, ,

Hanna Piwko

Hanna Piwko

I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking about Auntie Nunia today. She was my babcia’s older sister, the only one of her siblings I knew growing up. Nunia was an extraordinary woman, though in a different way than my grandmother. Whereas my grandmother was beautiful, charming, and (to borrow a word from my mom) vivacious, Nunia was a powerhouse of energy, straightforward, and yet at the same time nurturing. From the age of ten or twelve, she was my role model for how I wanted to live my life. It seemed she could do anything, and she was never idle. She knitted our bathmats. My mom would bring her our clothes in need of repair and she would fix them all. She even darned our socks. For years, I wore a robe she made out of a patchwork of hideous fabrics. It had an orangy-yellow lining and trim, and I can’t remember now if the rest was made of scraps of loud upholstery designs or maybe just flower-power prints. I wore that robe for years, and had a hard time giving it up even after I realized I was allergic to it. Instead, I tolerated the runny nose and sneezes.

Auntie Nunia gave my younger brother Chris and me new blankets when I was about five. I think it was to replace the baby blanket that I was having a hard time letting go. Or maybe I just associate it with my blankie’s disappearance because I got it at about the same time. I still have this “big girl” blanket even though the blue calico has split and frayed. Maybe in homage to Nunia’s patchwork robe, I have been patching the blanket with scraps of old fabric and clothing for years. I don’t think I’ll ever catch up with all the new holes that keep forming. I guess sentiment about people and the stuff I associate with them has mattered to me for a long time.

I don’t know much about Nunia’s (or anyone’s) life in Poland. She was several years older than my grandmother, born in 1886 according to Aunt Pat’s records, or in 1889 according to her US naturalization and social security records. I remember Mama mentioning that Nunia and Babcia took a few years off their ages when they emigrated. Nunia’s exact name is also complicated. In the US, her legal name was Maria Weglinska, but her birth name was probably Hanna. I’ve also heard her called Anna, and more recently by our Israeli cousins Hanale. I onced asked my mama what her real name is—even though we called her Nunia (or maybe Niunia), I knew her legal name was Maria and I had also heard her called Anna. I remember being told that she was actually Anna Maria. In retrospect, knowing what I know now, I was probably told something to the effect that she was both Anna and Maria, and I turned it into Anna Maria in my own mind. The origin of Nunia (Niunia) is easier to explain. It is a nickname and expression of affection, sort of like calling someone “sweetie.” Niunia can also be a diminutive of Anna.

So names are not fixed elements attached to people. Nunia’s last name is only slightly less ambiguous. Her maiden name was Piwko, like my grandmother. Her married name was Cytryn after her husband Stanisław Cytryn. At least that would have been the Polish spelling. “Cytryn” means “lemon.” Last year, from looking at the registration cards of Jews who survived World War II at ŻIH (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, Jewish Historical Institute) in Warsaw, I learned that Nunia was already using the name Maria Weglińska in Poland. It’s listed there, with a note that her means of surviving the war was “Aryan papers.”

Another ambiguity involves the nature of Nunia and her husband’s profession. I have been told she was “something like a pharmacist,” and they had a shop in Warsaw. Somewhere, I’ve seen it listed in Polish as “drogeria” which can be a drugstore, though today it is more commonly a store that sells shampoos, lotions, and cosmetics. A pharmacy is more commonly called “apteka.” Nunia’s husband died in 1927, so from then she ran the business herself.

When Babcia ran away from home, she went to live with Nunia in Warsaw. Maybe that is when their close bond solidified, despite the eight-year difference in their age. By some accounts Babcia left because she wanted to avoid marrying anyone her father chose for her. By others, she wanted to go to university. I imagine, too, that she wanted to be in the capitol city where more was happening. I also suspect it was around the time the youngest sister (and the person my mother was named after) Maria Renata committed suicide at age 17, so around 1913.

I don’t know what they did during World War I, but during World War II Nunia was in the Underground Army. She ran a printing press in the basement of her store. Mom also told a story about being forced to leave Warsaw after the Warsaw Uprising. She walked south with many other civilians and insurgents who were being led to a camp. When I asked how she escaped, she said she and Auntie Nunia just walked away. As she described it, there were so many people and lax security so they were able to just separate themselves and hide in a village. Why was she with her aunt? Where were my grandmother and grandfather? I don’t remember these details. Maybe I didn’t think to ask these questions.

I’ve found a couple of interesting documents for Maria Weglinska on Ancestry.com. The first shows her on the passenger list of the ship “Ile de France” that left LeHavre, France on April 27, 1951 and arrived in New York City on May 3rd. Under “nationality,” “Polish” is crossed out and she is listed as “stateless.” The other is a US naturalization record dated July 17, 1956 and listing an address in Roslyn Harbor, the same town my grandmother and mother would have been living in at the time. I don’t know what she did between the end of the war and the time she came to the US.

Auntie Nunia/Maria Weglinska

Auntie Nunia/Maria Weglinska

By the time I knew Nunia/Hanna/Anna/Maria, she was living in Norwalk, Connecticut on the second floor of an old house. We visited often, all six of us piling into the car for the 1½ hour trip. We parked on the street. The house was above street level, and a retaining wall of round stones separated the raised lawn from the sidewalk. Inside, a narrow, dark wood staircase led up to Nunia’s place. She always kept hard candies in a covered crystal candy bowl. There and at her daughter Teresa’s were the only places I ever ate Polish food. My mom never cooked it; she said she didn’t like it. Nunia, however, was an amazing cook. I remember the mushroom barley soup and gołąbki (stuffed cabbage) particularly. She also made the most incredible apple strudel with a lattice top. My brothers and cousins all talk about it. It seems we all remember that apple strudel. The memory has faded, but I think the apples were chopped and maybe precooked a bit, like they are in Polish szarlotka. I also picture large granules of sugar sprinkled on top, but I’m not sure about that anymore. Even though we ate ourselves silly while at her apartment, Nunia always packed sandwiches and fruit in paper bags for us to eat on the 1½ hour drive home. Somehow, I always ended up eating something right around the halfway mark on the Throgs Neck Bridge. Often, I fell asleep leaning against my oldest brother Ron’s shoulder.

Once, when I was very young, may be just five or six, I went to stay a few days with Auntie Nunia. I got homesick and started crying so my dad had to drive back and pick me up earlier than planned. And once, when I was maybe eight, Nunia came to our house to take care of us while my mom went to the hospital for an operation. We loved having her there, but she was much stricter than mom. One day, she told me to sweep the living room. I refused, saying Mom never makes me do things like that. So she sent me to my room, saying I should stay there until I decide to sweep. It didn’t take me long to come out and sweep. She didn’t say anything more to me about it.

Both my parents loved Auntie Nunia. My mom said that Nunia was there for her when her own mother abandoned her. This happened at least twice in her life. The first time she was only two or maybe four, and she and her brother George were left with Nunia when Babcia went off with Zygmunt Bereda. Mama remembers being frightened by a swing in the hallway of the apartment. The second time was when Mama was a mother of four young children, and Babcia moved to Puerto Rico. Auntie Nunia stepped in and acted like a mother/grandmother to us. Babcia and my dad didn’t much like each other, but he loved Auntie Nunia. He said she reminded him of his late grandmother, to whom he was very attached.

Nunia showing off her figure at her great-granddaughter Ricky's wedding. From the left, Teresa (Nunia's daughter), Babcia, Nunia, and my cousin Alexandra.

Nunia showing off her figure at her great-granddaughter Ricky’s wedding. From the left, Teresa (Nunia’s daughter), Babcia, Nunia, and my cousin Alexandra. July 1979, when Nunia was about 93.

Nunia lived alone in that apartment in Norwalk until her early 90s. She would walk every day. She remained slim, explaining that she always leaves something on her plate. Around the time I started high school, Teresa persuaded her to move with her to Florida, but she never liked it there. She died in 1984 shortly before her 98th birthday.