A faint murmur weaves its way through my dreams, like a radio turned down low. It’s my mother’s voice, but I can’t understand what she’s saying. Sometimes, in the moment just before I wake, I hear her more clearly — urgent, insistent, warning. I know I’m supposed to pay attention, but I can’t grasp what she’s saying. As her voice grows thin and indistinct, receding with the dream, I realize her words are in Polish.
Polish was my mother’s native tongue, the language of her childhood. She didn’t learn English until she went to school. Much later, she would even stop thinking in Polish and would become known for her facility with English, for how she sailed blithely through awkward moments, bridged conversational lapses, and put others at ease. My mother was a queen-sized woman with a broad nose and a large, round, ruddy face — my earliest notion of beauty. She commanded attention equally by her girth and her loud, ringing voice. When she sang in church, I kept my eyes lowered, slid my hands along the smooth, polished wood of the pew, and prayed for our dead relatives in purgatory. She sang on the back porch while she hung out the wash — “Somebody loves me, I wonder whooooo” — inspiring neighbors to call from their open windows, “Sing it again, Sophie!”
In Polish, my mother’s name was Zosia, and, for the first six years of my life, Polish was spoken as often as English in our house. It was the language of my cradle songs — haunting, minor-key melodies perhaps not lullabies at all — and of hymns and Christmas carols. I never learned to speak Polish and today recall only a few words and phrases, but I remember its comforting cadence, its sibilant, soft-edged consonants and gently rippled rs. The rolling rhythms conveyed their own message: Your mother’s here. Nothing bad will happen.
When the grown-ups talked among themselves, I heard a different Polish, a buoyant cascade of words that swirled over my head, sometimes too rapid for me to follow. Other times, their voices grew hushed and indistinct, like distant waves. This was the language of serious matters, of secrets, sighs, and sorrows.
On Sunday afternoons, the Polish ladies came to visit, large women with soft, round faces, thick legs and ankles, and cushiony hands. They wore shiny, paisley-print dresses and hand-knit cardigans spread across their pillowy bosoms. They sat around the chrome-legged table in our steamy kitchen, listening to polkas on the radio, cooking up pirogi and golumbki, and talking their fast, important talk.
Sometimes my mother would read a letter from “the poor people” in Poland, to whom she sent boxes of our old clothes, with bags of penny candy, licorice, and lemon drops nestled among the shirts and housedresses. She always included new underwear — voluminous pink pantaloons — in the packages, there being something inappropriate about hand-me-down underpants. My mother spoke vaguely of these “poor people,” never calling them by name. I did not know until many years later that the packages went to the family her father — my grandfather, my dziadziu — had abandoned when he came to America and married my grandmother. I cannot remember whether my mother told me this, or whether it’s something I deduced or even imagined.
My grandmother died before I was born, so my grandfather lived with us. In my mind’s eye, dziadziu, the Polish word for grandfather, will always be spelled “jaju,” since that’s the way I heard it then. Jaju was a gaunt and gruff old man who shouted when he spoke to me and ended every sentence with a question: Rozumiesz? (“Do you understand?”) I understood most of what he said, but I was encouraged not to speak in Polish. It was the early fifties, and my mother would not have her daughter ridiculed in school, as she had been. So I replied in English, which Jaju did not know.
Jaju wore maroon bedroom slippers and, under his clothes, yellow-gray long johns — his “union suit” — which my mother washed in an old tub and hung on a chair over the living-room heat register to dry. When I had the hiccups, Jaju fed me spoonfuls of sugar behind my mother’s back. And sometimes he would walk his fingers up my chest, saying in Polish, “Here comes a bug, and who is he going to bite? You-you-you-you-you-you-you-you-you,” the you-yous accompanied by prolonged tickling under my chin.
Sometimes the Vysockys — Mitchell and Marchinova — came to visit. They had been my grandparents’ friends and smelled of bacon grease, boiled cabbage, and cigar smoke; I loved to bury my nose in their coats. Marchinova, a kerchief tied under her chin, clucked and cooed over me, and spoke a jumbled-up linguistic hybrid my mother called “broken English.” Old Mitchell would often sit at the table with the women while the other men joined my father on the front porch. Mitchell brought whiskey, and also Coca-Cola, which my mother didn’t buy, so it was a rare treat to be allowed a sip from one of the green glass bottles. It was always warm.
One or two of my aunts would often be there, as well. The Polish word for aunt is ciocia, which reminded me of the cha-cha, and I liked to think of them dancing in brightly colored dresses, all in a row: Ciocia Stefka, Ciocia Hania, Ciocia Lu-Lu — my dancing aunts with their singsong names. Ciocia Stefka was the youngest and, I thought, rather glamorous. She was slim, unlike the others, and wore slacks and sandals. She painted her nails dark red and smoked L&Ms, leaving lipstick-stained cigarettes in my father’s Goodyear ashtray, which was shaped like a miniature tire. Once, Ciocia Stefka took a small mirror from her purse, held it up to her face, and turned her head this way and that, her eyes fixed on the glass. “You see,” she said. “Wrinkles.” Then she said something very fast in Polish that made all the ladies laugh until tears glistened in their eyes. Ciocia Stefka saw me watching her and winked to pretend I was in on the joke, or perhaps to pretend we had our own private joke, a secret. I tried to wink back, but winking was something I had not mastered.
I was expected to greet each guest politely and then go outside or upstairs to play. But I’d linger at the top of the stairs, straining to hear, and I learned more from such eavesdropping than anyone suspected. In the kitchen, the women told long, rambling tales punctuated by laughs or sighs; there was always a great deal of sighing, and old Marchinova wailing, “Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi.” Snatching individual words, I strung them together into haphazard narratives featuring abandoned children, wild women, and evil men — the terrors of a harsh and hostile outside world I was not supposed to know about.
For a long time I believed that I would naturally learn to speak Polish as I grew older, that the Polish language was something one acquired with age, like wrinkles. I could already say a few words — such as mother, milk, thank you, and my darling daughter — which I repeated to myself like incantations, fascinated by their shapes on my tongue. But, being a child, I could not yet put together whole sentences, whereas my mother could speak Polish fluently, and Jaju, who was very old, spoke only Polish — no English at all. (I suppose I thought he had once been able to speak English, but had outgrown it.) The Polish phrases I knew were clues to the mysteries of the adult world. Perhaps, I thought, there were some things — adult things — that could not be translated into English: tragedies, angers, and jealousies; forbidden liaisons, hidden failings, and inexpressible sadness. I believed there was a secret store of knowledge encoded in the Polish language, and that learning it would enable me to see beyond the simple childhood world I inhabited. I would grow up and learn the truth. I would learn to sigh.
Over the years, the aunts moved away and the old folks died, one by one — first Jaju, then Marchinova and Mitchell. Soon after I started school, I forgot the last of what little Polish I’d once known, and by my early teens even my mother’s Polish had grown rusty from disuse. From that period, I can recall only the occasional Polish Christmas carol. No more stories were told in our kitchen in that magical language, and I had no more chance to be in on the jokes, to share the secrets. I remember begging my mother to tell me stories about herself and our family, and she did, but they were never the right ones, never the stories I longed for, the ones I believed I had missed.
Once, when I was nine or ten, I stood by my mother’s side while she combined the ingredients for a chocolate cake. In her large, speckled mixing bowl, she pushed the flour to one side, forming it into a mound with her wooden spoon. On the other side, she shaped a smaller peak of cocoa powder. Between the mounds, she drizzled a stream of milk. As she did this, she told me the story of a prince who lived on the flour mountain and a princess who lived across the valley on the cocoa mountain. They were in love, of course, but eternally separated by the river that ran through their valley, a river too wide for either to cross.
Growing too old for fairy tales, I complained that she never told me any true stories, and she snapped, “I don’t know what stories you want to hear.”
My mother believed that saying a thing out loud — perhaps even dwelling on it in thought — could bring it into being. Therefore, some subjects, like teenage pregnancies and terminal diseases, were taboo, as though language were the vehicle by which they came into existence. And there were events in her own life about which she would never speak: the men she had known, or might have known, before my father; her first baby, who had died at birth. She tantalized me with intimations, but withheld the facts. “There are things about me,” she once said, “that no one will ever know.”
In time, my mother’s robust gaiety gave way to a baffling anger I could not fathom, and a bitterness for which there seemed no rational cause. She told me that I must be ever on guard, for the world was perilous and inscrutable, and strewn with pitfalls. “I’m warning you,” she said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She told me how she had always been taken for granted, how she had worked all her life — and for what? She realized too late all the things she could have done. She told me she had learned a thing or two about men, though how she had learned these things — or even what they were — she did not say. She said she ought to go down to the river to drown her sorrows. She had wasted her life, and I should let that be a lesson to me. And so I was duly warned, yet of what, precisely, I did not know. I could only imagine the experiences that lay behind her admonitions and precautions.
Now I realize how much my mother lost in those years — her family, her Polish friends, her native tongue — and I wonder whether her bitterness was actually an awkward translation of grief. I’m sorry, too, that I couldn’t hear what she was trying to tell me. Instead, I grew impatient with her vague warnings and, in time, stopped paying attention.
I often find myself wanting to ask my mother how to say something in Polish — some simple, unessential word, its significance magnified by my wish to know. Once or twice, I’ve nearly picked up the phone to call her before remembering that she can no longer answer.
And I still have questions, some of which I forgot to ask, some of which I couldn’t put into words. I would like to know how to make pirogi and golumbki. What became of “the poor people” in Poland? Why did everyone start calling Ciocia Stefka “Ethel”? And, most of all, what things happened to my mother that “no one will ever know,” and why couldn’t she tell me about them?
I’ve always planned to learn Polish from an evening course or a private tutor, believing it might reveal to me a lost world of memories, thoughts, and emotions. I’ve never quite gotten around to it, though, and I am not sure why. Perhaps I fear that learning the language wouldn’t yield up the secrets I seek, after all. Or perhaps I suspect that some mysteries are better left unsolved.
After her stroke, my mother didn’t speak at all for nearly three weeks. Eventually, she began to vocalize, and, over time, her inarticulate sounds came to resemble words, though just barely. After months of therapy, she has regained some speech, but can no longer recount events, explain her feelings, or sustain a narrative. Often, the words she wants elude her entirely. I imagine them dancing around just out of reach and taunting her like a horde of howling urchins. Sometimes the wrong word comes out of her mouth, a word close in sound to the one she wants but far distant in meaning. When this happens she shakes her head, crying, and pounds the arm of her wheelchair, shouting, “No, no!” Sometimes words come in bursts, strings of stark nouns and simple verbs: “I want wait he the you come go a house.” Whole sentences pour forth, their structure deranged, illogical — a word stew bereft of syntax. Broken English.
In her nursing-home room, my mother wheels over to where I sit at the foot of her narrow bed, trying to make myself comfortable. She is in her late seventies now. The stroke that stole her speech also paralyzed her right arm, stiffened her right leg, and turned her hair gray overnight. She is furious at what has befallen her, at being stranded in this place.
Today she is anxious to tell me something, and we begin our dialogue, a parody of a conversation — like playing Twenty Questions, except this is no game. She leans toward me and fixes me with her huge green eyes, still bright and beautiful. I know by now that what she relates may seem inconsequential afterward. Her urgency derives not so much from what she means to say, but from the need to say it. She relies mostly on yes and no, brief phrases, and people’s names, and depends on me to supply the missing pieces, make the connections.
“Is it something you need?” I ask her. “Something I should bring you?”
My mother says yes, but shakes her head no.
“Is it about something here? Is it about someone we know?”
After I ask a few more questions that lead us nowhere, my mother points at the floor and sweeps her hand back and forth. She grows impatient when I veer off course, but her charades are more frustrating for me than her attempts to form words, so I coax her to try again. Then my mother blurts out two syllables, perhaps a word, but it makes no sense. It sounds like “roebuck.” I repeat it back to her, turning it on my tongue like a lemon drop to feel its shape, extract its flavor. I try it again, more slowly, and the syllables resolve into a familiar shape, a word I almost know.
“Yes!” she cries, and shouts it over and over: “Roebuck! Roebuck!”
“Mama,” I ask her gently, “is that a Polish word you’re saying?”
She nods her head yes, eyes wide and full of tears.
And then I remember. It is robak, the Polish word for bug. She has seen a bug on the floor and wants me to complain to housekeeping.
I can count on my fingers the Polish words I know. That another has suddenly come to me and enabled my mother and me to bridge the gulf between us seems nothing short of miraculous. My mother leans back in her chair, her urgency replaced by satisfaction, until that, too, passes. “Oh, well,” she says with perfect clarity and a sigh of resignation, as though the whole business were not that important, after all. But, for me, the sheer improbability of recognizing a single Polish word out of context after all this time imbues the moment with special significance. That single word calls forth a tumultuous rush of memories: the steamy kitchen smelling of cabbage, Polish lullabies and Sunday polkas, my dancing aunts, and Jaju’s game.
“Here comes a bug,” I say to my mother in Polish, resisting the urge to walk my fingers up her chest. She smiles faintly, as if only half listening, but I am desperate to keep her smiling, to prolong this moment in which we have met midstream, for in the next instant we may be paralyzed by unspeakable sadness. In English, I ask her, “Do you remember how Marchinova used to hide Mitchell’s whiskey bottle under the sink?”
My mother shakes her head no, sighing, and softly murmurs, “Yes, yes.”