Dear Fatherland: the pallbearers were probably not skinheads, but I don’t know, and reflections on grief, roots, and love

For my dad

Nov 29, 2017
Kafefajka, Nowy Swiat
Warszawa

I.

Dear Fatherland,

You’re beautiful even on a grey and drizzly November morning.

But your government is fascist.

Your religion is medieval.

Your customer service sucks.

And your people are rude and pushy.

II.

We bury my grandfather on Tuesday, on a grey but dry November afternoon. I stand in the cold chapel looking at his embalmed corpse, waiting for feelings.

There don’t seem to be any—just a clinical curiosity.

An awareness that the suit his body is wearing is the suit he wore to my wedding, 17 years ago.

Then, an awareness of the awareness (how’s that for meta thoughts?) that I was thinking of the corpse very comfortably as a corpse—my grandfather’s body, but certainly not my grandfather. Not at all.

Which, of course, is at it should be.

A corpse is not a person.

III.

I don’t like coming back “home.”

I never feel more alien—or more Canadian—than when I visit the place where I was born.

IV.

My grandfather’s sister, 14 years his junior, is already in the chapel when I enter. Not alone—her husband and daughter are with her.

I’m not alone either. I’m accompanying my grandfather’s youngest daughter, caretaker—chief mourner—who’s my father’s youngest sister. Therefore, my aunt, but closer in age to me than to my father, so really, my sister.

My grandfather’s sister is crying.

His daughter (my aunt-but-more-sister)–eyes dry this time—they have been wet a lot—suggests they pray together.

For his soul?

They start a pattern of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, the three women of the family—my grandfather’s sister, his daughter, his niece. The only man in the chapel—my great uncle, I suppose—mouths the words, but makes no sound.

When my mother walks into the chapel a few minutes later, she joins the chorus of the praying women.

It is very strange for me to hear my mother pray.

V.

When I come “home” to visit—and I come, it seems, only for weddings and funerals (and not all of them), and once, a baptism—it generally takes me two or three days to start hating Poland.

This time, my dislike for the people I come from hits me in Amsterdam as I board the plan for Warsaw, as they seem to go out of their way to push and jostle me as they rush for the plane.

They’re so loud.

Their voices grate on my ears, and their bodies invade my personal space.

And their casual racism and sexism, with the thinnest veneer of European worldliness, disgusts me.

“You’ll get used to it,” my mother says.

I don’t want to.

VI.

Four young men with shaved heads—one has a neo-Mohawk—who probably aren’t skinheads, but well, look more like skinheads than pall bearers despite the white cotton gloves on their hands—carry the coffin with my grandfather’s body from the chapel to a Mercedes hatchback, which rolls slowly towards the front doors of the church, a few dozen meters away.

We follow, first the car, then the pall bearers—always, the coffin—into the church.

My aunts—my grandfather’s sister, my grandfather’s daughter—walk arm-in-arm with their husbands and children; I walk with my mother, conscious that I am my father’s stand-in. Conscious too of my red coat, its brightness imperfectly hidden by my black scarf.

Everyone else is wearing black.

VII.

The funeral home taking care of my grandfather’s body, by the way, is called Anubis.

VIII.

I recently attended a German Catholic mass for a friend’s father. This one is almost identical, except for the language in which it’s delivered. Well, and the priest is younger and seems to have committed at least some of the words of the liturgy to his memory. But not all. He does a lot of reading.

I am struggling to stay respectful. But I feel more like a spectator at a dated theatre play than a celebrant of a holy rite.

I start counting the number of times the word “sin” occurs; lose count and interest at 21.

It had been my intention to observe the outer forms. The sign of the cross; the responses to the prayers. It’s been almost 30 years, but I probably remember—I remembered enough of the patterns at the German Catholic mass to stand up, sit down and kneel down at the appropriate places.

But I can’t.

The words aren’t just empty, they are distasteful.

I stand in silence.

My inner (bad) Buddhist counsels understanding and suggests I take the opportunity to do a metta meditation.

The outer atheist says, “Fuck that shit. Don’t still your mind: scratch at all the scabs and take notes.”

The writer agrees. So I look around with the cold, unforgiving eyes of the documentarian. Collect source materials.

Listen to the whispers of the mourners, hissed under the cover of music and prayers… but almost always audible.

Analyze the appearances and manifestations of grief.

Halfway around the world—fine, less than a quarter, 7,778 kilometres away—my father, the eldest son, is spending a sleepless night alone.

I try to shift into watching with his eyes, not mine. But it’s hard; self obtrudes.

IX.

The night after the funeral, I spend my sleepless hours—still jet-lagged, tired but unable to give in to sleep—texting with Internet strangers as unrooted in time zones as I am. One’s a Moroccan born in France (but not French), now based in Dubai, who was just in Warsaw on business. The other’s a UK-educated Tamil now working in Geneva.

All three of us have a poor sense of which time zone and country we’re in currently; I feel a stronger kinship with them than with my Polish family.

After a short discussion of my peculiar childhood in Libya and his European-North African shuffling, we end up talking about sheesha, and the Moroccan tells me where I can find a sheesha lounge in Warsaw.

I’m thrilled.

X.

The best part of my grandfather’s funeral mass for me is the entrance of my younger cousins with their very young children: a girl four years of age and a seven month old baby in a sling.

The girl is all smiles. She loves the flowers—the coffin and path leading up to it are adorned with bouquets and wreaths—and she beams at her grandparents with perfect happiness.

She and her brother affirm the beauty of life for me much more eloquently than the priest’s canonized readings and out-of-the-can sermon on eternal life.

I do think, though, that life would sometimes be easier if one were not an atheist and a pathological scab-scratcher and curtain ripper and could just accept something, anything on face value. You know?

XI.

The church, by the way, is beautiful. About 200 years old, but built in the Gothic style, designed to make man (not in the gender neutral sense; woman was simultaneously irrelevant and unreal—this, after all, is the religion that venerates a mother in the form of a virgin)—feel small and God grand.

God, I have the irreverent thought, must have a very fragile ego to require all these giant buildings to feel good about himself…

XII.

We follow the coffin—carried by the probably-not-skinheads-(but after that Nov 11 March of Shame, I don’t know, I think they might be–I look at every Pole I pass with suspicion and fear)-pallbearers out of the church and to the Mercedes again, and then we follow the slowly rolling car to the cemetery.

The priest, clad in an odd ceremonial black cap that looks like a cupcake with a pompom, leads the way.

In the recently restored family grave rests the body of my grandmother—my father’s mother—and her parents.

She died at age 53, when I was seven or eight, and living in Libya. I didn’t attend her funeral, nor did my father.

My mother was there, though.

My great-grandmother on my father’s side died in 2003, age 93.

I remember her.

I loved her.

XIII.

I’m not sure that I loved my grandfather, and frankly, until his death, I have no real evidence that my father loved him. The night after the funeral, when I talk with my father, he is crying. Grieving, mourning. He sends me a copy of the letter he wrote to my grandfather the week before my grandfather died—at his sister’s request.

The letter is full of good memories and warm feelings.

It ends with, “I love you very much, Dad.”

It’s the first time I hear those stories.

I know my grandfather’s youngest daughter, who took care of him through to his death, loved him (loves him still if one loves the dead themselves and not their memory? I am not sure who the object of love is once life is gone…).

This, I always knew and had evidence of. I saw them together, loving and supporting each other. And she has talked to me of him, with love.

I probably know him best through her stories.

XIV.

At the sheesha place the day after the funeral, I’m served by a Polish woman and then by two Turkish men, who both speak fluent Polish—they understand my Polish better than they do my English, which makes me laugh.

I’m one of three customers when I come in. One is a silent Pole–and despite his shorn hair, I’m pretty sure he’s not a skinhead; the other, an Arab who makes several business phone calls in beautiful German.

Citizens of the world.

XV.

The last time I saw my grandfather was at my brother’s wedding. In Poland, in 2009, because my brother’s wife is a Polish woman—whom he met in Korea.

At the wedding, a 70-something widow who spent the weekend making an ardent play for my then-80-year-old grandfather asked us when we last saw each other.

We looked at each other, my grandfather and I, and we both did the math with some effort.

“Ten… no, nine years ago,” I said.

“In 2000, at her wedding,” he said.

The hunting widow gasped, and put her hands on the hand my grandfather had on top of mine–squeezed it. He smiled.

(My twice-married grandfather—he remarried very quickly after my grandmother’s death–and I never really knew my step-grandmother, although she too was at my wedding—was a player until he died, and the joke among my cousins and my brother’s single friends that weekend was that Grandfather was the only one who scored. Possibly more than once.)

“It must be so hard,” my grandfather’s would-be lover said. “To have your granddaughter so far away. To see her so rarely. You must miss her.”

“Well, you know,” my grandfather said. “It’s been like that for a long time. You get used to it.”

I nodded.

My mother, who overhead the conversation, was appalled.

“How can anyone not miss their grandchildren?” she demanded of me, holding my children on her lap in a covetous embrace

She didn’t understand, at all.

But I did.

Geography matters.

Time spent matters.

If my grandfather didn’t miss me–well, I didn’t miss him either.

My children will also miss only one set of grandparents.

XVI.

At the cemetery, an octogenarian woman—who probably also wished to share my grandfather’s bed at some point (like, when I mention that player thing… it’s not even a slight exaggeration…)—reads a letter, a eulogy of sorts—of behalf of my grandfather’s (legion of girl)friends, from the Warsaw branch of the University of the Third Age.

It’s a beautiful letter that describes, lauds, and mourns a  man I did not know, at all.

But apparently, I’m not the only to have that reaction.

“Wow, those people did not know Grandfather at all,” my cousin—the daughter of my grandfather’s youngest daughter, and the mother of the children who save the funeral mass for me—says. She’s known my–our–grandfather intimately all of her life. She loves him, knows him.

That’s not him, she says.

Fog and mirrors, I think. That was him, I suppose, to them…

The University of the Third Age woman also reads a poem written by my grandfather’s last paramour, the woman with whom he sorta-kinda-but-not-really-almost lived since the death of his second wife up to the final two years of his life.

The final two years of his life, he spent living with his youngest daughter, fighting to maintain the semblance of independence at a huge price, paid almost in full by his daughter.

It was, I think, too high a price to pay.

But you see… she loved him so much.

(I love my father very much… but I would not do that for him. We talk about it at length, my parents and I. “A nursing home, please, as soon as I can’t care for myself, and you don’t even have to come visit if I lose my mind,” my mother says. “Just, um, make sure it’s a nice nursing home.” My father shudders. “Kill me first,” he says.)

My grandfather’s last paramour—should I call her his lover? partner?—does not comprehend this price, and resents that my grandfather–unable to walk or sit up without help, among other things–spent the last few weeks of his life in a full-care nursing home.

Her poem is as full of the anger and resentment as it is of love.

It contains the phrase “contemptuous people,” which is a blatant slap in the face of my aunt—the woman who changed my grandfather’s diapers, took him to endless doctors’ appointments, bathed and fed him, almost to the end of his life.

I find it interesting that my aunt and my father give the status-less paramour the compassion and understanding that she can’t give them.

Isn’t wisdom, perspective something that comes with age?

Apparently not; the paramour avoids my aunt in the church and at the cemetery, and refuses to come to the post-funeral dinner with us.

Family is complicated.

Is love?

XVII.

My mother and my grandfather—her father-in-law—also had a fraught, complicated relationship.

I understand the specifics of it imperfectly, and yet the thrust of it very well, because I don’t love my father-in-law either.

We resent the slights and harm done to people we love more than we resent slights against ourselves.

My father-in-law has never harmed me. (I didn’t love him, so how could he, really, even if he tried?)

But what he did to the man I love, I find difficult to forgive.

Love is also very simple.

XVIII.

My aunt asks me and my father to prepare the eulogy for the funeral. It’s really something that she’s the best suited person to do, but she frames it as my father’s job as the eldest son—she also defers to my skills as the family writer.

I don’t even have to tell my father “But I didn’t know him!” He sits down to work on the eulogy and spends a week writing, revising, crafting—creating a goodbye that compromises between justice, truth, and love… liberally tempered with compassion.

It’s beautiful, and I find out that my storytelling talent has come to me in equal parts from both parents.

(Never ask anyone in my family for a clear, concise accounting of the facts. We can’t do it. Ask us for a good story, on the other hand…)

The priest refuses to read the eulogy in the church. Or at the graveside.

“It’s inappropriate,” he tells my aunt.

“Fuck that shit,” the daughter in me doesn’t even give my bad Buddhist a chance to breathe.

As the mini-drama unfolds beside the grave, I wonder how big a scene I’m going to have to make to carry out my father’s wishes.

My lack of ability to compromise, and disdain for conventional social mores—I smooth my red coat with pride now—that comes from my mother’s side of the family.

 

XIX.

My father comes from a devout family. The oldest child and only son, he was nonetheless in his early childhood intended for the priesthood—or at least holiness. He does occasionally tell me that story.

I’m not sure if his eventual atheism—he calls himself an agnostic, but I think it runs deeper than that—is innate or rebellion.

My grandfather, his tomcatting notwithstanding (as is the case, frankly, with most of the Poles I know) would describe himself, throughout his life, as a devout and practicing Catholic.

Both his daughters remain religious and devout.

The elder one and her family are not at the funeral.

Family, as I’ve said, is complicated.

The younger daughter is effectively running the funeral, and I decide it’s, ultimately, her place to figure out how balancing the priest’s dogma and my father’s wishes should play out.

But I realize my hands are balled into fists and my heart rate is elevated.

XX.

My father’s youngest sister is 12 years younger than he and only ten years older than I am. She is my aunt, but more my sister and friend than aunt. Her children—my cousins—are now in their early thirties and late twenties—in other words, at an age where we are all effectively peers.

Her daughter is the mother of the two children who return meaning to the funeral mass for me, and her son has an actor’s beautiful voice.

As the priest leaves the gravesite, not in a huff, exactly, but… ungraciously, I would say—my cousin liberates the microphone from his assistant.

(His assistant, by the way, is a 60+ year old altar boy. Deacon, perhaps. He’s wearing jeans and this pisses me off—“Show some respect for my grandfather, you peon!” My reaction amuses me.)

My cousin reads my father’s eulogy in his beautiful actor’s voice and I relax.

He also pulls out a portable speaker that he had hidden somewhere in his winter coat and plays the song with which my father wanted to end the funeral mass, with which he wanted to say goodbye to his father.

XXI.

In the sheesha bar, the Polish waitress speaks with the two owners in Turkish. Then switches to English to serve another customer.

Citizens of the world, all of us.

She’s a lovely person, I’m sure. But she seems put out every time I ask her for something. She does it… but just with a tinge of resentment.

I don’t say, “It’s your fucking job. Boil the water for my tea, goddammit.”

But I think it.

I think about the priest, too. What is his fucking job, exactly?

Did he do the right thing by his job, by his God, in refusing to accede to my father’s request?

I doubt it.

But he did the typically Polish customer service thing—leaving the customer served… but unsatisfied.

XXII.

From the cemetery, we trail, in couples and clumps, to a nearby “locale” that celebrants of funerals, weddings, baptisms and possibly other events, hire for post-mass dinners and revelries.

“You have to eat a warm dinner after a funeral,” my aunt-sister-friend tells me earlier when she’s explaining the day’s agenda to me.

(Poles are very serious about their warm dinners—our lunches.)

The dinner is for about 30 people, family and close friends.

I’m introduced to an assortment of family I know not at all or not very well, including my father’s outrageously beautiful goddaughter, who is also his niece—and the mother of three fully adult children.

Her mother is my grandfather’s youngest sister, and the last remaining of his siblings. She was the first in the chapel to stand vigil with his body. She shed tears there; she sheds tears still.

Introduces herself to me twice. The first time, she doesn’t know who I am—the second time, she does.

We eat.

Conversation, memories, stories.

The children play hide and seek, ask for seconds and thirds of dessert—are responsible for most of the laughter in the room.

XXIII.

The near-five decade Communist occupation of Poland leaves all sorts of lingering legacies, and I suppose Poland’s current fascist religious turn is one of them.

Shitty customer service is another.

The locale’s serving wenches are efficient and… see, impolite is the wrong word. Impolite, rude—implies malice, intent. There is no malice in the way they grab plates before people finish eating or remove still-full dishes. They just want to get their job done as quickly and with as little inconvenience to themselves as possible… and they don’t give a fuck about the customer.

The natives are inured. The Canadian at the table is a little appalled.

XXIV.

After the funeral, back at my aunt-sister-friend’s house, we talk about all sorts of things. The funeral, yes. My grandfather.

Family.

Love.

The proper way to make and serve schabowe.

We take turns talking to my dad when he calls. I can still hear the tears in his voice.

I send him the photographs I surreptitiously took at the funeral, with some caustic/loving commentary.

I don’t know if I understand my grandfather—or his relationship with my father—any more than I did before.

But maybe, I understand myself more. Just a little.

I tell my dad, “I’m glad I came.”

“I’m happy you like Poland,” he says.

Um. That’s not what I said.

XXV.

Dear Fatherland,

I think I don’t love you and I probably never will.

It’s not your fault.

I mean, this current fascist incarnation is certainly not helping.

But it wouldn’t be much different under a more progressive, enlightened regime. I would be less ashamed. But I still wouldn’t love you. I don’t really love my adopted Motherland either, although it fits me better. I feel less alien there than I do here.

“We are now citizens of the world, right?” the Internet stranger keeping me company in the middle of the night after my grandfather’s funeral texts again. “We are not just the future. We are the present.”

In the heart of the place where I was born, I find solace in a Turkish owned sheesha lounge, a Tower of Babel cacophony of languages around me.

You are where I was born and where my parents were born. Where my grandparents—all of them now—are buried.

But I am not yours and you are not mine.

I wonder if my children’s relationship with their motherland will be different. Tighter.

I guess… I hope not. People like me—we don’t start wars.

But that’s their future to navigate and write.

I’m writing my present now.

Goodbye, Grandfather.

I’m really glad I came,

xoxo

Marzena

PS This is the song with which my dad said goodbye to his father:

Life lessons from large families

I (accidentally) zipped through Meagan Francis’ Table for Eight last week, a book about living as a large family in a small family world (irrelevant aside: ended up on my Kobo because I thought it was a “big cook” cookbook–you know, recipes up-sized for large groups?). We’re not really a large family–three kids, two adults, one small, but troublesome dog–but most of the time, I have an extra kid or two or three in tow or in the house–and many of the families we spend most of our time with are three or four or more kid families, so there were many parts of the book that resonated with me on some level. And some parts that I experienced purely as a voyeur, sometimes rather glad it wasn’t me having to figure out how to sort eight kids between three bedrooms… and sometimes regretful that Ender won’t have a sibling close in age to bunk with.

My favourite line from the book:

“Surrender to motherhood … but don’t give yourself up entirely.”

I found that quote, and Francis’ entire “Time for Mom” chapter quite in synch with my thinking around family time, self-actualization and family harmony.

Another tidbit that really resonated with me (and then had me pondering, “But what does this say about me, really?”) was this:

Part of the way I keep my life simple is by gravitating toward emotionally healthy, stable people who don’t pick fights with me or each other. … The way I look at it is this: I spend a lot of time with emotionally immature people: my children. They’re still growing and learning about social interaction, and it’s my job to help them. I just don’t have the time to deal with emotionally immature grown-ups, too!

Yup.

(Although, I have to confess, I sometimes see this as a character failing in myself. Am I just too selfish and intimacy-averse to enter into your latest drama? To offer you the support you crave? I don’t know. Perhaps. But as a result, I’m pretty balanced, stable and undrained myself, so if that’s what selfishness looks like, so be it.)

The best lesson from the book, which took me almost 10 years and three kids to figure out:

I was at a family party where the food was laid out buffet-style… I filled a plate for myself, sat down, and ate, and then called them to the tabe.

“What kind of a mother feeds herself before her children?” my grandmother asked.

“A full one,” I retorted.

I’m not extrapolating this one to anything other than food: read nothing else into it, but take the food lesson as it is. It took me almost 10 years of cold coffee, half-chewed food, food thrown into my mouth as it was leaving the table, after-thought meals that weren’t really meals, to learn to eat well, regularly–and often before feeding the children. Now I eat first whenever I can (with babies, nurslings and toddlers, it’s not always possible, but one must seize the moment). I eat well. And everyone’s happier. (Including the thinner and more energetic me.)

English: Come on Kids! I know where to get som...

Interest piqued about Table for Eight, but not sure if it’s for you? Here’s a review of the book from the website Lots Of Kids, and here’s Francis’ blog, The Happiest Mom.