Thursday, December 4, 2008

Babci and Dzia-Dzia

"Don't marry someone because that you like him. Marry him because he need you. I am praying for you to one day marry someone you can help."

That's the relationship advice I received from my Babci every time the topic came up. Which wasn't all that often, but she did regularly share with me what was on her mind. So if she was thinking about the "special boy" that I know she prayed about, she'd tell me that she was praying and tell me to look for someone who needed me.

Two years before she died, Babci started down a painful path of confusion and even dementia. It was hard to see such a strong woman unable to remember people, and even harder to watch her occasionally grow paranoid. But to everything there is a silver lining, and the silver lining to this was that whenever her brain was in good shape, Babci took advantage of her clarity to tell us stories. Her life was not easy, and she was very much not a selfish person, so she rarely talked about herself. This meant that every time she'd tell me a story, it was special.

One of the first stories she told me during those final years has stuck clearly in my mind. It was the story of how she met and married my Dzia-Dzia (grandpa). And it completely helped me understand the thinking behind her unusual relationship advice.

Babci was very happy with her life in Germany. After the war ended, she had made a group of close friends who were also single, also independent, and also believers in the same strong Christian faith. One of them in particular was a dear friend, close as a sister. I recently saw some photos of this group of ladies: they'd go out together and places together, they went hiking together: they did the kind of things that young professional adults do.

She missed her family in Poland, but going home wasn't an option, so she decided she'd probably just make her life in Germany. She'd found her own version of family there. But she had an uncle who had immigrated to the United States, and had in fact done rather well for himself. He owned a duck farm. Every so often, he'd write my Babci and suggest she come for a visit. He'd say it's not good for his niece to be off on her own when she has a family in America who can look out for her. He kept writing and grew rather insistent, so eventually my Babci agreed. Her visa and ticket came through, and she got on a ship across the Atlantic. She figured she'd go to Long Island, spend some time with her uncle's family, show them that she's still a good girl and is happy and healthy, then after a few months she'd head back for Germany.

When she got to America, though, as is so often the case, things did not turn out as she had expected. Her uncle didn't expect her to leave again, and one thing led to another. Six months came and went and she didn't leave. But she wasn't particularly happy. She told us that she wanted so much to go back to Germany, and was always waiting and looking for a way to leave. Her best friends and her life were all back in Germany. In America she was living in someone else's home: even if they were family, she didn't really feel like she belonged.

Well, also during this time, a young man from Ohio came to work on her uncle's duck farm. He was related to Babci's uncle's wife, and had recently left the military and was needing some work to get on his feet. He was an electrician by trade, so was invited by the family to come try his luck in New York.

Well, this young man was, at least as far as I can tell from the old family photos, a rather good looking chap (not that my Babci was the type to be too concerned by these things). And he was nice, too. My Dzia-Dzia (for of course this is who that is) helped her out in little ways. The two distant relatives living and working on the duck farm developed a bond of friendship.

But my Dzia-Dzia had some health problems. While in the military, he'd been posted out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where he'd contracted malaria. It hit him frequently, and hard. So when he had a recurrence of malaria while living on the duck farm, his new friend found herself nursing him back to health. He was sick for a few weeks, and my Babci stayed by his side, looking out for him, doing what she could.

When he got better, life went back to normal. If anything, I got the impression my Babci was a little irritated that she'd had to do this service. But she thrives on serving people, so mainly she was just glad to help.

After a few months, right when my Babci was finally making arrangements to catch a boat back to Germany, my Dzia-Dzia proposed. According to Babci, he said, "I get sick sometimes and need someone to take care of me. Will you marry me and take care of me when I'm sick?"

Well, I wasn't there, but from the way Babci told the story, I got the impression she kind of laughed in his face. Here she was getting ready to go back to living the life of the independent, strong young professional woman in Europe, and this Polish-American semi-disabled electrician expects her to drop her life and be his wife? I don't know what her expression really was, but I know that she said no and went on with her plans.

But then a week or two after that, Dzia-Dzia got sick again. And Babci found herself at his bedside again. During this time she felt like God was speaking to her, showing her that she had a new job to do, in America. And so when he was conscious enough to have a proper conversation, she told him that she'd thought it through, and if she was going to play the role of his caregiver anyway, she might as well marry him and make it official.

My grandfather was in and out of work his whole life. After they were married, they moved into a small flat owned by someone they knew. They were not very comfortable there, and not treated particularly well by their landlord, so they were fortunate enough to buy a house after only a few years of marriage. Babci was more than thirty years old already when they were married, and Dzia-Dzia was several years older, so my aunt came along quickly, and my mom not too much later. Through most of this time, Babci worked as a seamstress to support the family, which was important because her work was much more consistent than Dzia-Dzia's. In her spare time, she took care of her two daughters and looked out for Dzia-Dzia who did in fact get sick from time to time and need someone to care for him.

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