Emigrants & Immigrants: My Paternal Grandparents

 

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Paweł Banas and his father watched from behind a tree. It wasn’t his family’s land, it wasn’t his family’s lake but they were his family’s ducks, if ducks could belong to anyone. And when he and his father saw the Russian soldiers shooting them he knew it was time to leave for America.

There wasn’t an eligible bachelor left in Sandomierz that Mary Szata had not refused. As punishment for her recalcitrant ways her landed family sent her abroad to the newish world of America. There she lived the rest of her days, missing Poland terribly.

How they came to be man and wife I don’t know.  Perhaps, there are documents, fading as I type this, that detail their union. Their last surviving child, my aunt Mary, is 95 years old, at an age when, as my cousin said, “memories become more a source for comfort than facts.”

I wonder why I am so interested in people I never met. Yet, I’ve always been like that. Am I looking for comfort in facts and memories or to elide them in stories?

What is a memory, but an emigrant, an immigrant traveling from somewhere or another to somewhere else or another in the great, domestic, international, dialectic clash of thesis and antithesis, the here and the there to form the now which, sooner, or later, if its lucky, lives forever, or as long as well can tell, in memory?  What did the soldiers do with the dead ducks? Did my great-grandparents regret exiling their daughter?

I don’t know. I could make up a story from those two sentences and argue fiction is greater than truth, but it might be best to let them wander like the Truth. Sooner or later, Truth finds a home.

Waking Up at the End of the World

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None of us start out with grand ambitions, we back-fill that memory like a wave crashing the beach, surf eddying around our ankles until the sand gets sucked out from under our heels and we totter. The water is not blue. Jellyfish take a long time to die. Sharks never swim in the shallow pools until they do.

 

I was here, on the beach at 52nd and Surf, at the end of the world, hung over, waking up next to what at first appeared to be a dead Mexican. But then his cheeks puffed out and he whimpered into the sand. I smelled my hands for blood but only inhaled a faint aroma of buffalo sauce that inspired no recollection.

Acting on a hunch I reached into the pocket of my neighbor’s jeans and BINGO! Found a packet of Alka-Seltzer tablets. And my car keys. I took another look at the prostrate Mexican and searched for a name.  Empty. Empty as my pockets.  Empty as my head save for the screeching of seagulls hovering above us like they were auditioning to be vultures. Everyone wants to be someone else it seems.

 

Suddenly it felt like the day was resting, in all its damnable weight, across my eyebrows.  I was either having a stroke or a religious experience without the patience to witness either come to fruition. I had heard that if you fed a seagull Alka-Seltzer their stomach would explode. So, bereft of water, and refusing, even at this late stage to drink my own tears, I tore open the packet, whistled as if calling an old favorite dog to the barn, and looking up into the screeching miasma of seagulls that was chopping up the daylight into flashes and explosions of heated air, then tossed the tablet towards the heavens and cowered for cover next to the Mexican. And waited. For the deluge.

 

When it hit me: maybe Henry? Henry was my cousin but he had that swarthy complexion, “Gypsy blood,” my mother claimed, in contrast to our paler, blonde inflected pallor.  At least I hoped it was him. If it wasn’t, I was truly screwed.  I practiced my Spanish, which consisted of insults and made up holy days, just in case.  The gulls swarmed.

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My grandma had a stroke was I was 8. After that she slept in a hospital bed downstairs in the converted dining room. We never went upstate that much and didn’t stay too long when we did. Something always happened that shortened our stay. A fight. An argument. Not that we we’re just in and out but we never stayed long as we intended, or my brother and I had hoped and always left when we had to “get our stuff together”. A few months after the stroke Nanny moved in with my grandparents for good to help her sister and my grandpa. Nanny was my aunt. Technically my great aunt, and she knew how to time things, so she could have a big bag of food, poppy seed rolls, fried chicken, cinnamon bread, candy, and cookies just waiting by the door ready to go. Her timing was impeccable. She was my grandma’s oldest living sister. And she wasn’t one of those people you want to meet in heaven, she was one of those people you want to bring back to earth. Her life was a like a light left on in the kitchen late at night, over the stove, the one you see when you’re walking up the hill at 3 in the morning and the snow’s falling and the temperature feels colder than it is because you don’t feel as drunk as you really are and you just have to get home. Things come to your memory at times unexpectedly, apropos of nothing. Things like that light and the smell of the kitchen and her shuffling around as she got older and my grandma died, and my grandpa died, and she lived alone in the house. By then my old man died and we could visit Nanny whenever we wanted. I still walked timidly through the dining room into the living room and would looked over hesitantly to where the bed was, feel guilty about feeling scared of my grandma when she was sick. But Nanny had outlived them all, all her generation, her sisters, her cousins, her friends. She still gave us food for the ride home, though not so much as before, and once on the road we’d ask each other if we could remember all those other return trips when we couldn’t wait to dig into the goodies and then we’d dig in. Now I live where it’s mostly warm, and hardly snows, and people mock each other when it does. And I never even drink anymore. But I keep a light on in the kitchen.