An (Almost) Unspeakable Legacy
I AM a teacher turned student. I have given my last lecture for the day and now I am following the curves of the road which winds along the Penobscot River, en route to my Polish lesson. My third week, and already I am hopelessly behind, mired in a language so thick with consonants and diacritics that one needs a machete more than a mind to admit the light of understanding.
What inspired me to learn Polish well into my thirties I can't exactly say. I can remember as a child being hauled to relatives during the holidays. They would huddle in dense clusters in the tenement apartment of my great-grandparents, the white enamel stove seething in the background, bubbling with red cabbage and meaty pork stews. They spoke Polish, that undecipherable glue of a language, adhesive enough to yank the teeth right out of your head - as happened to my great-grandmother one Christmas Eve w hen I was five. She was rocking in her chair nodding her kerchiefed head when suddenly she began to call out for music. Violin music. "Skrzypce! Skrzypce! Skrzypce!" she spat, and her dentures flew into her lap.
Styczen, Luty, Marzec, I repeat to myself as I turn onto the approach road leading to my tutor's house. January, February, March. Part of my lesson for the week. Three decades have passed and done their slow work, erasing from this earth many of the babushkas, ham fists, and slick-backed-hair-collar-button-fastened-but-wearing-no-tie faces. And I am left mostly with sounds, sussurrations, palatalizations. I am trying to corral them with grammar, clothe them with cadence, so that my family has something m ore than the hasty Na zdrowie! of a Christmas toast and memories losing their details over time.
I pull into the driveway and fumble the books in my lap into a semi-neat stack, grateful once again for not having driven into the river while studying. I slip them into my briefcase and go up the walk to the front door. I knock. There is a sound inside as of a bowling ball rolling down the stairs. The door flies open. Her bleached-out hair is wild, for she never remembers when I am coming. So she frantically primps, waves me in, prompting me in Polish. "Chodz! Chodz!" she barks, but smiling, still smili ng, the sun skirting the tops of the pines on this October afternoon, passing through the kitchen window to strike her good side, giving her the demeanor of a kindly gypsy woman in the forest. She continues to speak Polish at me, rapidly, while clearing her table of books, papers, dishes. I smile and nod, saying tak repeatedly - the dumb affirmative of the ignorant. Then she looks up at me and gives me a flat smile. "Do you understand?" she asks. I hang my head. "Nie," I admit. "Not really."
Her name is Jadwiga Pomorowska. She comes from a city in Poland called Bydgoszcz. Although she has corrected me a hundred times I still pronounce it like "By Gosh!" I have known her for only three weeks and already I have committed her life story to heart. The escape in 1961 from Gomulka's repressive regime, her hiding in a freighter's coal bin with her two children as they sailed to France. "I was discovered!" she told me, shaking with terror even after all these years. But she threatened the sailor wit h a fruit knife before stuffing his pockets with dollar bills. And so they survived.
After 15 minutes of preamble - storytelling of her adventures - the lesson begins in earnest. With eyes closed she claps her hands and stamps her foot, and I know by now what I am supposed to do. I begin to recite the first declension. The verb "to be." I am still very confused by it, but since Jadwiga is reciting, too, I am able to bury my feeble response in hers. Until she opens her eyes and stops, but continues clapping. Louder, faster, until I fumble. "What's wrong?" she demands, rapping on the table . "You didn't study!" she concludes, no longer the kindly gypsy woman in the forest. She punches me on the arm, harder than she knows. In a matter of moments she has become the Beast of By Gosh.
"It is impossible," I say sadly. I kick the chair leg with my heel. I feel like a nine year old.
"The months!" she says, spearing the air with her finger.
I rise to the occasion, reciting the months in order. In any language there is a certain music to the months, for each one prompts the next, like a riffle of dominoes. When I am done I look at Jadwiga. She smiles her gypsy smile and gets up from the table. When I do not know my lesson she hits me. But when I have done well she gives me cake.
Sometimes I think I suffer too much for the legacy. If it were only nostalgia which drove me, I would reject such a motive for learning Polish. "How is that possible?" I remember asking my father when he told me that my great-grandparents never learned English, although they lived in America for 60 years. My great-grandfather had worked for the New Jersey Central Railroad, while my great-grandmother stayed home as a seamstress. The railroad tracks formed the boundaries of their world. Hence all the relat ives gathered at their tenement at Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving. Up the five flights of wooden stairs my parents would drag me, following the aroma of red cabbage and kielbasa, which covered up the smell of old blankets - the constant companion of the decaying tenements of the Jersey City waterfront.
A door opened, and there stood my kerchiefed great-grandmother, wringing her hands, her face as round as the moon, her apron plastered with large, gaudy sunflowers. We, the world, had come to her, so why cross the tracks? Why learn English? I looked past her at my great-grandfather, who was struggling to rise from the sofa, where he sat next to the window which looked out over New York harbor, and in which the Statue of Liberty was framed.
I was 11 when the tenement was destroyed. The city struck it with a wrecking ball, scattering my relatives like tenpins.
Jadwiga and I eat the cake. She rises and goes to the refrigerator. She opens the door and reveals a crystal pitcher of freshly made iced tea. It is chock full of ice, which rattles as she lifts the pitcher and sets it on the table. The pitcher is covered with daisies and sunflowers, and for a moment I think it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I place my palm against its roundness and feel the cold.
Jadwiga begins to teach me a new declension. Amazingly, I seem to catch on quickly, using the partially learned first declension as a template. We run through it three times, together, then she says, "Now you." With effort I begin to recite the declension, moving my mouth in ways it is not accustomed to. The singular goes well, but in the plural I falter. There is a form for addressing men, one for addressing women, and even one for addressing a thousand women if there is a man hiding among them.
"It's hopeless!" I say, and Jadwiga slaps the table. Now she is going to encourage me, which is exactly what I want. "It is very, very hard," I say, but not with enough despondency that she will hit me. But neither will I get any more cake. Jadwiga looks at me hard. I stare into her face and read her: I am the one who stood in bread lines for hours on end; I breathed the coal dust of the Star of Pomerania, surviving by the grace of God; I left the university in By Gosh to clean toilets in Portland's fede ral building. And you complain because Polish is hard?
I swallow and go on, attempting the declension again. Slowly but surely I wring it out of myself. It is physically painful, as if I had been tasked with a hundred push-ups and my coach had started counting with the 99th, calling it the first with 99 more to go. Perhaps my great-grandparents had never learned English for fear of losing their hard-won Polish. Perhaps we are entitled to only one language at a time. You say you want French? Then trade in your Italian. Polish? Hand over your English first. Th e thought of being trapped in a no-man's land between tongues alarms me. But only for a moment, for my reverie is broken as Jadwiga plops a pile of reading material in front of me. "The first story is about Frederick Chopin," she says. Only it is written "Fryderyk Szopen." My mind refuses to juxtapose an "s" and a "z." It brings back bad memories of syzygy, the word that bamboozled me in an eighth-grade spelling bee. "What's wrong?" asks Jadwiga. "Why don't you read?" I move my mouth but no sound comes out.
It is the syzygy effect, and suddenly I see my teacher in the audience in 1968, mouthing the words: "I am so disappointed in you."
Somehow the Rock of Gibraltar is lifted from my mind and I find myself reading, my tongue excavating sz's, dz's, and zsyp's from some Old Slavonic quarry that had been given up for nonproductive. I can understand only one word in 10, but I do manage to pronounce them accurately enough that Jadwiga's face broadens into a bright smile. I gaze through the pitcher of iced tea, its flowers drifting out of focus all about Jadwiga, and this woman from By Gosh, I realize, is somebody's mother, somebody's grandmo ther, and, if she is as indestructible as most Polish women, she will live to be a great-grandmother as well. She continues to smile. I think of my relatives, of the hot red cabbage and painted eggs and the kick of the polka in their tiny apartment and Chopin's mazurkas and the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz as I drive home in the rain.