dresser with silver accessories

Helena Stories.

*Image above features mini’s great-grandmother’s pierogi recipe — written in her own hand and framed as a reminder of good roots. And ICYMI: I also published a holiday gift guide for men today.

For several years, Mr. Magpie and I owned a home in Ukrainian Village on the West side of Chicago. The neighborhood was startlingly authentic in the sense that you could buy the best kielbasa sandwich you’ve ever had for $5 from a rundown little Polish deli around the corner from us, many homes prominently hung Ukrainian flags out front, Masses at the local Catholic Church were often said in Eastern European languages, and, in the small West Town branch of the public library, entire shelves of the diminutive toddler board book section were devoted to titles in Ukrainian and Polish. It was a vibrant area with a strong sense of cultural identity, and it thrilled my mother-in-law, whose Polish roots shone proudly on each visit to see us. On what would be my parents-in-law’s final trip to Chicago (we would move to New York six months later), mini had just been born, so we spent much of our time at home or on brief walks around the neighborhood. One evening, paying homage to my mother-in-law’s heritage, we ventured out to Podhalanka, which The Lonely Planet travel guide correctly describes as “a hole-in-the-wall holdover, a true mom-and-pop joint (with owner Helena up front and husband Jerry in the kitchen).” TimeOut Chicago also astutely captures its no-frills, old-timey vibe as follows: “When we say Podhalanka has an ‘old world’ feel, we mean old world in that ‘premodern comforts’ kind of way. Not that this dive doesn’t have electricity, but it is dark.” This spot is a throwback. It almost feels like you’re eating in your distant great-aunt-once-removed’s basement in Eastern Europe twenty or thirty years ago, especially given the oddly placed couch flanking one wall. The menu is, of course, in Polish, with only the barest of English translations beneath: “rolled stuffed beef” and “pork stew” suffice. The food is, of course, excellent. We feasted on pierogi, golabki, nalesniki, stewed meat, and a cabbage soup the proprietress insisted would be good for me in my postpartum condition. She also made an enormous fuss over one-month-old mini, who snoozed through the majority of our visit in her infant carseat. The owner could not stop exclaiming over her in Polish, placing her hand over her heart, looking up at the ceiling in wonderment. And we beamed back. My mother-in-law was positively in heaven, eager to tell the owner about her Polish roots and reminiscing about the pierogi her own grandmother used to make.

As we, full and happy, prepared to leave, the owner came back over to our table and wordlessly tucked a ten dollar bill under mini’s carseat strap. We thanked her while attempting to press the bill back into her palm, but she shooed us away. “May God bless her,” she said simply. “May God bless her.”

When I looked over at my mother-in-law as we departed the restaurant, she was crying. We didn’t speak about it, only squeezing hands in the tacit way you show affection and understanding to a loved one farklempt with emotion. But I could see the contours of something enormous in her tears, and it looked a lot like heritage, neighborliness, and the ties that bind. How is it that a stranger could express such profound glee at the good fortune of our daughter’s birth? How is it that she could show such unexpected generosity, likely ceding the entirety of the tip we had left her? Her gesture represented the inaugural deposit we would make in mini’s savings account, and isn’t it astounding to think that a kind neighbor was the first person to invest in our daughter?

In the face of the many uncertainties of 2020, it has been reassuring to think back on Helena at Podhalanka, and to remind myself to dial in on the local. I am sure many of you have similar stories of the unexpected kindness of a neighbor, too. If you have a minute today, please share your own Helena story in the comments.

P.S. Finds I am obsessing over here.

P.P.S. More stories on heritage, neighbors, and roots.

P.P.P.S. Things I love about my daughter and things I have learned from my mother.

14 Comments

  1. I’ve thought often this year about what it means to truly “love thy neighbor”. As is usual with your stories I find myself deeply lost in my own memories! Most recently my very own nextdoor neighbor has inspired me in her many kindnesses and the deep friendship we have forged especially during Covid!

    We moved in this past December (on what I’ve since found out was her birthday—the day before my own). What a joy it was to have her walk over with her three kids, amidst our unpacking frenzy. I felt such peace and excitement for our kids (her four and my son to be three). I remember her telling me she’d be dropping off dinner that weekend and she did—a feast! Salad, a hearty soup, dessert a lasagna! Oh my gosh how loved and welcomed we felt! To this day as close as we have now become when her daughter runs over a few fresh baked cookies or a loaf of bread I just feel so grateful and inspired by their never ending neighborly-ness.

    1. !! What an incredible introduction to your new neighborhood, and what a kind person! Thanks for sharing this here.

      xx

  2. What a beautiful story and a reminder of what really matters in life – who we are, where we come from and kindness above all else. Thank you for sharing. Xo

  3. Last year I took a solo trip to Italy. I was battling some stomach issues from the beginning & things took a turn the morning I boarded a train from Bologna to Parma for a private prosciutto and parmigiano reggiano factory tour. Before my guide picked me up I had thrown up several times. After I had gotten sick in her car and at the cheese factory (I managed to hold it in during the tour) we decided I couldn’t go on. Instead of dropping me off at the train station, she took me to her house where she let me rest on the couch, made me tea and packed a lunch I could take back with me when I was ready to eat.

    I’ll never forget her kindness and how she treated me as if I was one of her own children. Thank God for the Helena’s in this world!

    1. Oh my gosh – what an incredible story. I love the way you describe your “Helena” here, “treating me as if I was one of her own children.” What a good-hearted, generous person. Thank you for sharing this.

      Also — private prosciutto and parm tour!? Stuff of dreams…so sorry you had to miss out on that!

      xx

  4. What a lovely story Jen! I so enjoy your story telling ☺️ The kindness I thought of happened years ago. I was a student in Toronto and in line at the nearby grocery store. I had managed to misplace my wallet and – perhaps sensing my panic? – the woman ahead of me paid for my little pile of groceries. It wasn’t a lot, but the gesture meant so much to me, especially as a student away from home. Made me feel a little less alone in the big city!

    1. Oh my gosh! What an incredible gesture of generosity and goodwill. So sweet. Thank you for sharing that!

      xx

  5. I love this story! My ancestry is half-Polish but generations removed. I have always considered myself fully American, and I am. I never knew a relative who was born elsewhere. But, I get curious from time-to-time on the cultures of my ancestry, and it starts with the food! I love kielbasa and pierogis, so I will need to get that recipe!

    I also have been wanting to shop more locally. No Amazon and no made in China, as far as I can help it. Thank you for the introduction to Dudley Stevens (made in the USA!) over the weekend and your small business gift shopping round-up. I am also thinking of gifting some candles from Antique Candle Co., and especially in honor of Veterans Day this week, I purchased some extra bags of ground coffee from Scars and Stripes as gifts. Love their coffee and you can choose a veteran to support each time you shop.

    1. Hi April! Yes, totally agree that food is such an accessible way to celebrate/honor/participate in a culture! And thanks for sharing Scars and Stripes — had not heard of them and what a fantastic organization/concept.

      xx

  6. A few years ago, my then one-year-old son was having a full-blown tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. There was nothing I could do to console him. Of course, people were staring, I negatively assumed to look for the inadequacies in my parenting. I quickly made it to the check out line and the cashier came around and gave me a hug and said “you might not feel it right now, but you’re doing great.” She then quietly went back to her station and resumed her duties, saying nothing more. It meant so much to me and I think about it often when I see parents struggling with their children. We all deserve that kind of reassurance because we ARE all doing great.

    1. Ah, Amy! I absolutely love this. It reminds me of the time a few weeks ago I posted something about totally failing as a mom (trying to get Emory to a dentist appointment) and was so humbled by the number of fellow moms who reached out to say: “You’re doing great. This happens. You got this.” So moving! What a lovely woman to have gone out of her way to encourage you at that moment.

      xx

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