Sunday, March 18, 2018

Life is Brutal

There’s nothing fun or funny about funerals. There really isn’t. Ok, maybe there is. Let’s start again. There’s nothing fun or funny about death. There we go. That sounds right.

Death, not funny.
Funerals, sometimes funny.

Cash & Carry Shop "Brutal" located in Zakopane
I’m lucky in that I don’t often go to funerals. They are getting more frequent though. I don’t like that, but what can you do?

Life is brutal.

My first “big” funeral was that of my paternal grandmother. My paternal grandfather had died years before, and we kids were not taken to the funeral. Maybe we were too little. Maybe the adults were afraid we wouldn’t know how to behave. My grandfather was the father of 8 children, so as far as grandchildren go, there were a lot of us, and he had no idea who was who. When something went wrong - crash, bang, boom - he simply grabbed the kid closest to him and gave that kid a thorough beating. Claims of innocence fell on deaf ears. He had a system, a system that worked, and a no-fail system that resulted in the guilty party getting theirs. After receiving an unjust beating, the innocent party would make a beeline for the guilty party and transfer the beating, a beating just as thorough as the beating received. The efficiency of the system - it worked every time. Needless to say, we weren’t close to our grandfather, and the only time he ever made physical contact with me was for a beating...before I learned the system...back when I thought my youth and innocence protected me...back before I learned to run.

When my father’s mother died, those 8 children could not get themselves together to figure out anything....nor who would pay for it. My father gave my sister a blank check, and we took a cousin and went to the funeral home to plan everything. And there is a lot to plan, but when you have a blank check things tend to go smoothly. My aunts figured out the clothes and makeup. My father figured out the flowers and the wake. My cousin delivered the eulogy. It was like a huge sad, sentimental family reunion complete with my one annoying, passive aggressive aunt. The aunt whose husband was killed in a freak accident when were kids leaving her widowed with a small child. The aunt who was a very successful Avon lady at one time, and everyone thought she was just something. The aunt that looked just like my dad in drag, think Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie”, complete with puffy hair and big “Tootsie” glasses. My dad was a handsome guy. I look just like my dad, so I kind of look like my annoying, passive aggressive aunt who looks like my dad in drag aka Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie”. As we were sitting at the wake trying to figure out who was going to kick the bucket next and what the etiquette was for cutting out and going to a bar, another cousin from the Florida branch of the family, came over and said, “You know what Chris? You look just like Auntie. I can’t get over how much you look like her. You look more like her than her own daughter.” Cue the waterworks, my waterworks. “No, no, back when she was young and attractive! Not now! I’m so sorry. Please stop crying.” I can tell you that the etiquette for cutting out of a wake is to: Number One - get insulted by your cousin, Number Two - to dramatically cry “isn’t it enough that grandma is dead?”, and Number Three - to be escorted out on the sympathetic shoulder of your alcohol-loving sister who’s so grateful for the exit that she buys you drinks all night long.

On the other side of the family, my maternal grandfather died well before my birth, and my maternal grandmother died while I was out of the country. My family didn’t wait for me (that will become a theme) and held the first secular funeral in our family’s history. Unlike the Catholics on my father’s side of the family, my grandma didn’t believe in any of that, and if you don’t belong to a church, you don’t belong to a church. Anyhow, my grandma had her whole funeral planned and paid for. You see, when she saw how my father and his siblings struggled to figure out what to do for their mother’s funeral, she decided to make an appointment with a local funeral director, decide on a cremation, draw up a contract, and pre-pay for the whole shindig. She even picked out her outfit, complete with shoes, and lipstick. My grandma had unusual coloring. She was a blue-eyed, natural redhead with ivory skin and no freckles. She was a teeny tiny lady who weighed 80 pounds on her best day. She worked as a waitress in a diner for years, smoked Pall Malls - no filter, got her hair set once a week and her nickname at work was “Red”. I miss her.

Her favorite sister got cancer and my grandma took care of her till her last day. My grandma had an unfavorite sister as well and another even more unfavorite sister and a brother who moved to England after the war. She wore a very respectable navy suit to that funeral, new and two sizes too big because when you weigh 80 pounds, nothing fits. Well, not nothing. My grandma had a suit, skirt and jacket, from the 60’s that fit her perfectly. That was the last decade she could shop in the adult section of the department store. In her later years, she sported “best of Gap Kids” with the labels cut out so she wouldn’t know. Her 1960's suit was a delightful salmon color paired with a white blouse that buttoned up to her neck and had a fancy bow. She was sensitive about a scar she had on her neck. She packed it with shoes and accessories into a garment bag in her closet and gave us instructions that she was to be buried in that when the time came. That garment bag waited more than a decade before it could serve its purpose.

I made it home a few months later. My mother tasked me with sorting through my grandmother’s things, something I agreed to do. Actually it was the least I could do considering my mother had had to take care of everything. I spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s room. I looked through all her pictures, her old handbags, her old neck scarves. I found her old white gloves that ladies used to wear when they were fancy. I found the satin sleep bonnet she used to wear to keep her hairdo all done. In her closet I found beautiful coats, tailored like they don’t tailor anymore. I found a hatbox with the hat she wore to her own wedding....and then... I found the garment bag with the salmon suit that she had selected to be buried in.

I grabbed that bag and flew out of the room shaking it accusingly in my mother’s face screaming, “What is this? What is this?”

My mother screamed back, “I just couldn’t bury her in a salmon suit. It’s so undignified. I buried her in the navy. She liked the navy.”

“What does it matter to you, Mom? She was cremated!”

“Oh, we didn’t do that,” she scoffed.

All the sympathy I had felt for my mother drained out of me. I returned to my grandmother’s room, packed up the boxes, the keep boxes, the donate boxes. The closet I left empty. Well, except for one small garment bag.

My mother upon seeing the garment bag asked in a demanding tone, “What is this doing here?” to which I replied that we had to keep it so we would have something to bury HER in.

“But it’s 5 sizes too small,” she scoffed.

“We’ll make it fit!” I screamed as I went out the door, slamming it behind me.

I don’t know what happened to that garment bag, but when I came back it was gone.

After that, my parents decided to plan and pre-pay their funerals as well. My father really got into it, hence the incredibly expensive navy blue coffin with cream satin interior he was buried in. My father died at Christmas a few years ago, and I couldn’t get a flight in time for the funeral. I attended my father’s funeral from Poland via Skype. The public viewing, the private viewing, the drive from the funeral home to the church with my aunt holding the iPad up so I could give my uncle directions, the church funeral where the priest did mention how much money my father had given to the church, the drive from the church to the cemetery, the cemetery service, the wake in which I had to watch people eat steak while I had no steak - I saw it all.

My father dying certainly was not funny. It was not entirely expected either despite all the pre-payments and fancy coffins. My mother forgot I was there on Skype during the private viewing, and I had to silently witness her last moments with my father, her last words to him, her final kiss, and her closing of the coffin lid for good. I wish I hadn’t seen that.

The public viewing the day before was never ending. Hundreds of people showed up to pay their respects. We were positioned in a horseshoe formation. My mom, me on a plant stand, my father in the coffin, then my sister and her family oppite us. People started with my mom, tapped on my screen and got the shock of their lives when I responded, moved on to my father while looking back at me, and then moved on to my sister where they made an appointment to meet later at the bar. Hey, we’re consistent.

My sister and I messaged each other from time to time during this process. It was like a virtual whisper in her ear. Then I saw my ex and his mother. The ex I almost married. The ex whose mother had bought me a hideously ugly wedding dress and when I said, “Thank you, but no thank you” insisted the woman who married HER SON would be wearing that dress. The ex who told me to just wear the hideous dress because his momma knows best. The ex whose mother screamed at me that I had stolen her baby’s virtue when we announced that we were breaking up and that there would be no wedding. That ex. There were two mourners in front of them. I had time. I texted my sister...

Do something!

Her reply...

Suck it, loser! Then she pointed at me from across the room and gave a silent laugh.

Yep, that’s about right.

My father-in-law died a few months later at Easter. My husband was only able to say goodbye thanks to a phone call from an old friend who works at the hospital. We went to the funeral, greatly condensed as it was Good Friday. We were asked to not give my mother-in-law condolences as she had disowned us a few years before for failing to christen our children and not giving in to her ultimatum. She refused to interact with our children, her grandchildren, at the wake. We were also told that in the future we were not to attend her funeral whenever that may be. That was three years ago.

And she got her wish. My mother-in-law passed away sometime last week. Apparently,her funeral was last Saturday. Nobody contacted my husband. In the evening, he ran into a neighbor who has been working as a gravedigger since he got out of prison last year, and he gave him the news. He found out his mother had died not from his sisters, but from the gravedigger. Maybe some day I will see the humor in that, but not today.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Winter Break

I almost exclusively read my news online - from reputable publications, thank you very much. For you young people out there, there’s nothing new or even interesting in that, but I remember picking up my New York Times each day from the university bookstore and my workmates fighting over the Praca/Work section of Gazeta Wyborca back in the day. Not too loud though - they didn't want our boss to hear. My mother still has a paper newspaper delivered daily. I was surprised they still even printed it. She has a laptop and a tablet and a code for the same newspaper online which she has never ever used. The best sections of her local newspaper are: Police News where we can find out who got arrested, complete with full name, age, and address, Letters to the Editor where the ratio of crazy people letters to normal people letters is about 5 to 1, The Courthouse Roundup where we can find out what happened to all those people from the Police News in addition to who got married or divorced, bought or sold land, or applied for a restraining order, and the last best section, according to my mother is the Obituaries where we can find out who died. That’s a lot of personal information for one small paper.

I remember years ago what an amazing thing it was to be able to read news from all over the world sitting in my teeny tiny apartment in Poland. Now, sometimes, I want to turn it all off. I follow Polish news of course. Living in Poland it'd be hard to avoid and also irresponsible I think. I feel it's my duty, plus it helps with my Polish language skills. Having said that, I have some Expat friends who do not know who the President of Poland is. Oh well, ignorance is bliss. I follow American news as well because, well, I'm American. I’m keyed in to the most important events, but I miss the little stories. That basically boils down to a lot of Trump and almost no Kardashians. You win some. You lose some.

Today, I saw a picture of Melania Trump visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. She’s photographed in one of the areas that made a lasting impact on me. This area is painted dark, blue or maybe gray or black, with the white overlay popular in Europe years ago. Our whole house was painted like that when we bought it. I thought of the museum exhibit when we looked at our house with the real estate agent. The walls of the exhibit are covered in pictures, pictures recovered by soldiers from a village in Lithuania, a village with no survivors.

I visited the museum when I was teaching history in nearby Baltimore. I went once with my future husband and my boss from school. My boss couldn’t believe how the city of Łódź is pronounced or that my future husband was able to translate some exhibition materials that were not translated from Polish to English. I went a second time with my students. Another teacher had been awarded the invitation to the museum (complete with guides, buses, a substitute teacher to complete any duties at school), but declined. In our school we were often without water and electricity, our history books were printed in 1952, and nobody took our kids anywhere.

Anyhow, back to the room - it’s really a large hall connecting one part of the exhibit with another. It’s magnificent. The pictures, black and white, line the walls as the visitor goes through on a walkway. There are portraits, weddings, funerals, beach vacations, winter breaks. I remember the winter break pictures because I was so pleased with myself that I could read ferie zimowe. There were kids, some alone, some with parents, skiing, sledding, building snowmen. Just like my kids this winter break in the picture below. If you get a chance to go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., please do. It’s worth a visit. You can catch a peek of the exhibit I am talking about here in Tower of Faces

Zakopane 2018
Years ago when it was still a novelty to be connected and all that, I came across an article about a gentleman, a Holocaust survivor, living in England who was unable to go to the Auschwitz liberation anniversary because he was elderly and had no one to accompany him. I thought for a minute, and then for a minute longer. I shot off an email to the journalist with an offer. If this gentleman could get himself to Poland by air, I could pick him up at any airport and accompany him to all the events. Jeezuz, I almost wrote festivities instead of events. The same day the journalist got back to me. He thanked me for my interest and passed on my offer and contact information to the gentleman. He requested that if we actually made plans to go to the anniversary together that we please let him know so he could write a follow-up.

A few days later as I was driving to work, my phone rang with an English area code. A friend of mine worked for a courier in England and had been known to butt dial on occasion, nevertheless, I quickly pulled over and answered. It was this lovely gentleman speaking with a perfect Geordie accent thanking me for my offer. It seems the journalist had exaggerated just a bit. The gentleman didn’t have anyone to accompany him in the sense that his children were not able to bring him, not in the sense that nobody cared about him. He did have mobility issues that required some extra care, but all in all he said he was fit, but not really that keen on attending the anniversary. We chatted awhile and he asked me if I knew his home area near Lublin. I replied that I was familiar with the area because my father-in-law was from Szczebrzeszyn. The phone went silent, and I was sure we’d been cut off.  After a few frantic hellos from my side, I realized he was crying. “I can’t believe I’m talking to an American girl in Poland, and she just said Szczebrzeszyn.” Then he laughed.

When the Germans came through his area, he and his sister and her boyfriend hid in a field while the rest of his family hid in the house. Unfortunately, the family was murdered the same day. He and his sister were later taken away to Auschwitz where he survived. He made his way home where he waited on his old doorstep for anyone to come home. No one did, and he described the situation there as more dangerous by the day as some people feared survivors coming home to reclaim their property. He was strongly advised to move on. In the end, he decided to go to England. “Didn’t you want to stay in Poland?” I asked. His answered chilled me. “Imagine that tomorrow you wake up and you cannot find a single person that you knew from the day before. Not your family, not a neighbor, not a shop owner, former classmate or teacher, not a single familiar face. That was Poland for me.” He also told me of his past trips to Poland with his family and his total lack of desire to visit Auschwitz again. “I think I spent enough time there,“ he said. His greatest regret? Never having killed a Nazi. He was a child when the war began and came out the other side someone who regretted not having killed someone. That saddened me, but who am I to say anything about the regrets or desires of someone who has gone through the unspeakable? The incongruity struck me though because I felt as if I were talking to a twenty-something. His voice was so happy, so optimistic.

“Powiem Pani coś po polsku, bo żona tutaj stoi,” he started. (I will tell you something, but in Polish because my wife is standing here.) He proceeded to tell me about how via the Spielberg Foundation he found his sister 40 years after the war. She and her boyfriend had survived and had been living in the US. In Polish he said, “It was the best day of my life. Better than my wedding day. Better than the birth of my children. To know that I wasn’t all alone. That was something.” It was my turn to cry.