A bit of a late post, as it’s always hard to write about personal things that aren’t all happy and easy. Plus, it’s tricky to keep things from turning into a babbling journal – not sure where to find a happy medium.
We touched down in Warsaw around 11:30am on July 11th, after a quick flight over from Amsterdam. My dad, looking astoundingly put together and therefore a bit unlike himself, greeted us at the arrival gate in a clean button up and shiny shoes.
For someone with such a Polish name, I feel exceptionally un-Polish. I’ve visited Warsaw quite regularly since early childhood so it doesn’t feel totally foreign, but it definitely doesn’t feel like home. I’m not quite a tourist but I’m surely not a local. It’s some grey area that makes me a feel both uneasy and nostalgic. My only real connection to the country comes from my Dad and his mum (my Babcia), and I’ve always felt that if I visited without having them around I’d feel odd and a bit sad and out of place.
My Babcia is the one grandparent I consistently feel very close to, despite the physical distance between us. Her spirit and zest for life is intoxicating to be around. She used to make homemade lemon vodka that felt like gasoline going down your throat and the best little pancakes in the entire world that I’d slather with Nutella and eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as a kid. She has an energy and beaming positivity about her that’s rarely seen in folks of her age. Song and dance and laughter can erupt when in her presence, and she has little patience for anything too delicate or refined.
A few years ago, a huge chunk of plaster fell off her dining room ceiling, revealing an ugly blue patch of material underneath it. Instead of doing what most would do (call a carpenter and get it fixed, or just leave it alone), she asked my friend and I who were visiting at the time to help her turn it into a little “window to heaven”. She trundled off into her bedroom with a childish smile on her face and came back a few moments later with gauze and a cloth bag filled with little fake birds. Armed with a ladder and some sticky tac, we carefully arranged these props around the glaring hole in the ceiling as per her direction from the ground.
On another occasion, my mum and Yola were in Warsaw on their way back from Greece, and were describing to my Babcia the Greek celebratory tradition of breaking a plate on the ground. Mid-conversation my Babcia stood up, suddenly inspired. She hobbled over to her kitchen cabinet stacked carefully with more plates than any one or two or eighteen people would ever need, grabbed one, and smashed it on the ground right there in the middle of her kitchen, eyes gleaming like a child.
If that hasn’t given you a bit of insight into the type of person she is, there was also the infamous wet T-shirt contest that she spontaneously decided we should organize in the midst of having guests over. After stripping down to her underwear and a tank top and splashing herself, Yola, and I all generously with water in the bathtub, she promptly paraded us out into the dining room in her underwear, still dripping wet, to ask the dinner guests who the contest winner was.
This time, arriving at my Babcia’s apartment, I felt just the way I thought I might: odd and a bit sad and out of place. Last year, my dad finally convinced her that an assisted living home was the best place to be. Her deteriorating health and day-to-day ability to remember things meant that this was much safer, not to mention a huge weight off my dad’s mind knowing she was being looked after while we’re all thousands of miles away. Nonetheless, my chest felt hollow as we entered her old room to see most of her wall ornaments and paintings and photographs taken down. Diego, obviously not noticing anything odd about the space, started unpacking his bags. On the verge of tears, I left my suitcase in the room and walked back out through the hallway and living room and into her tiny fenced back garden. The plants were slightly overgrown and the little cat beds she’d always kept outside for strays were gone. I tiptoed through the wet grass, carefully picking up and relocating snails, as not to squish them and leave them homeless and dead – I knew Babcia wouldn’t like that.
Later that afternoon, I noticed her “window to heaven” in the dining room, decorated just as we’d left it a few years ago. It gave me comfort to see that no one had tried to take it down (or at least if they had, Babcia had put up a good fight).
We went to visit her at Dom Seniora Pan, a home for elderly folks who were part of the Polish Academy of Science, the next day. My stomach twisted as we drove through the forest, past extravagant homes surrounded by tall fences. The dashboard was hot from the sunlight. What if she doesn’t remember me? What if I look too different to the last time I was here? What if she can’t understand what I’m saying? What if she’s sad and depressed, living with a bunch of other elderly people who can’t possibly have as much heart and youthful as she does?
All these what-ifs, heavy like a block of ice around my head, melted into a puddle on the back patio of the home as soon as Babcia came out to meet us. A wide grin spread across her face, and she exclaimed something in Polish into my hair as we hugged. She stood back to look at me, and reassured me that I looked just the same as the last time we were together. She remembered me and it was okay and she was walking and talking and obviously older and slower but she was herself. Thank god. My shoulders relaxed a little.
Our agenda for the afternoon consisted solely of visiting our family grave – a staple activity on every Warsaw visit. In the car, Babcia slowly flipped through the wad of printed photos of all of us in Vancouver that I’d brought for her, like I do every time. She lingered on the photos of my mum, lovingly commenting on how beautiful she is. I agreed.
We bought candles and colourful flowers at a roadside stand beside the high concrete wall that concealed the cemetery from view. I carefully re-traced the same steps taken every time we’ve come to pay our respects. Gate #4, turn right, walk until the grave with the life-sized angel spreading her wings, turn left, go straight – it’ll be on the right.
We quietly swapped out the candles inside large lanterns and placed the flowers to mirror each other on both sides, taking care to put one arrangement in front of my Dziadek’s (grandfather’s) headstone, one of the newest additions to the tomb of sixteen. Babcia reminded us all exactly where she’d like to be placed one day, next to my Dziadek on the left side. She had always said that she wanted to be cremated because the idea of bugs creeped her out, but now she appeared to have changed her mind. I didn’t like thinking about the day when we’d have to worry about those things, so I was a little relieved when we paid our final respects and left to wander around a show Diego a few impressive grave sites nearby.
After stopping for lunch at an old tavern near the home, where Dad and Diego indulged in some less-than-appetizing-looking bread with lard, we took a stroll through the forest heading back to the home. Babcia was obviously tired from the walking, but gave us a quick tour of the grounds and her little room before we left. Up on the 3rd floor, in a room with a little plaque that read Zofia Switkowska on the door, she suddenly felt the urge to give us some gifts, unclasping the silver bracelet from her wrist and casually handing it to me as if it were a napkin or salt shaker. I thanked her, and put it on right away. She then turned to her bookshelf, looking for something to give Diego.
“Is he smart?”, she asked me in Polish. I told her yes, very.
She reached up onto the top shelf and pulled down a carved wooden owl, painted in fading shades of blue and yellow and white. Beaming, she offered it to him, who smiled appreciatively back.
As we left, Diego commented on how he felt like he could go on a long walk with her in the woods somewhere, and have wonderful conversations, despite the solid language barrier. I understood the feeling completely. I’d spent many nights in the living room of her apartment under dim lighting, sipping lemon vodka or tea and painting our conversations in the air. Gestures and charades and drawn images facilitated certain concepts, and it had somehow seemed so easy for us two to discuss the universe and time and the meaning of life. In my mind, it was always difficult to imagine a time when we wouldn’t be able to do that. Now it seems a little easier.
About a week later, we came to say a last goodbye before leaving back to Vancouver. Rain bucketed down from the angry sky as she held my arm and followed me into a cafe.
“You know, it’s always a good thing when it rains,” she said to me in Polish, smiling as the drops fell heavily on her jacket and hair, “all the flowers are so happy, and if we’re anything like flowers, we should be too!”
I laughed and agreed with the truth of her sentiment, deciding to tuck it away somewhere to pull out on a rainy day back in Vancouver.
We nibbled on cakes and sipped coffees inside the cafe, watching the clouds part and the sun show it’s face beyond a wall of windows. Babcia reminisced about her younger years, counting off her many boyfriends on her fingers.
“I loved all the boys,” she giggled, “and they all loved me!”
Dropping her off at the home again, my Dad suggested I walk her up to her room, while he and Diego wait by the car. I was glad to have this time together, albeit brief.
We took the elevator up to her little room, and after a few moments spent hugging and saying goodbye, she insisted she walk me back down to the front door. As we stood in the elevator going back down, tears were already welling up in my eyes. There’s always this unspoken understanding between us that our goodbyes might be the last.
“Daj czoło”, she said, asking for my forehead. I bent down and she gave me a last kiss before I walk back out to the car.
(Click photos to enlarge)