Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Chapter 3

Babcia (Granny) Bronia and Dziadzio (Gramps) Miecio don't like one another very much. I sense a real antipathy there, especially coming from Grandma. She does not seem to find a nice word for her husband, only snapping at him angrily. Not that he is a terribly likable character. They both come from small villages, a few kilometers apart, in the Kielce region in southeastern Poland. They are the oldest among their siblings, and since it is the youngest who will inherit the farms, the older siblings have to scatter. The idea being, I suppose, that the kids staying on the farm will take care of the parents, and since they are younger, there is less of a chance that the parents will outlive them. That's your social security, agrarian style. In fact, it is a bit more complicated, since all the siblings have a stake in the farm, and those who stay will eventually have to purchase the shares from their older brothers and sisters.

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."

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