Pears on a Willow Tree is a multigenerational roadmap of love and hate, distance and closeness, and the lure of roots that both bind and sustain us all.
The Marchewka women are inseparable. They relish the joys of family gatherings; from preparing traditional holiday meals to organizing a wedding in which each of them is given a specific task whether it's sewing the bridal gown or preserving pickles as a gift to the newlyweds. Bound together by recipes, reminiscences and tangled relationships, these women are the foundation of a dignified, compassionate familyone that has learned to survive the hardships of emigration and assimilation in twentieth-century America.
But as the century evolves, so does each succeeding generation. As the older women keep a tight hold on the family traditions passed from mother to daughter, the younger women are dealing with more modern problems, wounds not easily healed by the advice of a local priest or a kind word from mother.
Amy is separated by four generations from her great-grandmother Rose, who emigrated from Poland. Rose's daughter Helen adjusted to the family's new home in a way her mother never could, while at the same time accepting the importance of Old Country ways. But Helen's daughter Ginger finds herself suffocating within the close-knit family, the first Marchewka woman to leave Detroit for the adventure of life beyond the reach of her mother and grandmother.
It's in the American West that Giner raises her daughter Amy, uprooted from the safety of kitchens perfuned by the aroma of freshly baked poppy seed cake and pierogi made by hand by generations of women. But Amy is about to realize that there may be room in her heart for both the Old World and the New.
About the Author
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of Pears on a Willow Tree. Her short fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including TriQuarterly, Shenandoah, and The Iowa Review. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
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Pears on a Willow Tree
By Leslie Pietrzyk
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Leslie Pietrzyk
All right reserved.
Amy -- 1988
After I moved to Thailand to teach English to rich schoolchildren, my mother took up letter writing, and often she enclosed old photographs with her letters. "Remember when we took this picture?" she'd write. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't.
Of all the photos she sent, I kept only one, a picture of my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and me, six or seven years old, lined up in front of my great-grandmother's stove, taken maybe twenty years ago.
It was my great-grandfather's camera. Just before he pushed the button, I remember him saying, "Four generations of Krawczyk women. Will you look at that."
My great-grandmother said, 'These are Marchewka women," using her maiden name. "That's who we are, Marchewkas. Marchewka women." As she spoke, she squeezed my shoulder hard, pressing almost down to the bone, and I wasn't used to thinking of myself as part of this tiny, tightly made woman I saw only once a year.
My great-grandfather took the picture, and the four of us stepped apart, shaking back our hair, plucking at our clothing, bending away smiles. Someone checked on my sleeping baby brother, maybe the phone rang.
We were at my great-grandmother's house because she was surprisedmy mother had never learned how to make pierogi, Polish dumplings. "There's no secret," my great-grandmother said as she opened and closed kitchen cupboards, barely glancing in them to set her hands on exactly what she wanted. "Don't all the time be looking first for shortcuts." I loved how she talked, her thick words like blocks stacking into a story.
"There must be a secret," my mother said. "Some special trick you can show me."
"No," my great-grandmother said. "No secrets. Everything is here in front of you. Just watch. That's the secret, for you who must have one. Watch and listen."
My mother tied an apron around her waist. "I'm watching," she said. But I saw her face turn to the window. She didn't care that she'd never made pierogi.
My mother didn't like Detroit; and as soon as she could, she'd left for the farthest place she thought of, which happened to be Phoenix. She loved the flat, wide city, the desert enclosing it like a moat. When she said, "Valley of the Sun," you could almost see it the way she saw it, waves of sunlight rolling down the mountains to collect in a warm shimmering pool.
But once a year she went back to Detroit.
Everyone in my mother's family lived in Detroit or its close-in suburbs: aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, great-aunts, great-uncles. Any relation you could think of. Our stay in Detroit was a string of visits to houses that smelled and looked identical, musty dollhouses left behind after the little girl grew up. You could count on finding the same things inside each: A glass dish with cellophane-wrapped candies on the coffee table. One or two lamp shades still shrink-wrapped in plastic. The freezer packed with Tupperware and old bread bags holding enough food to last two winters.
Conversation in these houses moved around and around in loops, but it never tightened into a knot. Or maybe we were the ones who didn't fit. After all, their news was shared over cups of coffee in the kitchen instead of through mimeographed Christmas letters jammed last-minute into a card. We were always "Ginger's kids, way out west," and no one from the family came to visit us.
Many times I asked my mother why she left Detroit, and sometimes she said "always that same gray sky overhead" and other times she said "too much bustle" -- but once she told me she had to escape the clock on the fireplace mantel. My great-grandmother had given it to my grandmother as a wedding present, and it struck every quarter hour, the chimes stretching themselves longer and longer as the quarters passed, and my mother said there was never a moment that she was not aware that time was slipping by, and that every chime meant something had been lost. I remembered that clock on my grandmother's mantel, but I liked following its steady march through day and night.
My great-grandmother rolled up the sleeves of her dress and smiled as she gave me a small knife and a mound of mushrooms to slice. "Do you cook, Amy? When I was a girl, my mother took sick one winter, so it was me and my sisters working to feed a family of eight three meals a day."
"Amy bakes cookies," my mother said.
My great-grandmother said, "Cookies won't feed a family. You pay attention now, learn yourself some good cooking."
"We can be thankful she doesn't have to feed a family," my grandmother said.
"There was no choice for me, Helen," my great-grandmother said. "If I didn't cook, we didn't eat. Life was simple that way. There were two choices only, cook and eat, don't cook and go hungry. No, like this," and she took the knife from me and turned the mushrooms into tiny pieces with a quick tick-tick-tick.
I watched my mother and grandmother pass a look between them, each blaming the other for what my great-grandmother had said.
'Those are the old ways, Ma," my grandmother said. "Times have changed." They seemed to be words she'd spoken many times.
But my great-grandmother continued: No one said so, but we all knew. There was no shame in only two choices, living or dying."
My mother stroked my hair. But things are different for us," she said. "We have choices." She was almost talking to herself, not to me, not to my great-grandmother, who moved around her kitchen, finding a frying pan, unwrapping a stick of butter, no pauses to stop and think what to do next.
My grandmother said, 'Are we here for pierogi or nonsense chatter?"
Then my great-grandmother dropped handfuls of flour onto a wooden slab, sending up a white cloud that made my mother twist and sneeze into her shoulder.
Excerpted from Pears on a Willow Tree by Leslie Pietrzyk Copyright © 2006 by Leslie Pietrzyk. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very good book about 4 generations of Polish women.
The story of the close knit Marchewska women beginning with Rose emigrating from Poland to Detroit in 1919 and bearing 4 daughters. Her mother dies soon after her departure, and in her grief she creates and enforces an environment of dependence and loyalty to family that holds firm for years. The families grow larger; living in the same neighborhood, seeing each other every day, shopping together. And the women spend hours in their kitchens preparing, cooking, canning and baking all year long. It is Helen's daughter, Ginger, who breaks the mold and escapes what she feels is an overbearing, stifling and racist family environment in which everyone is expected to think the same way, do the same thing, day in and out. She moves to Phoenix and remains there returning only to visit every summer with her children. But the price she pays for the guilt she suffers for abandoning her mother and family is very high. A good read about a strong, dynamic family of women who are there for each other but cannot understand or accept change.
It was interesting reading about the Polish culture. Did not have any knowledge of that cultural before reading the book. It was a good book .
I wrote this author because I loved her book so much. I think that she had a window into my life and feelings, because it touched me in so many ways. Simply terrific!
I found this book insightful and fun. I learned about the stubbornnes of the Polish American.