated. She told me it’s when they turn the body to ashes instead of burying it. Just like the ashes God made us out of. A true circle of existence. She said we can do whatever we like with the ashes. She is home with us now.

I didn’t understand what Babcia meant by that until a week later when she brought home not an urn like I had been told to expect, but another matryoshka. “She is home with us now,” Babcia told me. The matryoshka had blue eyes like my mother, painted in an expression of laughter like the portrait of her youth beneath the Black Madonna. Her cheeks were rosy like all the others. Red and white flowers danced across her slender body. Her hair was brushed the gold of fields of wheat.

I held the doll in my arms, running my fingers across its features. I knew instead of a nesting womb of smaller figures, the doll held my mother’s ashes, and I cried. The tears then were different from the other tears I had cried for my mother. Those tears were out of fear, confusion, heartbreak, during nightmares of nights where she was crumpled, bawling in the hallway, or stealing off into the dark with Babcia’s money, which she loved more than us because it could actually bring her what she wanted. Happiness. The tears I cried that night were something else. They were no longer for a mother that I longed to have, but for the familiar image of a woman that I never truly knew.

“Babcia!” I called to the kitchen where Baba was preparing a kiszka, blood sausage, at the stovetop counter. She hobbled in, hastily wiping her hands on her floral apron, to find me holding my mother’s matryoshka, looking up into her eyes. “If I’m ever to be a mother,” I told her. “No child of mine will ever wait for me. Wait for me, until it’s too late.”

“I believe you, Oliwia,” Babcia pulled me to her bosoms, the silver crucifix on her neck raising goosebumps on my cheeks. “More than that. I know it to be true.”


I remember getting older. The years flowing by, past classrooms, and schoolyards, church confirmation, boyfriends, best friends, house parties, and menial jobs. I was working at the Jewels down Milwaukee Ave. Still in Avondale but in a new home. Away from Babcia who was growing gray and lonely with age.

My boyfriend Juan who worked in the butcher department wrapping meat for the display cases had me move in with him the previous year. We came from two different cultures. His family had immigrated from Mexico. To him I was just as Polish as Babcia. But in my eyes, I had lost all her traditions, save some of her old recipes for plum pierogis, and kołaczki with a spread of dried fruit. I was American.

In Juan’s home I hardly decorated with my own personal items. A couple photos. A couple paintings. Some books I had growing up. A shelf for my LP’s. And the matryoshka with my mother’s ashes. Always watching me next to the photo of her laughing. It was under her ashes on the mantel where I brought Juan close and showed him the positive test strip I brought back from the bathroom. The one that showed we would be having a child.


I remember holding my baby girl in my arms for the first time in the hospital bed. I remember knowing that she was holy. It was a type of love, a type of holiness I only ever heard Babcia talk about at the kitchen table. I never realized it could be true until I laid eyes on a child of my own. Her naked body swaddled. She was perfect in her vulnerability. She was beautiful. The hospital lights hazed halos behind our scalps. I leaned in and gently kissed my child’s forehead, not once, but twice, consumed with joy and swelling with gratitude.

I remember thinking of my mother and the words I swore to Babcia. Thinking that if family traditions can be broken than so can familial flaws. I looked to my daughter, pushing the guilt out of the back of my mind as I told her words she didn’t yet understand. Words that I would need to show, not just speak. “I will be there for you, baby.” I told her, “I will be the mother for you that I never had.”