We moved to the States in 1983, when I was just four years old. My only memories of living in Poland are second-hand, told by my parents and my grandmothers -- the matriarchs of the family. Growing up, our family traditions were the blood that ran through our veins. Easter was not easter without dyeing eggs pink with boiled beets, or a rich, caramel-brown with the skins of yellow onions. And Christmas would never be Christmas without sledzie, a pickled herring dish that only a Pole could love; the formal blessing and toast by the larger-than-life host himself (my dad); the tiny, elegant shot glasses filled to the brim over and over again with the homeland's finest vodka, toasts becoming increasingly emotional as the evening went on; and the time-honored tradition of women gathered round the kitchen table, rolling dough, cutting circles, and hand-forming them into pierogi, to be shared and lauded by all at the pinnacle of our celebration: the formal Christmas Eve dinner.
Making pierogi is an especially emotional and sensory experience for me, not just because of the physical closeness that we women share in the kitchen, or even because of the tactile aspect of the flour, the dough, the filling, the rolling, the pressing -- but for the generational transfer of knowledge, memory, and experience (much like, I imagine, the tradition of making tamales feels for Mexican women before Christmastime). Bringing my own daughter -- only 3.5 last year -- into the fold with myself, my mom, and my 90-year-old grandmother, was something else.
Christmas day was like a honeymoon, in a way. All the pressure of the big day lifted off our shoulders, the family was free to dress more casually, interact more freely, and truly enjoy each other's company without the formalities and expectations of the big night before.
Growing up, I took for granted the fact that my parents would always be in charge. My mom and dad are the gold standard of party and holiday hosting. Always knowing how to make each guest feel special and welcome, how loud to play the music, which food to serve when, and with an uncanny ability to sense if someone's drink was about to be empty.
Today, they still host, and with just as much gusto as ever. Living half a continent away from them (me in Texas, them in Maryland), I still draw inspiration from their rich tradition and their warm welcomes. Here in Austin, my home has become the gathering spot for an incredible community of friends, and we've adapted our own style to the art of hosting loved ones. The holiday torch has not been passed to us, for which I'm quite grateful: mom and dad remain ever-capable and never to be surpassed in their abilities. But my appreciation for their art has swelled to previously unknown levels, having dipped our own feet into the world of welcoming.
Last year I photographed our holiday traditions -- from the pierogi-making all the way through to the barside shenanigans after the kids have gone to bed -- with my mom and dad in mind as the heroes of the story, and I intend to do the same this year. Because my parents are the main characters of the holidays, and the heroes, too.