Twenty two years ago I buried my father. On Friday, I buried my stepfather with a loving eulogy.
I was blessed with the opportunity to spend many hours talking with Julian during his final months with us. He lived 93 quality years and I searched in his life story for a formula to long life, thinking perhaps I might learn some secrets along the way such as: What matters most in life? Or, how to keep your sanity during times that make you walk the fine line? Or, how much homemade buttermilk one needs to drink per day to have skin as smooth as his…I also wondered if that process galvanized guts of steel as well. He could eat 7 day old stewed meat— well past the recommended 3-4 day expiration guideline set by the USDA.
And what I found out surprised me. He couldn’t remember the make of his first car or the age difference between him and his brother, Stas—whom he loved spending time with on the farm when they were children. His eyes warmed, “How I liked my brother,” he said. “I told him what I think, and he told me what he thinks. I would have done everything for him.” He continued with a matter of fact tone, “We played very little and there wasn’t much to play with. In school there was one ball that was a milky brown leather—the size of a soccer ball.”
And as he spoke, Julian occasionally stumbled over everyday words in English. But when it came to describing a chore from his childhood, words I never heard flowed from his mouth like honey spilling down the side of a jar. They flowed smoothly and eloquently…and often times they even rhymed. He had a knack for doing that.
He recounted, ”My father had a bull. We cut grass, gathered peas and other things, to make him heavy. We took him to the market, sold him and with the money my father bought his first beehives. He built the rest by copying the ones he bought. Then we had to go find the “rojka.” “A what,” I asked? “A ‘rojka’.” He patiently explained. “Now in the beautiful sun in June or July the young bees-the children, would follow the new young ‘Mother’ and they would all group together, usually on a tree somewhere. These children are called a “rojka.” He continued. “My father gave my older sister, Janina, a sickle and a box. For me he provided a beehive smoker can that contained smoking wood from a pine tree and a special bell- “szprytza.” Once again, I asked for the spelling of another word I never heard. He continued, “We searched and listened for a loud buzzing sound and when we found the rojka, I would ring the bell and release the pine smoke in the direction where the bees were so they would get sleepy. My sister would hold the box below, I would hit the branch with a hard blow and they would fall into the box in one clump. Sometimes my sister would use a sickle to gently get the mother bee into the box and the children would follow her. When my father and mother returned from Church, father would ask, ‘Was there anything or not?’ I would say, ‘They are in the beehive already.’ And that is how we created several dozens of hives. My father would sell the dark “honey dew” honey to the Germans.” With intricate detail he drew out with his finger in the space before him, the blade to scrape the “kozuch” (bees wax) from the honey frame, that his father uniquely designed and hand forged out of steel.
Julian said his father ran a smart business. “Whatever someone didn’t know how to do or want to do, he figured out a way to do it, and offered that service.”
His father was innovative. “In the winter, there was much snow and no work. Then he made a homemade barrel out of wood that had a crank. We would pass the honey frame through the rollers and the honey would fly out into the barrel and be collected.” “He also made plows from steel and wood and would make the blades sharper during the cold winter days.”
His father also was a cultivator, as Julian called it. “The potatoes grew in rows and in the spaces between the plants were aisles where the weeds grew. My father created a cultivator that not only cultivated the land, but also pulled the weeds when they grew.
Julian watched as his father learned how to graft trees. He grafted Golden Renata apples, Amerykanki and Wegierki plums, cherries, and pears— all fruit trees to…"modernize them." There was a sparkle in Julian’s eyes as he spoke, “The Golden apples were so good.” He was smiling. “But there were even better ones. They were harder and lasted longer.”
“My older sister, Janina was so creative too,” Julian remarked. “She drew women from different cities…that she never had been to. She loved to read. Perhaps she read about them.” With a bemused expression on his face he continued, “As a matter of fact, I never saw things she sketched, on other women…not in Canada, Germany, Poland, America or Paris. The women in these pictures wore uniquely beautiful hats and nouveaux 'nowoczesne' shoes, all from her imagination and no where else!” “My parents were too broke to send her to school for such an impractical career,” he added with a hint of sadness in his voice.
“In our fields we had to “Zlorac” (turn the land from the right to the left), “wybrunowac” (break up hardened clods of earth- his earliest memory of performing a chore), then “siac” (sowing of the seeds) and distribute “saletra” -an Epsom salt like coarse fertilizer.”
He sat up for the next part– like he was preparing to convey an important message. “Bread does not grow in fields. Bread has to be created. Children need to know the labor put into creating bread.” “A stupid person thinks he is a professor but he does things without thinking things through. He randomly distributes the seeds and waits…and wonders…what will it be? Will it be hay or barley or weeds? You must be organized and a good farmer.” It sounded very much like a parable to me.
“My mother,” he paused, “worked from dusk in the fields, all day, to ensure we had something to eat so that we would be nourished. He explained, “We usually went to bed hungry. We drank water or milk, sometimes tea- if it was available. We had to pick it at the right time, dry it and then only did we have tea. My favorite was lipowa (Linden) tea with sugar. One year, my father exchanged honey for sugar with the Germans. He did that twice so we had sugar-two years- otherwise we couldn’t get any sugar-only in cookies if someone brought them over."
Early one morning, as I sat down to write his memories in my notebook, Julian’s words of advice started like this: “When you are given honey, all you will want is honey. Sugar…all you will want is sugar. What kind of existence is this? Control yourself …then not someone or something has power over you.” Once again it was the likeness of a parable to me.
One day this June we discussed how the family stayed warm in the winter by snuggling under down covers, and that the window had a ¼ inch of ice on it, that Christmas presents consisted of maybe a cookie, a cross or Santa from dough, [“Sometimes there was less money but we got new socks... sometimes there were no socks but we had more money for other things.”] and that at night in the winter, his father listened to his sister reading books by the kerosene lamp— history, politics, geography…everything." She read by a kerosene lamp because there was no electricity in his town yet.
That day he also mentioned a very dark time in his life.
“The Germans came to our town in March. The war started in September, 1939— I was 12. My father went to northwest Poland to stay with a friend—so he wouldn’t be taken. He was there 1-2 weeks. He arrived home, 'glodny i chlodny' (hungry and cold).” He traveled on foot. "The Germans occupied that area of Poland," he announced.
“Our plan regarding the war,” Julian looked up at me, “was…what can we eat tomorrow?”
“The Germans burned all books, closed all schools, and released all the teachers.” That was the end of Julian's schooldays forever.
“The Germans came again, this time on a snowy evening. They opened the door and walked in. I was in my bed. My older sister was staying at my Aunt’s house so they wouldn’t take her. So they walked into my room, pulled me by the collar and legs. I grabbed the shoes I hand made, and they carried me off and threw me into the back of a truck. There was one other person in there. We sat in silence. I was 15 years old.” “If I rejected, they probably would have taken my mother or father,” he added—his voice somber.
Julian was taken to a farm near Freiberg, Germany and worked there as a prisoner for three years. He described his days.
“Early morning… you care for the livestock—then you go work in the fields. You cut it, you gather it, you pile it, you bring it back and you feed it to the livestock in the barn—everyday.”
“All day…every day…all month…all year. It mattered not if it was a holiday. Women as old as I am now, brought beets and rzepa from the fields where they grew and buried them in square lots in the earth.”
He explained, “In Germany I washed myself with a rock, in the trough where the horses drank water—there was nothing else. The trough was made of stone. For three years...summer, winter, it didn’t matter. That is where I washed. The water ran year round through the trough, twenty four hours…unless it froze.”
And then a revelation followed, “Why is my skin so supple and unwrinkled?” He questioned me. “Did you ever work on a farm?” “You work with chickens and horses and cows and it (the earth and dust) settles on your face first. Then you wash it off in the trough at the end of the day. And you do this every single day.”
And that is how Julian lived his life. He rose early every morning, and worked until the task in the yard or around the house was complete— or until he was forced to rest from congestive heart failure that was slowly encroaching into his life.
When something needed to be done he found an innovative way to fix it and he never gave up trying if his method failed. He too was a cultivator- a person that cultivated Catholic education for his 'grandchildren', Polish tradition as he and my mom insisted we join them at the Polish Club, integrity, endurance, tolerance and adaptability—learning to bend and blend with the curve balls life mercilessly throws at you, and…new ways for fertilizing grass or killing weeds or doing away with gophers that polluted his lawn with sand mounds- to his chagrin.
I remember the first time my mother mentioned that she had met a handsome gentleman at the Polish Club…that danced very well. Her face was radiant as she continued to speak about him. That’s when I knew he touched a very special place in her heart.
When I first met Julian, I noticed tenderness in his eyes and a warm smile. His shoes were impeccable. As a matter of fact, he introduced me to some fine shoe brands that garnered complements even from my nephews.
When my brother, Robert met him, he had already known that Julian was a hard working man, and respected him for that. "He taught me to get up every day, and move a little more—to never give up."
When my sister, Joanna got to know Julian, she found him to be a very loving, caring and sharing person and she was so grateful that he came into our lives. Our lives would not have been enriched by a heart as big as his, and Joanna, her husband Jay and their sons are so thankful for having known him and every single special thing he did for them.
When my oldest daughter, Sarah came to know Julius at the age of 8, he always made the time to include her in his world and she will never forget dancing with him, giggling, as he endlessly spun her around on the dance floor. Secretly, together they always dreamed of owning a horse someday. He gave her a horse, and a carriage as a driver drove them around the Old Square in Krakow. That was repeated again several years later, but this time with all 5 grandchildren.
Julian loved attending soccer games—all the grandchildren had played soccer at some point. How he cheered when Kaitlyn or Jeremy scored. He was so proud of all the grandchildren and each of their accomplishments as they grew.
Julian also loved donuts, the "good Polish bread", pies, paczki, Polish and German beer, and all of my mom’s cooking especially her soups. He loved pizza too. In Krakow he loved the wood stove pizza so much, we went back again the next day. In Jacksonville, when he visited Kaitlyn, and she took him for pizza by the beach, he liked it so much he told her it could be served at a wedding. He also delighted in making the perfect dough for pierogi and eating them with us—it was a family production. Justin even skipped soccer at pierogi making time. His coach incredulously asked, “You have to go home... to do what?”
When it was time for a certain TV show— that is when I packed up my notebook and headed home‑ our interview session was done.
My nephew, Justin recalls, “When Jeremy and I were little, I would know when my dad was on his way to pick us up because Babcia and Julius would turn on Judge Judy. And we would all watch it together.”
Jeremy recalled words of wisdom Julius shared with him. “He told me, ‘School is important and though there are hard times, pull through and finish school because you won’t regret it when you finish and have a career to start’.”
A couple of days ago, Julian’s cousin, Maria, shared with us the first time Julian mentioned my mom to her.
One day Maria was visiting him in Florida. As was customary, his good friend Wanda, Maria and he went to the Polish Club. They had fun dancing with him. He was so handsome and when women asked Julian to dance, he declined.
Maria asked curiously, “Julian, why aren’t you dancing with any other ladies?”
Julian smiled, “It’s because I have met someone,” he paused, “and I think I am in love. Her name is Anna.”
And so their beautiful adventure began and twenty years later—came to an end, altogether too quickly.
They danced beautifully together and travelled to Poland many times to help Anna's widowed mother. Together they proudly welcomed Jeremy and Lauren into the world, visited with friends, vacationed with family, rejoiced at school graduations, went to Grandparent’s Day, ate at Chinese buffets, Dan’s Clam stand, and how they enjoyed the giant pancakes at Reds!
But most importantly…they were always ready and willing to help us and their grandchildren. Everyone knew that was their priority.
Before Julian entered our lives, he was married to Irene for 42 years — until her death. He buried two children and miscarried two—they were all born prematurely. His daughter died after three hours—in his arms. When the war ended, he was 18, and he served in Germany for the Polish Guard Company of the US Army for two years. When that job ended, he got certified in Germany to work as a carpenter and then eventually signed on to work as a gold miner in Canada. After that he worked in a parts factory. His dreams of owning an apartment complex in Miami ended after many years of hard work and little in return financially. And, he finally made enough money to pay for a ticket to Poland—and saw his family for the first time after 25 years of having been away from them. When he left, his brother was little— now he had children of his own.
Julian asked his father to take him to the back of the house, where the fruit trees were. “We walked there like father and son.”
And so, although Julius, his big heart, soft voice and warm
smile will be sorely missed, I know he walks among the fruit trees with his family and father in heaven. Until we meet again, Julian. I bid you all God’s peace.