Katarzyna Suchodolska (1st place. Creative Nonfiction. Fall 2011 Writing Contest)
She can be elegant, when she pours hot tea and places flowers on the table. She can be silly with too much makeup on her wrinkled face and turquoise mini dress. Unpredictable, frowning upon my too short hair and yet picking new clothes for me because I need to be trendier. Furious when grandpa was around. Deeply depressed when he passed away. Stubborn. Strong. Lovely.
My grandmother, my Babcia, is 83 years old and sometimes I think she can still be anything she wants.
We talk in what used to be my brother’s bedroom. Long gone is the airplane wallpaper and train carpet; nowadays fine china sits on a wooden table with a crochet cloth. I haven’t seen her in seven months, yet we barely talk about me. She asked me to bring a recorder. I can recall her talking about this project even many years ago when I was still in elementary school and she would help me study for the high school exam. Many times she would end up just talking about her life: teaching terminally ill kids, the first day of the war, smuggling clothes and cigarettes during the communist regime.
I was too young to comprehend the importance of her stories. The recorder is my way of taking back time and giving her the attention she needed and deserved. This is my project Babcia.
She starts loudly, trying to mask her nervousness with laughter. She witnessed death and poverty, yet she seems to fear the moment of confronting the memories. Perhaps she fears the memories themselves.
She saw a wooden rack wagon full of dead, naked bodies on the main street in her hometown and it made her run home and cry in her mother’s arms. I was a little girl, she tries to justify herself, as if only children should be terrified by exposed corpses being carried away and dumped in the fields. I ask her if she understood what war was, but the question seems so silly; who can truly understand war?
Her voice hardens a little when she talks about German soldiers smashing a newborn’s skull at the cemetery in front of its mother. But she doesn’t cry or show hardly any emotion and I wonder how many times that scene must have been played in her head or does it even seem real to her anymore. She was 12, maybe 13 at that time.
Despite those events, she managed to have a life. She was still a teenager—curious and full of life—who just happened to live in a small town occupied by soldiers, with the Gestapo headquarters right in front of her house. She recalls a Georgian soldier visiting her for few months in 1943. She doesn’t remember his name anymore; he was captured by Germans and forced to fight for them. He saw her once on a street and fell in love with her.
He would come every week and talk to her mother; my grandmother didn’t speak much German or Russian at the time. I ask her if his German uniform didn’t make people upset, but she just smiles. Her story reminds me of movies in which people just fall in love—instantly, madly, with tragic consequences. He promised her to take her to America once the war was over; they never saw each other again.
She met my grandfather soon after that. Her eyes are filled with strange mix of affection and disappointment when she talks about him. He was her great love, she says many times, but I never quite understood why she would always warn me from marrying someone just because of love.
They were married for almost 60 years and fought most of that time. My memory of them together is of her arguing, and him silently leaving the apartment to light a cigarette. He would let her win the fights and wait for us in the car. My grandfather passed away nine years ago and I think she still misses those arguments.
She recalls the night my uncle was born, during a snowy winter in 1952. Before heading to the hospital, my grandfather suggested stopping by his mother’s house and asking her to come with them. She was their only family in town. They were renting a tiny room in Warsaw; with her family scattered in eastern Poland, Babcia says she had no one to talk to. Her mother would send her letters from time to time and big bags of walnuts from their garden. But here she had no one. That night she waited in front of the building as my grandfather ran upstairs; she could not climb the stairs anymore with her pregnant belly. His mother never came down.
So we just went by ourselves, she says and I try to imagine her, 19 years old, nine months pregnant, walking in the middle of the night on the empty streets of Warsaw. It seems almost magical in its unrealism, a biblical story of fear, hope and solitude.
But my favorite story of all is the one she never told anyone.
I’ve never told this story to anyone. Anyone, she insists.
I would love to believe her. The mystery of hearing a story that no one has ever heard before. Words kept secret until now. But I know it’s not true. She has told me this story before.
Your grandfather never knew. I couldn’t tell him the truth. He would never understand.
Maybe he would? He died when I was almost 17, but I never really had a chance to connect with him as an adult. My grandmother monopolized me whenever I came to visit them. He would be often reduced to being our driver and waiting patiently in front of the car, reading a newspaper while we went shopping. I never heard him complain about it.
Once he disappeared from the parking lot, and my grandmother engaged almost every police unit in the neighborhood. He came back two hours later to find her crying hysterically. He had gone to see a movie and didn’t understand why she was so upset.
I’ve never told this story to anyone. A n y o n e, she insists.
The Polish-Soviet Friendship Society organized a trip to Georgia. She doesn’t mention if she was a member; she just emphasizes that it was very hard to get on the list and that she was lucky. Someone got sick and couldn’t go. She had told me about Georgia before; she is in love with the country and its people.
It was absolutely beautiful, beautiful, she smiles to her memories, stunning flowers on every street, the smell so strong it made me dizzy from its sweetness. You had to sit down for a second on the sidewalk, but then you see ripe fruits that you could just grab from the trees. You simply sit in the sun and enjoy their juiciness. And Georgian people…you could never find more a beautiful nation. Dark eyes and wide smiles, strong men and welcoming women… We should go there one day, she smiles.
She retells me the story; last night the tape recorder wasn’t working properly. Few details change, but I can still see that it is a cherished memory, her hidden treasure. Her face glows when she talks.
We arrived at the gorgeous, gorgeous hotel, she cannot hide her enthusiasm about the place she had visited decades ago. It was much more than just a hotel, a palace! Ordinary people couldn’t even enter the building and the carpets were so thick and luxurious I was afraid to walk on them. It was magnificent! she says.
I shared a room with a young woman whose husband had just left her for another girl. I don’t blame him! She was all tears, just crying and crying, ignoring the beauty around her. We didn’t talk much, she frowned upon a stranger not being able to appreciate the beauty.
The first night, we went to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner; only our group of four, we left the crying girl in her room, she says and I wonder about it. My grandmother used to be a teacher, with true passion and love for children. And yet, she did not have much love and understanding for adults. Or rather, she could understand, excuse and forgive a lot, but never weakness, never giving up. A few months ago, a prominent politician was caught on tape wearing makeup, cross-dressing and taking illegal drugs; he was then blackmailed and tried to pay it off. When my grandmother read about it in the newspaper, her only disgust was towards his inability to deal with it otherwise. He’s too weak, she shook her head in disbelief.
Perhaps witnessing the atrocities of war made her realize that staying strong despite anything is simply a necessary survival skill. She was always drawn to strong people. She was—she is—the strongest person I know.
The first night, we went to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner; only our group of four, we left the crying girl in her room, she says and gets excited to reveal the secret, yet takes her time to paint the setting, to pace the story. She always wanted to be a journalist. The tables were full, and I mean full, she emphasizes by speaking louder. Local wine, dark and strong like the men in this country, delicious food, amazing dishes that we have never seen before. The room we are in, or rather the ballroom—because it was not a simple room, it was a ballroom! With crystal chandeliers, blinding us with their sparkles and massive oil paintings on the walls, a real palace! The room is vast and spacious, but our group shares it only with another couple, sitting in a corner. What a waste of space!
The band, situated in an opposite corner starts playing Polish melodies. We laugh and smile, what a nice gift from our Georgian hosts. Suddenly, they change the tone and start playing the Polish anthem. Confused we stand up and sing trying not we look at each other as if to find an answer to a silent question—what is going on?
The band returns to festive Polish songs. So maybe the anthem was just their way to welcome us, what a nice gesture! We continue to indulge in meaningless conversation about literature and poetry fueled by wine. A waiter arrives with a glass of champagne on a silver tray.
–Would you like to accept this gift from the gentleman over there? he asks and points to the couple in the corner.
Puzzled, I look at my group. Take it! they whisper frantically; we don’t want to offend anyone. Obediently, I take the glass, stand up and bow slightly to show my gratitude. I take a sip and perfectly balanced flavors float in my mouth.
The man stands up and slowly approaches our tables. There is something peculiar in the way he walks, how carefully he measures his steps. He finally reaches our table and sits next to me. He delicately grabs my hand and softly says:
– Я искал тебя всю жизнь. I’ve been looking for you all my life.
– Я искал тебя всю жизнь. I’ve been looking for you all my life.
She looks at him, surprised. Her Russian is good enough to understand what he just said, yet she feels that maybe, with all the music and wine, she has misunderstood him; maybe he said something insignificant, something irrelevant and having nothing to do with what had just happened. Slower, he repeats the sentence.
Still wordless, she looks at him: a strong tall man with trembling hands. Unwilling to let go of her, he sits close next to her chair. She starts to explain, thoughts running through her head, that they had just come here for a short trip, to see Georgia. We are from Poland, she says almost apologizing, I have never seen you before. It’s clearly a mistake, she continues, trying to make sense of that encounter, you must have taken me for someone else.
No mistake, he says and waves at the waiters. The table is quickly replaced with a new one, a huge wooden surface dressed with a delicate white cloth. A stream of staff brings stunning Georgian dishes: enormous plates of khinkali, khachapuri, and nigvziani badrijani.
I wish I could enter her head at that exact moment. How did she feel? Surprised, for sure, but I wanted to feel other the thoughts and emotions she felt. Perhaps she was flattered or even thrilled to be someone’s long awaited love, even if undoubtedly that had to be a mistake.
Her husband and two kids were waiting for her at home, in a tiny apartment in Warsaw. I want to feel the enjoyment of her temporary freedom, a short relief between work and domestic chores: homework waiting to be graded, messy beds to be made, childish fights to be resolved.
Did she enjoy the rare liberty of making selfish choices, focusing on herself and herself only for those few precious days? Did she, perhaps, regret the missed opportunities that came with marrying young, and having her first son at only 19?
She always told me how badly she wanted to become a journalist and travel all around the world seeking new adventures and stories waiting to be told. She eventually did travel relatively often but mostly to help her teacher’s salary: she sold Polish medicines in Romania and smuggled Turkish crystal. She never became a journalist.
So maybe for a second, sitting at that richly decorated table in a foreign country, listening to a story of a handsome officer, she felt how her life could have been different. I could not be in her head then, but I can now.
– Я искал тебя всю жизнь. I’ve been looking for you all my life.
I smile. That’s what I learned a long time ago: keep my head up and smile, no matter what. I don’t understand him, his clouded eyes looking at me with tenderness, even though his companion, a wife perhaps, stands next to him. He smiles too, what a handsome smile he has, and then she smiles, and everyone else in the room does, and I fear I’m losing my mind.
He starts talking: a stream of words, an ocean of memories, a flood of emotions. He mixes past and present, facts and feelings into one image of love and loss. In the middle of a sentence he gently grabs my hand. I don’t dare move even when he kisses my hand; his wife stands behind him motionless, calm. He stops his story for a short moment, just to admire my face, then continues.
A girl, a soldier, a world at war. A small town in Silesia where a Russian army is resting before yet another battle. A young soldier is wounded and seeks shelter; a family takes him in and hides him in the attic. Maybe they still believe that the Russians will liberate the country, or perhaps they just saw a scared, bleeding boy away from home asking for help.
A cruel war is the best catalyst for love. The soldier and the family’s daughter are deeply in love the second day of his stay. That kind of love, he says looking deeply into my eyes, happens only once in a lifetime. Only once, he repeats with so much conviction that I can’t help but look at his wife.
He is soon sent back to the frontline. Tears and promises of long letters; war triumphs over love. He writes often: about the war, the solitude, the fear; about hope, love and their future in the safe and peaceful world that will come soon enough. Maybe he will be back for her before Christmas?
Does she write? And if she did, what did she write about? Her longings and desires? A neatly prepared plan for their future life together? Or a new soldier perhaps, for the war is the best catalyst for love.
He never knew if she wrote back or what she wrote about. He did not know if she got his letters or even if she survived the war. To this day he questions himself if someone knew that he stayed in that attic. Had the Germans hurt her family because of him? Or did she hurt herself, lonely and heartbroken?
I shake my head in disbelief. I try to explain how sorry I am, what a heartbreaking story, but the war is over, I say, the war is over and you are alive and…
I am alive and I have a loving wife and two strong sons, he says with paternal pride in his voice, but I never, never stopped looking for Ania. Today is the happiest day of my life because I found her. I found you.
He quiets my fearful clarifications that I’m not her, I’m truly sorry to say, but it’s a terrible, terrible mistake. With a subtle smile he explains that he knows, but it’s not important, it’s okay. The simple fact that he saw me here, in this hotel today, is enough to silence his worries that have been haunting him for the past decades.
He asks about my life, my family, my kids. I answer cautiously, not knowing how he will react to those details. But his face is relaxed, his eyes glowing with affection when I talk about my oldest son and how he loves to read adventure books. He seems truly happy for me, as if by living my simple life I have somehow accomplished his dreams for Ania. For yet another moment I become her, and her image in his head comes to life in me. My story brings him peace.
He asks me to dance and we swirl away to the vivid Georgian music.
My grandmother closes her eyes for few silent moments. She nods her head slowly, as if to assure both of us that the story had in fact happened and the memories are true.
It was a glorious time, she says, and we danced all night.
It wasn’t until the final goodbye that he told my grandmother that he had lost his right leg during the war. He could barely walk, yet despite the pain he decided to dance with her to bring back the memories.
I wonder how his wife must have felt, seeing her husband suffering just to dance with another woman. Did he ever dance that long with her? Did he suffer for her? I wish I could talk to her about her love and loneliness, probably as great as her husband’s longing and loss. I ask my grandmother about it and I can hear an admiration in her voice as she answers.
She knew that he didn’t love her, says my grandmother, she told me myself. We talked for a while and she told me that he did not love her, but she did, oh, she loved him so much that out of that love she respected his affection for Ania. She never complained about it. She gave birth to two beautiful sons and he treated them well; they were a family and that was enough for her. It was a tough situation and she was a strong woman, says my grandmother and I believe her.
She had always admired strong people. That night she witnessed two unloved women coping with losses in two different ways—the girl she shared a room with and the soldier’s wife. Two stories so different yet so similar in their ordinary conclusion: lack of love. I know that the lack of love would never be enough for my grandmother. She strives for the best. Stubborn. Strong. Lovely. My grandmother is 83 years old and sometimes I think she can still get anything she wants.