As serious as kielbasy: Discovering what drew out the serious in Gramps

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY – Anyone who knew my Grandpa Cichon knew there was a certain joyfulness in his voice– always. His heart was always smiling, and that showed through in his voice. I might count on one hand the exceptions in the 36 years I knew him.

Gramps trying to look serious in a photo for his Harness Racing Commission license.
Gramps trying to look serious in a photo for his Harness Racing Commission license.

One notable time was when the full service gas station guy screwed him on the amount of gas he pumped into Gramps’ car. Gramps probably asked for $5, which he figured should have about filled up the tank. We barely got a block up Seneca Street when Gramps threw on the brakes and made a hard u-turn back towards Petro USA.

“You goddamn horseball!,” Gramps screamed out the window, as my brother and I barely contained our laughter, sitting on the red plush seats in the back of the black 1985 Pontiac Bonneville. We’d never seen Gramps like that, and I think that’s pretty much the only time I ever saw Gramps really mad. Again, it was also one of the few times I saw him more serious than filled with joy.

Now gramps was blind, and didn’t around well for the last few years of his life. Some men in that situation would want, say, booze snuck into the nursing home. Not Gramps. Donuts or hot dogs with slivered onions and sweet relish were all he wanted. I’d usually bring him one or the other, sometimes both.

Over the course of 90 minutes, I’d hand him 3 or 4 timbits. Once I made a joke or said something stupid about donuts. Again, one of the few times I ever heard him this serious. “Son,” he told me with the tone of life and death at stake, “Donuts are as good as gold.” I was satisfied there was nothing greater I could do for him than visit and bring chocolate timbits.

The “beautiful” food they served was always a topic of conversation. Food was Gramps’ all-time favorite subject, perhaps a left over affect of growing up in the Depression when there was never enough to eat. The last time I visited with Gramps, he was talking about how they’d served kielbasy that afternoon. Kielbasy is the Polish plural of kielbasa, and we’ve always called Polish sausage (ka-BAAS-ee) in my family.

I wasn’t sure what to think, though, when Gramps’ tone turned a bit hushed and he got somewhat serious, maybe as serious as I had heard him since he bawled out the South Buffalo gas station guy almost 30 years earlier.

“Now son,” he started, with a gravity which set me on the edge of me chair, straining to get close and make sure I didn’t miss anything. “Son, what’s your favorite? Do you like the smoked or the not smoked?”

The most serious conversation I’d ever have with my beloved grandfather, the man who my Uncle Tom called “the best polack who ever lived,” was about “kielbasy.” Polish sausage. Good ol’ Edziu wanted to know my freaking Polish sausage preference. It’s really about the most marvelous thing ever, really.

“I usually take one of each, Gramps,” I said, telling the truth, but also not wanting to really show my hand and potentially disappoint Gramps in something that was obviously so important to him. But then I gave up the goods. “If I had to choose one though, I’d probably take the smoked.”

“Me too,” Gramps said to my relief. “Know how I like it? Burned up a l’il bit, with horseradish mustard on rye bread. My ma used to make it the big pan with the lard for the pierogi. She made the pierogi big, and cooked ’em in lard, not butter.”

With Easter upon us, there’s been plenty of social media talk of Polish sausage. All I can think about is Gramps’ favorite– kielbasa on rye bread with Weber’s mustard. I’m doing it this Easter. I’m bringing the rye bread and Weber’s just to make sure.

I’ll bite into that Old World combination of flavor, and think happily of Gramps. The hunk of kielbasy won’t be fried up in lard, but that sounds like something maybe to look forward to sometime soon.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. The operator of Buffalo Stories Tours writes about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo special at blog.buffalostories.com and daily at buffalonews.com/history. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor and produced PBS documentaries. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.