Sunday, January 11, 2009

Babci and her sister

Babci didn't talk all that much about her life as a little girl. When she told a story, it seemed to me that usually there was a reason she was telling it, some lesson to transmit. Or else, some innocuous happening would remind her of a past event and she'd tell whoever she was with about it. But she didn't generally see any point in uncovering bandaged wounds. She'd talk about her life in Germany from time to time, but only occasionally did she tell us stories from Poland.

Sometimes it almost seemed that there was something she was hiding, but most likely it was just too difficult for her to talk about a life that she'd had to turn her back on. Babci never talked to her family after she left them as a young woman. There had been a few letters from home. They were written in Polish, so none of us know what they say, but we do know that they were the only news Babci had from her home for many decades. And Babci didn't write back. From what I understand, she was reticent to send them letters postmarked in the U.S. because she didn't want her loved ones who were then living in the Soviet Union to suffer any consequences for having family in America. So when she came to the "new world", she really did put the "old world" behind her. It must have been easier to keep her eyes on to the future and avoid gazing at the past.

In the late 1990s, her sister's daughter came to America to work for a few months. During her first visit she stayed with Babci's cousins on Long Island, and during her second visit, she lived in New Jersey. On both trips, she visited my Babci often. My grandmother was glad to have someone to speak Polish with, and appreciated finally seeing someone from back home after so many years! At that point, it had been nearly sixty years since she left her little house on the farm.

When her niece was over, Babci would offer to let her use the phone to call her family back home. Babci would busy herself with household chores while her niece chatted with her mother, my Babci's sister. But Babci never asked to speak with her sister, and her sister never suggested it either.

My Aunt told me that she asked Babci several times why she wouldn't talk with her sister. Finally, after all these years, she had a direct connection to someone so beloved! We don't know much about Babci's relationship with her sister, but we got the impression that they were very close when they were girls. So why would Babci not want to talk to her now? My Aunt kept asking Babci, and Babci would reply that she couldn't. She didn't know why, but she just had no desire strong enough to force herself to bear the utter pain entailed in picking up the phone and talking to her sister. There was something deeply personal that kept her from talking to her sister. But my Aunt kept insisting, suggesting that it would mean a great deal to Babci's sister to talk to her long-lost sibling.

Finally, Babci was convinced that by picking up the phone she would be doing something special for her sister, and so she did so. But the conversation didn't last more than a moment. She said hi, her sister said hi, then both choked up, apparently overcome by emotion. Babci gave the phone back to her niece.

Babci never talked to her sister again. Her sister died in Belarus, her home of the last fifty years, one month before Babci, so the sisters went to heaven together, but neither knew of the other one's illness or passing on from this earth.

Babci took an approach to life that may strike many of us as unusual. She'd do anything but didn't often want to be asked about herself. She would give everything that was in her power to give, but she did not particularly desire to talk about her past. She would talk about everything else that didn't dig into her personal concerns, but she had little interest in the difficult communication. That was the one thing that she desired to do. If she had thought that it would help others, she may have told more - which may be why my cousin and I got more stories than her own daughters sometimes: because we would ask her to share with us in order to help us on school projects and the like. But probably also because we were a bit more distant from Babci's own reality, so maybe it was a bit less painful to delve into the emotions of her life.

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