My Polish-immigrant grandfather played a curious-looking concertina accordion every evening in his third-floor flat. It had a floral pattern in the squeeze-box folds, an incomprehensible series of round silver buttons in the right hand, and just five base notes in the left. But could he make that instrument sing with polka-tunes! As a little girl I wandered upstairs to sit at his feet while that lively three-step dance beat its way forever into my soul. A few years later when I began piano lessons, player and audience were reversed. I practiced relentlessly on a tinny old castaway upright that my father had dragged into our basement. But no matter — my grandfather sat in rapture, assuring me I played like Paderewski. Perhaps he heard the Polish rock-star pianist in 1939 in his last concert at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater, overflowing with his fans. Of course at that time I had no idea. I only knew my grandpa listened to me tirelessly and admiringly.
In those days there were Polish weddings in our family every season. The traditional Catholic morning wedding mass had brimming bridal parties but afterwards families just scurried home to do afternoon chores. Guests came back at night in their finest suits and cocktail dresses for a copious banquet – always family-style – with Polish Sausage/sauerkraut the signature dish. And then as the local polka band soared, the dancers began to fly! Women predominated on the dance floor – moms, and aunts and girl cousins — and I bobbed with them all. But my father was the special dance partner I coveted more than any other. An excellent ballroom dancer who courted my mother at Chicago’s Aragon and Trianon ballrooms, he began my tutorials as soon as I was old enough to stay awake. Guiding me with firm hand and twirling me around so my dress billowed, we circled the dance floor endlessly until the chandeliers were spinning and faces a blur. Wedding after wedding we danced, with our last dance at my own wedding. He’s been gone for many years now but there’s still no one who can ever replace him as my polka partner.
The women in my Polish-American family were singers. Choir singers, soloists, accompanists. The church choir at St. Fidelis was their faith and their social scene wrapped together. And they brought song to every Christmas celebration. The Granackis’ life in Chicago started as an extended family in a crowded 6-flat in Humboldt Park, each flat filled with family. So by the time my own family had moved to our 3-flat on a wide, tree-lined street in Old Irving Park it seemed like an estate. One year Christmas was at our house, the next, upstairs at my Aunt and Uncle’s. But each flat had a piano and after the last Wigilia plate was cleared and the men begun the kitchen clean-up, the women launched the caroling. English songs at first, but then the Polish ones – Dzisiaj w Betlejem, Gdy sie Chrystus Rodzi, and Auntie Joy’s special favorite, Lulajze Jesuniu. We had sopranos, we had altos, and soon the men wandered back in to provide the baritones. After my accompanist aunt could no longer play, I was an inadequate replacement, but I hoped if I loudly led the song, the piano errors would go unnoticed. Age eventually diminished the sound of the song but not the enthusiasm of the singers. These days I sing alto in a thoroughly American Catholic Church choir but my aunts’ voices on their favorite Polish carols continue to haunt me every Christmas Eve. Music of all kinds has been woven into my life, but it was the Polish-Catholic flavor in Chicago’s old parishes that gave me the base.
Victoria Ann Granacki, Chicago, 2015