Her name is Krystyna. She is losing time. She is lost in time. She is my grandmother and the television confuses her now. It seems everyone is speaking Russian now. She’s put down her pencils and closed the crossword puzzle books, that once were her daily ritual, on top of her daily rosary. She can’t find her black felt hat, goddamnit. She never had a black felt hat. She can’t find the right words. She is lost in her own thoughts. She yells at my cousin. She quietly asks him if she ever drank coffee in her life. She drank coffee every single day. She doesn’t leave the house. She stares at the walls and cries when her headaches get unbearable.
My grandmother, my babcia, was once upon a time, my everything. In a world where people toiled and crumbled and complained and weakened, she prevailed, she stopped to smell the roses and she’d then describe the roses to me, in detail, her voice like a lullaby. She always found time to tell me a story, or sing me a song, or teach me the words to some melancholic ballad. She knew lyrics by heart, and soliloquies. Her memory was untouchable. Her memory was writ in stone. She touched my hands, and looked at me with unending patience. She made pierogi from scratch and I sat at the kitchen counter, watching her roll the dough on a crisp white towel, watching her dust flour here and there, watching her drizzle fried onion bits on butter, and watching her was like watching a painting come to life. My babcia was beautiful. She did things her own way. She sat with me and we looked at old photographs and we grew silent at the vision of her youthful, delicate face.
She took me to the attic where I helped her hang the laundry to dry. She called me perełko, pearl. She called me córeczko, daughter. She’s in my book, almost all of her, almost just the way she was, during those summers.
We don’t know if it’s Alzheimer’s. We will know, when my aunt takes her to doctor this week. All we know is that she cuts up dish rags into bits and pieces and strews them around the apartment. That she wears her nightgown over her skirt. That she couldn’t recognize her cousins at a family funeral.
She has good days. She has really bad days. Her memory is going going gone and this makes me so fucking mad and so deeply sad that I don’t know what to do. I am an ocean away, I am in New Jersey and I am celebrating the paperback launch of my book and I am reading memoirs and I am doing interviews and I picking up my two little boys from school and I am eating Chinese take-out in with my husband, I am watching movies. This is what I am doing. What I am not doing is calling her, because I am afraid. What I am not doing is getting on a plane and running to her to see if she has already forgotten me.
My babcia believed in me, told me the only thing she wanted to be buried with one day was a copy of my book. A book she won’t be able to read, won’t be able to understand now. A book that will simply confuse her.
Krystyna was a beauty. She was proud and somewhat stern but had a raunchy sense of humor. Krystyna married the most handsome man in town. She had three daughters, when she was quite young. She got a divorce, when she was still quite young. She looked like Vivian Leigh. She looked like a movie star. She would have been one, too, in another world or time, or place. She loved to sing. She sang loudly.
There’s so much I don’t know. I know the war stories, I know why she left my grandfather. I know what she loved about me, what she nurtured in me. My dreams were something big and bold, and she held my little dreams in her soothing hands like kindling, till they lit up, till they sparked and their flames grew higher and higher and hotter and hotter. She believed in me.
I want to ask her so many things. I want to ask her why she never remarried, what she regrets, what she secretly longed for.
We go through life skirting the issue and fearing to delve deeper, and we go through life making fucking small talk. We fill up on hints and subtext. I wish I could have asked her the hard questions, I wish I would have spent more time with her. I grew and in my way, I almost forgot her. She will never see my house, the house of my dreams. The last time babcia came to America was when I got married. She danced at my wedding, and she blessed the rye bread and she blessed my husband and me. She led the conga line and was the life of the pary till she fell and hurt her knee and had to be driven off in a golf cart, waving to everyone happily.
I miss her. She is still alive. I can still get on a plane. I can still hold her hands. I can still give her my book. I can read it to to her in little bits and see what she thinks. I still can.
Or can I?
I don’t know how to say goodbye.
I won’t know how to say goodbye.
So what does that mean…
On the eve of my departure, my grandmother wrote me a farewell note in a little book. I was six and a half years old. She tucked me in, on my last night in her apartment, on my last night in Poland. I don’t remember the next morning, or our last embrace, or me getting on the plane. Later, my grandmother told me I don’t remember because some things are too hard to remember. Some things, we just have to let go.
you are a Polish girl, kind Dagmarka.
don’t forget about your country, no matter where you are.
you will surely return here.
my little one, I will be waiting for you.