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Carole listened gravely when I told her I had decided on a career. I would be a concert pianist. I thought she took it seriously but weeks later I heard her whisper to another girl about 'you know what Katie wants to be?' They all wanted to be teenagers who went out on dates in convertibles, with the hero of 'My Boyfriend's Back.' That year my girlfriends spent hours curling and spraying their hair in bouffants and flips not quite as bouncy as pictured in Seventeen. The whole idea of a lady concert pianist struck them as ridiculous. For example, what would you wear? No one knew of any prototypes except the boogie-woogie lady on Lawrence Welk and she only appealed to our grandparents.

I practiced one hour a day and the fact that the hour crept by until Mom finally said 'time's up' was, beside wardrobe and hair, another counterindication to my prospects as a concert pianist. Perhaps it was the unnerving sense of a constant audience. I either played in front of Mr A, or Grandma, who, framed by the French doors of her room (a converted parlor off the living room), sat in her wheelchair as I played, her eyes closed, a vague smile on her face. When the hour ended she said, 'Oh Presh, Grandma just loves to hear you play.' But even Grandma asked was I learning any boogie woogie?

Mrs Wotyla was always making rules about whom Carole could and couldn't see. I was the only girlfriend she hadn't banned, perhaps because I was the only one willing to submit to her regime. Sonia Wotyla had a rule: 'chores first' and without my help Carole would never have gotten out of the house, because her 'chores' were the housework for six people every day. All Sonia did was cook, and she didn't want us rolling cabbage or cutting carrots. She didn't trust our clumsy hands for fine work. When she wasn't cooking she was talking on the phone to her sister, embroidering tea towels or saying her rosary before the Blessed Mother statue in her darkened bedroom. She was a rawboned woman with eyes that bulged out slightly. She always wore a housedress of nondescript print, purple-gray, short sleeves from which her sharp elbows jutted. Her eyes were an almost colorless blue.

Carole was the oldest. She had two brothers, nine-year-old twin boys with blond crew cuts so short you could see their ashy-white scalps, and a sister, Colleen, age six. Colleen was a sprite, a blessed visitor; she was golden blonde, blue-eyed and indulged. She never had to help with the housework. Carole's parents were always reminding me that Colleen was an Irish name that meant girl. In fact the Wotylas evinced a fascination with my Irishness that seemed strange in light of their entrenched Polishness. Sonia cooked all the specialties. Kielbasa, gulabki, a recipe called Kluskis Kapusta, a catchy name for noodles with sauerkraut. The house smelled of cabbage. The Wotylas believed in keeping all their windows shut, drapes drawn in summer to keep down the heat or maybe they kept windows shut because the exhaust particulates from 6 Mile would otherwise invade the house and coat the interiors with soot. The fetid smell and stagnant air sickened me at first, but the Wotylas were constantly at me. 'Try our food', they said, emphasizing 'our'. The Gulabkis and Kluskies had no seasoning, just the sweetness of boiled cabbage and tartness of sauerkraut. I found the cabbage in both forms tasted better than the smell. 'Don't the Irish eat corned beef and cabbage?' Mr Wotyla asked. We never ate cabbage in our house, unless you counted brussels sprouts which resembled tiny cabbages but -- perhaps owing to their dainty size -- were considered more genteel. My Mom pressure-cooked these until they were gray, mushy and bitter.

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Copyright © 9 April 2008 K C Devereaux, Michigan USA


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