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The Place We are From

by Kalina Isoline about a year ago in parents
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A new generation, not devastated by war or crippled by the terrors of communism has emerged from Eastern Europe. But are the stories passed down to us enough to reconcile a dark past?

Bedtime with Mamusia

I was a quiet and agreeable child, who has grown into a woman just the same. I imagine it’s blue in the place I came from, as though it were 5:45PM all the time. A country where everyone had a sharp face, into which their eyes sunk deep. Where it was illegal to play Bruce Springsteen records, and blonde hair could save your life. A place frozen not just in time, but inside stories too.

I stayed in Poland for only three months after I was born in 1993. It was then that my parents won the green card lottery and immigrated my sister and I to New York. My memories of Poland, which, at the time, was transitioning out of communism, come only from the stories my Mamusia would tell me as I fell asleep years later in Greenpoint, Brooklyn when I was far enough removed from the country that the distance made everything sound more like legend and less like a true story.

Miroslaw legally changed his name to Michael when he arrived in America. But before he became Michael, he had a reputation for being a rebel in Ostrołęka, the small Polish town where I was born to him and Ania; a well behaved, fair-skinned and lanky limbed picture of innocence who came from a family only an inch better off than my Dad’s, yet I always pictured her as a princess before she became my Mamusia.

Mamusia (far right) growing up in Soviet Poland

My Dad’s claim to fame was being the only DJ in Ostrołęka who played American records at the discotheque once the curfew was lifted in the early 1980’s. He circulated records and cassettes privately - they were never stamped or registered, and so even though mass media was still under military management, he operated beyond the censor’s control. At one point, the KGB knocked on the door of his family’s apartment, which I can't imagine he hadn't been practicing for. Even completely innocent people were practicing.

To this day he maintains that he offered the KGB tea (they weren't thirsty), was asked a few questions about the music he played at parties, which was obviously just several renditions of the Soviet Socialist Republic’s State Anthem, and the KGB were on their way.

Dad in Ostrołęka

He did not take anything too seriously, or at least never showed it. My mom however, took everything very seriously and compensated for my dad’s secrecy by being an exhibitionist. While our dad saw no reason for us to remember, Mamusia didn’t want Kate or I to forget who our grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins were after we left Poland. She kept them alive through stories in the tiny room we shared in Greenpoint, and fed our imaginations with what was likely a much more attractive image of Poland than reality offered.

Sometimes she slipped into soliloquies that I realized much later were a byproduct of her loneliness. She was 30 years old and had just moved to a country whose language she didn’t speak with nothing but three pieces of luggage and two young children. She had no one to commiserate with over what must have been an emotionally grueling existence, except for her husband, a man impossible to convince that America was anything less than sacrosanct.

The further Kate and I drifted into sleep, the more candid she became in her storytelling, and whether she was conscious of it or not, the weight she had been carrying so gracefully started to spill over in the form of wayward tales with less than happy endings. Other times there were no endings.

Then you know, once, Babcia, your Babcia, my Mamusia, when she was a young girl, she lived on this big farm in Częstochowa where I spent my summers growing up, they were hiding this Jewish boy. In the potato cellars. The potato cellars were underground and they kept the potatoes cold and it was dark but it was better than being dead. So they put the boy in there. When they came, because they knew they were going to come, they lined them up in the house, remember Babcia has six brothers and sisters like I said, and the cellars were outside all the way in back of the yard close to where the forest starts and the Nazis were asking Babcia if they were hiding a kid, someone had told on them, and she said no, they weren’t, and one Nazi, a young one, took a look at Babcia’s brother, Jacek, who was 7 or 8, and had pretty blonde hair and blue eyes which would turn into brown hair and green eyes later but nevermind because the Nazi says to the other Nazis - look at this one and all the Nazis say how good looking and fine Jacek is and let everyone go. Don’t know about the Jewish boy. The Jewish boy escaped from the potato cellar and ran toward the forest Babcia says. I don’t know what happened with the Jewish boy after that.

By the time I was old enough to grasp the gravity of my family’s own history, my mom had become understandably apprehensive about the consequence of oversharing what had suddenly struck her as a disturbing past. It had never struck her this way before because she had grown up inside of it, like a fish inside of water.

A generation I had heard of only through Mamusia's stories

Eastern Europeans already had a reputation for having bleak, take-no-guff attitudes, and while my parents didn’t want to keep my own history from me, they also didn’t want to raise a sinister child. They hadn’t removed me from a communist country for no reason. It didn’t help that I had an impossible time crying. Even as a three month old infant on a nine hour transatlantic flight, the story goes that flight attendants gathered around the baby bassinet, surprised but also somewhat alarmed by my placidity.

In an attempt to neutralize whatever synapses had been effectively unlocked in my sister and I’s pre-pubescent brains by exposing us to the one thing all parents agree children should never be exposed to (reality), the next few years of our bedtime stories were shaped by fantasy. There was a lot of Anastasia, Sky Dancers, and Beauty and the Beast. We watched Disney movies and read American fairy tales before bed, like American kids did.

I liked Thumbelina, Kate loved Alice in Wonderland, we still do. But the same way we slow down passing a car accident, or binge watch true-crime documentaries, I wanted to hear stories that weren’t made up. I liked making meaning out of them, even though I sometimes had to bend them toward meaning.

This practice in shaping narrative also bore a guilt that dissuaded me of the idea that the only place in the world where things were happening was the place I was in that moment. My grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles were still there, somewhere across the ocean, even though I wasn’t. This shouldn’t have been as unbelievable as it felt to me. Kate seemed satisfied with fantastical worlds. I on the other hand, was two years her junior and already a ten year old realist.

My dad moved us from Greenpoint to a house in the suburbs of Long Island that was haunted but not by ghosts, when I was 10 years old. There were paintings lionizing the Soviet revolution on every wall, even in the bathrooms. Soulful Russian novels and philosophy that was treated like treasured inheritance. Not because of totalitarian sympathies, but to remind everyone who entered the house that over a hundred million people were murdered in the name of utopia.

Even though my life had been touched so softly by it, the older I became, the more familiar growing up in Soviet Poland felt, how it hardened people the way a stone calcified over centuries, how I was one of the people that belonged to the strong part of the world.

It isn’t a bright or romantic narrative, which are usually the ones we retell stories around to fall asleep faster. But it feels like the most important stories my Mamusia ever told me had less to do with princesses, mermaids or furniture that came alive, and more to do with giving color to a place I’d always seen as blue. •


About the author

Kalina Isoline

New York


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