Wednesday, January 15, 2014
At first I am uneasy in the completely new place, with people I don't know, but they are kind and welcoming, especially Grandpa's younger brother, Jurek, who runs the farm. His face is crooked, due to the fact that the lids of his left eye are permanently shut - perhaps sewn together? - over an empty socket. It looks as if someone pressed on that eye with enough strength to push it into his skull, and that emptiness behind is now pulling on the skin of his cheeks, rising the left corner of his mouth in a permanent expression of incredulity.
He seems a better farmer than my Grandma's brother. The farm buildings are well maintained, leaving an impression if not exactly of prosperity, then at least of good work ethic. His two horses are a sight to behold: big, well fed, and well cared-for specimens with shiny coats and long, brushed manes. They are far cry from that old, white mare in Regów, whose back looks like a worn sofa that collapsed after one too many fat person sat on it.
Uncle Jurek - as I am supposed to call him - seems a bit less prone to drinking in excess than what I'm used to seeing in those villages, where vodka tends to flow freely. Perhaps that's the secret behind his well kept farm. I like him more and more, until, one day, I'm sitting with him, my Grandpa, and another farmer in front of his house. The men are drinking vodka, eating bread with smoked pork fat (słonina), while I'm filling my belly with oranżada - a very sweet, carbonated beverage with artificial orange flavor. Jurek's small dog is hanging around, hoping for a morsel of that fat to be dropped on the ground.
The dog is a mutt with quite a bit of Chihuahua in him, and Uncle Jurek is adamant that this dog is purebred. so the two men start teasing him about it. "If he's a Chihuahua, how come he has a tail? Chihuahuas don't have no tail!" After a bit of back-and-forth over this Jurek grabs the dog with his big hand, goes to the barn to fetch an ax, places the dog's tail on a tree stump, and chops it off, leaving about an inch. The dog runs away, yelping in pain and terror, and does not show up for two days. "Now he's a damn Chihuahua alright!", laugh the men, pouring another round.
I'm so angry at Grandpa then when an opportunity arises to rattle his chains, I grab them with both hands. The three of us: Uncle Jurek, Dziadzio Miecio and I are coming back from the forest, where we cut into pieces a large tree that had just been felled by the local forester. We're riding, unhurriedly, on a lorry piled high with branches and pieces of tree trunk, pulled by Jurek's pair of horses. The men are shooting the breeze when suddenly their conversation veers onto the Russkis and how they are keeping the Polish nation enslaved. I see my opening.
"Say what you might about the Soviet Union, but the fact remains they they liberated us. Without them, we would probably all have been exterminated by the Germans."
This is like jabbing a stick into a mound of fire ants.
"What kind of bullshit is this? Is that the kind of crap they teach you at school?? Shame! Don't they teach you about the Warsaw Uprising?".
I push the stick deeper.
"What about it? The uprising was just a suicidal gesture that accomplished nothing while sacrificing thousands of young people."
"You don't know shit! Our young people were being slaughtered while the Red Army stood on the other side of the Vistula, giving the Germans time to finish us off!"
"There were not enough Soviet soldiers to attack. The Uprising was simply badly timed."
I see my grandfather's face turning crimson, veins on his neck and forehead bulging, spit flying as he speaks.
"You dumbass! I can't believe this! Don't you know any better? Do you believe everything they tell you?"
And so it goes for a few more minutes, temperature rising, until I find myself flying through the air, with a great pile of branches and tree trunks tumbling right behind. One of the wheels hit a hole in the road, tipping the overloaded lorry over. Thankfully, no bones or necks are broken, and the conversation is over. Not a moment too soon - I so enjoyed the ease of pushing my Grandpa's buttons, that I almost started believing this crap myself. It will take us till sunset to load the wood back in sulky silence and bring it home.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
What makes these camps an unattractive proposition is that they feel so much like school. In fact, we are housed in elementary schools in small towns far away from Warsaw. Our camp counselors are often local teachers looking for a bit of extra income during summer vacations. There are no classes and no homework, but unlike school, you don't get to go home in the afternoon; you stay in a classroom, from which desks were removed and replaced with military-style cots.
For the first couple of summers I dread those camps. I feel anxious and lonely, scared of the big kids, and hating the forced routines of doing everything by the clock: waking up, morning assembly, meals, showers (once a week), evening assembly, going to sleep. In my letters I beg my parents to visit me, which they do, up until I am eleven or twelve and stop asking for these visits. In fact, as our life at home fills with more and more tension, I'm starting to accept them at first, and then actually liking those weeks away from home.
The routines are still abhorrent, but at least they are predictable and consistent. I don't need to fear that they will change at someone's whim, earning me punishment for not catching that change in time. The bullies are a constant low-level worry, but I learn to stay under their radar by keeping largely to myself, or hanging out with one or two kids I trust. I'm far from popular, but that suits me just fine. Most importantly, I lack any of the stigmata that makes one a likely target of verbal or physical cruelty: I am not chubby or small for my age; I do not stutter; I do not have a limp or scoliosis; I do not have a weird last name (like that girl, Hanna Kielbasa); I do not wear glasses. I am perfectly average, with almost no distinguishing characteristics, and that makes me all but invisible to both potential enemies and potential friends. This will change in my teens, but for now I am comfortable in my invisibility.
Te camp life is pretty boring. I fantasize about some day going to a Boy Scouts camp, where they sleep in tents they pitched themselves, keep night watch, build their own fireplace, raid another troop's camp to steal their banner, and have all kinds of other cool adventures. I do belong to a Boy Scouts troop at my school, but these camps are much more expensive than the heavily subsidized camps of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I could tell my father wasn't too thrilled about buying me that Boy Scout uniform and all the accoutrements to go with it, so I won't even breach the subject.
I like going on trips, They are usually short: in the morning or in the afternoon we march a few miles to the forest or to the river and are usually allowed to spread out and do whatever we want. Except playing in the river, which has to be done in short bouts, in small groups, and under a supervision of a guy with a whistle. Oh, how I hate that whistle. Being used to playing in the Vistula river as much as I want I can't stand being told that I have only 5 minutes, or can't go anywhere deeper than my knees. This is deeply humiliating, so I simply do not partake and go wander around instead. I find a small field filled with forget-me-not's, so dense that they form a blue carpet. I look for wild blueberries. I look for edible mushrooms, which I will slice and thread on a piece of string to hang by the window, so that the sun will dry them up - they will smell heavenly. I weave small wreaths out of dandelions or short whips out of tall grass. I lay down and look at the clouds above or at the small insects going about their lives in the grass underneath. I whittle small boats out of long pieces of soft, pine bark. I am not bored. I think. I daydream. I am at peace.
Being around other kids is more hassle than it is worth, and sometimes gets me into trouble. One day I am wandering around the schoolyard with a book in my hand, when two boys ask me whether I want to see some naked girls. I hesitate - I don't want them to think I'm scared, but I also think this is pretty bad stuff, so I am scared. They do not wait for my answer, but they do make me stand by the wall, so that one of them can climb on my shoulders and peek through the small window of the girls' shower. He's is immediately spotted and a burst of high-pitched shrieks erupts behind the window.
The boys take flight. I slowly walk away, reasoning that a) it is better to act innocent than be implicated by fleeing the scene of a crime, b) I am, in fact, innocent. A couple of teachers round the corner running fast, and seeing how I'm the only person in the vicinity of the shower window, they grab me and drag me to the camp director. An interrogation ensues, with me maintaining my innocence, and them questioning my presence so close to the place of transgression. I am a really bad liar, so it is probably quite helpful that I can very truthfully deny ever peeking in that window, because the director lets me go. From that experience I learn that in circumstances when one's innocence is not obvious, the instinct to flee should not be suppressed.
Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Other than that, and the small fish we catch in the river, no meat is consumed during summer months, despite the extra energy needed for all the field work at harvest time. We have refrigerators in the city, but this invention has not reached the countryside yet. Besides, one would need a few of those just to store the meat from one pig. Chickens are in their egg-laying period, so not many are available for turning into meals. (The male chickens are at a clear disadvantage here, but their numbers are limited.)
Fall and winter are when almost all the butchering happens. I had a bout of jaundice, thanks to a teenager who ran me over with his bicycle, damaging my liver; I have been released from the hospital and can't go to school yet, so my grandma takes me along on her trip to Regów Stary to buy some meat and sausage. That meat and sausage are still inside a large and very much alive swine, so we have to wait a few days, but when the day arrives I'm allowed to watch.
My granduncle bestrides the pig. With another farmer holding the animal firmly by its leathery tail, he places a crushing blow to its skull with the blunt end of an ax. The animal's front legs fold and it kneels down squealing, at which point a large, broad knife is plunged into its neck from the side. Blood gushes out and collects in a metal basin placed underneath. It won't be wasted - it will be used to make kaszanka, a kind of sausage made of buckwheat, ground liver, and blood. I will watch my cousin stir the blood in the basin with his bare hand - red, steaming liquid reaching above his wrist - to prevent clotting.
I'm repulsed and horrified, but also very curious, so I will watch this to the end. A shiver runs through the pig's body and then the creature is still. It is hoisted by its hind legs with a rope and pulley. Boiling hot water is poured over its body, and the skin is shaved with a sharp knife to remove bristles and dirt. The belly is sliced open, and colorful, glistening innards spill out. Most will be consumed, or used up. (The intestines will become sausage casings, for example.) Only very few parts will be thrown away or given to dogs: skull, bones, testicles, penis, anus...
The disemboweled carcass will hang in the stall overnight, then be carved up into quarters. The remaining pigs seem subdued, skittish. I wonder if the fear of death was passed on to them from their butchered cousin. Or if they mourn him. I feel sorry that the pig's life ended in such violence, but I do not like pigs that much, and I can appreciate that there was no cruelty, nobody seemed to enjoy the killing itself. It was just another farm chore, like harvesting wheat or nailing shoes to the hooves of horses.
Yet I will look at my village cousins differently from that day on. I ask myself whether slaughtering pigs, and sheep, and calves makes one capable of killing fellow humans. The answer I seem to find in my own mind is "yes", so I'm a bit more fearful. I imagine that this ax may be wedged in my skull one day, so I need to be careful with what I say and do. Ironically, a few years later I'm teasing one of those cousins (Witek) about something. As he gets more and more angry I flee, laughing, from the wood-chopping place by the barn, where we have been talking. From the corner of my eye I see an ax flying by, a few inches from my head.
Sunday, January 5, 2014
With no man-made lights around, the sky is stunning. There are so many stars up there on a cloudless night, the sky appears to have more points of light than points of darkness. As if someone took a black canvas and sprinkled it with white paint... Again, and again, and again - and then stopped, before the canvas became completely white. It is eerily quiet, except for some village dogs running a barking competition.
I know that there are a lot of spiders and other crawlies in that hay, plus probably an entire nation of mice, but I can't see or feel them, so they don't bother me as much as those pesky flies. I fall into a deep sleep, until the dawn a few hours later starts a cacophony of animal voices: roosters crowing, geese honking, cows mooing, sheep bleating, pigs oinking. It is as loud as a busy city street and gets louder every minute until the humans get up and start distributing feed. Then there is the much less noisy concerto of slurping, chewing, pecking, ripping, grinding... By that time I'm awake enough to slide down the hay and go wait for breakfast.
Breakfast is usually hot milk with zacierki (fresh pasta dough rubbed between palms, so that small, oval pieces fall into the boiling milk), or lane kluski (liquid batter of eggs and flour poured slowly into the milk). Sometimes it is a thick slice of bread with butter and farmer's cheese, or with thick cream and sugar, or with lard and salt.
After breakfast we take the cows to pasture. Armed with twigs we steer them toward the dirt road and some grassy patch beyond, but these cows know the routine and require very little guidance. I watch their backsides as they go unhurriedly, with gait of ballerina quality, on legs covered with encrusted dung, swinging their tails at the flies that follow them.
We bring them back in the afternoon to be milked. They know their route home as well, so they do not give us any trouble, what with the big sacks of milk between their hind legs making their movements a bit more difficult than before. We do sometimes hoot at them, or swat them with our twigs, but it is just a childish show of "who's the boss", completely unnecessary. They are the gentlest, most stoic of animals, completely focused on the job of moving chewed grass through their multiple stomachs.
If the pasture is close to the river, we go swimming or fishing.The water is murky, with big floats of yellow foam on the surface - I have been told that the foam comes from the chemical plant upriver - but it is impossible to resist on a hot day. We keep to the shallows, because none of us really knows how to swim, and there are dangerous whirlpools in the deeper currents, which can pull even a grownup under. We are afraid of a body of a drowned person touching our bodies; that would be freaky. Judging by our fear of that happening, there may be more dead bodies in that river than fish.
Our fishing rod is a long stick cut out of jasmine; bobber is a wine cork with a goose feather threaded through it; fishing line is a length of plastic twine meticulously unwrapped from scouring pads bought at the hardware store in Gniewoszów. Only the hook is proper, and we put wiggly, slimy earthworms on it. Or, white maggots taken from the outhouse pit. (Those are the best, I am told, but I do not have the stomach for getting them out of the liquid shit. I much rather dig for the earthworms, although I do feel sorry for having to thread the hook through them, when they so obviously do not like it.)
The best we can hope for is a common roach or two. More often we catch the more plentiful raffe - small fish with a large, spiny sail of a top fin, which they unfurl when threatened. Those we throw back in, or give to the cats to eat, which they are usually too skittish to do. I heard there is pike to be had in this river, but I have never seen one, so I think this is just a tall tale.
One day there is a strong pull on my line. The bobber goes under and stays there as I fight what must be a monster of a fish. As always, the biggest fear is that the lousy line will snap, freeing the fish with the hook in its mouth, before I am able to see what I got. After a minute (which feels like an hour) I pull out a strange mutant - a dark brown thing not like fish but like a wet kitten, with a big head and small whiskers on both sides of that head. I'm afraid to touch it as it thrashes wildly on the sand, but the boys around me are excited, patting me on the back and saying, "Yay, city boy, you caught ye'self a catfish!" So it is a fish, after all.
We take it home and my great-grandpa looks at me with a mixture of disbelief and pride, muttering under his droopy mustache, "Well, well, a real catfish you got here..." This thing, less than ten inches long, will be cleaned and fried tonight, but I will refuse to eat it, feeling sad for that rare, almost mythical creature. A terrible thought is gnawing at me: what if I caught the last one of its species?
Saturday, January 4, 2014
It is only 100 kilometers, as the crow flies, from Warsaw, but it is quite a trek, requiring at least half a day. First we take a tram to the train station, which is quite a distance from the tramway stop. After two hours on the train we arrive in the city of Dęblin, where we carry our heavy suitcases a mile or so to the bus station. There we wait for the bus to the town of Gniewoszów. May be an hour or more of waiting, but there is a tiny kiosk right by the station, selling newspapers, cigarettes, candy, soap, batteries, postcards, etc. It is where my grandma's sister work, and, if we're lucky, it will be her shift, so she will let me sit inside, watch her interact with customers, and even pass on to her packs of cigarettes from the shelf behind. It is a great way to kill time. I think I want to have my own store when I grow up.
From Gniewoszów, a tiny town that used to be a Jewish shtetl before the war, we have to walk a few miles to Regów Stary, the village where Babcia Bronia grew up. It's a scenic walk, along a dirt road with giant puddles after a rain, bordered by willow trees and fields on the one side, and a tall, grassy dike on the other. The village - and other around it - lies on the floodplain of the Vistula river, and the extensive system of dikes, two or three meters high in most places and several meters wide at the base, is the only thing that stands between the river, swollen with melted snow in springtime, and the hundreds of farms eking out meager existence along its banks.
Soviet-style collectivization never took hold in Poland. Perhaps because, by the time Poland became a Soviet satellite after the war, it was already pretty clear what a disaster that had been in the Soviet Union itself, resulting in terrible famines that took the lives of millions of peasants, while failing to make Soviet agriculture efficient enough to feed the rapidly industrializing state. Perhaps because Poles were reluctant to embrace the ideals of communism, so the newly setup puppet government felt is had to strike a delicate balance between appeasing Stalin and avoiding popular uprising, what with many resistance groups refusing to disarm after the war and making trouble in forests and villages.
There were, of course, attempts at promoting collectivization through the establishment of PGRs (State Agrarian Enterprise, modeled after the Soviet kolchoz) on lands bought or confiscated from individual farmers, and the promotion of farming cooperatives, which farmers could join voluntarily, receiving subsidies and preferential treatment from the state. Those efforts met with indifference or hostility in Polish countryside, where land ownership was something Polish peasantry dreamed of for centuries, having had to work the fields belonging to aristocratic landowners. The communists knew that the best way of winning the staunchly religious and conservative peasants to their side was through land reform - breaking the back of the patriotic and anti-communist Polish gentry by carving their land holdings and handing parcels of 12-20 acres to the peasants. That was their trump card and they played it well. Interestingly, they did not touch the lands belonging to the catholic church - allegedly on Stalin's insistence...
As usual, we find the fenced-in area with farm buildings (house, barn, stables, pigsty, chicken coop) completely deserted, with everybody working the fields. The house is locked with a latch held by a piece of wood - not to prevent theft, since there is nothing to steal, but to keep the animals out - so we can leave our heavy luggage and go in search of them.
The family we're visiting has seven members: my great-grandparents, their son (my grandma's much younger brother), his wife, and their three kids: two boys - one slightly older, the other slightly younger than me - and the much younger girl. They share a log house; in the US it would be called a cabin: two square rooms, each with a wood-burning oven, separated by a tiny mud room and a pantry behind it. There is no plumbing or electricity - the latter will be added several years later, while plumbing will wait till a new, brick house is built in the 1980s.
My great-grandfather built that house himself, with notched logs locking into one another in the corners. Hemp fibers mixed with clay have been used to fill the cracks. Rough plaster, painted very pale aquamarine blue, covers the walls on the inside. The room my great-grand-parents occupy is very sparsely furnished: one bed with a straw-filled mattress; small wooden table; three chairs; large commode. There are two metal buckets: one with water, one with food waste (to be fed to the pigs).
There is no room for us to sleep there - Granny and I will sleep in the barn, on top of the pile of hay taller than a grown man. I'm actually relieved no to have to sleep in that house. It's the flies that bother me. They are so many, you can't chase them away. They keep landing on my face and arms, drinking my sweat. Their tiny feet seem itchy somehow. You have to watch your spoon while eating, lest you will swallow one of them caught in your soup.
Next day I will go to war with the flies. Armed with a folded newspaper I will swat at them every time they try to sit on the walls or the furniture. They are not easy to kill - many manage to fly away before the newspaper finds them - but I quickly perfect my technique and pretty soon their squashed bodies start covering the floor. I'm no longer satisfied killing singles - I pump my fist only when I get two or three at a time, a feat that becomes more difficult as their numbers dwindle. Soon there is only one or two left flying. I'm proud of myself, although I know how futile this is; once people start opening the doors, the flies will again fill the room.
My great-grandmother is not too happy with my handiwork, seeing the walls covered with bloody splotches, and dead flies covering the floor. I make a mental note to limit myself to killing only those on the furniture, where their blood and guts are less visible. And sweep the floor.
One summer we bring a can of Azotox - spray insecticide produced, incidentally, in the large chemical plant up the river. This stuff robs me of the pleasure of hunting and killing the flies, but it is remarkably effective. We close the windows and door and spray it liberally in the air. A few minutes later all the flies are dead, littering the floor, but no splotches. I ask about spraying this in the pigsty, where the dense carpet of flies covers every inch of the walls and ceiling, but receive a firm no; my great-grandparents are concerned about this poison harming their animals.
Thursday, January 2, 2014
[Due to its somewhat sensitive nature, the rest of this chapter is available by request only.]
My school's official name is "Ernesto (Che) Guevara" and a giant photo of the bearded Cuban revolutionary adores the first floor hallway. A couple of years later, when Fidel Castro visits Poland, he makes a brief stop at our school. I'm snatched from the hallway by one of the teachers and shoved into a small assembly room, where, with a couple dozen other pupils, I am to meet Fidel. Thankfully, it's not a long wait. Here comes a bearded fellow - older, plumper, and less good looking than Che, I notice - in military uniform, with a small entourage including an interpreter. Through this interpreter he tells us a few funny stories, of which I recall only one:
"I am being driven to an important meeting in a cavalcade of official cars, when I spot a group of boys playing volleyball in a field at the side of the road. You have to know that I love volleyball, so I tell my driver to stop the car and he does so immediately. I'm his boss, you see. I jump out and ask the boys whether I can join them. Fine, they say, and so we play together for a few moments. Meanwhile, all my security guards are in panic mode, because such a thing never happened before. A leader of a country does not go play volleyball with some random boys. They beg me to go back to the car. They are all very nervous and I feel sorry for them, so I go back".
It's all friendly banter like this. I find Fidel charming. He seems relaxed, funny, approachable. Says that being here with us is a welcome break from all his official duties in Poland. He would like to stay longer, because he is more himself around children - still a kid at heart. Of course, I have no idea that he is a dictator and even if I knew, I wouldn't quite know what that meant. He invites us all to visit Cuba. I think that it would be great, but it will probably never happen, because getting there must be very expensive. More than forty years later, I still haven't been to Cuba, but it is not the expense that's keeping me away.
After Fidel is whisked away, the school day is already over and I find the lunch room closed. I will go home hungry. Another thing I did not know about Fidel is that he will develop a penchant for rambling speeches that last for hours. In that sense we're lucky that this entire visit took less than an hour. The next day I find out from a fellow student that it was pork chop in horseradish sauce for lunch, and that makes me kind of grateful to Fidel for giving me an excuse not to eat that. These lunches are provided by the school, but parents have to pay for them. Mostly they are quite good, home-style meals prepared by two cooks on site, but I dread the meat days. I am not a vegetarian, I can handle ground meat in breaded cutlets, but I cannot swallow meat that has fatty tissue and gristle, and these pork chops are mostly that. I am prone to gagging when my mouth comes in contact with this kind of meat. Alas, you cannot simply leave that on your plate; you have to carry your plate back to the kitchen window before you are allowed to leave the lunch room, and there you have to pass by the chief cook, who inspects your plate. The chief cook is a large, morose woman who never smiles and accepts no excuses for not finishing the meal your parents paid their hard earned money for. If she is in good mood, she will let you pass with a spoonful of mashed potatoes on your plate, nothing more, so I sometimes resort to hiding my meat under those potatoes. Of course, she is too clever and experienced for that lousy trick, so it only works when there is a larger group of kids coming back with their plates - her hawkish eyes darting between multiple plates, she may miss me sneaking by with a suspiciously large mound of potatoes. On other occasions I'm reduced to pleading with her, showing her the gristle from which I meticulously removed the smallest meat fibers. She will carefully inspect that tangle of cartilage with my fork and, with a grunt, she may let me through. Another trick is to hide the gristle in your mouth, but for some mysterious reason she's usually able to spot kids carrying such payloads and have them spit those out (and then eat them in front of her). With my gagging reflex I won't even attempt that trick.
I like my school. It is airy, with big hallways, lots of windows, and a large, paved patio in the middle, where we can spend the long recess in the warmer months. It is also a progressive school, so corporal punishment is nearly nonexistent, except in the music room. Of course, the teachers can drag you from your desk by your ear and deposit you in the hallway for misbehavior - where you run the risk of being spotted by the roaming principal and getting into real trouble - but that's the extent of physicality most teachers allow themselves. The music teacher, Mr. Dejmek, does not bother with putting his students in the hallway, yelling at them, or writing notes to parents. He gives them two simple options: "Auntie" or "Uncle". The former is a wooden ruler, and the latter, a violin bow. You stretch your hand out, palm up, and the implement you have chosen cuts through the air with a swish, depositing a red welt on your palm. Woe to those weak characters who withdraw their palm at the last moment, for they will have to go through that again and again, until the punishment is administered thoroughly.
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
We - my sister, myself, my father, and his new wife - have just moved to a comfortable apartment in a newly built subdivision called Zatrasie in the northwestern district of Warsaw known as Żoliborz. Żoliborz is a "polonized" spelling of the French "joli bord", meaning "beautiful embankment", apparently coined by an officer in Bonaparte's army upon seeing the area. It is, indeed, one the prettiest parts of Warsaw. It had been settled relatively recently (200 years?) and thus retained quite a bit of its earlier, bucolic charm. There is an abundance of greenery, including several large parks. A subdivision next to ours was actually built in an old orchard, so springtime there is fabulous, with all the remaining fruit trees blooming and filling the air with flowery fragrance. At the northern edge of Zatrasie there is a pasture with cows grazing, and a clump of trees with some houses of the former village still remaining and occupied.
We have a second floor apartment in a five-story, nondescript box of a building. It's a typical socialist development aimed at quickly and cheaply solving the housing shortage; those subdivisions are growing all over Warsaw, but they barely make a dent, with waiting periods for an apartment now reaching a decade and growing. These houses are still being built by hand, although with cement blocks several times bigger than a typical, kiln-fired brick. Later, the building industry will come up with a quicker, more efficient way of building the apartment complexes, with prefabricated walls (complete with windows) brought to the building site and assembled with a crane. Ironically, this seems to slow down the building industry to a crawl, extending the waiting periods to practically... forever. And the houses, when built, are shoddily constructed, full of cracks and misaligned parts. One of the mysteries of central planning and state-controlled economy. These houses would not withstand even a mild earthquake - thank god Poland lies far from any faults.
Our apartment: three rooms, long, narrow hallway, narrow kitchen, and a square bathroom with a toilet and a bathtub. 540 square feet. It all seems almost too good to be true, especially since my sister and I are getting our own rooms! (Only for a short period, as it will quickly turn out). Up until now we did not have our own beds, usually sleeping with one or more of the adults, and now our very own rooms! Our apartment is quite typical - heck, identical to other apartments in this building and in many of the new buildings in Warsaw. How identical? There is a theater play, later made into a movie, much beloved in the Soviet Union: a drunken, young Muscovite is put on a plane, lands in Leningrad, takes a taxi to his address, goes to "his" apartment, opens the door with his key (even that fits!), and promptly goes to sleep... Only that it is an apartment belonging to someone else in a completely different city! It's a fictional and quite funny story, but we all have heard of guests wandering hopelessly in the maze of identical high-rises with puzzling numbering system, trying to find a party they had been invited to. Those stories are definitely not fictional.
Our apartment has one unique feature, making it an object of envy of many a neighbor: a mound on the side of the building. You can walk right onto it from our main room, down four concrete steps. It's a pile of building debris, covered with a layer of poor quality dirt, on which various weeds, mostly thistle, have taken root. The flat top is merely 15 by 20 feet, but there are the slopes on two sides - they increase the overall area tremendously - and this is all ours. Of course, it has to be cleaned up, topsoil brought in, and planted with trees, shrubs, and flowers. It will be our little garden - right outside our windows! Very few people are that lucky. (Luck probably had little to do with it, as in the case of my Grandpa's "dzialka", but more about that later.)
Trouble is, our father hates physical exertion of any kind, so all that cleanup will be my job and, unfortunately, the jungle fantasies of the early days quickly give way to the mindless drudgery of it all, made worse by my father's lengthy and detailed directions. He tries to avoid physical work, I hate directions. Utter misery. I'm beginning to despise that mound.
My grandparents move to Warsaw, where my grandfather finds work as a simple laborer, and eventually gets apprenticed as an electrician. My grandmother stays home with the kids: one son, two daughters. She has no money for trams or for shoes for that matter, so she walks to her errands barefoot. That does not seem terribly out of place in the 1930's capital of Poland, where there is always an inflow of migrants from the endemically poor countryside. My grandmother is young and strong, significantly taller and, perhaps, stronger than my diminutive grandfather. She is lively and open-minded, forever regretting that she was able to get only to the fifth grade of the elementary school in the nearby town of Gniewoszów. She did not mind the daily long walks to the school - several miles each way; barefoot, of course, except in winter - but her father decided that all a peasant daughter needed was to read and write, and five grades were more than enough for that. There was plenty of work at the farm.
Farm life is tough. Girls have to take care of their younger siblings while their parents work the fields. There are cows to milk, geese to pluck, pigs to feed, meals to cook, linen to weave, floors to sweep. Work is endless and hard. Clothes get very dirty, so women take them to the river to wash. There is no detergent - the clothes soak in a caustic mixture of water and wood ash. (The best comes from a cherry tree, I am told). Washing those clothes makes your hands bleed, but the linens come out white.
This is a nearly self-sufficient way of life. Almost everything is made in the village, or the nearby town, even clothes themselves. There is no cotton, so you grow flax in a patch of perpetually moist soil. You harvest that flax by pulling the stalks out of the ground by hand, so that nothing is wasted. You dry the stalks and tie them into bundles. You soak the bundles in a pond under heavy stones. You dry them again. You pound them in a wooden, hand-powered tool to separate and soften the fibers. You comb the fibers to get rid of the short, useless ones. You spin the long fibers into yarns. You weave the yarns into a fabric. It will make tough but comfortable clothing. Unfortunately, it starts falling apart after several washings with the cherry-tree ash.
My grandmother's hands tell a story of her life. They are larger than many a man's hands, full of calluses and cracks and old scars, with stone-hard nails that are prone to driving large splinters of wood into the soft flesh underneath. Scrubbing the wooden floor with a brush and rags is the most frequent source of these splinters. My grandmother has to pull them out with pliers, sometimes asking me for help. I feel close to fainting whenever I pull out an inch-long splinter, with blood gushing afterwards, but I'm the man, I have to take this on. Plus, I'll do anything for my grandmother.
I'm not very fond of my grandfather - Dziadzio Miecio - but sometimes I feel sorry for all the anger and disdain directed at him. Those are fleeting moments, though, as he is difficult to like. He is simple and simple-minded - he speaks rarely, but when he does, his utterances are hard to parse; they don't seem to make a lot of sense. He also hasn't quite shaken off his village dialect, which makes him sound uneducated and very provincial. His only interest in life is his "działka" - a tiny parcel of fenced-in dirt on an old, drained swamp between apartment complexes. It is a 20-minute walk from his apartment and it is his own tiny paradise. It is perhaps 1,200 feet square, surrounded by hundreds of other such parcels. The swamp had been parceled-out by the city of Warsaw and given to the members of the working class through a byzantine system of awards, bribes, and nepotism. (My grandfather works for the city repairing street lights - that probably explains how his lucky number came up...)
These little parcels are a source of enormous pride for their owners, and enormous envy for many other families. Some of them, including Dziadzio Miecio, spend all their free time there, from spring till fall, including their vacations. That 20-minute walk is all it takes to transfer him from a cramped apartment where he gets no respect, to his very own Garden of Eden, where there is a cherry tree, an apricot tree, gooseberry bushes, red, white, and black currants, wild strawberries, peonies, roses, cucumbers, tomatoes, dill, chives, onions - everything but potatoes and rye. There is a little wooden hut (altanka) he had built, with a table and a metal bed. He can take a nap there, or have his friends come over and drain a bottle of vodka, each shot chased down with pieces of dark bread, słonina (bacon, but without the meat layers), and thick slices of his own tomatoes, which can grow as large as a child's head and taste like heaven.
My grandfather, having come from peasant stock, knows how to make things grow. His little garden is one of the lushest, at least among his closest neighbors. Some of the plot owners go for flowers or ornamental bushes. He, true to his roots, tries to grow everything. (Occasionally he even hides live chickens in his hut, although that is against the bylaws of the gardens.) Part of his success has its source in a big, metal drum behind the altanka - there he stores liquefied cow manure purchased from a farmer who visits the gardens twice a year, with a horse-drawn cistern full of that "black gold", which he sells by bucketfuls.
This little garden, his refuge, will be my grandfather's undoing, but that's many years away. Now, in his gruff way, he tries to entice us kids to come over, have some fresh fruits or veggies, like baby kohlrabi, or sweet peas, or the incredibly hot radishes, but we know there is price to pay. We'll have to listen to him mumble under his breath about having to do all this gardening himself, with no one helping, people just want to come and partake, take what they did not grow. Suddenly, the sweetest white currants start tasting sour. I feel guilty, so I ask how I can help, but he just shrugs and says, "Oh, just keep stuffin' ye'self. That's all you lads are good for anyway."
My favorite spot is right behind the tram operator, himself standing at a wooden console with nothing but a huge brass crank. I watch him turn the crank left and right, each turn producing a series of metallic clicks, like a gigantic watch being wound up. I have no idea what the crank does, but it must be important, because there is a barrier separating the operator from the passengers, so that he always has enough room to operate, no matter how crowded the tram gets.
The tram features in my dreams. A recurring nightmare has me riding the tram stark naked, trying to act as if this was the most natural thing in the world. All the passengers are staring at me while I can't wait to go home, put some clothes on.
My maternal grandmother lives only a few blocks away - no need to waste money on a tram ticket, but I'm too young to walk there alone, so I don't go there often. Only a few blocks and it is a different world. The street is cobblestone, not asphalt. There are fewer cars and no trams. The house looks different, smaller. Wooden staircase, no elevator. There is a guy playing harmonica next to grocery store. He has no arms or legs - just a torso with head. The torso sits on a wooden wagon, like those used to sell vegetables at a market. Out of his military issue jacket come two wires to which a harmonica is affixed, so that he can reach it with his lips. I'm scared of him.
The third floor apartment has two rooms, one with a small balcony, and a fairly large kitchen. Altogether perhaps 500 square feet. The house has no central heating or gas, so a large, white-tiled stove sits between the two rooms. There is a coal burning oven in the kitchen as well. Once a year a large lorry stops in front of the house. It is pulled by a strong, dirty horse. Sometimes there is a mountain of coal on that lorry, and I wonder how is that possible that a single horse can pull that much coal. Two very dirty men, faces blackened by coal dust, carry large wicker baskets full of coal down a narrow staircase into the cellar. Some chunks of coal are as large as a human head. My grandmother gets upset when there are a lot of those large chunks, because she has to break them with a hammer. She also gets upset when there is too much useless coal dust in those baskets. "You have to watch them like a hawk", she says, pointing toward the lorry.
In winter she will carry the coal in metal buckets, up to the third floor. It's more like a fourth floor, if you consider that it comes from the cellar. Getting the fire going is a multi-step process with several points of possible failure. You start with crumpled newspaper and a few pieces of kindling. You set that on fire and a short while later you check whether the wood is ablaze. If it is, you add a few chunks of coal and leave the cast iron door open just a crack. You wait and then add more coal. When all of the coal is aglow you close the door completely, so that it will burn slowly, releasing heat. The tiles can get so hot you can't touch them, and a couple of hours later the whole apartment is toasty warm.
There are four people living in that apartment: my grandparents and their younger daughter - my aunt Ala - with her husband Witek, and later their son. They occupy the smaller of the two rooms, but when their son is born, they will swap the rooms with the grandparents, and will stay in that larger room until their divorce a few years later. My sister and I come for some weekends throughout the year, and for holidays. It is a one hour trip by tram, because we're now living in our own apartment on the other side of Warsaw.
The building where my grandmother lives was erected before World War II to house laborers with families. It was cheaply built, with plaster-covered straw serving as insulation. Thankfully, it has plumbing, but not enough to provide a toilet for every apartment, so some apartments have to use communal toilets. We are lucky: our grandparents have their own water closet. There are no bathrooms in the house - all ablutions and small laundry are done in the kitchen; there is a communal laundry room in the basement for washing linens.
There is housing shortage in Warsaw, so people tend to stay in the same apartment their entire lives - sometimes two or three generations. You get to know your neighbors pretty well - that's why most of the neighbors in my grandparents' house are called "aunt so-and-so" and "uncle so-and-so". They have survived the war together, including one large German bomb at the beginning. The bomb, having gone through the roof and three floors, wedged itself right above the cellar, but did not explode.
Of course, I did not know all that. Not until many years later. I never asked. Or asked and was told something absurdly evasive, like, "Lord Jesus decided to call your mother to his side", so I stopped asking. Decided that nobody would ever tell me, and besides, I did not really want to know. It was my inquisitive and maddeningly persistent sister who pried pieces of this story out of our reluctant grandmother Bronia - who blamed my mother's girlfriend for introducing her to the guy for whom she would give up her kids. That woman - my grandmother referred to her as "Czarna Baśka" ("Black Barb") - was the reason behind my mother's tragic death at 25. According to Grandma.
I do not remember much from the funeral. One of my aunts holds my hand as we walk and walk through the expansive Bródno necropolis in Warsaw. Six men - hired, I suppose - in front of our small procession carry the casket on their shoulders. I wonder how heavy it must be, requiring six grown men. We arrive at a big hole with a pile of dirt next to it. A priest says something - a prayer? - in Latin. Perhaps a short eulogy in Polish. Nobody else says anything. The six men use wide belts to carefully lower the casket into the hole. Some of those gathered come near, take handfuls of dirt, throw them into the hole. There is a thud whenever a handful or a stone hits the casket. I am told to do the same, so I do. There is no thud. Some people start crying. I do not cry, but the sadness all around seems to have touched me with its black wing.
There are only two blurry memories of my mother. One: my parents and I are visiting some friends or relatives. We're sitting around a table on a large veranda, when suddenly my mother falls off her chair. There is a frenzy of activity and the adults are very agitated. Much, much later I am told that my mother had a seizure that day - apparently, she suffered those from time to time. Two: my mother and I are lying on a large bed in my paternal grandmother Marysia's apartment. She asks me about all kinds of things, and about what I would like for Christmas. I tell her about the battery-operated toy machine gun I've been dreaming about. I will get that gun. It will make noise and the tip at its muzzle will flash red.
I'm staying at Grandma Marysia's two-room apartment, with Grandma, my aunt Iza, and her husband Staszek. My parents must have been separated by then, because I don't remember my mother being there, except for this toy gun conversation - and that must have been only a visit. I don't remember my father, either, but he might have worked long hours. After the funeral I'm still at that apartment. My Grandma takes me to school every day and brings me back home. We take a streetcar and there is a bit of a walk from the tram stop to the school.
When my grandma talks to other people about me, she calls me a "half orphan", which does not sound too bad. "Orphan" seems sad and mildly pejorative, like "cripple", but "half-" seems to be taking that edge off it. I'm only halfway there, which makes it sad but not freaky. Like a mythical creature, half person, half beast - kind of special.
One day my grandma is late, so I let a classmate talk me into going to his apartment to play. A large window in that second-floor apartment overlooks the sidewalk to the tram stop, so I can watch for my grandma. This, predictably, I forget to do, concentrating on his toys. Only a chance glimpse at the window some time later reveals my grandma, bewildered with worry, wandering the sidewalk back and forth, loudly calling my name. Mortified, I run down the stairs to meet her. She seems more angry than happy. I will never play with that boy again.