My political awakening landed on a tarmac shortly before Christmas 1981. From the back of our new Oldsmobile, I stared at the pallid visitor while my father clattered in a language that sounded like one long ‘shshshsh’. Uncle Pawel, as I would call him even though he was my father’s cousin, looked into the dimness of the six-lane highway and never uttered a word.
When we entered the kitchen, my mother laid tomato slices on a plate. She held out a limp hand and Uncle Pawel gave her a bow, kissing her knuckles.
“If you smoke, you must go outside,” my mother said in English.
“Prosze,” my father lifted the plate of tomatoes and strode toward the dining room table, snapping on the television along the way.
The nightly news blared, “Crackdown… protests… martial law…”
Uncle Pawel’s eyes wandered across our daffodil wallpaper, his face flat like all our Chinese neighbors. His skin had a metallic tint and his lips didn’t twist in any discernable direction, but I assumed that was an illusion, his beard acting like salt-and-pepper drapery.
“Do you like onions?” I asked.
He stared at me blankly.
I directed my gaze over to the table where my father made criss-cross cuts into half an onion, then shaved down bits, letting them fall onto the tomato slices.
“Jedz, jedz,” my father said. “Eat, eat.”
I waited for Uncle Pawel to move, then followed behind and mimicked his stiff descent into the oak chair.
My mother shuffled over holding a porcelain bowl of my father’s daily staple, soured rye-flour soup or ‘zurek’.
“…The Washington Prelate tells Americans to send Poland food aid…”
She offered Uncle Pawel some French bread. He accepted the smallest piece, lifted a knife and brought it down into the soft edge of the butter tray. Then he stretched the pat from one tippy end of the crust to the other. He never glanced at the television, not even when my father, chewing a hunk of bread, mumbled something and pointed at the screen.
On Christmas Eve, the four of us ate halved hard-boiled eggs swimming in soup as our first course even though, my mother noted, zurek is never eaten on holidays except for Easter.
“Can I use chopsticks to eat the carp?” I asked.
“No,” my father said. “But we should call Pawel’s family.”
“And who will pay for this?” my mother asked.
Droplets of white broth speckled Uncle Pawel’s beard.
“Danuta,” my father said.
“Fine. Tell him this is our Christmas gift.”
“You tell him.”
My mother only gulped down the rest of her white wine.
Some ‘shshs’s’ crossed the table between the men. Uncle Pawel stood and disappeared upstairs. My father picked up the phone in the kitchen. I rushed to his side, leaning in to hear as he dialed an endless string of numbers, while my mother collected plates from the table and scuttled them to the sink.
Several beeps pressed through the blackness of the phone. A girl answered.
“Pawel!” my father yelled upstairs.
Uncle Pawel picked up the other line, but before he could speak the girl prattled fast.
My father cupped his hand over the receiver and said, “They’ve arrested Pawel’s wife.”
A plate clinked in the sink.
My father cut through the girl’s urgency with a lift in his tone that tried to calm her.
“Tatuszu. Tatuszu,” I understood her saying. “Daddy. Daddy.”
“Hang up the phone, Bogdan,” my mother said.
Suddenly, a male voice rasped into the line.
“Who is there?” my father said. “Are you the censors?”
“Hang up the phone!” my mother screamed.
The telephone went dead.
I froze next to my father. Water dripped from the kitchen fawcett.
Uncle Pawel didn’t come downstairs for a long time. When his knees cracked against the carpet, we all headed over to the Christmas tree to open presents. My father handed him a gift. It was a box with shaving cream and a razor inside. Uncle Pawel nodded his thanks and my father’s cheeks turned rosy. He declared that for Christmas he was gifting the whole family a swimming pool. The workers would break ground next week.
I bounced up and down. “A swimming pool! A swimming pool!”
He put his arms around my mother’s waist and kissed her. Her blue irises glimmered over to a quiet Uncle Pawel.
The Polish Community Center in Golden Gate Park served Hunter’s stew every Sunday evening. My mother detested these immigrants as part of a Poland that never existed, so she always took the opportunity to run off to an American wind ensemble set up by her church where she played the trumpet. That left my father to take me with him. On our rides together in the Oldsmobile, he’d beam that now I could learn something about his culture. Once there, I sat at the edge of a long table on a foldout chair watching two kids, my own age and fluent in Polish, jump around the tile floor and hush their twelve-year-old secrets. I wished my friend Amanda Loh could come along with me. She liked to read Judy Blume and Nancy Drew. But my father said that the Polish Community Center was no place for Amanda Loh.
On the Sunday after New Year’s my father entered the hall with a particular puff to his chest. Tonight he would land Uncle Pawel a job through his connections. After all, that’s how he had started out as an engineer. Uncle Pawel shook hands with people, bowed stiffly, but never opened his mouth. Everyone seemed to have a lot to tell him, so he just listened. I ate my Hunter’s stew from a paper bowl and when I was almost finished, Uncle Pawel had his hands in his pockets next to me. He gave out a snort, then said the first words I’d ever heard him speak.
“I look like apparachnik.”
He snorted again, staring into the crowd. The Polish men, without exception, wore clean-cut jeans. I wasn’t sure what ‘apparachnik’ meant, but Uncle Pawel did look out of place in his beard and tired brown suit.
When we got into the Oldsmobile, my father talked on and on. I studied the dark tinted lines in Uncle Pawel’s cheeks. My father pounded a fist against the steering wheel and said in English, “Network, network. You have too many years under communism where everything is handed to you.”
I patted Uncle Pawel on the shoulder. “Do you speak Chinese?”
“To your father? Yes.”
After that, I stared out the window.
The nightly news forgot about solidarity and crackdowns. My father, now hooked on reports about an upcoming recession, kept clucking his tongue over at his cousin. But by February, Uncle Pawel managed to land a job on his own. He’d enrolled in the free English classes at the local high school and met a Chinese gentleman who worked as an architect in a company that needed people. Uncle Pawel asked my mother to help him write a resume. Within a few weeks he got an interview and the firm offered him a position.
“You were lucky,” my father dipped bread into his soup. “California needs architects. But I have good news of my own. I have secured Pawel’s wife and daughter visas to enter the United States.”
Uncle Pawel sprinkled some dill into his bowl.
“We should call Pawel’s family,” my father said.
“Pawel can call later. By himself.”
“But I want to say a few words too.” My father popped up and went over to the kitchen phone. He picked up the receiver and dialed. Uncle Pawel put his spoon down and walked up the stairs. My father talked into the phone for what seemed like a long time.
“Bogdan, let him speak to his family alone.”
My father complied, his face turning an iron hue. “Pawel’s wife is still in jail. But she has tuberculosis. His daughter says they won’t let her out.”
When Uncle Pawel came back to the table, he picked up a chair, brushed past the television and over to the screen door, where he thumped himself down. He glared out at the backyard. Construction workers had dug up the grass and then hammered wooden sticks in an oval shape across the dirt.
“She shouldn’t have written those pamphlets,” my mother said, at first under her breath. “What was she thinking? Her daughter is now all alone.”
“She is already a teenager. And the neighbors come by to check on her”
“That girl needs her parents. Pawel knows it.”
“His wife is well-known in the movement.“
“She is tearing her family apart.”
“She is working for Solidarnosc.“
“At what price?”
“Don’t say it.”
“I want to go home,” my father said.
“Home where? Poland is a foreign country to us.”
“They need our help.”
“We opened our home to Pawel. We secured his wife –“
“I secured –“
“Fine, you. You secured his wife and daughter visas. What more can we do?”
“Give them our patriotism,” he said.
“Patriotism! Well, then let us move to Singapore. We can be patriots in that dictatorship too. Except in Singapore they don’t treat their own people like rats.”
“Our own people are not doing this.”
“To hell they are not!”
“Mommy, I would go live in Poland.”
My mother’s hand flew up and before I knew it, she’d hit me. Hit me right across the left cheek. Her hand pulled back and she clutched it with the other. She raised herself up, walked through the kitchen and down the hall where a door slammed.
Uncle Pawel’s eyes shifted over to me. I looked back at him. I didn’t touch my cheek. Instead, I would let it sting.
Uncle Pawel didn’t announce that he was leaving. My father fastened his eyes to the nightly news as usual. My mother made zurek soup, but her potatoes never seemed to soften. Always hard and crunchy. Then Uncle Pawel called my father to invite us to his place for dinner.
“He doesn’t know how to cook,” my mother said.
But we went over to his studio apartment anyway. He served Ritz crackers with processed cheddar cheese. My mother and I craned out the window to see Uncle Pawel’s new car: a Christmas-red Oldsmobile. My parents drank a shot of vodka from Dixie cups. We left early because my mother insisted I had school the next morning. My father promised to come back with our old television set.
With the television went my father too. He wasn’t at dinner anymore. My mother switched to making salad for our first course. Afterward she’d stare out the kitchen window where the construction workers had stopped digging into the dirt. My mother told me it was because of the rains.
One night she called Uncle Pawel.
“He is there? … Tak, tak, poniewasz…” she stopped herself.
On Tuesday afternoons my mother taught trumpet lessons, so I was the first one home. I picked up the mail and saw a letter from Poland. It had been ripped open at the top and then resealed with heavy yellow tape. I left the letter next to the telephone in the kitchen and when my mother came home, she left it there too. Each afternoon I checked the kitchen counter. Within a few days, the letter was gone. I decided it meant something. My mother still stared at the puddles collecting in the shallow hole outside.
When my mother boiled water and mixed it together with rye flour, I asked her, “How do you know he’s coming?”
“Uncle Pawel called. He wants to go out with his friends for drinks. His American friends.”
She let the flour mixture sour overnight in a jar.
At six o’clock the next evening my father strolled through the door, grumpy, and sat at the table waiting for his food. He didn’t turn on the nightly news. Instead, as my mother crossed to the dining room, he pulled paperwork from his briefcase and placed it at the center of the table.
I leaned over my bowl and read the English translation in small type below the Polish: ‘Exit visa for Bogdan Majewski.’ His American passport peeked out from underneath the lime green visa. My mother thumped the porcelain bowl on top of the papers.
He said, “Pawel’s wife wrote that letter to us. She has been released from prison.”
My mother ladled out soup.
“She will work in the underground for as long as it takes.”
“Pawel told me her story,” my mother said. “They weren’t getting along even before –”
My father interrupted, “Now he’s your cousin?”
My mother sipped her soup. I picked up my spoon and sipped as well. Then my father sipped, our sipping getting louder and louder. Sipping like taking in last breaths. Sipping until our sips turned to sniffles.
My mother said, “But Bogdan… what about… the swimming pool?”
He gave me a brief side-glance, then buried his eyes in his soup. A tear slid down his nose.
I crawled under the table and huddled at the pillar, holding it around my arms.
That night I heard whispers and ‘shshs’ coming from my parent’s bedroom. My father gave out cries, even wails, that sent me burrowing deep within my covers. My mother shrilled a moan that frightened me. After that, my quiet wait for something more lulled me to sleep.
My father set up lawn chairs in the dirt of our backyard. When the doorbell rang, he raced to the fourier, snatching up the Ritz crackers and processed cheese along the way. My father’s visa and passport still rested on the edge of the kitchen counter by the phone, buried underneath a heap of Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. Today, he insisted he would call Pawel’s wife to plead with her to come to the States. He’d written her new telephone number on a Post-it note that he stuck to the appetizer plate. But when he opened the door and held out a cracker, a voice chimed in front of Uncle Pawel, “Well hi!”
A blonde woman with tanned skin stepped forward. She held out her hand, bracelets rolling up and down her arm. “Bo-dan. Is that how they say it?”
My father, his mouth agape, handed my mother the crackers.
“And let me guess,” she kneeled to face me, “You’re Kasia. Paul has told me all about you.”
“Paul?” I thought to myself.
She handed me a red box with gold etchings. I opened it right away. Inside was a jade bracelet.
“I got it in Chinatown,” she said.
I put the bracelet on and showed my father, who snatched the Post-it note from the tray and crumpled it in his fist. “Danuta has made soup,” he said.
My mother escorted us to the backyard, wrapping her hand inside the woman’s arm. “And what is your name?”
“Oh. Like my daughter. Only we use her Polish diminutive.”
Once outside, my father went searching for an extra lawn chair. We stared down into what had gone from a shallow hole to a small canyon. Thick green water oozed at the bottom and metal wires as well as white tubes scattered everywhere.
“Bogdan says all American families in California must have a pool.” My mother strolled over to the screen door and into the kitchen.
“Do you like to swim, Danuta?” Uncle Pawel yelled into the open window.
“I will have to learn it,” she yelled back, clanking dishes.
“You mean,” Caroline said, “You don’t know how to swim?”
My father leaned forward on his lawn chair. “Poland is very cold most of the year so nobody really has swimming pools.”
“Yeah,” I said, “They only have soup bowls.”
“Soup bowls?” A laugh swelled right up to Caroline’s purple lipstick. “You only have soup bowls in Poland?”
Uncle Pawel snorted, his metallic tint turning flush. The lines in his cheeks stretched and thinned. Caroline slipped her hand on his thigh and I noticed that he wore jeans.
“As Polish people we’re not supposed to laugh,” I said, then curled both my index fingers into the corners of my mouth and pulled my lips back. “It makes us look like apparachnik.”
Caroline laughed some more and so did Uncle Pawel. My father glared at Caroline’s hand. My mother returned with cold cucumber soup that she placed on a foldout tray. She handed us each spoons and bowls.
“Thank you, Danuta,” Uncle Pawel said. “Zupa ogorkowa is my favorite. The buttermilk especially makes it so good.”
Then we drank soup while peering into the dirt hole. Uncle Pawel and my mother talked in English about apparachnik, the American recession, and Poland. My father grumbled that they understood nothing about politics.
My mother smiled. “Bogdan, by next summer we will be swimming like all the other Americans in California.”
“I want to learn about politics, tatuszu.” I took his hand and shook his fingers until they clasped into mine. “And I like swimming. I like it very much.”
My father closed his eyes and turned his face up to the sun.