1.My grandfather, a young boy in a red coat wandering the deep and snowy Lithuanian woods, found a litter of wolf cubs in a hollowed oak that had been rent by lightning. He placed the abandoned pups in the hood of his coat and carried them home, where he raised them, or he let them go, or he began a new narrative of our family inextricably linked ever after with white and quiet woods, with dogs, with hollowness sometimes filled by something unexpected. Soon after, he moved to Warsaw, where he stayed and where I, eventually, came from.
A Polish proverb says: A wolf is drawn to the woods. Another warns: Don’t call a wolf from the woods. Wolves in woods are the backbone of Polish wisdom.
Eventually, my grandfather married my grandmother and they moved into a gray apartment building. Their two small rooms filled with trinkets and kilims and blue tiles have a balcony that looks out onto a forest. In the summer, the curtain hangs limp in the thick heat, bees dart between the potted flowers, and the forest stands guard across the street, always present, always watching, green.
They had two daughters: a doctor and a poet.
I only want to tell you
that we don’t always love those we love.
Do you remember the woodcutter in the darkened woods
cutting a path to his star?
The path grew wider, the woods grew brighter,
and the birches lay their dead, round trunks down
on either side of the cutting.
If I chop the whole woods down, the woodcutter thought,
eventually I will reach her.
—from “Woodcutter” by Anna Piwkowska, 2010
My mother was the doctor. She married a mathematician who grew a lemon tree in his father’s apartment as a child in the 1960s. He grew it from a seed and was particularly proud of his accomplishment. He sliced the yellow rinds open and sucked the sour juice out without adding any sugar. When he met my mother, they rode to England on an orange motorcycle, sleeping in barns and avoiding bees along the way. They drank milkshakes for the first time there and spent the summer in an apple orchard, picking the round fruits splashed red with sun.
My great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Maciej Krysztul,
kept bees in the Kresy region and loved the color white.
I inherited his weakness for the white petals of the magnolia
growing straight from the dark, woody branch.
—from “Envy” by Anna Piwkowska, 2000
I learn my family’s history from poetry, from the way words are strung together like a necklace of red rowan on a thread, from the way the L is soft and eastern, from the way we draw language from the earth.
My mother and her sister spent their childhoods in a palace; their father, my grandfather, was the director of an artist’s colony housed in this once aristocratic home. My family lived there for twenty years, breathing in the past, feeling the steps and tribulations of the princesses in their every movement, in every leather chair in the library, in every gleaming marble tile. When they turned the furnace on in the winter, the past was there in the hissing warmth; when they ran down the stairs and out into the garden, the past was there, beckoning through the thick, heavy doors. Behind the palace stretched a lush green park, a linden-lined avenue cutting a swath down its center. The lindens bloomed white in summer, their sticky fragrance bearing down heavy on the park, on the palace, on the artists who visited, who walked beneath those trees inhaling the honey and fathoming the silence interrupted only by birds exploring their own mechanical vocabulary: wheatberry wheatberry wheatberry, find me find me find me, Lithuania Lithuania.
A hidden path at the edge of the park led through a wheat field to a gate beneath a cherry tree, its offerings heavy and sour by summer’s end. Through the gate, another path, a wayside shrine to the Virgin Mary, a jar of lilacs at her feet and a legend about a prince and his horse miraculously saved at this very turn. Beyond the shrine: dark woods.
Another piece of family lore: When my aunt was a child, she and a friend wandered into these woods one winter. Don’t go, my grandmother told them, never go. But they didn’t listen; they wrapped themselves in furs and scarves and braved the white wilderness, pursuing stories and tracks of birds and berries bright against the empty morning. The day passed, the girls thrilled, and soon it began to get dark. Let’s go back, they said, only to find that they were lost, their footprints gone, no stars in the sky to guide them. They wandered the woods in circles, the sky growing darker, the air growing colder, the girls more and more uncertain. My grandmother had begun to worry in the palace. She paced the rooms, wringing her hands: They’ll freeze to death, she thought; an avalanche, she thought; wolves, she thought, wolves! I am like her now: worried about the worst possible outcomes at the worst possible moments. Panic runs through our veins.
The girls eventually sighted a light in the darkness and walked toward it like grateful moths. A hut, a woodcutter and his wife, a carriage and horses warm in the barn. He harnessed the horses and took the girls home, driving through the thick, white snow as if he had always known where he was going. Oh thank god, my grandmother screamed when she saw the carriage turn into the snowy gates. The girls came into the palace crying, overwhelmed with guilt, with icicle hair and frozen feet that had to be thawed in claw-foot bathtubs filled with steaming water. We must go thank the woodcutter tomorrow, my grandmother said, we’ll bring him a basket of meat and bread. But when they went into the woods the next day, when the air was bright and less menacing, there was no woodcutter there. There was no house, there was no lantern, there was no barn with horses. Could we have imagined it? the girls wondered, feeling their braids still stiff with yesterday’s cold. Could it all have been a dream?
When I was born, a bright-eyed frantic baby, my parents did not have a place of their own. We spent a few weeks at my grandfather’s apartment, a few weeks in an attic, a few weeks at the palace, and then a few months—until we left Poland—at my father’s mother’s house in the country. An hour outside of Warsaw, it was a rundown white cottage, striking in contrast with the bright green that overgrew it: creeping vines, trees that had been there for centuries, tall grasses, blackberries. The name of the town carries connotations of overgrowth, a place deep within the woods. There were bees there and bugs, there were roses and thistles and pines and larches. My grandmother was a painter and actress and dramatic woman with big eyes that I inherited, along with my love of dogs, soft voice, and uncertainty. The overgrown windows of this house opened onto gray patches of sky and the summer scent of rain. They looked out onto nettles and wasps and the tall trees swaying in the cool of evening. These were my first memories, and I don’t remember them, but they have never left me.
If we live in fairytales, we never know it.
My own memories of childhood are different, ages away: turquoise swimming pools and the red mountains of the southwest United States; dust and creosote and thunderstorms drowning the desperate desert; a dark river winding through the city, Mexico glinting across the water. We drove west every summer in an egg of an Argosy camper in search of saguaros, canyons, and purple beaches, the five of us and a dog. I remember a childhood punctuated by silence, by no hard feelings but an inability to communicate. I pieced together my family’s world by collecting shards of conversations dropped onto the ground, by deciphering glances and pauses, by piecing together those ancient stories about wolves and woods and fruit. I did not ask the right questions.
We came home each summer to the peach tree and apricot in our backyard, rare trees in that desert presenting us with the bounty of their fruit that we ate, canned, turned into jam and juice and syrup. My brothers and I collected the pits, drew faces on them, and traded them among ourselves, coveting those seeds each summer as if we had created them.
Every December, my parents drove to a nursery by the river and bought a young, small Christmas tree, still alive and rooted in a deep, black pot that was covered with garlands in our living room, the tree then bedecked with blown Polish glass and golden stars. We ate the borscht and the fish and the poppy seed braids, and when Christmas was over, my parents planted the tree in our backyard, naked again but for telltale glints of tinsel caught in its needles. By the time I left home for good, several tall, majestic pines stood in our yard, dark green and unusual against the barren background of mountains and the big, open sky.
This tradition continues, even though many things in my family have changed. My father started seeing a woman in Mexico, a development we all absorbed but didn’t talk about, communicating instead through glares and hints and codes. He went across the border, my mother would say, as if my father were out running errands. When he was late to dinner, my mother’s anger surged just beneath the surface, invisible to the untrained eye that couldn’t see that the potatoes were chopped more urgently than usual, that the hiss of the oil in the skillet was a bit louder, and the herbs were torn harder, faster, as if they themselves were to blame. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t throwing plates at the walls, breaking things, yelling, leaving. She was made of stone.
I stared and clenched my teeth. Inside, I tore myself to shreds. Inside, what was my mother doing? Pouring hot oil on civilizations, dicing heads like onions, tearing trees out by the roots?
My father would return from across the border, coming through the door always bearing something, as if to give himself an alibi: paper bags heavy with tamales, their sweaty corn smell filling the kitchen like smoke, crates of poblano peppers or pitted avocados, pastries soft with Mexican sugar, a whole carp wrapped in newspaper at Christmas.
Long wait on the bridge tonight, he’d say. The boys selling clementines and churros were swarming between the cars, and the sunset was miraculous.
In this desert, my father planted an orchard, perhaps inspired by those peaches and apricots at the house we’d long moved away from, or by the lemon tree he’d grown on his father’s balcony as a child. Or maybe simply from a sense of desperation. After he and my mother got divorced, he left the house with the Christmas trees and bought a small, stone cottage with an empty lot of sand.
He planted fifteen trees in this dry backyard in hopes that they’d bear fruit: apples, pears, plums, apricots, peaches, and figs. He dug ditches, created an irrigation system, forested his backseat with saplings to haul them from the nursery. Soon, the mountains beamed down at his accomplishment, new leaves tickled the windows as if he had transported himself to a distant land that didn’t swelter beneath a dry yellow sun. He planted rosemary. He brought in tomatoes. He built a table on a tree stump in the yard and stuck an umbrella in it. He continued to bake bread and make cheese in his kitchen as he has for years. The saplings began to blossom and soon sprouted green apricots the size of marbles, tiny pink pears that grew by the day, perfectly spherical early apples.
That same spring, his father obtained an immigration visa that granted him entry to our desert city, where he would live with my father in the little house.
In a sense, my father had invited him. My grandfather had lived in the same building in Warsaw his entire life, and now that building was being razed and he, age 90, was being asked to live elsewhere. His friends were all dead, and his third wife had absconded with the porcelain. There was no better time to leave the only house, the only street, the only country he had ever known, to leave the cold and blue bluster for the warmth and novelty of his son’s new life.
What is he going to do here?, my brothers and I asked.
He will sit in the garden with the fruit trees, our father said.
He hadn’t told his father what it was like in our desert. He hadn’t told him that storms roll in deep and dark in the summer and the rain drowns out conversation; that after those storms, the desert smells like loam and honeysuckle and the creosote blooms yellow across the mountains; that the city here is unlike what he’s used to; that no one here speaks his language, with its consonant rustle like autumn leaves, with its odd vowels like plucked rubber bands; that he will not introduce him to his friends.
He hadn’t told him that he will be lonely and alone, that he will be a scarecrow in the garden with only birds and sticky figs for company.
When I asked him why he’d invited his father to come in the first place, if he didn’t want him here, my father threw up his hands and said he had to go somewhere. He hadn’t asked the right questions either.
Lore stops short when dark clouds roll in. Unwieldy silence. Looming storms.
As my father’s father prepares for this new beginning, a baptism by desert, my mother’s parents are preparing for their deaths.
They send me packages in the mail with silver that had been buried in the ground during one war, then unearthed, then buried in time for another. They send me trinkets I recognize from their apartment with the balcony that looks out onto the green and stalwart forest: blue tiles painted with scenes from folktales; woven mats; a bronze statuette, half-man, half-tree. They are emptying their apartment one package at a time, like anthropologists smuggling artifacts out of an ancient city.
What else do you want from us when we’re gone?, my grandmother asks.
Nothing, I say, that’s morbid.
No, she says, it’s natural. Your aunt has already claimed the glass vases and the chairs.
They send me Christmas cards from that other continent that say, Wishing you and your fiancé love and happiness for the new year.
I tell them I’m not engaged. They say I will be someday: That’s why we sent you the silver that had been buried in the ground. It’s wedding silver, but we will likely be too late to your wedding. You know how it is.
Their cards read, Winter is dreary and gray here, and our Christmas will be very sad. We can barely walk. Your grandfather doesn’t leave the house. The stairs are too many and it’s cold outside, the trees are bare. We wish you the best, but youth always is, isn’t it.
My mother’s father does not plan to see another summer. My mother plans to hike the Appalachian Trail.
My father’s father plans to sit in the desert like a gourd and wait for the cool, dark rain. My father plans to tend to the orchard, twist figs off their branches, pick the peaches before they drop to the ground and bruise.
I have no plans. I wait here. I make pesto from mustard greens and eat it in the backyard with my boyfriend beneath a large tree strung with lights. We check our beers in on an app. I buy discounted day-old bagels from a nice bakery and eat them with avocados. I brush my hair occasionally. I go to the dog park and sit at the picnic table listening to other owners discuss ticks and wedding venues. I kill ants with a vengeance. I plan trips. I am thirty, and I am thirsty and dirty and crumbling. My eyes have sunk into my face. I think about driving to the beach, lying beneath the stars and drinking in the Milky Way, going for a run. I think about having or not having a baby, getting or not getting married, changing or not changing my name, wearing a white dress or a bathing suit. I think about long-lost friends, teeth, postcards, ribbons, ambitions. The tree in our backyard breaks one night, a large limb on the ground in the morning, its end splintered into hundreds of pieces that choke the lawnmower later. Broken glass in the grass, dead filaments, a dented chair.
On a day when I am empty like a beehive, my great-grandmother is afraid.
She is dying in a hospital in Milanówek and forgets her mother tongue.
Or the opposite is true: She remembers the language of sweet meadows,
dark woods and secret deities.
The language of birds and wild animals,
the roaring Žeimena warm from the sweltering heat,
and dry, chattering boughs
thrown into the fire on winter evenings.
—from “The Tower of Babel” by Anna Piwkowska, 2007
In the middle of Warsaw, downtown where it’s busy, one tram stop from the museum where my grandfather used to work, stands a single palm tree in the middle of a roundabout. The buildings around it are gray, the tram jingles as it passes the bookstore on the corner, and people in suits run to work or smoke cigarettes on benches. The tree is fake: an art installation highlighting difference, what belongs and what does not, the feeling of being out of place. The palm tree first appeared when I was fourteen, and I remember the first time I saw it. It seemed familiar to me then, an image I recognized from home. The second time, I came to Poland in winter, and the palm tree was shrouded in snow.
To indicate that someone went off the deep end, dissolved, went mad, Polish people use an idiom. Her palm tree bounced back, they say.
We were not here; the forest was. We won’t be here; the forest will. —Polish proverb
Each time I return to Poland, it feels farther and farther away. My roots are weaker; my limbs are somewhere else. The castles, palaces, and dragons are always there, the salt mines deep inside the earth, the slivers of amber pulled from the sea, pink and yellow houses like slices of cake along the river, the goddess of victory, Chopin’s buried heart. They’re always there, the gleaming parts of this country’s strange and distant past.
On the first day of November, thousands of candles are lit in glass jars of every color at a historic cemetery in Warsaw. Marble angels and stone crosses cede the stage to flame, and the ancient trees that line the paths flicker red and pink in the candles’ otherworldly glow. Dressed up for one day of the year, the cemetery is beautiful, glittering, beckoning. My family has graves here, some filled, some still waiting, beneath these oaks and maples. Each time I return to Poland, my family seems smaller, and one day it will entirely disappear.
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