|I've never drunk coffee or tea. People ask me why. I never tell them. |
My Vow: I Will Never Be
My final week in Poland, a movie scene kept playing
on the screen suspended in my mind. Especially persistent was the soundtrack, a
street accordion cranking out the wistful Piaf ballad, "La Vie en
Rose." The scene is from Billy Wilder's 1954 film, "Sabrina."
Hepburn is Sabrina, the daughter of a chauffeur, in love with an unattainable
rich boy. Her father has sent her away, to learn to cook. It's a Golden Age
film, shot in a Hollywood studio; no one got anywhere near France. And yet, as
classic films could do, "Sabrina" evokes Paris, makes you feel Paris,
more intimately than many a modern film shot on location.
conjures the City of Lights with a few, low-budget waves of a black-and-white
magic wand. You see the Eiffel Tower rise outside the cooking school's
artistically rounded, antique window. You hear a French accent from a chef in a
tall hat who sadistically ridicules failed soufflés but worships well-made
My last few days in Poland, I kept remembering this
scene: Sabrina sits in the spherical halo of a desk lamp. Even though this is a
black-and-white film, you know the lamplight is golden. Outside her window glow
the ghostly, bulbous marble domes of the Sacre-Coeur Basilica. On the street
below, a busker performs a bittersweet rendition of "La Vie en Rose."
You can tell from her erect and yet comfortable posture how
serene Sabrina is, and you can tell that Paris has taught her this contentment.
In a voiceover, Sabrina speaks the letter she is composing to her father. She
has completed her schooling, and is about to return to America. She is plainly in
love with Paris. She can handle leaving, though, because Paris has graced her,
and she will carry that special Parisian grace within her for the rest of her
How did they lure my mother onto the flowered ox
cart? A necklace of flowers around the ox – just like in a pagan child
sacrifice. Did they admit to her then and there that she'd never again see her
beloved grandmothers, the women who showed her love, love that, by all
accounts, her own mother stinted? That, like millions of other peasants, up and
down Eastern Europe, she was leaving the green and earth of home for American
soot and smoke? Or did they lie, as adults and life so often lie to children,
and claim that it would just be a short ride, little one, you'll be back in
your own bed by nightfall?
One must not romanticize the
village, or peasant life, but the village my mother left to come to American
exploitation and coal really was paradise. She had not yet put in an
eighteen-hour day in the fields. She had not yet been put in her place by the
powers that be, either Hungarians or aristocrats or Nazis or Soviets. Her
village was blue sky, a clean river where children swam, the cuckoo's call
through dense woods, the castle, her grandfather's beehives, her father's
sheep, the folksongs and the legends and the Hasterman who haunted waterways at
night, the self-sufficiency of adults who could accomplish anything with their
own bare hands, from treating tumors with garden herbs to building a house, and
a love that enfolded her. She got to go to school in the village, and she
scored the highest grades. She had a mind, and would accomplish impressive
intellectual feats someday. She marched in pilgrimages and she was "the
prettiest girl in the village."
Then the ox cart. The
train station. The ship, the nauseating voyage, celery soup, soot, coal, no
more school, cleaning rich people's houses. Slowly realizing that that would be
her entire life.
Phone calls were impossibly expensive.
When we finally visited, I don't remember any of our relatives actually owning
a telephone. Calls were monitored by authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.
I remember receiving censored letters. I remember receiving letters that
intimated what could be said, and what could not be said.
those memories. All that love. All that longing. All those immigrants and all
those who loved them. Bottled up. Forced down. Choked back. Denied. Buried. Where
did that energy go? No wires to transmit it. Unwept tears. What dam could hold
them back? My mother dreamed of walking home with her brother across the
My mother buried two sons who died in the
prime of life. I don't remember her crying. I remember her cleaning house on Wednesday,
August 21, 1968. I remember her suddenly stopping and sitting in front of the
television. My mother stopping work? Impossible. She didn't even sit down to
eat. Even more impossible were these: tears on my mother's face. On the TV
screen: tanks rolling into Prague. I stood still, and stared at my mother. The
image emblazoned itself into my brain; I've never forgotten it. I learned a big
lesson that day, and I can't put it into words, except these words: my mother, stopping
work, and crying, as she watched tanks rolling into Prague.
was no way that this could happen, but it did: I was alone with my mother when
she died. Given our history, there were a number of portentous items on our
agenda. What did I do, what did I say? I swept other themes aside. I spoke to
her in Slovak – what little I know. I played "Fujara from Kokava," a
cassette of Slovak folk music. I reassured her that she would soon reunite with
grandmothers in black babushkas, chicken-thief uncles, the Jewish boy next door
who saved her life when she was drowning in the river Nitra, that boy the
Germans took away, her aunt who beat collaborators with her broom – with these
she never stopped loving and had left irrevocably, forever ago, she would soon
reunite. And she would return, too, I promised, to the prettiest girl in the
village, the one with her future ahead of her, who would accomplish great
intellectual feats someday.
During this summer's visit, I
was stunned by how much Polish I remembered. I was stunned when Poles said a
sentence to me, and I understood it, and then another sentence, and I
understood that, as well, and then a third. I wondered if this were a trick my
mind was playing on me. Before I left, I considered purchasing a phrase book so
that I would be able to navigate train ticket kiosks and souvenir shopping. I
was stunned when I could summon not just the words and even the grammar for
"My name is," "How are you," "How much does that
cost" and "Where is the toilet," but also for "Make
yourself comfortable" and "It would be better if you could take
advantage of this" and "You can order my book from Amazon." I
was stunned when Poles asked me, "How did you know that difficult grammatical
form?" I looked at them and said, "I don't know it. I don't speak
Polish at all."
Remembering Polish meant remembering
my life. Remembering my life before graduate school, the attack by the crazy
professor, getting sick, being sick for years, losing my life savings, all of
that white-collar evil that knocked my life completely off course. That was the
last thing I did before graduate school – I went to Poland, and I studied
Polish, my father's language, and I decided to make some contribution to
scholarship about Poles and Poland. Funny how suddenly acknowledging that you
know an obscure vocabulary word, or grammatical form, can force you into a
confrontation with memories you survive by forgetting.
would I remember if I suddenly began speaking French every day, the language I
spoke in Africa? Or Nepali? I'm so intimidated by the prospect, I'm not even
going to experiment.
I felt so at home in Poland. It was
overwhelming. I kept waiting for the feeling to fade but it didn't fade. I felt
an at-homeness that eludes me in America. That doesn't mean I don't feel at
home in America; I do. It's just a different room of home. Poland is another
room. A warm, and cozy, and imperfect room. The heat is too high. I try to open
the window to let some fresh air in, and the woman with the child in her lap
complains. The air becomes a bit stifling. But I am familiar with, at home
with, that kind of air. I remember it from childhood, from my Aunt Tetka's
house: too much antique furniture, rugs, knick-knacks, curtains, yet more
curtains, too many meals, too little fresh air. But very good pastry. And if
you can get them to sing, and the slivovice always gets them to sing, they know
all one hundred verses of the folksong.
Does the internet make
things easier? Or does it lure us onto new ox carts, into crying new tears?
During this visit to Poland I spent time with Krystyna and Malgorzata, whom,
previously, I had known only from the internet. I "met" Krystyna
online, after reading the hauntingly titled "Lost Between Worlds," a
memoir by her father, a Holocaust survivor.
in Krakow, I received, too late, a handwritten note inviting me to meet
Krystyna and her daughter Nikki for dinner. I rushed to the old town, knowing
I'd arrive an hour after the time she'd suggested we meet. I had no idea what
Krystyna looked like. The Rynek Glowny – main square – was thronging with
tourists. I passed within four feet of two women. The little voice said to me,
"That is Krystyna and Nikki. Greet them." I hesitated. I thought,
that would be too weird. Approaching two strange women in this mob and saying –
what? In what language? That my little voice told me that these were the women
I was rushing to meet? The two women passed. When Krysytna, Nikki and I finally
connected I realized that that indeed had been they. Whatever had transpired
between Krystyna and me via the internet had created a connection strong enough
that in a crowd of hundreds my path would skin hers and I would recognize her
We spent a couple days together; one evening we
sat around laughing over pizza. It was the kind of night that's supposed to end
with, "See ya later." But a canyon demarcated this evening. It was time
for Krystyna to board her plane to France; Nikki would fly to England. I clawed
at the minutes, greedily. I wanted these women as next-door-neighbors. I did
not want just internet. I demanded in-the-flesh. We live in three different
countries; I realized we might never again share gossip over pizza. We said
goodbye on Ulica Florianska. I surprised myself by crying, and by actually wanting
to hug. I'm one of those non-huggers; I usually just hug out of politeness. I
wanted to hold on, not to let distance have them. But I had to surrender.
a Pole living in Germany, found my work, by chance, through the internet. In
Poland, we cooperated intensely on a public talk about my book. In just a few
days, we had traveled together to three Polish cities. One Sunday night we
stood in Rynek Glowny. Tomorrow she would fly back to Germany; I to the US.
is not a very sentimental goodbye," I observed, peeved.
am not a sentimental person," Malgorzata countered, briskly.
am a writer. She is an accountant.
We were next to St.
Mary's church. When the Mongols invaded in 1241, an arrow pierced the throat of
the trumpeter in this church's spire. His warning call was interrupted. Ever
since, the hour is tolled from St. Mary's church by an abruptly interrupted trumpet
tune, the Hejnal.
Night was falling on Europe's largest
medieval square; mist was rising from the cobblestones into the
stoplight-haloed air. Malgorzata coolly departed.
unsentimental still, she suddenly turned. "I love my country when you write
about it." St. Mary's church bell struck the hour, and, just as
Malgorzata's footsteps died away down a misted Ulica Florianska, the trumpeter
began the Hejnal – that national song of heroism, of sacrifice, a song that
always ends abruptly. This was Poland, and the country would insist on
providing the atmosphere.
I reconnected with two people I
had known when I lived in Poland the year of 1988-89. The man and I had not had
any contact of any kind in twenty-two years. And here we were, seated at a
sidewalk café on Ulica Juliusza Lea, blueberry pastry in front of us, dry
lightning parting the July sky hanging over the fruit and vegetable stalls
across from us, having the same argument we had in 1989, but using different
words. I thought of a poem I had written to him that has remained ensconced in
the cover of my diary for over two decades. Would I have the courage to voice
that poem's exhortations now? The moment never really arrived for those words
in 1989, and it would not come this afternoon. I wondered, did he realize that
there had been dry lightning in our sky that night twenty-two years ago?
hammer of my own heart and the whispered cautions of my own head were both too
loud for me to register this renewed contact. He suggested that we meet again.
I agreed. At least I could attempt to be fully present through our next
encounter. But time and distance swallowed him up. We never met again. I remain
in that place where the wave has taken you, and your heels are over your head,
and you are waiting for the wave to pass, so your soles can nestle on ground,
again, rather than expose themselves to unfamiliar sun. When I am once again
perpendicular to earth, I will have to ask, Did we really even meet? What did
we say? Was it good? Was anything resolved?
Later, I was
seated on a bench outside the Piast student dormitory, chatting with Stephanie,
a Polish-Greek-American from New Jersey. "Polish and Greek?" I asked.
"Open a diner. The Germans will invade." Suddenly, in front of Dom
Studencki Piast, there was Tenia, whom I had met in that very structure
twenty-one years before. Tenia was with her three children. I had met their
father in Dom Studencki Piast, as well. I remember his courting Tenia; I
remember Beatrice Ekwa-Okoko, half Cameroonian, half-Polish, and I vetting this
man as a potential husband for Tenia, right here in Dom Studencki Piast.
jumped off the bench and embraced Tenia. I could hear Stephanie comment,
"That is a very long hug." The world slipped away and it was just Tenia
and I. You're only supposed to say that about romantic relationships.
strolled Krakow. We sought makowiec, my favorite Eastern European delicacy: ground
poppy seeds spiraled between layers of rich dough. My mother used to supervise
me as I baked it, back before the war on drugs when poppy was still affordable
and we owned a cast iron grinder for the seeds. That kind of heavy, specified
kitchen utensil does not respond well to our rapidly moving world and I have no
idea where the grinder is; I miss it every Christmas and Easter, and I miss
makowiec, too. Tenia ran into two friends, and they joined our strolling salon.
Tenia's attention was divided. I realized that she would soon have to cut her
visit with me short.
Aware of that goodbye on the horizon,
I tried to cauterize the pain. I stood up. "I have to go." I thought
I'd escape the bakery quickly and cleanly. Tenia followed me out onto the
street. Her large eyes were red and wet. Interspersing her hugs with little,
aborted speeches, she hugged me once, two times, three – it almost became a
I returned to my dorm room at Piast and
felt I'd been hit by a car. The pain didn't have any words attached. It was
not, "I will miss her so much." It was not, "Remember that fight
we had on that train trip to Bialystok when we ended up in Lodz."
of the toughest goodbyes in my life: the death of my brother Phil, and the
death of my Uncle Jan Cerno. I sat and thought. What if I received a note,
right now, stating that it had all been a mistake, that Phil or Jan had not
really died, but had been alive this entire time, just completely inaccessible
to me? And that one or the other was about to walk into the room and we were to
One might think that such a note would bring
celebratory joy. The return of something very valued, but lost. Instead, I felt
a sense of utter horror. Losing both of them had been so hard. Reuniting with
them would torment me. Why did we lose all those years, all those years when we
could have been together? Sealing over the wound with an insensible scar was
too much work. That scar is my investment, and I will remain more loyal to it than
to the promise of contact that might quiver with pain.
my best moments during this trip to Poland. I was rushing down Ulica
Karmeliczka in the early morning hours. There were few people. A middle-aged
woman, short, with short, dyed black hair, was walking toward me. She was
shuffling items from her wallet. She dropped something, and moved on. Was she
dropping litter? That didn't seem like a particularly Polish thing to do.
was rushing and not focused, but I felt I had to pick up the item the woman had
dropped. I glanced at it. It was the size of a credit card, and it looked
official. "Prosze," I mumbled, halfheartedly. The woman kept moving
away from me. "Prosze pani," I announced, more forcefully. The woman
turned around. I did not move toward her; I held out the item. She stepped
closer, focusing on my hand. She sprang to life. "Oh!" she exclaimed.
"How could I have?" She took the item from my hand, and, never
looking at me, just kept saying, "How could I have lost this?" and
I don't think she ever realized that I was
just a tourist. She had dropped something evidently important, and on the
almost empty dawn sidewalk I happened to pick it up and return it to her, in
response to an inner prodding. I kept walking my way, she, hers. If I had not
traveled thousands of miles to that anonymous encounter, she might have lost
that important item. I don't know.
I don't drink coffee or
tea. People think it's weird. They ask me why. I never tell them. Here's why: I
grew up in a town of immigrant laborers. My mother's friends would come to the
house, sit around the table, drink coffee or tea, and the lament would begin. I
remember isolated words: my old man, the kids, the priest, the boss, lousy
rotten ingrates, cancer, what are ya gonna do? I swore: I'll never be an
immigrant, and I'll never drink coffee or tea, because I don't want this pain.
I was never an immigrant. I never rode the one-way ox cart; I always purchased
a round-trip ticket. But I always knew it would be my destiny to be a traveler.
And that pain finds you, no matter how rapidly or glamorously you move.
thank editor Daniel T. Weaver for including this essay in Upstream Two,
available on Amazon here.
Culturally aware Polonians will purchase Upstream Two; it is a celebration of
The website for Upstream Two is here.