Being a little more than a quarter Hispanic, given the multi-ethnic look of so many models, it’s be easy to assume that it’s the Mexican blood that has the potential to make me exotic.
But, if exotic means strikingly unusual, then the most unusual bit of me isn’t Mexican, it’s Polish. My short grandmother is 100% Mexican, but my tall grandmother is 100% Polish.
I know precious little about the Polish people, which is why I picked up Brigid Pasulka, an award winning short story writer’s novel A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award 2010. I found it featured in Bas Bleu. Pasulka, a descendant of Polish immigrants emigrated home to discover her mother country in Krakow.
Her debut novel is part fairy-tale, part dead-on truth and it made me cry, for Pasulka’s book showed me the heritage of my white side. She made me proud to be Polish. Half whimsical, half heart-wrenching A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True tells the story of Anielica and her strong Pigeon (her fiance’s nickname), a man with the fabled Polish “golden hands” who can turn anything into value and use during Poland’s weary march through Hitler and Stalin’s atrocities.
Between their story runs chapters of their grand daughter, Beata, a woman who feels her plainness is contagious, who is struggling in 1990’s Poland to find her own golden hands, if they exist anymore. It’s a novel about finding your place, finding home, of country and city, of finding motherland among enemies literal and figurative pillaging, raping, learning friendship, courage through Beata and Anielica’s lives, of realizing loneliness swells larger than any one person can fill. Of when to wait and when to speak, or secret resistance and cowardly capitulation. The ending weaves Beata and Anielica’s stories heart-breakingly, restoratively together and made me cry a good bit for the suffering and courage of these, my people.
Some of my favorite lines:
“Throughout history, from medieval workshops to loft rehabs in the E.U., we Poles have always been known by our zlote raczki, our golden hands. The ability to fix wagons and computers, to construct Enigma machines and homemade wedding cakes, to erect village churches and American skyscrapers all without ever opening a book of applying for permits or drafting a blueprint. And since courting a beautiful girl by using a full range of body parts has only recently become acceptable, in the spring of 1939 the Pigeon made the solemn decision to court Anielica through his hands. Specifically, he vowed to turn her parents’ modest hut into the envy of the twenty-seven other inhabitants of Half-Village, into a dwelling that would elicit hosannas-in-the-highest every time they passed” (3).
“It is said that all Poles have them (golden hands), and that this is how you know your place in life, by the ease of your hands, that whether you are born to make cakes or butcher animals, cuddle children or pain pictures, drive nails or play jazz, your hands know it before you do. Long before birth, the movements are choreographed into the tendons as they’re formed.” (7-8).
“A woman’s heart is not bought by the currency of a man’s emotion for her. A woman’s heart is won over by her own feelings for herself when he just happens to be around, and as the hut slowly transformed itself into a three-room mansion around her, Anielica could not help but feel even more beautiful, even more worthy” (18).
As Dale and I dream up our three-bedroomed new home on White Woods, I understand Anielica’s feelings.
Beauty around us gives us a feeling of worthiness. I think the God of Israel understood this when he commanded the Israelites to build him an exotic tabernacle in the wild.
“Winter in the city is much worse than in the mountains. In the mountains, we just put on another sweater, feed some more branches into the stove, and add a splash of warm vodka to the tea. In the city, the cold is debilitating . . . Metal seats and railings freeze hands and backsides with one touch, and gusts of wind, sharpened on the corners of the buildings, herd crowds of hunchbacks down the street at knifepoint” (219).
Anielica’s blood-and-milk complexion, which I’ve since learned is Russian folklore for blue-eyed and pink-cheeked, complete with her Cupid’s bow lips reminds me of someone I know. While I don’t have that complexion or those lips, my son does.
The golden-hands bit reminds me of my grandmother’s, nee Mary Roberta Zych, her penchant for beauty, to construct use out of anything she finds. She ironed and sewed to make extra money in her 30’s while she was still learning to drive. Her hands know what to do to tame a kitten, calm a baby, whip up a knitted vest. The resilience of the Polish people told in the magical and painful journey of Anielica and Pigeon and their grandaughter years later is also part of Mary Roberta’s heritage for me.
Read it for a better understanding of the golden-handed Poles.
By the way, today if Finn’s first birthday. At this time one year ago I was in active labor on the phone with my doula and doctor trying to figure out when to leave for the hospital.
Happy birthday, my little Welsh, Hispanic, Polish son!
Photo credit: www.worthycanvas.com