Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Chapter 1

It is overcast and rather chilly, but not too cold. A pretty normal day, weather-wise, for late September 1965 in central Poland. What is not normal is that I am six years old, walking behind a white casket with the body of my mother inside. That's what I had been told: that that's my mother there. I did not see the body, and I don't remember much of my mother. She was only eighteen when I was born. A child, really. Small surprise, perhaps, that she did no last long in her premature role as wife and mother. Three years later she gave birth to my sister, and soon thereafter disappeared from our lives. Fell in love with a guy, moved in with him, into a rented studio apartment in Warsaw. It was the owner of that apartment who found them. My mother - naked in the bathtub filled with water. Her lover - sitting on the floor by that bathtub. Fully dressed. Empty bottle of wine. Cause of death: gas poisoning from the water heater in the bathroom. Accident? Suicide? Who knows. In the catholic Poland people had always been trying to cover up suicides. Or bribe the priest. Otherwise, no place on the consecrated ground of a Christian cemetery - the suicides are buried outside the wall.

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.

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