Frostbite

“He says it’s okay to have some secrets because some truths hurt people’s feelings.” A moving short story where a family’s secrets are revealed to its youngest, and most innocent, of kin…

by Jennifer Ostromecki1

I shiver inside our cold house, my breath fogging the window. I draw a cake with seven candles on the cold glass and then wipe the pane before Mama notices. I can hear Babcia banging pans in the kitchen behind me. She and Mama spent all Sunday cooking for my party, which would’ve been today. But then the ice storm happened. Now, all of Rochester is in a state of emergency. The roads are slick like skating rinks, tree branches bow and break from the weight of the ice, and powerlines snake across the ground. 

Babcia has stayed with us for four days. I bunk on the floor, like it’s a sleepover, while Babcia sleeps in my big girl bed because Tata sleeps in the guest room now. Mama says he snores too loud.

“Babcia is waiting to make pierogi with you, Eva,” Mama shouts from the top of the stairs, her Polish accent thick because she’s annoyed. She stomps down the stairs, knocking Ken from his apartment with Barbie. He tumbles and lands with a thunk. “The stairs aren’t toys! Clean this mess.” 

As I move the Barbies from their homes, Tata tiptoes downstairs sipping coffee from the World’s-Best-Dad mug I gifted him for Christmas. He’s careful not to mess up the neighborhood and rescues Ken with his free hand, but puts him in the wrong house.

He ruffles my hair, messing up my ponytail, but I don’t mind. Tata disappears into the kitchen. I hear him shuffle down the three steps into the family room while Mama and Babcia chatter in Polish and I organize the toys into storage totes. The garage door thumps closed. 

“Eva Magdalena,” Mama calls from the kitchen. She means business. 

Blue flames lick the bottom of a heavy metal pan, onions sizzle. Then, pop pop pop! Steam rises from a large pot. Flour dusts the counters white, like everything outside under the ice. Babcia stands with her back to me. She wears a skirt with stockings and a bright red cardigan, her sleeves rolled up past her elbows. She always dresses up, even when there’s nowhere to go, and only speaks Polish even though she understands English. 

Mama’s is nowhere to be found. She avoids being in the same room as Babcia if she wants “to have peace in the house.” One sleeve slides toward Babcia’s dough-caked hands. I pull it up for her. “Dziękuje. Are you helping me make pierogi?” 

I answer in Polish. “I have to help. Mama says ‘stop taking people for granted’ like Tata. But I don’t take Tata for granted.” I shrug.

She raises an eyebrow. “Have to? If you want to eat, then yes, you have to.”

I sigh. I want to eat, but I feel like grownups are supposed to make all the food. Mama always cooks dinner, but sometimes, when she’s not home, Tata will buy me McDonald’s, as long as it’s our secret. He says it’s okay to have some secrets because some truths hurt people’s feelings. I like our secrets. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings either, so I never tell him I wish he would play board games or color with me instead of watching TV. But because he likes it, I watch TV with him and always let him pick the shows. We both love Saturday morning cartoons.

I drag a chair to the counter; Babcia winces at the noise. I expect Mama to rush in to scold me, but the house remains quiet. I smile then climb onto the chair. The dough is rolled out like when we make cookies or pie crust. “Babcia, that dough is too big for pierogi.”

She laughs. “You think this is my first time making pierogi? You’re seven now, it’s time you learn. In Poland, when I was seven, I would milk the cows, scrub the floors by hand, and bring in eggs after cleaning the coop.”

“You lived on a farm, Babcia. We don’t have a coop, or cows.” She hands me a glass.

“I’m not thirsty.”

“It’s not for you. It’s for pierogi.” She guides my hand to flip the glass upside-down. “Now, use the glass like when we make cookies.”

When the garage door slams, I flinch, but pretend to cough. Babcia never misses a beat, her movements constant like a baking timer. She adds the sautéed mushrooms to the bowl of sauerkraut like nothing happened. While I press circle cut-outs with the glass, Babcia stirs the mixture with Tata’s spatula, which has a big sun on it — his Polish nickname for me, słoneczko, because he says my smile is like summer sunshine. Every Saturday he flips pancakes with it.

Using a glass for a cookie-cutter isn’t great because the dough sticks inside of it, so I peel it off. I think of my snowman cookie-cutter and giggle imagining snowman-shaped pierogi.

“Good job, Eva.” Babcia places the large bowl behind my hard work and wedges a spoon into it. “Now we add the filling. Careful, it’s hot.”

I dig out a heaping pile of the sauerkraut mixture. Steam rises from it. A mushroom plops back into the bowl. “Like this?”

At first Babcia murmurs in agreement, but when she checks over her shoulder her expression changes. I prepare to be scolded, like Mama would, but she shakes her head and laughs, her curls bobbing. Babcia’s calm makes me more nervous.

“Eva, what’s wrong? Just put less on the spoon. No reason to cry,” she says, her voice soothing like sipping velvety hot chocolate. 

I sniffle and hide my watery eyes in my elbow. I don’t want her to think I’m a baby. 

“No one gets it right the first time. Not even your mama.” 

I don’t believe her. Mama doesn’t allow mistakes.

Babcia lifts the perfectly round dough from the flour-dusted counter. It looks like a Play-Doh pie folding over her fingertips. She cups her hand, cradling the dough, then plops the filling into the center.

“Now, press the dough together so that it doesn’t fall apart when boiled.”

She lays it in front of me, then grabs another dough-round and repeats the steps. A matching pair sit on the counter. “Did you know I was making pierogi on the day you were born? Now, it’s tradition…for good luck.” 

I try pinching one together but the filling flops out. Babcia pats my hand. “Watch what I do then try it on yours. We will do it together.”

I smile at the word “together.” I like the idea of Babcia and I as a team — two pierogi makers — it makes me less scared to mess up. She takes one side of the dough, lifting it a little, then pulls it toward her. “See how I folded that in half?”

I concentrate very hard so I don’t miss a single step. I want to make her proud.

“Pinch it,” she says.

“Like when we make pie?”

She smiles. “Yes, just like that.” 

My heart flutters. Babcia is proud of me.

“You can use your fingers.” She takes the dough and pinches it like she sometimes pinches my cheeks. Then takes my hand and lets me pinch, pinch, pinch. She holds it like a jewel. “There you go — your first pieróg.”

Babcia pinches five more, very fast, as I finish one. Hers look perfect: half-moons with bulging white bellies and scalloped edges. Mine is flabby with a wide, flat lip. I watch Babcia’s hands, papery frail with strong blue veins, work the dough in delicate pinches. 

“You can also seal the edge with a fork.” She hands me one.

I don’t understand. I use my fork to stab chicken nuggets and broccoli. I wonder how stabbing the dough will help. I grab the fork (Mama says I hold it like a shovel), but before I can stab the dough pocket, Babcia moves the handle between my thumb and pointer finger, like a magic wand. We rock the fork forward until the pointy teeth smoosh into the dough. Then we lift it, slide it over, and do it again. And again. And again. Forming a cool stripe pattern.

My stomach grumbles. We’ve been working a long time.

“Babcia, why are we making pierogi when we have lots of party food?” 

“Don’t you feel useful being productive? Plus, cooking is my therapy.”

“Oh.” Mama and Tata told me about therapy; if they cook, they never bring me leftovers. “But what about the extras?” In school, I learned about food shortages. But because I can’t mail stuff from our cupboard across the world, Mama tells me to eat all my meals.

“We freeze them.” She winks. “We never waste food. I learned that as a young girl in Poland during the war.” Babcia is very smart; I hope I’m like her when I grow up. “We can store them in the garage.” 

Tata unplugged the refrigerator to save power so we use the garage like a huge refrigerator now — the garagerator, my new favorite pretend word. We stocked the garagerator with all the stuff the refrigerator had, lined in rows like soldiers. I stacked boxes of Eggo waffles and Toaster Strudel on Tata’s workbench underneath his tools, like breakfast Jenga. I wonder if pierogi get frostbite like waffles do. 

“Did you make pierogi with Mama when she was a girl?”

“Of course. Now I’m teaching you.” The large pot’s lid begins to bounce from the foam bubbles, and some boiling water sloshes out. Babcia lowers the temperature and the rumble steadies. “Your mommy was a naughty girl. She would steal pierogi then sling them across the room.” 

Babcia grabs another dough round, zipping through the building steps. She balances it on the handle of a fork, then pretends to slap the other end. I squeal, thinking she might do it.

A door slams and Mama rushes into the kitchen wearing her coat. “Why are you squealing?” Her eyes are red, her hair wild. 

“Are you helping Tata outside?” I ask in English. 

“We’re talking,” Mama replies, her voice sounds harsher speaking English. She eyes Babcia who keeps pinching her pierogi. “Tata is checking on the backup generator.” Babcia dunks the pinched pierogi into the boiling water, its rumbling now quieter.

“Why did you fling pierogi?” I ask Mama.

Mama yanks my sleeves then tugs my long hair into a fresh ponytail. The elastic pinches my head. “Much better — what?”

“In Poland, as a girl.”

Mama says, “Your uncle dared me.” She licks her finger then wipes my face. I squirm and scrunch my nose. 

“You told me not to do things just because others dare you.”

“That’s exactly right.” Mama nods. “You’re lucky to have Babcia as your teacher.”

Babcia huffs and turns her back on Mama who looks like she might say something else, but leaves instead. 

I face Babcia. “Why were you and Mama fighting earlier?” 

Some bubbles spill out onto the burner with a hiss hiss hiss. Babcia removes a few pierogi with a large wire spoon; they slide on their fat bellies across the plate.

She takes off her glasses, wiping her face with her shoulder.

“What’s wrong, Babcia?”

“Nothing. Sometimes grownups get sad, but we must never show it. We are brave, yes? For now, let’s make pierogi.” She swats at my hand before I can bite my nail. “What’s the next step?”

“Tasting them!” I hop off the chair. “I like mine with butter, maybe sour cream too. I’ll get them!” I bounce down the steps to the living room. Babcia calls my name, but this job I can do by myself. I hopscotch the patterns in the rug to the garage door, careful to avoid the red because it’s magma — and that’s dangerous. 

In the middle of the garagerator stands three long tables, waiting for a party, heavy with food jam-packed on plates, heaped into bowls, and crammed into every shape of Tupperware: a plate of deviled eggs topped with mustard sauce and peas, rows of rolled herrings in a crystal boat dish, a round platter piled with four different kielbasy, squares of different colored cheeses. A variety of salads: shredded beet, jarzynowa, finely chopped root vegetables mixed with mayo, a boring American iceberg lettuce salad wrapped in Clingfilm. Hearty entrées: mashed potatoes, a tray of breaded pork cutlets, and a tall pot of bigos, cabbage stew with chunks of sausage — my favorite. Babcia cooks it every holiday and special occasion. There are other Polish dishes, too, nearly as much as when we prep for Thanksgiving and then eat leftovers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for days after. 

The butter tub waits on the far table wedged between Tata’s famous ćwikła (he says “Polish people like having beets prepared numerous ways”) and Mama’s mushroom gravy. I grab it as the outside door slams. Startled, I duck. 

“I just don’t understand how much longer you expect me to play happy family,” Tata says. I hide under the tablecloth.

“Now is not the right time to talk about this, Walter. My mother is here and it’s Eva’s birthday.”

“You’re right. You’re always right. You tell me when it’s the right time. I mean, you control everything else.”

“Leave us, if family is such a burden on you.”

I drop the butter. It lands with a thwack.

“Who’s there?” Mama asks.

I don’t answer, but they must hear me crying. 

“Eva?” Tata pulls up the tablecloth. “Słoneczko!” 

Hearing that nickname makes me cry harder. I hide my head in my knees, hugging my legs, like sunshine disappearing behind grey storm clouds. Tata cradles me as he carries me into the living room, leaving Mama behind. Warm air from the wood-burning stove kisses my cheek, but I’m shivering from the garagerator cold. The room smells of firewood and fried onions.

Tata and Mama huddle near me, but on opposite sides. “I don’t need a party — even when the ice storm is over,” I whisper.

Babcia holds a plate of boiled pierogi. “Why is she crying on her birthday?” She scolds them, speaking fast and using Polish words I don’t understand. The pierogi bounce around like bumper cars.

“Am I really selfish?”

Tata looks like someone punched him. “No, sunshine. Who said that to you?” He strokes my hair. “Sometimes grownups fight.”

“You’ve ruined everything,” says Mama, standing, hands on her hips.

“No, honey, don’t cry,” Tata says. “She means me, not you.” He whips his head toward Mama. “Magda, seriously?”

“I don’t want a party,” I say to Tata. “Please don’t be mad at me. I’m sorry I’m crying.” 

“No one is mad, right Magda?” He looks at Mama. “Let’s talk, as a family.” 

“Eva, we didn’t want to—” 

The doorbell rings. Colorful balloons float into the room. Mama greets our neighbor Mrs. Potter who holds a cake topped with seven candles. Mama hugs Josie, and flicks one of her pigtail braids. Tata adds a log to the already hot fire, putting a smile on his face. I wipe my tears and stand. I am seven. I can be brave.

 

Jennifer Ostromecki recently completed a novel set in Edwardian England about redemptive love and the many definitions of family. Her short story “pi” appeared in Pif Magazine. Follow her on twitter, @jomecki.

  1. Header art by Orange Moss Creative. []

19 Comments

  • Love the vivid descriptions, as well as the believability of the narrator being seven. A child’s voice is really hard to master, especially as the central focus, but this did a really wonderful job of showing such whimsy and innocence.

  • Lovely story Jennifer. You have a keen eye for detail. This makes me miss the days when my relatives would prepare meals at home. I could go for some pierogies right about now!

  • You really convey the emotion of the scene here. I love the relationship you build between the girl and Babcia. Wonderful work.

  • This story definitely reminded me of my own family, as I’m sure it does for so many readers. It’s amazing how much love and pain can be present in a single moment.

  • Wow. I am SO IMPRESSED with this. Really puts the reader in the moment. I particularly love the realization that all cultures share the common appreciation of traditions surrounding food.

  • Thank you everyone for your kind comments. I’m really happy you’ve enjoyed the story! Thank you again to Michael for publishing it

  • This is wonderful! You did such a good job of introducing an underlying tension and sense of danger in an otherwise cheerful-seeming scene. And I loved how you convey to the reader what’s happening to this young girl, how she’s affected by family discord, just by how you portray her reactions – she isn’t aware that she’s being slowly traumatized, but the reader understands it clearly. That’s really hard, and you did it so well. Also, great, natural dialogue! I’d read a whole book about this family.

  • This a wonderful story! Drew me in from the beginning. I love the details – great descriptions and characters. I can imagine every scene and feel the emotions from the characters. The events play out perfectly. Really fantastic work!

  • I loved it!! I love all the little details!! It seemed so real because of the detail. You described how fragile childhood can be perfectly!! I only wish the story had continued!! I could have kept reading about her!! Great story!!!!!

  • Loved the representation of family and tradition through food. I felt like I really got to know this family through your words. Very well done.

  • Loved the narrative! It consumed me with such vivid description of every activity. I am fixated on the ‘Flour dusts the counters white, like everything outside under the ice.’ – poetic!! Very engaging short story, well done!

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