Essays

Symbiosis in Warsaw

Ola Szczecinska

I have come to Warsaw to keep from losing my memories

Photographs by Eric Witsoe


If I’m still alive in two months I’ll take you to Kampinos forest. The air is good there. Not like here, the air here is poison. You can’t feel good in the city: you have to be with the trees. You have to be in the forest.

It is 2009, Warsaw, and I have come to live with my grandmother.

Grandma is eighty-six years old and she lives alone. She has cataracts in her eyes, emphysema in her lungs, angina in her chest, arthritis in her joints.

I don’t yet have any of these things: I am twenty-nine, single, unemployed. I have just finished two years of teaching English in Tokyo and don’t have anything waiting for me in Toronto, where I’m from.

The two of us are spending the winter sitting on two wingback chairs in her living room, slowly walking together to St. Zygmunt’s church on Sundays, and shopping at the outdoor farmer’s market across the snow-covered park.

We eat and talk by the window of her tiny kitchen, watching sparrows and starlings flicker in the sky. We drink raspberry syrup that Grandma makes, tea made from linden leaves that she picked: “From the countryside, where the air is cleaner.” She crunches dried leaves into my cup.

She tells me her war stories.

This is why I have come: in Etobicoke—the suburban neighbourhood where I grew up—life had been easy. A house and a car, a fridge filled with milk and cheese and meat. Summers by the lake, bicycle rides through safe, peaceful streets. Blueberry Eggos for breakfast and a television set that was always on, emitting recorded laughter.

I am certain that I am soft, adrift. I feel lost in the world—rootless—a dreamer carried away by the slightest wind. We left Poland when I was two years old, in 1982. Since then I have seen my grandmother only a handful of times, and I don’t feel I know her. My memories of her are random, scattered, unconnected. Flashes of her walking me to school in Etobicoke, along icy sidewalks and knee-high snow. A fragment from a summer visit to Warsaw, of my sister and me flinging her cabbage pierogi to the sparrows from the balcony, her outraged eyes and shouting. I have memories of her drawing on her eyebrows before church and wearing round fur hats; of her scolding my grandfather for giving us coins; of her gripping my hand tightly as we walked alongside busy roads.

I remember also intermittent phone calls, at birthdays and Easters, when long distance talk was expensive, special, and the sound of a double ring had everyone in the house in a kind of panic, jumping from their seats, racing down the stairs or bursting through the bathroom door, lunging for the phone before its ringing stopped.

Those phone calls were difficult for me, strained. Too much small talk about school, health, and the weather; too much struggle to find the right Polish words.

Now, finally, I have a chance to spend some time with her, to really get to know my grandmother, my babcia. Now I can weave those disparate threads together, can learn from her, grow. I have come here because my mother had asked me to, in an email, as I was preparing to finally leave Tokyo. But the longer I stay the more I realize why I’ve really come: I am a young grasshopper, in search of a master. And Babcia can teach me how to become a warrior.

But now time is short, and I worry I have left it too long.

Inside the apartment is a clock that hangs on the kitchen wall: it is large, round and loud. The apartment is silent except for this clock and it fills the gaps of Babcia’s stories with its steady ticking. It drums in the background, follows me around. It stalks me through the rooms as I go about my day, then hovers over my bed when I lie down for the night.

When I was younger, how I used to run around! All day long, all over Warsaw. Here I’d go, there I’d go, by bus, by foot… all day long, never a need to stop. Now? I can’t even take a few steps without running out of breath. Can you tell me why?

After the war, Babcia left her wooden house with a roof made of straw. “What didn’t we grow there?” She raises her eyes to the Virgin Mary, to Jesus, the God Almighty.

Apples, blackcurrants, raspberries, cherries, apricots, sunflowers, parsley, beets, potatoes, dill, onions, thyme, cucumbers… Chickens, cows, dogs, pigs and roosters.

“Did you have horses?” I ask.

Babcia nearly spits up her potato sauerkraut soup. “Well of course we had horses! How do you think we did anything back then, without any horses?”

This was in the nineteen-twenties, thirties and forties. Elsewhere in the world towers had sprung and roads had been paved. Markets had crashed. Cities had burned. People were flying through clouds.

But my grandparents’ farm sat quietly on a field in Krzemień-Wieś, as always. Magpies sang from their rooftop in the mornings. Linden leaves rustled. Along the green primeval banks the winding Bug River murmured.

“Not like today! They just ride their tractors and the work is done, and still they complain about ‘too much work.’ Before the war do you think we had tractors?” She lets out an indignant laugh and shakes her head. “What work? Riding a tractor? They have too much time now, that is today’s problem: too much time, not enough work. Back then we had only our hands. And our horses.”

“Poor horses,” I say, as I stir my steaming soup.

Babcia looks like she wants to hit me. She lets out another short laugh that sounds like a shout. “Poor horses? Poor horses?” She shakes her head in amazement. “Horses are intelligent. They have to work.”

I contemplate this seemingly profound statement. Horses are intelligent therefore they have to work. It appears like the tip of an immense truth, an iceberg, reaching deep into the darkness of wise, ancient water.

“I loved my horse,” she adds.

I have never heard her use that word before: love. Or show any outward sign of joy at all. I smile. “What was the name of your horse?”

Name?” She looks at me like I’m crazy. “Name of my horse? I don’t know… Horse!’

“Well then how did you call him over?”

“Well, I would just walk up to him. Grab his reins. Climb up.”

“But dogs had names.”

“Dogs, yes, but never horses. You think horses care if they have names?”

“Do dogs care?”

“Of course dogs care!” We both laugh at this, then she shrugs and looks away as if bored by all this drivel. She points to my soup without looking at it. “Eat.”

We sit in silence a moment, drawing hot soup from our bowls, blowing into our spoons before ferrying them into our mouths. Steam rises; the smell of kielbasa, cabbage, potatoes.

Outside the frosted kitchen window and beneath the white light of a small, distant sun red-tiled rooftops stretch toward the distance; beyond lies downtown, the Palace of Culture and Science, the new Golden Terraces complex and the dingy maze of subterranean walkways. The sky is a pale blue; it is February in Warsaw.

I probe my grandmother with more questions as we finish our soup. She answers:

“What does ‘wanting’ have to do with ‘doing?’ Something has to get done, and you do it.”

“You can never go wrong if you serve God.”

“We used to go barefoot, it’s how we are meant to walk. Shoes were for Sundays: we’d carry our shoes to church with us and put them on only once we got there.”

“The best milk is when it comes straight from the cow, still warm.”

“Soap was only for the body, not the dishes. What doesn’t water clean? You could always use sand if the pot was really that bad.”

“Did we have sinks? What for? Sinks make you lazy!’”

“Milk comes out warm?” I ask. “That’s disgusting.”

Babcia holds her spoon midair, her mouth hanging open. She sets it back down in her bowl and looks squarely at me. “Disgusting?” She shakes her head. “It is the healthiest milk there is. The tastiest.”

We stare at one another, her gaze scorching, and I feel small fires crawling up the sides of my face, licking at my cheeks. “Right. Of course it comes out warm, of course.”

“That’s right, the tastiest. The very best meal you could have in those days was fresh baked bread with a warm glass of milk from the cow.”

Babcia tells me more about life on the farm before the war, and I imagine the hours she spent spinning crops into culinary gold. I imagine the kitchen as a steaming, grease-specked, belching and clanging beast hiccupping sauerkraut and kielbasa soup (kapuśniak), plum dumplings with fried bread crumbs (knedle), stewed pork knuckle (golonka), buckwheat with pork fat and fried egg (kasza), poppy seed cake (makowiec), Jewish chalka buns encrusted with almonds and sugared butter.

Whatever they did not immediately eat, she says, they carefully sealed into jars and stored in the cellar, saving it for the long fruitless winter. Jars collected in the darkness. Garlic and carrots reclined against the glass; stubby cucumbers rested on branches of sweet dill and peppercorns.

Sometimes they’d slaughter a pig, then bury it whole deep beneath the ground where it would remain for months, encased in the cool soil, protected from the ravages of time, space, the wars of men.

OMG you can do that? I want to say. But I stay quiet, nod my head.

Years went by like that at my grandparents’ farm. They sat around the kitchen table and laughed and knitted and played cards. They chased out the chickens when they ventured into the house. They yelled at each other about money and chores. About stupid things they couldn’t later remember.

When the Soviet army passed through the countryside in 1944 they brought their horses into my grandparents’ house. “What kind of people bring horses into a house?” She widens her eyes; her thin pencil-drawn eyebrows rise. She stares at me, waits for an answer.

I shake my head and shrug. War is a foreign country to me where anything seems possible.

“They burned campfires in our barn!” An old anger rises up, takes possession of her face. Her eyes grow wild, her eyebrows lunge toward one another as though ready to duel it out, the sixty-five-year-old memory striking out from the dark. “They were always drunk,” she grumbles. The anger like a gale passes, and her face settles. She pulls a small mirror she keeps on the counter closer, peers into it, tucks some loose strands of grey hair behind her right ear and then abruptly pushes the mirror away, turning the reflecting glass around. “A German would never bring a horse into a house. They were cruel, but very civilized. Not like the Russians. They were kind enough, just barbaric.”

I tell her I need to hear more stories like this, because I haven’t seen her in years, or Warsaw in a decade. I was losing all my memories.

“Did you ever see dead people?”

Babcia yells at me, “What else? Of course! Do you think there could be a war, without any dead people in it? That is all there was, rubble with dead people in it. Piles and piles of them. Dead horses, too.”

Babcia falls silent and we stare out the window. The sky is a winter blue. The rooftops across the way are a bright red. I am sitting at the kitchen counter with my last grandparent as the bells of St. Zygmunt peal through the air, and a murmur of starlings explodes in the sky.

We watch the birds a while. I am mesmerized by how they rise and fall, rise and fall, endless black waves crashing against a red brick shore, rising up again in new and different forms. And I wonder: how do the starlings know where to go?

“We were lucky many times, that is the only way you survived the war. And God’s will. Your grandfather was crazy in Warsaw. He used to run around while the bullets flew by! During the Uprising after he’d left our village. And he used to say, ‘If God forged a bullet with my name on it, that bullet would find me no matter where I hid.’ So he’d run around like that, bald-faced, while all the bullets flew by. Lunatic.’ Babcia chuckles and shakes her head. “And he was right, he was.” She looks directly at me, her eyes grown serious: “There is no hiding from God.”

I nod.

“Another time the front was coming, to our village.”

“The front? Was coming?” The word is the same in Polish as in English, but for some reason I do not recognize it or immediately see how a front comes to a village.

“Yes, the front.” She waits for me, but I am stuck at this word, unable to move forward with her. “The front. The war? You know, the Germans and Soviets fighting?”

And suddenly, clear as day, two opposing armies rise up in my mind as they roll into my grandmother’s village to face one another, their green uniforms, artillery and guns firing on either side. The image clicks into place. “Oh, the front.”

Babcia nods. “So the front was coming. Of course nobody knew that, but we were lucky because a German stationed in our village warned me, said: you better leave right now. I don’t know why he told me, but we left right then, I ran back home and grabbed everyone and left—”

“How did you leave, by car or horse?”

“By foot! That’s the only way you got around then. Even in 1952, not long after we moved to Warsaw, there was nothing. I walked twelve kilometres while carrying your mother one day, to the hospital because she was sick. That’s just how we got around back then, every day at least four kilometres. And nobody complained! That’s just how it was, so you did it; you don’t know how easy you have it. Anyway when we got back to the village, that time…” Babcia looks away, shakes her head slightly and looks outside. “People dead everywhere. I don’t know why he told me… but we were lucky he did.”

“Maybe he liked you. Thought you were pretty.”

“Ha! Yes, maybe.”

“What was his name, do you remember?”

Babcia looks at me like I’ve lost it again. “Herr Who-Knows.” She reaches for the mirror once more, glances at herself then swiftly turns it around and pushes it back. “Or maybe he liked me because I knew German. He was a good one. Not like the SS who lived in our house.”

“The SS who lived in your house?” My blood runs cold. How does an SS officer come to live in a Polish peasant’s house?

“Yeah, the SS who lived with us.”

“There was an SS living in your house?”

“Yes, there was. And he was terrible, oohhh.” She enacts a shudder.

Once again I feel we’ve reached an impasse, a locked time-language barrier that I don’t have the codes for. What I want to understand is: why and how the hell was there an SS officer living at your house? What my grandmother seems to be hearing is: oh really, there was an SS officer at your house? I try one more time. “Why was there an SS living in your house?”

She looks at me as though she’s not sure I am using my Polish words correctly. She speaks slowly, clearly: “Because there was an SS living in our house.”

I let this one go, make a note to Google it later on. (I learn that soldiers often occupied private homes during the war and this, too, suddenly crystallizes into an image in my mind. Of course they did: where else would millions of soldiers go?) I ask about the SS and she tells me he was cruel, that everyone stayed away from him, barely met his gaze. She laughs and tells me that he liked to sit in their only chair and smoke, luxuriating in his exhalations, blowing smoke rings while staring at her father, who loved sitting in that chair and loved smoking, and who stood cigarette-less, watching. She chuckles. “Because you couldn’t get tobacco anywhere then. Drove my father crazy.”

I do not know very much about my grandmother’s father, Pawel, aside from the fact that he was an alcoholic his whole life, until finally one day he could not take himself to the liquor store because his legs gave out. Owing to my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s resoluteness—they refused to buy him booze—the end of his mobility spelled the end of his drinking life. This is a fragment my mother has handed down to me, the only one that exists of him in my mind.

Now, sitting in Babcia’s kitchen, with its permanent smell of pickles and propane, I am handed a new fragment, a new thread to weave into the tapestry of my memory of my great-grandfather, one in which he is wilful, strong, able. She tells me he built a bomb shelter with his brother, behind the house. “They did this secretly at night, while that SS slept inside. If he had caught them… ooooh…” She shudders again.

“What was the bomb shelter like?”

Babcia shrugs. “It was like a bomb shelter.”

“Well what did it look like?”

“Like a hole in the ground! What else does a hole in the ground look like?” She looks down, smooths her apron. “We were lucky he did that; we hid down there for three days straight one time, no way could we have survived without that shelter.”

I ask what they did down there for three days, while the Nazis and Soviets and partisans bombed and shot and gassed each other somewhere above their heads.

“What do you think we did? We sat there. We waited.”

I push; I do not let this one go. “You don’t even have a single memory from being down there? You must remember something. Not even a scrap?”

Babcia looks to the ceiling, scanning it for memories. I glance up as well: I see chipped paint, a white ceiling with a few cracks in it.

“Well, I remember my cousin had just given birth. We gave her all our food, and we didn’t have much. But we gave her all of it and still, she couldn’t make any milk, not any. And that baby cried and cried… oh my God, how that poor little thing screamed the whole time…” She gets up from her chair and looks down at me, haunted, her fingers resting on the counter for support. “It is better not to talk about certain things.”

“How did you survive any of it?”

She eyes the starlings outside, forming a black-beaded rosary in the sky. “I told you: luck and God.”

“No. There’s more to it than that: you survived it.” I look earnestly into her eyes. “I would have died,” I say solemnly.

Babcia glances down at me, sees how serious my face is and for some reason knocks her head back, howls. Her aged raspy laugh lights up hundreds of wrinkles, her skin like weathered earth cracking.

After the war, they left the village and bought an apartment in Warsaw. My grandfather took wood from the bombed-out buildings nearby and made new furniture by hand. “He made this stool you’re sitting on. And that table.” She scans the tiny kitchen and nods to the cupboards. “Those too. He made almost everything we needed.”

I smile at the thought of sitting on my grandfather’s stool, and expect my grandmother to fall into a moment of sadness. Because I have. But she doesn’t, and instead she is looking at the clock and muttering about her medicine.

I used to have such blonde hair, I don’t understand it. How can your hair just change like that? It was so blonde once, so blonde. Not even that long ago.

When March comes Babcia begins to feel worse, and I catch cold. She complains about how dark it is, that she feels drunk, says she can barely keep herself sitting in her chair.

“You should lie down,” I tell her. “It’s this long winter. We’ll both feel better in the spring. We’ll go to the forest.”

“Ha,” she says weakly. “You might have a cold, but that’s different. This is the end of me, I know it.” She reminds me of the number for the ambulance and where her overnight purse is. She asks me to stay with her.

Nonetheless it is she who sets out to heal me. She rummages through her pantry, retrieves small metal tins with dried leaves and herbs, jars filled with syrups, fermenting vegetables and roots. She brews me thyme tea, offers me vodka with pepper, hot beer with lemon juice for my cough. She makes me soups, pushes vitamins in front of me, slices up bread and slathers on thick coats of butter with raw garlic.

One day she decides to make me carrot juice and we slowly walk to the market together. It is a five-minute walk for me, but it takes much longer with my grandmother. Every few minutes she stops abruptly and tries to catch her breath. She clutches at her heart, her skin pales, and I watch as panic and fear rise up in her eyes. I stand with my hands in my pockets, eyes on my shoes, kicking at the snow. I chew on my lip and wait in agony for the moment to pass.

When we get to the market I follow her to a stand where two farmers wearing down coats—a mother with a daughter roughly my age—are selling vegetables and fruit from the back of their truck. They rub their hands, blow into them, smile and greet us as we approach. Babcia picks up a carrot. She examines it, slowly scratches some of its skin off with her old yellowed thumb, then licks the insides quickly with her tongue—like a snake—flickering it in and out. I look at the farmers with alarm, but they continue bouncing in the cold and blowing into their hands, waiting for the verdict. “It’s sweet,” Babcia mutters. She looks up at them: “We’ll take four kilo.”

When we return home Babcia processes the carrots in a juicer and pours out two glasses. “Drink.”

I take the glass and we drink the juice at the counter, looking out the window at the rooftops, at the sparrows flitting through the sky. The clock ticks and she eyes it. She reminds me that the midday news will be coming on soon so we’d better get to the living room. “Then after we’ll say the rosary.”

I do not feel like saying the rosary—I never do—but I oblige; my company, after all, is what I have to offer.

When we finish praying I am bored and a little tired and I wonder what I should do. I watch my grandmother slowly get up from the wingback and walk over to the cabinet from which she pulls out a journal. She returns to the chair with it and spreads out the newspaper, reads a bit, then with a shaky hand opens the journal and begins writing.

“What are you writing, Babcia? A letter?”

“The events.”

“The events?”

“Yes. From the news today. So that I know for later what happened.”

I watch a while as she diligently scans the articles in the newspaper, trails the sentences with her finger, looks up thoughtfully to the ceiling, then returns her attention to the notebook and writes. I ask myself what excuse I have, for not writing, for not caring about “the events,” when I have so much more time and energy to work with. What’s the point, a voice in me replies. I sneak outside for a cigarette.

The winter passes by in this way and I do begin to feel better. But Babcia doesn’t, and I spend much of the time walking to the pharmacy for her, paying her bills at the credit union, walking to the market alongside grey postwar apartment blocks, through cold wind and barren trees, returning with bags of cucumbers, sliced ham and apples. There are dogs without leashes, old people in furs, guarded and weary glances.

Other mornings I go downtown where I sit in cafés with my laptop, drinking cappuccinos, smoking cigarette after cigarette until I’m strung out and jittery. Then I bum around Warsaw’s bookstores, visit war museums and memorials, attend public talks on collective memory; Jewish-Polish relations after the War; monuments as discourse and political spaces: I struggle to follow along. Inevitably as evening comes I end up at a bar, alone, drinking beer or sipping cherry vodka (wisniówka) on the rocks.

“You are drunk,” Babcia says to me one evening when I return.

She looks angry and so heartbroken that I lie. “I am not. I only had a couple.”

“Only a certain kind of woman stays out past dark,” she says. She shakes her head sadly, sends me a sidelong glance.

But I smile. “Don’t worry, Babcia, times have changed. Everyone goes out at night now. Anyway, I really don’t usually drink that much.”

She tries to read my expression, gauge its veracity. She nods.

One evening I go out after the news, leaving my grandmother to recite her evening rosary. I tell her I’m going to an internet café to speak with my friend from New York. I tell her this is cheaper than talking by phone and that I can see my friend’s face in the monitor.

Babcia looks confused and asks what the difference is between a computer and the internet. I explain and she shrugs. “When we were young we were always outside. Now you all just sit inside all day, with this computer-internet. What’s going to happen to all of you?”

I kiss her on the cheek as I leave.

“Go with God.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

It is dark out, quiet as I make my way to the subway. Lights and television sets flicker through sheer curtains of the old postwar blocks. Dogs bark in the distance.

For some reason I begin thinking that I’ve never killed a chicken or ever pickled anything. I feel a sudden panic and I think: tomorrow. Tomorrow I will do that. Pickle something, that is, not kill a chicken. I will go to the market and buy some carrots, beets and turnips. And maybe some mushrooms. Then I will ask my grandmother to show me how, and we will spend the afternoon together. Pickling.

I understand why we all have to die, I do. I understand that we have to go to God. But explain to me: why do we have to suffer?

“Your uncle was a communist.”

We are sitting in the living room waiting for the weather report to start at 7:25. Babcia shuts the TV off for commercials, and we are sitting in the two wingbacks, staring in silence at the blank screen.

“What? Uncle Michał?” I am surprised. He is a devoted Catholic. The first day I flew in to Poland he took me straight to church where he knelt at a pew with his eyes tightly closed, forehead resting on his folded hands, feverishly mouthing a silent prayer. The following day he took me on a tour of Warsaw, during which we visited every church and cathedral in the Old Town. By the fifth or sixth church I declined to accompany my uncle in the pews and lingered outside by the doors, smoking.

“He was no Catholic back then!” She turns to me stiffly with her arthritic neck, nods meaningfully. She is wearing a pair of dark oversized sunglasses that take up half her face—the light of the television hurts her eyes—and they make her look a little dangerous, like a mobster.

I admire the sunglasses a moment, brown and wide framed. They look like they’re from the seventies, and I want them. “You weren’t a communist, though,” I say finally.

She turns again to me with those big sunglasses, crinkles her nose and puckers her mouth like she’s bitten a sour fruit. She sticks out the tip of her tongue.

I smile. I cock my head a little, narrow my eyes. “Not even for a moment?”

Ha!” She shakes her head, no way. “Every single election without exception we cast an empty ballot. Well, until 1989 of course.” She glances down at her hands, stretches her skin, smooths out the wrinkles until they are gone, then watches them spring back into place as soon as she lets go. “Everyone did that.”

I look back toward the blank screen to process this revelation. Empty ballots every election. Everyone. A feeling of excitement rises up from my stomach: a new golden thread.

We sit in silence a moment, both of us lost in thought. Above the television there is a shrine to the Holy Family, a portrait of Mary, of Pope John Paul II (“Our Pope”), and two of Jesus: one filled with soft light in which he stands with his wounded hands outstretched, looking very sad, and the other kitsch, his heart large and red like in a Valentine card, emitting a bright beam of super-healing golden light. A cross hangs above all of it.

It is quiet, except for the muffled sounds of the neighbour’s television and the steady ticking of the kitchen clock.

“What was it like when it collapsed?”

Babcia shrugs. “We were happy at first. Communism was bad.” She pauses, turns to me. “But is this so much better?’

I sit very still, waiting for her to continue. I expect an affirmation to come, some kind of reluctant concession to the current system, an acknowledgment of all the good free market democracy has brought. But nothing comes.

“‘Democracy.’ Ha! Back then at least everyone was cared for, and everyone worked. Now? Everyone is just robbing everyone else.” She shakes her head, looks down at her pink beaded rosary and thumbs the tiny silver cross. “Poland is going straight to the dirt, believe me. Along with the rest of the world.”

She gazes toward the balcony and I follow with my eyes. It is night and we can see our distorted reflections in the glass balcony doors staring back at us. The rest of the room is reflected, too: the floor lamp and Babcia’s bed, the lacquered wooden cabinetry that takes up an entire wall. There are embroidered linens housed in those drawers, old Communist identity cards, and coins engraved PRL: Polish People’s Republic. There are black and white photos of my grandfather standing upright on a charging horse, of my mother as a teenager staring into the camera with her arms crossed, and of people that I do not know, never met, cannot remember.

There are other things. A sky-blue wind-up alarm clock, marked MADE IN USSR; columns of decades-old journals filled with my grandmother’s forceful handwriting; stacks of tiny address books dating back to the fifties that she still won’t part with (“You never know,” she says to me); ivory figurines of elephants and lions from her trips to South Africa; silk scarves; my mother’s school notebooks, covered in her first shaky attempts at cursive writing; old furs that smell of mothballs; tweed skirt suits that Babcia still wears to mass on Sundays; amber, silver, turquoise; love letters from my grandfather from his days at the shipyards; war medals, stale chocolates, and lush ostrich feathers. The cabinet is stuffed with stories; it swells with memories.

On the rare days that Babcia goes for tea next door, I immediately sit on the carpet by the cabinet and explore its compartments. I eat the chocolate, I smell the embroidered linens. I gaze at my grandfather’s passport photo, try to read his old letters.

On one of these days I take the small blue clock out and wind it. It ticks and for a while I stare into it. My mind becomes still, the room fades, and I imagine all the invisible threads woven around the clock, the hidden stories orbiting. I go to the dining room where my bed is and slip it into my suitcase.

Why is everything so dark? I can hardly see anything today, everything seems black, in shadow. Even you. Have you turned off the lights?

Babcia dies alone in the hospital two months after I return to Canada. My parents and I have just flown back to Toronto from my sister’s wedding in Cuba, and guilt and sorrow wash over me.

For weeks I agonize over my decision, wishing I had stayed in Warsaw just a little longer, been at her side as she departed. “If only I had stayed,” I say to everyone.

“She was a strong, proud woman,” a friend replies one day. “She probably preferred to die alone.”

I try to accept these words as the right way of seeing things, try to bury my regret inside them. For years I try.

Time passes though, and I move into my first bachelor apartment, then move again with my partner to the other side of the continent. Every now and then I pick up the small blue clock and I wind it. Its ticking fills the room as I stare at it—MADE IN USSR—and I recall my grandmother. Her face rises up at my call, and I see her as she was: resilient, steady, buoyant.

What does wanting have to do with doing? Something has to get done, and you do it.

I close my eyes, try to make more room for her to expand inside me. I close my eyes to better remember how she weathered the days: always walking, cooking, writing, praying. Always working, always moving.

I feel my way forward through the years as they come, I try to get the days right. I stop smoking, stop drinking all the time. I set out to grow new roots, and forge a meaningful life.

And I try to do what she did when the days come in too hard: I try to let all that time, like waves, crash and break against my bones.

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