12 April 2011

Letter To Heaven: Dear Dziadek, a Letter to My Father's Deceased Father

Dear Dziadek,

Actually, if I were writing this letter to send to you, I would write it in Polish.  But since you have passed away, I suppose it doesn't matter what language I write this in.  Actually, I don't even know if this will reach you.  But it needs to come off my chest.

I never really knew you.  I know you affected my life.  I can see you in the mirror sometimes when I am tired and angry.

I suppose I should tell you how I have always seen you as a person, since you wouldn't really know.

You hated my mother.  You called her a "Russian" and all sorts of curse words.  Once, you told me that I was part Russian with a strange smug smile, as though you loved me but you knew a dirty secret about me that made me imperfect.  Whether or not I am actually part Russian, as you claim, I do not know but I now feel the need to find out.  Whether or not I am actually part Russian, I hope you loved me.

The details of our flight from Poland in 1981 were very few when I was growing up.  Nobody wanted to tell me.  For a long time, I only knew that we left in the middle of the night in a Maluszek (an extremely small car in Poland for a while under Soviet government).  The car had no heat and it was the dead of winter so I was wrapped up in a coarse green blanket which we kept for a very long time until someone lost it.  I wish I had that blanket still.

I knew that you drove us.  That all of our lives were at risk if we were caught but that you risked your life twice to sneak back through the border to Poland.  Thank you.

I know that you always made little sense to me when I would talk to you.  Your letters and postcards rarely did either.  I thought it was my (by my own perception) poor mastery of my first language.  I didn't know it's because you had problems.

You came to visit us once in the US, perhaps it was twice but I don't remember.  I know you and my mother did not get along.  I know you smiled at the strangest situations and I never knew what to expect from you.  You scared me.  But I was very young, perhaps 6 years old.  You never hurt me though.  You were just strange.

I remember you liked to eat raw onions and I thought it was a very unnatural thing to do and that you and the whole apartment smelled atrociously from it while you stayed with us.  I remember once everyone took a daytime nap, everyone except my brother and I.  We just couldn't.  You snored so loudly from the living room that we ended up sneaking out of bed to stare at you sleeping.  We didn't know what snoring was.  Your breathe stunk so terribly of the raw onion you had eaten earlier that the open windows and balcony door did little good.  I tiptoed up to you, to the giggles of my little brother, pressed my lips to your ear and made a spitting sound.  Just to get you to stop snoring.

I didn't realize your temper.  You jumped up so quickly and loudly screaming about what I wasn't sure but there was violence and anger in your words.  You carried me to my parents room and threw me onto their bed and told my father that if he didn't beat me into silence with his Polish Army belt, he would.  I don't recall many other times in my life when I was so terrified.  I always carried that in my memories about you after that, being extremely careful how I talked and moved around you.

I know that you expected my father to give you money, just like many others on my mother's side still living in Poland expected.  Some sort of idea that we were rich like millionaires a couple of years after moving to the US was stuck in your head.  You were wrong.  You were very wrong.  We were just beginning to eat better food than what we had our first two years coming here, but still unable to pay to go out to eat or have fun at that point in our lives.  Because when you move to a different country, success doesn't happen overnight, and it isn't guaranteed in the first place.

When I would call your home, you always answered the phone with "Hello!"  When you would realize it was my voice (no need to say my name, you knew by my words and accent) you would shout "Hello, New York! Hello, Baltimore! Hello, America! Nice to talk to you!" in English and would proceed to talk with great interest and joy in your voice.  I had no idea what you said most of the time so I would laugh and call you very funny during the times when it felt right and that I loved you and missed you at other times.

When I went to Poland for the first time after leaving, my mother did not want to visit you.  I knew you both hated each other.  So, instead, you drove to my Wujek's place and stayed there with us.  You and Babcia.  My mother told me to go into your room with my brother and spend time with you.  I didn't want to.  I didn't know what to do or say to you and Babcia.  It isn't as though we had Grandparents around to show us how that relationship works.  I had only seen you as a child for a month before.  Who were you?  What could we talk about?

I sat on one bed with my brother, looking overwhelmed.  You and Babcia sat down on the other, with looks on your faces like you were also overwhelmed with emotion.  Joy, Trepidation, Sorrow at so much time lost forever, Love, Regrets, Shame that I didn't speak better Polish, feelings that the world was unfair.  We spoke for a while, I don't remember what we talked about.  I just remember the emotions because they were like a cold bucket of water pouring over me without end from nowhere, the true reality of how my life had been changed.

You took my brother and I down to a village further down the mountain to purchase us something for our birthdays.  In the same Maluszek.  My brother got a Smurf and I got a pen.  I don't have the pen anymore but my brother has the Smurf.

It wasn't until your funeral a couple of years that I learned a lot more about you.  Yet none of it shocked me.  I still want to learn more.

I learned, from listening to conversations you, your brother and your mother had, that your temper had alienated our family from us a long time ago.  That I had a very large family who had always wondered what had happened to me and my brother.  People who I had no idea about were hugging me and crying over my daughter who was at the funeral.

I learned that some of your family was from the area in Poland called Mazowsze prior to WWII.  That there was some whispering about someone coming off a transport train from Ukraine during WWII.  Nobody has yet told me what that was about.  But I remember the venom in your mouth when you would say someone was Ukrainian or Russian.  Were you part Ukrainian?  What would be so terrible about that?

I knew that you had lived in Poland during WWII, that you were 13 when the war had ended.  I didn't realize to what depth that had affected.  It broke my heart when I learned that the Nazis had burst into your house in your village (Which village was that? Why had you never told me about where you were from?) in the middle of the night, rounding up all the villagers, grabbing some and shooting them in front of everyone.  That group included your brother (You had a brother?).  You would have been around 8, I would think.  What happened to you from there, I don't yet know.

I do know that you ended up in Wroclaw somehow during WWII.  I know that you lived in there through the Breslau Festung period.  I heard in a whispered conversation that you fought against Nazi youth during that time.  I know that you saw death filling the streets, Poles and Nazis left to rot out in the open unburied.  That would have damaged anyone mentally.

I knew that you joined the Soviet Army in the Polish Army and were "Career Army".  Yet, I thought that you had left the Army early and didn't know until your funeral that it was because you were given honorary discharge for Schizophrenia.  It all began to make sense. 

I remember talking to you once as a child and suddenly you had become angry in the middle of our joking and began to talk about something dark and terrible and your face had distorted.  My mother had shooed me away immediately and told my father to tell you to stop talking about something.  You must have been having flashbacks, I suppose.  It would have been no long stretch of the imagination to say that you had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well.  There is no shame in any of that.

When I brought my husband to meet you and my Babcia on our honeymoon, my husband really liked you but he had no clue what you were saying.  You said nothing wrong, you were very pleasant to him.  But you did call me a "Russian Communist". 

And you played a video which was no different than your other videos.  It was a video with footage of Space and you began to talk about how you save money over me because you travel everyday from your living room.  The scene on the video changed to a commercial about beer, then something French, then a naked woman rubbing a slice of watermelon all over herself.  I wanted to fall through the floor.  I spilled the brandy you had poured for us.  My husband laughed at my embarrassment, not understanding.  My Babcia begged him to realize that he was embarrassing me.  You kept laughing then changed the channel.  I silently prayed for you because I realized you were mentally ill and that you didn't realize what you had done.

Suddenly, my father made sense to my husband.  You had two TV's, a Satellite Dish, at least 4 VCR's, a computer, several receivers and so many cables that there was no way for me to make sense of it all.  My father is a "gizmo" man.  If it is electronic, he loves it.

We went in your car to your favorite store, Tesco.  It was the same Maluszek that had carried me as a small child to Austria many years before.  Because I am tall, I was terrified of getting into an accident as my forehead almost touched the windshield.  My husband was fascinated. 

You explained to me that you and my father could make your own car alarms.  I had known about this but had never seen it.  You first turned the key and nothing happened.  A smile was on your face as you explained that the car could never start like that.  Then, you touched something somewhere, I'm not sure what, with your left hand as you turned the key and the car started.  This was something you and my father had done together to this car and you cherished it.

Then, the car played some strange tune as it turned on.  The left blinker played a different song and the right blinker played "Happy Birthday".  Oh, the madness.  Yet, it was something to see and smile about.

I broke your heart because I didn't want to go to the cemetery to visit your and Babcia's parents the next day.  When I told you that, your face became so sad that I have always regretted it since.  I thought I could do it the following trip.  Or the following trip.  I didn't realize that you would pass away.  After all, Dziadeks don't pass away.

I learned that you could be violent at times.  I don't know what to say about that.  I don't want to talk about it.  Is it denial or is it that it had not happened to me so therefor I had no right to say anything about it.

I learned that some of your family had at one time kidnapped my father and denied my Uncle.  Why?

I learned that you were hard on my father and his brother.  That you were unsure how to show love and affection, through the many stories I heard.

When we buried you, I learned something else amazing about being Polish.  The respect.  Irregardless of how someone felt about you, your funeral had over one hundred people in attendance.  And every single person had flowers.

At the same time, my husband's grandmother passed away in the US was buried.  With a handful in attendance, most not dressed in mourning clothing.  Nobody had flowers at your funeral except my husband.  She was a kind woman who loved me as a grandchild.

I will have to explore my feelings and memories of your funeral another time, it's still very sad for me.

I just want to tell you that I think I understand you much better now.  We buried you in Wroclaw but you will always be a part of me.

In the way that I keep a month's worth of food in my pantry at any given time, food hoarding that my father does, that you did.  From the times when there was nothing to eat so you always counted on needing that stored food.

In the way that gadgets give me a certain thrill to master as well.  In my pride at the Polish Army and her soldiers and all those who fought to protect her.  In my respect for anyone in the military, as long as they were compassionate and loved their country and didn't join for the joy of killing and oppression.  In my interest of WWII, trying to learn about you.  What had happened to you.

I know you have family who died in the Katyn Massacre.  Did your father know them?  Who were they to you?  Is that why the military was so important to you?

I will always have questions about you.  I will always have love for you.

Rest in Peace and know that you are remembered.

Your first grandchild...


Foreign Mama said...

Wow! What a great and heartfelt piece. I really enjoyed reading it. My grandmother went through WWII in Ukraine and lost a brother as well. She is now suffering from severe dementia, and I, too, have so many questions for her... it is truly sad that we wont get a chance to ask them.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what to say. A heartfelt piece indeed. But in the same moment - very common. I mean, I've known at least half a dozen of people with similar stories (minus going away to America, of course). Story about war that had imprinted something on the psyche of every person that went through it. Story of ilness, not necessarily schizophrenia. Story of being distant from and loving a person at once. My grandfather's story is similar, in that way. And yet, so different...
Anyway. Thank you for this post. I hope getting it off from you chest gave you some relief.


PS. "Maluszek" is very cute. Is it your family's name for Maluch? (Because normally Fiat 126p, and I assume you mean that one, is called Maluch, not Maluszek.)

Unknown said...

Thank you both!

Amythewicked, I've heard it be called both, actually. I think the Maluszek is just people calling it that fondly.

Bill said...

wow, what a great post - I hope you can find the answers to the questions you're asking. it's sad that he lived during a time when PTSD and mental disabilities were so difficult to treat. who knows what your relationship with him would have been if he had been able to seek help.

Shell said...

He sounds like he was a very interesting man.

Denise said...

This is a fabulous post and I'm guessing it felt good to write it - once it was finished?