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Love—Good Cooking—Leona | Julie Labuszewski

“Where’s the rolling pin?” he asked.


“Let me look,” I said, sliding open kitchen drawers.


Tom, my husband, darted into the basement then reappeared clutching a five-foot wooden pool cue.


“This will work,” he said.


He wiped the pool cue with a damp dishtowel, dusted the countertop with flour, then used the wide end of the cue to roll out a chilled ball of pie dough: the crust for our Christmas apple pie. He made it earlier that morning—a mixture of flour, salt, Crisco, and ice water—the same ingredients his mom relied on.

As he maneuvered around the pool cue, for a fleeting moment I saw his tall mom, Leona, making pie in our kitchen, speaking freely, telling me all the stories of her life.


***


I met Leona in 1996. Tom and I—newly engaged—flew from Denver to Buffalo to spend Thanksgiving with his family. I stayed in the front room with his mom’s 1948 cast iron Singer sewing machine. Tom got his childhood bedroom with his sci-fi books from middle school.


Early the next morning, I stood in Leona’s harvest yellow kitchen in my pink plaid flannel pajamas. We were the only ones up. While she whisked eggs in a mixing bowl, I entertained her with a story about the wildness trekking class, where Tom and I met.


As I was just about to get to the punch line—that Tom’s the only guy I’d ever met who wore an altitude watch—Leona turned toward me, opened her arms, and hugged me. I had never felt so welcomed by a mother’s touch.


“I just love you, Julie,” she said.


***


I looked forward to Leona’s visits to Colorado. She taught me how to make golumpki, stuffed cabbage with ground beef and rice, a popular Polish dish.


“Peel off the leaves one at a time,” she said, using a fork to gently lift a translucent leaf from the blanched cabbage head.


I jotted down each step and saved it with my Italian grandma’s recipe for pizzelles, traditional waffle cookies originating in Southern Italy.


Another time, she showed up with a potty-training seat for our three young boys. It played music when they tinkled.


***


Leona and I talked nonstop, our conversations livelier than a polka.


“Do you want to change the baby’s diaper or should I?” she asked.


“I found Joseph’s rabbit,” I announced from upstairs.


“I told Thadeus he can call me Babcia, because he might as well learn one word of Polish,” she said.


“Leona, any ideas for dinner?”


***


In 1911, Leona’s parents immigrated to the United States from Poland. Leona was born in 1923, the third of six kids. They spoke Polish at home.


Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, her twenty-three-year-old brother, Thaddeus, enlisted in the U.S Army Air Corps.


“He wanted to defend his country,” Leona said.


He was a sergeant in the Eighth Air Force based in Bremerton, England, a waist gunner on a ten-person crew manning a B-17. Four missions in, they got shot down. Her brother didn’t survive.


That was June 25, 1943. Thaddeus was twenty-four. Leona, twenty.


“My mother couldn’t read English, so I read the telegram to her,” she said.


***


Our oldest son, Thadeus, named after Tom’s uncle, barreled through the kitchen. His younger brothers followed.


“Boys, slow down!” I yelled.


***


In March 1944, Leona married Ed, a warrant officer in the U. S. Army Air Corps. They moved around the Midwest for his training—Louisville, Kentucky; Wichita, Kansas; Lubbock, Texas. At one place, Leona worked at a factory cracking eggs.


“We made powdered eggs for the men overseas,” she said.


Powdered eggs, a request from the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation during World War II, were nutritious, lightweight, and did not require refrigeration. Just add water.


When Leona’s husband was sent to England to fly military glider planes, Leona moved back home with her mom on Third Avenue in North Tonawanda.


“We had a dryer fire in that house, so Julie…don’t ever leave the house with the dryer running.”


***


Leona mentioned her father-in-law often. He lived with them for ten years.


“He was always the first one to greet Ed at the door when he came home from work,” she said, irked by the memory.


I had heard about him from Tom.


“Dziadek means ‘grandfather’ in Polish,” Tom said. “We shared a room together. My grandfather slept on the bottom bunk and I slept on the top bunk.”


***


One day, Leona told me the secret to making the perfect apple pie.


“Use the recipe on the Tapioca box,” she said. “It holds it together . . . when they slice it, it won’t be runny.”


I noted that in the cookbook she gave me as a gift, The New High Altitude Cookbook. On the opening page, she inscribed, “To the greatest daughter-in-law! Cooking at the elevation in Colorado is a challenge, hope this helps—lots! Love—Good Cooking—Leona”


***


Before she passed away in 2008 at the age of eight-five, Leona had baked an apple pie for the Sikora American Legion Auxiliary, a group she joined in 1949 to support the veterans. The pie was cooling on a wire rack in her kitchen while she was en route to the hospital. At her funeral, the Sikora veterans arrived in uniform, gathered around her coffin, and saluted her.


***


Tom handed me the pool cue. He set an empty glass pie plate on the counter. With both hands, he carefully lifted the flattened circle of dough, hovered it over the pie plate until it was centered, then released it.


It fell lopsided and landed over the edge of the pie plate.


“Damn it,” he said.

 

Julie Labuszewski’s writing has appeared in The Write Launch, The Maine Review, Prose Online, among others. She holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Nebraska and works as a marketing copywriter in Colorado.

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