A Cultural Experience Out My Back Door by Melanie Hendrick

Good Friday.  What comes to mind?  To me, this day is as important as Christmas Eve and day because it was the birth of Jesus.  Good Friday on the other hand, is the symbolic day that Jesus was betrayed by his disciple and would soon be nailed to a wooden cross that he was forced to drag to Calvary.  A crown of sharp thorns was placed on his head thereafter, and when he was thirsty, a wet rag doused in vinegar, was raised to his dry, scorched lips. Not exactly the nicest way to die, but if not for His death and rising, this Christian holiday would not exist. Now I am aware that not everyone believes in these Biblical principles, but to tell my story today about culture, food and faith, it is essential to recount the aforementioned as well as a bit about my personal background.

I was raised a Protestant, mostly by my mother, since her father was born, raised and worked in the coal mines of Wales until he was twelve years old.  I suppose he was tired of this dangerous and difficult life and like many, moved to America, and eventually met my maternal grandmother, a woman of English descent. I am sure that my own cultural background is why my mother believed in the faith that she did and raised us as such. The only thing was however, we did not attend church.   So, my first church experiences were from my Catholic neighbors who had five children in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where I was born. So from them, I learned church songs that they sang in the Catholic Church and then I often mimicked them as I played church at home with my sister. We used the bathroom hamper as the pulpit in our small hallway.

When I was eight years old however, my parents moved us to a small, waterfront city in Massachusetts.  There, most of my friends were Catholic and of Polish, Italian and Irish descent. A small percentage of them were Jewish and Jehovah Witnesses. So in this small, New England city of roughly 17,000 people, everyone knew everybody and no one cared what your background was.  The multicultural, multireligious group that I hung with in mostly middle school, just wanted to do well in school, be in student government, have sleepovers on Friday nights and eat pizza at the local Papa Ginos when there was nothing else to do.  My upbringing and childhood friendships provided me with such a culturally rich advantage, that I suppose this is why it is my choice to take my daughter to worship in a Catholic Church every Good Friday.  Additionally, her biological Dad was of Polish and Czechoslovakian descent and he was raised Catholic.

I have always wanted my daughter to be aware of her roots on both sides of her family.  So, starting in about the 6th grade, although I was teaching in a private, Protestant, and very Evangelical School, and she was attending there, we started driving to Hamtramck to delight in eating Polish food at Under The Eagle, and then buyng my birthday cake and other goodies at a local, Polish bakery.  From there, we attended a Catholic Church that was having a Good Friday service.  This has been our tradition for nine years now.

Today, my daughtger ate the Polish combination plate as I delved into the stuffed cabbage at The Polish American Restaurant, Wawel, at the corner of 15 Mile and Dequindre. We we sat in a large, square room with paintings hung high above us of Polish leaders for various decades.  The elegant crystal chandeliers and other old, fashioned lighting towered above our heads.  There were several window displays on one wall adjacent to us with samples of Polish, dance dress, dolls in authentic, Polish costume and an accordion.   I said to my daughter, “See if you were raised in Poland, you would know how to play one of these fine instruments.”  She did not appear as impressed as I was with the display as I was snapping away with my camera. We paid while admiring the ostentatious, I assume, hand carved, dark wooden entrance that appeared to be a twisting grape vine with delicately, carved wooden bunches of ornate grapes. The cashier said, “Thank you” in a very thick, Polish accent.  The sound of her voice made my heart sing as I thought in my head, “I just love this part of Michigan.  So many cultures right out my back door.”

We left and drove directly across the street to the Polish Market.  Wow, of course it was incredibly crowded as we spied the long line to the left of us while looking at each other in surprise.  My daughter said with excitment, “Come on Mom, you have to be part of the Polish experience.”  So instead of trying to hunt down that Martha Stewart recipe for homemade pierogis in Living magazine somewhere on my shelf at home, we walked over to the frozen food freezer, opened the door and started repeating aloud, “Look, mushroom, cheese, potato and cheese,” when a woman behind us tapped my daughter on the shoulder.  “You know, she said, there are homemade pierogis over there at the end of this cooler.”  “Really,” we exclaimed.  “I take a bit of bacon, some onions and sautee them together. Then I add the pierogis to it and put it all on a cooking sheet in the oven to heat it up.”  So, that was soon the end of the frozen food freezer as we slammed the door and with a, “thanks so much,” dashed over to buy a dozen potato and cheddar pierogis.  Next we walked and checked out the back room with its innumerable jars of sour cherries, “good for gout I thought,” and other jams, jellies and chocolate, liquer filled cups.  We found our knotted egg rolls and and whole grain Warsaw bread while waiting in the long line and chatting at the same time with the other ladies in line.  “Is is just me, I asked my daughter, or do you notice how other woman delight in the pastries, breads, rolls and lamb shaped butter more with their hands than with their eyes?” I could tell by her expression that she better understood my fascination with good, food from around the world.  The line went fast and in a New York minute, we were on the road trying to find St. Blase.

“Gee, I said, I have never seen this neighborhood before as a sign for Sterling Heights popped up to the right of us.  Darn, I passed it and of course, had to turn around.”  The parking lot was packed and as we entered the back door. We knew we were late.  Some people were sitting outside the churches glass doors, so we sat and listened to the sermon through a loudspeaker system.  As others came in and decided to enter into the chapel, I said, “Let’s go in.” There are some seats over in the back.  We sat, kneeled, prayed, sang and worshipped for an hour.  I will admit that we did not take communion from the communal cup, since we are both concerned about germs and illness especially during a bad flu season.  This is no disrespect to the Catholic Church, just a cold, hard reality in this Michigan, March season.  As we were singing, I looked across the aisle and there was one of my former customers that I had taught Spanish to.  She smiled as we silently mouthed a, “hello.”

We ended the day at home by baking carrot cake cupcakes with creamed cheese frosting. Then we decorated the cooled cakes with the new fake, green grass made of sugar, water and food coloring, jelly beans and yellow, marshmallow Peep chicks.  I prepped the onions, caramelized them with sugar, Worsteshire sauce and a bit of bacon I crisped up in a frying pan.  My daughter took a nap while I made sure the table was fully set with fine, china passed on by my mother-in-law, elegant wine goblets, and a basket filled with dyed eggs and a white bow made of taffeta.

Another Good Friday that may not happen next year, since my daughter is attending Western Michigan University in the Fall.  I thought, “At least I have exposed her to her background and set the tradition for her to pass on for as long as she has lived here at home.” I do hope that she passes on the cultural experience out her back door with her children.