Larry

The smoke from my Saturday-evening cigar blurs the view of his picture that hangs over the fireplace in our basement, and I look down at the wad of burning leaves pressed between my fingers and realize that it’s because of men like him, my uncle whom I never met and after whom I am named, that I can enjoy such a little pleasure. In the picture, he sits before a brick wall, his peaked cap pushed back to show a hint of his hairline, his forearms on his knees, fingers almost fidgeting, with an expression of tired sadness. I really have no idea when the picture was taken. Perhaps he was home from Vietnam on leave; maybe he hadn’t even shipped out yet. In a way, it’s not as important as the simple fact that the expression on his face mirrors my own when I really think about him, when I remember the odd bits and pieces I heard about him growing up, when I think of the simple but profound fact that, after my parents adopted me and decided that the name my short-term foster mother had been using for me fit me perfectly, they decided his name would make the perfect middle name. The uncle who, my mother more than once laughed, hated baths as much as I love them. The uncle I never met.

As a child, I remember seeing this picture hanging in my grandparents’ home, smudged brown with the nicotine of thousands or even tens of thousands of cigarettes. It was the house in which they both died tragically, though ironically neither passed as a result of the stains that seemed to cover so many of their possessions of their house. Like so many in my family, they died not from what everyone in the family thought would kill them — like my uncle. The picture — one of only two I know of him as an adult, of only three I know of him in his short life — is framed in a gold-painted rectangle that, after all these years, seems brighter than the picture itself. The mortar and the bricks behind him have faded into an almost indistinguishable hue that seems only a darker shade of his uniform, and the triangle of his white undershirt seems only a lighter shade still.

The other picture of him as an adult seems likely to have been taken at the same time, though perhaps earlier. The same brick wall seems to be over his left shoulder, but he hadn’t yet pushed back his cap, and its brim hides his eyes in shadow. I think he would have liked it that way. Perhaps the tired expression in the second picture comes from being asked, badgered, to push his cap back a bit, “so we can see your eyes.” Over his right shoulder is a tree, and in the triangle of his right arm he stands with his hands on his hips is is a dumpster with white letters stenciled in to instruct someone about something that must at all costs be “down.” Or “town”?

He died on Thanksgiving, a fact that seems so fought with irony that it almost seems like it must be one of those made-up details that our memory seems sometimes to invent in order to add almost unconsciously to the most significant events. I heard this week that there are only two truly significant American holidays: Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. My uncle embodies them both.

I am much older than he, the baby boy of the family, was in the picture, and I have been blessed with what he likely dreamed of: a beautiful, loving wife, the mother of my two incredible children. A house with a room downstairs where I can smoke my cigars with offending my wife’s nose, harming my children, or leaving a stain over picture frames that hold images of their lives. Two cars parked on a pad of concrete. A few tomato vines and zucchini plants in the backyard. All of which I have because of people like my uncle.

Nations

Once, returning from a class field trip to Strasbourg to the small village in Poland where I taught, our bus sat at the border of Slovakia and Poland for some ridiculous amount of time — two or three hours — for some reason that I never determined other than the fact that something was out of order for someone. I could see the mountain at the base of our village, Babia Gora, rising above the forest, and I knew that I could easily cross the border on foot and walk there in probably a bit over an hour. Yet there we sat.

That was in 1998. Now there’s not even an official building of any significance in that location. Only a sign indicates that you’re crossing from one EU nation to another. All the stamps in my passport from crossing into Slovakia for a bike ride or crossing back into Poland after crossing into Slovakia at some other location, all those stamps are now all the more valuable because they will never be again, like old black and white pictures of the past.

Some things of course haven’t changed. Poland and Slovakia are still separate nations with separate governments and different currencies (with Slovakia moving to the Euro and Poland still using the zloty). And they issue different passports, both of which are different from the blue-covered passport I’ve always had. These different-colored, different-formatted little booklets made all the difference for K and me when we first came to the States, with her having to go wait in a different line and meet with various people when we first arrived. There were of course advantages: one could easily and quickly tell whose passport was whose. Insignificant of course but still. There were other differences. During election cycles, K could ask who I was voting for though I couldn’t ask her. Naturally we would have already known, and likely we would have voted for the same candidates, but still.

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As of today, though, K and I can both have those lovely blue booklets. We could even go vote together as she now holds dual citizenship.

It was something we could have done much earlier, but we needed a practical motivation, I suppose. Finally, time and circumstance provided so much potential inconvenience, with a soon-expiring Polish passport and an even-sooner-expiring Green Card, we decided it was time to go ahead and file the paperwork, take the exams, and raise that right hand to make the Oath of Allegiance.

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

The whole ceremony lasted only half an hour, and included a video of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.”

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It’s a song I misunderstood in my youth. “How can I be proud of something I had nothing to do with?” I asked. “That I was born in America is little more than an accident, a bit of good fortune.” Pride was something you felt about your own accomplishments, I thought, not about who you are. It never really occurred to me, for some reason, that one could be embarrassed to be an American, be ashamed of being an American, feel hatred toward one’s own country. I encountered that soon enough, and I came to understand what Greenwood was trying to say with that song.

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And I came to see that there is quite a bit about America to feel some sort of embarrassment about, even shame. No country is perfect, and America, both overtly and covertly, has done some truly questionable things in the name of national interests. Yet there’s no questioning the almost-unimaginable nature of the nation’s founding principles: a group of people that governs itself, that is subject to the rule of law, that in theory if not always in fact presents a level field for all participants. That’s something to be proud of.

Sunday at the Ballpark

K saw her first baseball game this weekend. It’s amazing how many rules one doesn’t really think about until trying to explain the game to someone who knows only the goal of hitting a white ball with a wooden bat. Fly balls and tagging up? Still just a little confusing for her, I think. The guys trying to entertain the crowd, though — easy-peasy lemon squeezy…

Here [They] Come

walkin’ down the street…

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Such a difference in how L plays here in the States versus Babcia’s place in Polska. With all the houses tightly packed in Babcia’s neighborhood, I could easily hear L just about anywhere she was. She’d developed a few little haunts, but they were all within earshot of the house. Here, I watch her as she walks up the street to her friend’s house, and his parents do the same when they return. It’s a busier street to begin with, but there’s also the eternal fear that sparks the almost cliche instructions, “Don’t talk to strangers.” In Polska, there were times that I didn’t really know where L was, but I wasn’t really worried about it. It’s not that there aren’t evil people in Polska, they just seem fewer and farther between. You don’t read news accounts of abductions and murders like you do here.

And so L and S would often strike out on their own, yelling to one of us on their way out where they were headed.

Over the Shoulder

It used to be something of an obsession. “What was I doing around this time X years ago?” I’d ask before opening up my journal for that month some years earlier and reading to see what happened. Yet what if I’d had a way to thumb through pictures the way I thumbed through my journal entries? For most of my life, I had about as much interest in photography as I had in basket weaving. Then I moved to Poland. And a couple of years after returning to the States, I moved back to Poland, then armed with a digital camera. And so I can open up a photo viewer and easily look over my shoulder.

September 2001: I’d just moved back, and I was still taking daily walks in the fields behind the house where I rented a room. Such pictures now seem almost unreal: did I really live there?

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September 2002: The fascination remained. I was still talking almost daily walks in the fields, heading up to a small patch of trees known to locals as “Cats’ Castle”, watching the sunset from various locations, impressed that the church was visible from almost every point in the central part of the village.

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And then an empty year. Did my computer crash? Did I not take many pictures? Whatever the cause, September 2003 is void of pictures.

September 2004: K and I had just gotten married. We’d brought all our lovely wedding gifts — the glass paintings and various prints — to my apartment which was then our apartment. We looked through pictures of our wedding and spent lovely afternoons creating photo albums.

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September 2005: Back to the States, to Asheville. “This is where I want to live,” K said the moment she saw the small town surrounded by mountains. It was understandable: it looked so much like her own home. And have a few lovely parks about didn’t hurt either.

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September 2006: The Girl was just a few months away. We’d heard all the stories, but who can really p-prepare for how a child is going to change one’s life?

Morning Walk II

September 2007: The Girl was  with us, and already showing her precocious nature. She sat only to roll; she crawled only to crash; she lived only to giggle and fuss.

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September 2008: L, able to walk, began asserting her independence. The innocence would surely linger?

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September 2009: Independence increased.

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September 2010: We learned quickly that owning a house is owning a project. A never-ending, always-bank-account-draining, eternally-exhausting project.

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September 2011: Where did that baby go? Certainly she’s somewhere around here?

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September 2012: If I could have glanced forward in time from 2001, surely a wife, two children, a house, and a cat on a tired Wednesday night would seem just as unrealistic as the fields of Lipnica Wielka seem to me now?

Afternoon Nap

Downtown Rock Hill, Part 2

Is downtown Rock Hill is the story of America? One would certainly hope not, but in some ways, it seems to have all the elements in parallel. Within a couple of blocks we have signs of incredible affluence

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and poverty-driven decay. What’s the difference between these two homes? What’s the difference between the owners of these homes? Over the last few years, my explanations have shifted from the left to the center-right of the political spectrum. The answer seems hinted in other parts of town.

Still only a few blocks away, Nana points out yet another building with personal significance: the remains of Rock Hill Printing & Finishing. “This was where I was working when I met Papa,” she explains to us. She shows us where she used to enter, pointing out roughly where her desk was.

One wonders if there are any plans to renovate this particular building as others in the area. Just up the road, an old factory has been turned into an apartment complex. One could likely turn this shell into high-ceiling lofts or something similar. But is the demand there? I think back to the abandoned post office just a few blocks away, figuring it’s unlikely that this gigantic building will ever become of anything more than the subject of a blog post.

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Just behind it lies the heart of the factory, once impressive, but now merely tragic. According to one source,

The building of the Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Plant in 1929 moved M. Lowenstein halfway along the way to becoming a totally integrated producer of textiles. The Rock Hill plant bleached, dyed, printed and finished cloth purchased from a variety of sources, primarily in the South. The rapid expansion of Lowenstein through the acquisition of textile mills produced the raw material for the plant and resulted in its own expansion. By the early 1960s, it grew from a plant with 200,000 square feet to one with more than 2 million square feet, which bleached, dyed, and finished both cotton and synthetic fabrics. New processes such as Sanforizing and the use of Scotchgard TM finishing permitted it to create permanent press cloth during the 1970s. Acquired by Springs Industries in 1986, the plant included 23 roller print machines and 7 screen print machines. (textilehistory.org)

Looking at an aerial view of the factory in its heyday, it’s clear the impact its closure had on the economics of Rock Hill. Now, only inspiration remains.

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This is the story of South Carolina, a story that hopefully America as a whole will not echo. But I wonder. South Carolina used to be a textile center. My family’s fate was tied into that of the mills. My mother worked in a mill; my grandmother worked in a mill; countless aunts worked in mills. My father did electrical work in mills; my grandfather likely did masonry work for a mill or two. Every South Carolinian has mill work somewhere in her family history.

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The cemetery just a block or so away is surely filled with those who worked the roller print machines and the bleaching machines, with those who did the screen printing and counted the cost of everything.

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Rock Hill is only one of many textile cities in South Carolina that has suffered this fate. It’s only one of thousands of cities in America that must be harboring doubts that its best days lie in the future.

Polish Picnic

Thirty-three years ago today, Karol Józef Wojtyła became the only Pole elected by the College of Cardinals as Pope. It goes without saying that the logical thing for Poles to do on this date is to celebrate the event as only Poles can.

Polish Pot Luck

A picnic — in reality, an informal potluck, as everyone shares with all — is a good start, but just the Polish community did in May for the beatification of John Paul II, the afternoon really started with the outdoor Mass.

Outdoor Mass

As always, when Poles gather together to celebrate some occasion or other, there must be some kind of performance. The children got a chance to show off their newly-acquired Polonaise skills, performing the same routine they did several weeks earlier at a local international festival.

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Post Polonaise

And what would a Polish gathering be without singing? I can’t imagine American ex-pats gathering to do something like this, with the exception of Thanksgiving or Christmas. Even then, only Christmas would incorporate song, and probably not very willingly.

Pynie Wisla

We can’t forget soccer.

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Sześć Bab

I’ve always been fascinated by children of mixed culture, children who speak language X at home (Spanish, Hindi, German, you name it) and English everywhere else. Attempting to raise just such a child has shown me how difficult it can be.

The Girl understands Polish perfectly; she doesn’t speak it unless highly motivated. Part of that is due to living in a mixed household: I don’t always speak Polish around the house. (“Always?!” K would ask incredulously. “How about rarely?”) Additionally, the Girl spends her days in daycare with other English speakers. Polish is that language of babcia, dziadek, and her cousins.

“What you need to do is send her to Poland for the summer,” an acquaintance at the swimming pool advised. “She’s not too young!” the lady assured us over K’s protests that it was a bit much to force on a four-and-a-half-year-old.

Three Half-Polish Girls

Days like today, though, help: Polish friends from Asheville came for a day visit. That made three little girls in the same situation: perfect understanding of spoken Polish who exhibit great reticence to speak it themselves.

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The hope was that, the two friends, just back from Poland and spending every day with babcia for the last couple of weeks, would speak Polish with the Girl. But if siblings of immigrants speak English to each other (which they usually do), it was perhaps only wishful thinking to hope that the three would break into unrestrained Polish.

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In the living room, however, it was a different matter altogether.

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In and out ran the girls; English to Polish to English ran their conversation.

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Perhaps there was improvement; perhaps not. Perhaps that’s not the most important concern.

Prayers and Candles

Today is All Saints’ Day — one of the best times to be in a Catholic country like Poland. This morning, every single cemetery in Poland had something like this going on.

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Photo from 2001

Every year I write the same things and probably show some of the same pictures. Since we haven’t experienced All Saints’ Day in Poland since 2004 (has it really been that long?), I’ve only a very limited stock of photos, and an even more limited stock of stories: I can only tell the same stories so many times before even I get tired of them.

That’s something of the appeal of it: the repeating ritual of the Catholic liturgical calendar means we’re always coming back to the same place. It makes life less of a straight line and more of a spiral.

One of the most calming and consoling times in that spiral is the evening of All Saints’ Day, when all the cemeteries flicker with the light of thousands of candles, and the hissing, crackling, and popping of the candles punctuate the prayers of the faithful.

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I would visit the cemetery at least twice: once when the priests were leading prayers and a second time when no one else was there. Both were calming in very different ways.

Surrounded by Poles who had intimate connections to the cemetery — here lies a brother, a mother, an uncle, a great-grandmother — I felt the peace of the community, even though I was an outsider. Catholicism is very communal and intimate, and prayers in a candle-light cemetery are the epitome of that intimacy and community spirit.

Yet it was when I was alone that I felt more calm than I’ve ever felt in my life. Surrounded by death, I felt more alive than any other time of the year.

Halloween, in comparison, is so distinctly American: commercial, whimsical, with just enough evil to make us worry but not enough to make us act.

I prefer the Polish Catholic version, and I would imagine I always will.

Readjusting

Coming back to the States after a few weeks in Poland requires a few adjustments. Among them:

  1. Driving a car with an automatic transmission. My left foot is bored, restlessly searching for a non-existent clutch, and my right hand wanders to the gear shift every time we approach an intersection.
  2. Hearing English everywhere. This always surprises me: I get used to having to do a little, occasional mental work to understand what’s going on around me. Hearing rivers of voices that are all intelligible to me initially feels a little intrusive.
  3. Hearing other languages everywhere. I go to the grocery store, and I hear Spanish, German, Hindi, and Arabic.
  4. Seeing different races. In the passport check line at the airport, I saw all the colors that make America. In Poland, I see a non-white walking down the street, and it’s difficult not to stare.
  5. "Saggin' and Baggin'" by MalingeringSeeing boys’ underwear in public. On the way back home, we stopped to grab a little something for the Girl to eat because she didn’t eat too much during the journey. Waiting in the check-out line: two adolescent African American boys with their pants seemingly at their knees. I’d mentioned this style in Poland: it seemed incomprehensible to them. It seems incomprehensible to me.
  6. An entire row of paper towels in the supermarket. American consumerism is all about choice. What could possibly be the difference among the towels?
  7. Having someone bag your groceries for you. Perhaps it’s the ultimate sign that Americans are in some way spoiled, but it still surprises me when I go into any grocery store in Poland and have to frantically bag my own groceries before the next customer’s purchases start sliding down into the bagging area. Why not bag as the cashier working? That’s another thing to get used to:
  8. Not having to pay for the bags used in the process. No one provides free shopping bags. The cost is nominal, but the cashier always rings the bags up last. It doesn’t make sense.
  9. Not having potatoes with every meal. I don’t want to see a potato, in any form, for at least a month.
  10. Being warm. In the early morning, temperatures in Jablonka could be in the high forties. During the first week, the temperature seldom rose to the mid-sixties. The warmest it ever got was seventy-five. Back in South Carolina, it’s almost seventy-five when we wake up. It takes some getting used to.

Bags Packed

Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. made the sentiment famous: bags are packed, and L and I are ready to go, next post from the States, yet mixed emotions linger.

“I want to go home” became L’s refrain a couple of days back, and talking to K on Skype only worsened the situation once. There were variations: “When are we going home?” “Are we going home tomorrow?”

I, too, am ready to go: vacation is great, but returning home is the true heart of any journey. K awaits, as do infected trees await, a likely overgrown lawn, a course to begin Monday, and a host of other things. One can only sit around doing little for a very short time before the feeling of uselessness sets in.

And yet, leaving Poland is always bittersweet. “Would you want to move back?” friends and family asked. Or “When are you all moving back?” Would we move back? Yes, and no. When are we moving back? Soon and never.

I wonder if other countries produce such mixed emotions among its ex-pats and virtual ex-pats?

Boone Hall

Today at Boone Hall plantation, an experience I haven’t had since visiting Auschwitz several years ago: to stand in the center of a hell-on-earth and wonder how it’s even possible. We wandered around the plantation while waiting for a tour, weaving in and out of slave quarters.

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The irony of America has never been more palpable. We are country that, from its inception, was about freedom. Yet our wealth was created on the backs of slaves. When people exclaim that, as twenty-first century whites, they are not responsible in any way for the actions of their ancestors, they are absolutely right. But for three hundred years, whites in America have built upon the foundation of those very slave holders and, until very recently, had a clear advantage for being on the lighter side of the color divide. Our free country was built, in the first century of its existence, at the expense of others’ freedom.

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The fruits of that brutal labor still exists. At Boone Hall, the number one product was bricks. Those bricks went into many of the houses in Charleston and so provide a literal foundation for at least one American city.

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And so we made our way through the house and grounds, seemingly free individuals in a seemingly free country. Our chains are less obvious, and less insidious. In fact, I would say most of us don’t even realize we’re shackled to our way of life, our point of view, our idiosyncrasies, our ambitions. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing: after all, this kind of slavery can hardly be called such in comparison. Yet we saw sixteen or so months ago that when our way of life, our point of view, our idiosyncrasies, our ambitions start to sink, we feel the weight.

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Around the World

Some daycare centers seem to attract a certain international clientèle. Every year, the school sponsors an International Day when families can show off their heritage and learn a little about the world at the same time. The kids receive passports; each country receives a stamp. The kids arrive and it’s an endless cycle of visitors and visits.

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This year, at Mexico’s booth, seasoned grasshoppers were available. I’m not certain they were a hit with the kids, but I took a handful to try. Salty, crunchy, proteiny, Israelitish. “We use as snacks, for tacos — that kind of thing,” says the host. “Not quite what you find in the typical Mexican restaurant,” K comments later.

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While I was munching salty grasshopper, L was visiting her friend. Actually, since I tend to refer to L as “the Girl,” I suppose I could call this young lady, J, the Friend. “We hear L’s name all the time at home all the time,” J’s father tells me.

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Not surprisingly, we hear J’s name at home all the time. For a while, L declared that her baby doll — generally referred to as “Baby” — was “J”, but that lasted only a few days. Perhaps it was odd to have a best friend and a baby with the same name.

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L sees an elephant — her favorite — at the India and hustles over for a quick visit. This particular elephant is not supporting the world on its back; indeed, it seems to be supported by a soccer ball. I’m sure there could be some kind of symbolic significance, but before I have a chance to think further, L is off, returning to K. As usual, I tag along behind.