Friday, February 18, 2011


Yesterday my cousin sent me an email about a letter he recently found, written to him by our grandfather the day he was born. The letter welcomes him into the world and ends, "I won´t write again until you reply." In the Krakow internet cafe, remedying a little Michigander homesickness by Youtubing Motown jams, it made me laugh out loud. I´ll be 25 years old Monday, but still the thought of the loss of him makes me feel small and young. Orphaned.

Limping over Krakow yesterday, Tomcat and I forfeited a last adventure for some relaxed "cafe tourism." Final stops in the ongoing wine and coffee crawl: some Celestial Seasonings at the American book store (Massolit), apple pie and espresso at a traditional cafe near the market square, a final glass of mulled wine at a stylish Kazimierz bar with antique portraits lining the walls. I finally asked Tomcat about her grandfather. Our love for our lost grandfathers forms one of our common bonds (as well as literature, wanderlust and languishing in cafes), but I have only ever known the briefest version of the story. So between sips of latte she told me. An intelligent, engaging man. Well-traveled, eloquent. The war broke out when he was 11. His parents hosted and hid Polish political figures and figures of the underground. He served as a courrier in the underground and was captured and imprisoned. He and a friend escaped a concentration camp and went into hiding. On his 17th birthday, the war ended--the most wonderful of presents. But so many of the details, she said, she´ll never get to ask. He died suddenly of cancer when she was 18.

I´ve often thought I lost my grandfather at that agonizing moment, too, between adolescence and adulthood, when the sense of identity with family (or, at least, one´s favorite family) deepens and one wants those stories fleshed out, made more palpable, more personal. I know my grandfather´s stories: selling American cigarettes on the black market in post-war Paris and London to pay for the days in museums and the nights in the Pigalle. Waterskiing in Lebanon. The factotum of jobs in Flint and his studies, his vast knowledge of literature and history. His incomplete novel. But so much more I wish I had committed to paper, and no one seems able to give me the information I want. He was a radio operator on maneuvers in Morocco, but what was that daily life like? I overheard him once talking to an Ethiopian nurse and mentioning his time in Addis Ababa, but what was he doing there? And for how long? And what was the first impression of a young Irish-American from Detroit suddenly transplanted to Africa?

I offered to Tomcat that perhaps our literary impulses are our grace. Always our imaginations to turn to-- the myriad ideas, however idealized, of who are ancestors are, how they brought us to this moment, gave us these thoughts. The idea of our papas and their fabulous destinies. Krakow and Flint. WWII and decolonizing Morocco. All the places inbetween. Perhaps they crossed paths somewhere in Europe, sometime in the 1950s, two men nodding to each other across a crowded square, or in a tram car. Like the black and white faces, the chiaroscuro of thoughtful gazes in old photographs, on the walls surrounding us as we had our drinks, shared my last night in Krakow. Who are these people? How did their images end up on these walls? And isn´t it somehow more wonderful, perhaps, to imagine than to know?

And now I´m in Madrid. Bryan´s urn jostled through the Metro and stored carefully in a hostel locker. Papa´s ghost hanging pleasantly over Spain (I know he was in Seville for a time, but Madrid? Ah, let´s just say he was). It´s warm and sunny and the people in the subway look like extras from Almodovar films. The swelling in my toe is subsiding. There´s the sun and the Prado and churros waiting for me tomorrow. What more could a girl-- even a widowed, spiritually orphaned one-- desire?

1 comment: