I was four when my family left Poland, though it was more “sneaking out in the middle of the night” than “casually crossing the border.” It was two weeks before Martial Law was imposed, and sensing that the political and economic climate was continuing to plummet, my folks made the heart wrenching decision to leave the only home they had ever known in exchange for the possibility of a better life in America.
I remember my Poland though, as a child.
I remember standing in long lines with my mom, waiting for that coveted bread and butter.
I remember our neighborhood, our skyrise apartment, the salty Baltic Sea air.
I remember my room, my hideaway bed and my beloved record player. My father played Polish bedtime stories featuring a lovable billy goat every evening, as he sat perched next to me, and soothed me to sleep.
I remember mounds of snow and sitting on the stoops of my grandmother’s modest house.
My website header? That photo was taken in her garden on my fourth birthday. Months later we were gone.
And then I remember chaos.
Cars and planes and a night spent in a refugee camp.
Where tragedy hit our family and almost did us in.
My mother’s reaction to seeing braces for the first time on a flight attendant.
My reaction to seeing an automated Walk/Don’t Walk sign for the first time on a crosswalk in New York City.
Hearing my name in another language.
The realization that I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying, that I was not home, that I did not belong.
But children? They are resilient, and so I assimilated much quicker than my parents did, and became fluent in English thanks to Elmo and friends.
By the first grade, I was top of my class in reading and vocabulary, though old audio tapes reveal a slight Slavic accent that faded over time.
For many years I was a child divided by two countries, two cultures.
I was a faux American at school and a reluctant Pole at home and on more than one occasion I cursed my parents for making us transplants, for turning me into a social outcast, for forcing me to choose a new identity every time I walked in and out of our front door.
Of course, I didn’t get it then.
I didn’t understand the extent of their personal sacrifices until I had a family of my own.
But that’s usually the case, isn’t it?
Anyway, the story deserves to be told in more than just one blog post.
But I sometimes wonder what would have happened had we stayed.
I imagine the other version of me, the one that would have been raised and educated in Eastern Europe, the one that would have spent her life walking along the same cobblestone streets as her parents, the one that would drink lukewarm Pepsi (for some reason, Europe does not believe in ice cubes) from a glass bottle during the humid summer months.
Her Polish, though fluent now, would undoubtedly resemble that of my native cousins, a rapid fire succession of hard r’s casually peppered into every conversation.
Would she assume that the roads in America were paved in gold, much like my struggling relatives who stayed behind? Or would she be content where she was, because it was all she had ever known, all she had ever loved.
Would she be so anxious? So fearful? So mistrusting of the world? Or was she spared because by never leaving she never had to face starting over somewhere else, somewhere foreign and different and strange.
I wonder about her sobriety. It would be so much harder to be sober in a part of the world that is known for it’s love of life and liquor. I hope she would be. But I’m just not sure.
I don’t imagine her out of a sense that something is lacking with my own life and the way it has played out so far. The curiosity comes from knowing that I am who I am today partially because of where my parents chose to raise me and that I could have just as easily been Joasia instead of Jo.
So it’s a thought I entertain,
once in a little while, as I stand in my Southern California kitchen making the same Tomato Soup for my son that my mom used to make for me in her kitchen overlooking the Baltic Sea, the same soup that her mom used to make for her on a wooden stove in her tiny kitchen in rural Poland.
Kinda neat, huh?