Veronika Kot is a graduate of University of Chicago English Department. She studied as a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico, and graduated from the University of California Berkeley School of Law. Originally from Chicago, she has lived in California, Iowa and on the East Coast. She has been writing stories since she was four. Generally a globetrotter, she now makes Rhode Island her home, where she works as a full-time attorney serving low-income individuals.
A THOUSAND YEARS
My name is Mieczyslaw.
“Mieszko,” my mother would say in the shushing softness of the diminutive. If she said “Mieczyslaw” I knew I was in trouble. And if she rolled out the whole formidable length of it — “Mieczyslaw Andrzej Kozlowski!” — I knew to run and hide.
Now she mostly slumbers in the fuzzy stupor of dementia, and she doesn’t know my name at all.
In 966 the Polish princeling Mieczyslaw accepted Christianity from the Czechs — along with a bride named Dąbrówka — thus becoming Mieszko I, the first Christian king of Poland, and initiating its recorded history. The strategic marriage was calculated to cement ties with a friendly neighbor and to remove the Germans’ Christianizing excuses for raiding and invading those pagan Slavs next-door.
We know how well that worked.
“A thousand years of history — and more,” my mother never failed to remind me. “Be proud. This country barely has two hundred.”
“A thousand years of being invaded,” my father would quip just to tweak her, while he folded and refolded the newspaper with meticulous care, placing it next to his morning coffee and removing his spectacles to wipe and re-wipe them with his napkin.
Engineering precision followed him even to the breakfast table.
I knew the drill so well I never paid attention, wolfing down my cereal and pretending to drink my milk. My mother heated the milk so that it formed a disgusting film on top. Cold milk at breakfast, she believed, would have dire health consequences. What they were I never learned. I usually managed to sneak my dishes to the kitchen sink and pour the milk down the drain.
At school I was Mikey. The obscure namesake from the primeval forests of the European dark ages remained a secret. My unpronounceable name would have made recess a battleground and tormentors of my fellow five-year-old savages. Mama never knew. She would have regarded it a cowardly renunciation of the rich history hammered into me over ten years of Saturday Polish school. Privately I justified the betrayal as necessitated by a secret identity, my real name a password, a code. I was—I proudly reminded myself —named for royalty. The very first one.
Now in the early dawn, I’m standing on the back steps, sipping coffee, black. No hot milk.
In memoriam nostri domus.
It’s cold, the implacable January Chicago cold whipping off the lakefront in gusts. The paint is peeling on the wooden railings and one of them is loose. The landlady is nearing eighty and hasn’t been keeping up the place since her husband died. Even without Dad’s bad hip and Mom’s confusion and near blindness, it had been high time to move. And yet.
I take another sip of hot coffee and reflect on the enormous amount of persuasion that had been required to budge a mountain of inertia. Sixty years of habit and a refugee’s aversion to change could only be defeated by stark necessity. Now there will be an elevator, a caregiver, a washer and dryer just down the hall, no need to trundle bags of laundry down three flights and across two slippery snowy blocks to the laundromat.
I look over into the neighbor’s yard. The enormous pear tree that I remember has been gone some years now. I don’t know if the pears were any good, but nobody ever seemed to pick them. The tree dropped its abundance liberally, fruit squashed under the passing tires, flies buzzing over the sweet mess. It must have been a major rat attraction too. But as a kid I loved the cloud of white flowers in the spring, so improbably at odds with the alley ugliness of the rest of it: brick, concrete and chain link fence, and the blank faces of garage doors lined with garbage cans.
I hear the distant clatter and look over the black tar roof of what was once the dry cleaner and is now divided between an electronics and accessories shop at one end and an Ethiopian restaurant at the other. The train pulls in to the L stop less than two streets away. It lingers long enough to discharge early passengers into the glow of the heat lamps on the platform.
Last night I woke on the couch in my father’s new and unfamiliar apartment, surprised to be missing the sound of the L. From my bedroom window I must have seen and heard the trains pull in and out of that very station thousands of times, until neither the sight nor the sound would register, a background never missed until it was absent. Except, I’m sure, that it made me the wanderer. I cannot see a train leave without a trace of mourning that it leaves without me.
As a journalist and travel writer, I have trekked the globe in search of stories. But sipping hot coffee on the freezing back stairs, it strikes me now that I have avoided this one studiously. It is too burdened with the freight of time and I am accustomed to traveling lightly.
Just as the train takes off, it starts to snow. The flakes are big and they spiral slowly. I pull out my phone and take a picture of the falling snow, over the rooftops, the way it obscures the lakefront condo towers another block beyond the L. The picture is disappointing, the focus off. My fingers are numb from cold and I don’t try again.
I see that there are text messages I’ve missed. From Sally, my wife, in San Francisco. From Josh our son, in La Jolla. From Joe Santos at work about that new assignment in Addis Ababa — am I still going? (I am.) From Ellis at the Toyota dealership wondering no doubt if I’m still in the market for a Prius. (I am not.)
They can keep. A little. I have time travelled after all.
It’s quiet, with the lovely falling-snow-muffled-quiet I remember and miss in California. If it accumulates it will be briefly beautiful, briefly healed of all ugliness or memory. Then it will get churned up into black slush.
The alley three floors below is empty, and as I lean over the peeling bannister I am suddenly eleven years old and Ellen O’Malley, two years older and the love of my life I’m sure, is walking past, and without thinking I hurl a snowball. Improbably it nails her right in the nape of the neck, just above the collar, a shot so perfect I know even then that I will remember it forever and that it will never be repeated. And to my absolute glee, she whirls around looking this way and that, furious, baffled, unable to locate the assailant. I hide giggling behind the protection of the wooden railing. But unable to resist, I peer back out just in time for her to look up and curse me, the F-word sweet and wild upon her angry mouth, foul-mouthed tomboy Ellen O’Malley made all the more desirable in that unexpected toughness.
I was eight years old before I knew that being American — which we so obviously were not — didn’t necessarily mean being Irish.
Forty-three years later Ellen O’Malley is over the hill like me. Is she faded but fine? Or plain old and fat? Regardless, and for sure, we wouldn’t know each other on the street.
The snow picks up, the flakes are smaller now and the wind is gusting. I retreat into the welcome warmth of the empty apartment.
“Check all the drawers. The movers might have missed —” my father had admonished from the modern safety and chaos of the half organized new apartment, his face mournful and anxious amid the unpacked boxes of a place that isn’t home.
Emptiness echoes in the faded rooms. The linoleum in the kitchen is curled at the edges. The hardwood floors throughout are dull and scuffed. A crack runs down the dining room wall and moisture seepage marks the ceiling. The tiny bathroom floor tiles — the kind nobody uses anymore –gape empty spaces and crumbling grout. The bathtub is clean but permanently stained.
The shower curtain looks new, inexplicably forgotten in the headlong plunge of moving. It’s one of those world-map curtains I have always loved to travel on while luxuriating under a stream of hot water, the safest of journeys, but more than once the inspiration for a real adventure in my restless living. (Kyrgyzstan. What’s that like? My boss, ever curious, told me to find out.)
I’ve been told they are fatally flawed, these maps, over-projecting certain world areas at the expense of others. Admittedly, I don’t care, even though Russia certainly looks inflated and Africa suffers in comparison.
On a whim I slide the curtain off the rod and drape it over the sink. There it is, Poland, right there in yellow, sandwiched uncomfortably between its hulking pink neighbors. Flat unprotected borders, practically inviting in the armies—and my father’s ironic remarks.
I put my finger in the center, at the Warsaw heart. Mama’s wartime journey, the one she told in fits and starts, begins there. I trace the line to Lithuania, then east, in deportation cattle cars, to somewhere vaguely Siberian. I hesitate. I don’t know the exact locations and she will not remember. But I press onward, generally speaking, the line in my mind now a dotted one.
Persia, Iraq, Palestine. The old names are gone and changed, replaced by newer ones that alter nothing. Then Egypt, Italy, England. And finally, Canada and Chicago.
All before adulthood.
No wonder she would not budge from this old flat for over half a century.
Somewhere she wrote it down, she said. I will have to find that notebook in one of those overflowing boxes with which she could not part.
Dad’s route is shorter, no less traumatic, I’m sure. It ends in the displaced persons’ camps in Germany where former POW’s, mostly Polish officers, taught kids like him a cobbled together high school curriculum. He was all of twelve when the war ended, eighteen when he crossed the Atlantic, alone, to another world.
Chicago, the second Warsaw, is not on the map, subsumed by Illinois. But my finger lingers on the exact spot, on the bottom of the blue finger of Lake Michigan. Google maps would tell me more but I like the exaggerated simplicity of the shower curtain.
As instructed, I check all the drawers. There are many, the built-in magic of those old flats. It can store a hoard. And it did, sixty years’ worth to be precise. The movers were thorough but I am rewarded with two surprising drawers-full that they completely overlooked. My father’s compulsive pessimism is justified again.
These are forgotten things, unused in decades. A tiny train to hold birthday candles on a cake. (I remember fighting my brother Bolek over user rights. Bolek, Boleslaw, the second-born, was named after the second king of Christian Poland.) Then there are table cloths, the linen kind, made in the old country, meticulously embroidered, never used because linen is so quick to wrinkle, so difficult to iron. Two dolls dressed up in Polish folk costumes nestle under the linens. A wooden box from Zakopane, the Polish mountain town I’ve seen only once, as a child, in the rain, on a listless visit to the Cold War world, that did not feel like homecoming. The box is brimming with six decades of spare buttons. There’s also a creche, complete with a fat baby Jesus and anorexic angels, stored in a small padded pouch, each piece meticulously wrapped in tissue, a dead giveaway for Dad. Mama would have shoved them in there any old way. More like me.
At the very bottom there is a wooden bowl. I’ve seen it before, at my parents’ dinner parties. It’s the shallow kind, almost a platter, for serving nuts or crackers and maybe cheese. It is still beautiful, the concentric circles of the polished burl spiraling out to the edges, each ring like a commemoration of a year of life. A timeline of sorts. Suddenly and for a moment, the empty dining room is filled with the sound of Polish voices, the clinking crystal glasses, the smell of roasted meat and potatoes. And Bolek and I are sneaking salty nuts from the wooden bowl and cookies from the other trays. Then of course it’s quiet again and I hear the muffled sound of the L beyond the frosted windows.
I fill a paper bag with the mismatched spoils. On top I place the folded shower curtain, which feels like a guide to somewhere even though it has no roads at all.
In the living room there is only a single forgotten plant, withered, its leaves drooping towards the floor. Green-thumbed Mama would never have permitted a plant to suffer such cruel neglect. I glance out the window which gives out onto the street far below, where it intersects the alley. The snow has begun to accumulate. As a boy I would peer out this very lookout, jittery with joy and giddy with the hope of cancelled school. Snow days were rare, the school within two quick walking blocks. But I was young enough then to hope so fervently that improbability could never dull the happiness of a squall. It occurs to me now that such boyish hope was the exact opposite of my father’s lessons: prepare for the worst, be happily surprised.
I take one final look at the empty rooms. The cleaning service will deal with what remains, even the withered plant I don’t have the heart to haul away. Bolek, Boleslaw, my little bro, aka Bill from the Big Apple, oversaw the move. He had the harder part. Only the cleanup and unpacking are left to me.
I lock the door behind me and descend the dim stairway to the vestibule where two more doors protect me from the weather. Out on the stoop I tap the app and three minutes later my Uber pulls up, and friendly Farhad — call me Frank — welcomes me into the overheated Nissan. He is from Afghanistan and delighted to find I have come all the way from California to help my elderly parents. He finds our nuclear families and our old people’s homes distressing, he tells me, with obvious approval for my filial piety.
“I have relatives out in Hayward and Fremont,” he volunteers. “Is that close for you?” “Yes. Just over the bridge and a hill.”
I don’t tell him that in Bay Area terms it might as well be a world away from San Francisco. I don’t mention that I never go there. I am touched by his youthful enthusiasm, his longing for the family left behind and in harm’s way in the wild and mountainous country I will look up tonight on the rescued shower curtain, just to be sure of misremembered borders.
The tall apartment buildings hulk grey and sullen in the driving snow. Inside the lobby is brightly lit, equipped with comfortable couches and flourishing real plants. The elevator, that primary purpose of this traumatic move, is fast, and I am deposited on the 11th floor before I am quite ready. Halfway down the lengthy hallway, I hesitate, steeling myself against Mama’s feeble anger and confusion. Just yesterday she did not know me.
The apartment, even jammed with giant unpacked boxes, is spacious. I hug my dad in the hallway. His shoulder blades are small, so small, like bird bones. He shuffles along resolutely, leaning on his cane.
“Nie tak dobrze dzisiaj. She is not so good today,” he tells me quietly, so she cannot overhear. He is shaking his head sadly.
Then Jadzia descends upon me like a force of nature, showering me with the old familiar words of welcome and lament. She grabs my coat and wants to know all about everything even as she spills out the scraps of small news, Mama’s doctor’s appointment, her dour mood and the dinner cooking on the stove. And oh, she managed to pick up pickled herring and fresh boiling potatoes and some babka at the Polish store.
I relax a little, reassured. Whatever happens, they are in good hands with Jadzia. It’s as good as it can be.
Mama is at the dining room table, her hot tea steaming untouched, her head drooping to her chest. I smell chamomile, the magic herb of all soothing, Mama’s particular weapon against childhood belly aches and colds. Only when we were ill did she sweeten it with honey.
I touch her arm. “Mama?”
She stirs, adjusts the glasses she won’t abandon even though they do not really help her see.
“Dzien dobry, dzien dobry, Aleksander. Good day, good day, Alexander,” she offers a courteous greeting, mustering the old propriety of welcome towards any guest.
For the moment I am Alexander, of Barbara and Alexander, their lifelong friends, both now deceased going on five years. I peck her gently on the cheek the way Alexander might have done. I cannot say a word.
Straightening, I am struck again by the view behind her, the vast expanse of low houses that leave an unobstructed vista clear to the condo towers on the lakefront that I had so recently regarded from two blocks away. Now they are outlined against the horizon below a lowering sky, as close and as distant as that short Uber ride. I leave her at the table and approach the window. If you stand as far to the left as possible and press your forehead against the cold glass you can just see the downtown skyline on the right. And suddenly I want to be there so fervently, immersed in its bustle, far from the overheated spaces of the old, the fierce weather swirling around my teenage self in all that splendor and all that promise of the Loop and Magnificent Mile when you are just fifteen and it is snowing, and Martha, the love of your life I’m sure, is holding your hand, and the Christmas decorations have not yet been taken down.
I am shaken out of my reverie.
“Mieczyslaw Andrzej Kozlowski!” she shouts, her voice surprisingly strong.
I don’t know what I have done wrong but her anger rings from wall to wall and shatters the boundaries of the decades. It descends upon me with the fierce love that spares no reprimand because life is harsh and you might as well know it.
I cross the short distance between us at a run and am seated at her elbow, holding on to her arm, apologizing for whatever transgression my ten-year-old self has just committed.
“Przepraszam, Mamo. I’m sorry.”
She relaxes, she nods, her face softening.
“Oj, Mieszko, Mieszko” she nods again, patting my arm.
And I am absurdly, tearfully grateful to be recognized. Then she shakes her head over my childish foolishness, unable, after all, to remain angry.
“Oj, Mieszko, Mieszko.”
My name is soft upon her lips. I am forgiven.