Back at the start of June the Peonies were in full bloom, announcing the arrival of another summer. But those beautiful blooms mean more to me than the mere start of summer. They are a living reminder of two people who were significant in our lives.
These Peonies along our front walkway were propagated from cuttings taken from our next door neighbor's plants that still line both sides of the driveway. My plants were started 30 years ago and are thriving still, much as the memory of Karol and Emma,then our neighbors, still thrive in us.
Karol was a slight man, 5'6" and 135 lbs. soaking wet (which he often was because of the backyard pool he and Emma enjoyed so much), but strong as an ox. He immigrated to this country from Poland after WWII, and eventually settled here after getting one of the manufacturing jobs in the abundant factories that made this city so vital back in the 50's and 60's. Emma, a German immigrant, was exactly as you would picture a German hausfrau, short, somewhat round, with gray hair pulled back tightly in a bun at the back of her head. They met here and married late in life, both being near 40 years old when they finally got together. Emma often joked that Karol was probably responsible for her first husband's demise in the war, since they were on opposite sides, just so he could have her for himself. Karol never denied it, and, I think, secretly enjoyed the possibility of such heroic action. The truth was that Karol was a POW for three years of the war in Germany. He got along well during that time because of his blacksmith skills, which were much in demand during the war.
After they met and married here, they both worked at full time jobs, Karol in a factory maintaining the machinery, Emma as a cook in an exclusive downtown club for businessmen. They lived frugally and saved their money until they eventually had enough to build the house next door. By the time we moved into our house, Karol and Emma had already been retired from their jobs, both being in their 60's, and were enjoying the best time of their lives.
Whle some people can be said to have a "green thumb," Karol must have had a green body with green blood coursing through his veins. His backyard provided enough space for him to cultivate a garden that was approximatley 150' square, in which he grew every imaginable vegetable. That garden occupied about half the backyard space; the other half had a variety of fruit trees, bushes , and vines including apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, and currants and still had enough room for that above ground pool.
Karol was a great advocate of the natural way of gardening, even going so far as to use natural mosquito repellant when in his garden. He would break off a head of fresh garlic and munch on it like an apple. He claimed that all that garlic in his system made him unattractive to the mosquitos, which stayed a good distance away from him. Of course, no one else wanted to get too close to him either when he finished munching his garlic.
The vegetables Karol grew fed them throughout the year, since he dug a root cellar in a storage building to keep the carrots and potatoes and other root crops fresh through the winter. All the fruit trees, bushes, and vines provided the raw material for his wine and more distilled drinks he was so fond of. I was fortunate enough to have sampled apple wine, cherry wine, pear wine, currant, raspberry, strawberry, grape and even rhubarb wines over the years. All of those wines were also distilled into brandies for those special occasions that required a more serious libation.
Karol and Emma had a wonderful relationship, but of course, as most married couples, had their disagreements and minor confrontations. I like to think they got through those episodes because they each reverted to their native tongue at such times. If Karol, as husbands somtimes do, stepped over the line, Emma would berate him in her native German, a good portion of which would safely pass from ear to ear without making a comprehension stop in Karol's head. He, if he felt intrepid enough, would respond in Polish, much to Emma's chagrin. They made it through those disagreements due to the lack of total understanding of all those words hurled about. They never stayed angry long, both realizing that life was too short for such nonsense.
Both Karol and Emma spoke heavily accented English, his with a Polish influence, hers with the gutteral German background. But with a lot of pointing, head nodding and shaking, and wild gesturing, we were able to communicate and formed a bond that was more than just neighborly. Emma, always wise, was a surrogate mother for Mary. Karol filled the gap left by my father's early death, giving advice and a life's philosophy without ever setting out to do either. He was a great advocate of, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it. If it's broke, fix it. If something needs to be done, do it. If a problem arises, solve it. Whatever needs to be done, do it. Hard work is its own reward." I like to think that I embody some of that philosophy in my own life due to his example. I hope I give homage to Karol whenever I "just do it" without complaint.
Both Karol and Emma were naturalized citizens of this, their adopted country. And as new citizens of the US, they were exceptionally proud and patriotic. After all, as Karol often said, America is the land of opportunity. He was a prime example of that. To Karol the greatest holiday of the year was the Fourth of July. On many a 4th we would pull out our lawn chairs and sit at the end of his driveway to watch the fireworks set off a few blocks away at the local high school. Being a special occasion, Karol would provide bottles of his best vintage brandies, and with each spectacular display of skyward explosions, he would pour us each a shot and toast, "to America". As the fireworks continued, more and more of those shots of "serious libation" would dribble down our chins, while Emma and Mary clucked at our foolishness. But, truth be told, I never felt more patriotic than at those times when Karol, a Polish eimmigrant, would toast, "to America" with fervor and gratitude and the faint hint of a tear in his eye.
One of the great legacies Karol and Emma left was the very positive influence they had on our two children. Carrie and Jonathan learned that older people have a lot to offer. Karol and Emma were another set of grandparents to them. From the time they were both little, Carrie and Jon learned a great lesson in life by valuing their relationship with our older neighbors. They all grew very fond of each other and Karol and Emma loved those kids like their own. The language barrier never seemed much of a problem, as it probably made the kids listen more carefully to what was said. I know that having known and loved Karol and Emma, both my children are far more appreciative and respectful of the elderly.
As always in life, death visits inevitably. On a late May morning, Emma called us frantic with shock. Something was wrong with Karol. While I rushed over there, Mary called the paramedics. I found Karol lying on the floor in the bathroom, foam sputtering from his mouth with each labored breath, his eyes rolled back. He had suffered a stroke. Praying he could hear and understand, I told him to be strong, that help was on the way. And indeed, within minutes the paramedics arrived to take charge and rushed him to the hospital. Karol languished for three days in the hospital, never fully regaining consciousness. In my visits to him, I assured him that we would do all we could to take care of Emma. Karol died on a late Spring day at the age of 78, right around the time the Peonies were in bloom. On the day of his funeral, on the way to the cemetary, his funeral cortege passed by his house so that we could all revel in the magnificent blooming display of the Peonies he so loved.
Emma lived in their house for another 6 years before she was able to rejoin Karol, but it was never the same without the garden that she couldn't manage herself. During the summer after Karol's death, we, and many of their friends, did what we could to maintain and harvest the garden he had planted before he died. Reluctantly that Fall, we tilled the garden under and planted grass over the once prosperous and bountiful ground.
Now, every year when Summer arrives, when the Peonies bloom in all their extravagance, we are reminded once again of how fortunate and blessed we are for their presence, and rejoice in their origins with our beloved neighbors. As long as those flowers bloom, Karol and Emma will be remembered for the beauty, friendship, and goodness they brought to our lives.