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  • At our family cottage (condo) in Grand Bend, Cody and I, as little kids, often trailed the heels of a girl several years older than us. Her name was Erin, and she always wore her baseball cap backwards, she had freckles all over her nose JUST like Anne of Green Gables, she could draw Sailor Moon, and she was a star at skee ball, so she was pretty much my idol when I was eight.

    Erin came to Grand Bend a few weekends throughout the summer to visit her grandmother – who was a very old Polish lady with big glasses and a thick, flowing accent that cascaded like a transcendental orchestra. Erin was always kind enough to let Cody and I follow her around, so we often followed her up to her grandmother’s condo on the 4th floor where we were served Polish cookies and ice-cold milk at the kitchen table. This is where we also drew endless Sailor Moons and unicorns.

    Erin eventually left for University, and that’s when she stopped visiting her grandmother in summer.

    After a few years, Cody and I stopped missing Erin so sorely, and then we virtually entirely forgot about her altogether, as we grew up to Erin’s age when she left, and then, we eventually left, too.

    I had also forgotten all about Erin’s Polish grandmother until this summer. I was waiting for Brian to pick me up outside the condo gate one early afternoon, and she was taking a walk around the parking lot with her walker. I immediately recognized her and knew her to be Erin’s grandmother, but I couldn’t remember her name. I couldn’t even remember if I ever actually knew her name, but I fell into her hug. She was delighted to see me, especially because apparently, I used to be really ugly when I was little, and I was so thin, she used to be afraid the wind was going to blow me away.

    Honestly, she spoke the truth, and her accent brought back every memory of Polish cookies, ice cold milk, and Sailor Moon I had, and I couldn’t have been happier to see her than if she’d actually paid me a complement.

    Then she told me her son died a year earlier, and she was clearly still in shock, so she said it as if she was discussing the weather, and unsure as to how to respond, I matched her tone with a sad, solemn nod as if she had merely announced a stiff storm was about to pass through.

    The next time I saw her was a couple days ago, walking in the door with Brian. We saw her with her walker in the lobby, and that’s when she asked me to visit her sometime. I silently nodded as I kicked myself for not taking more initiative to see her this summer and fall. I thought she might like to have my books, and maybe we could chat about Erin and how I almost blew away when I was little, so I decided I would go and see her today, before I drove back to the farm.

    So that’s what I did.

    She was very old when I was little, and she’s even older than very old now. But her voice and her Polish accent remain unchanged. It was music to my ears.

    It’s hard and half-crazy to explain, but it’s something instinctual that I knew she was Polish before I knew I was half-Polish and that meeting wholly Polish people like her who are incredibly similar in experience to my grandfather is rare. But, it’s an innate recognition. And it was today, just hearing her voice again, that I remembered she was indeed Polish, without actually remembering that this was the connection that first led my father, who speaks to no one, to talk to her years ago and to tell her so much about my grandfather’s life.

    She graciously let me into her condo, and it looked just as I barely, vaguely remembered.

    We chattered about Erin for a moment, and she wanted to know everything I had to say about Brian. She said she knew he was a “good boy” just from the brief moment she had met him in the condo earlier this winter, and she was happy to know there was a “good boy” living just downstairs if she needed anything. I assured her that he was, indeed, wonderfully good and would help her in a heartbeat if she needed anything. Because that’s naturally how Brian is and what he does when people need help. He helps them.

    I sat down on one of her perfectly stiff, white couches while wondering how she keeps them so white, and then she announced she was going to make me a cup of tea. Given her age, she made it awfully swiftly, and the aroma of sweet white jasmine melted on my tongue before she had it poured.

    “Could you carry my cup to the table, too?” she asked me. “My hands – they shake, you see.”

    I definitely did see.

    I noticed crumbs on the table where she must sit to eat her toast every morning and a half of a pink pill sitting next to a larger medicine bottle. I wondered if I should ask if she needed to take it.

    “Would you like a saucer?” she asked me, as she opened a cupboard and peered out at me from behind it. I had forgotten that her kitchen backsplash has mirrors, and as a kid, I used to wonder if she’d put them up just so she could tell if me, Erin, and Cody were behaving while drawing Sailor Moons and unicorns when her back was turned to us.

    “Oh, no thank you,” I said smiling. “Just the tea is wonderful.”

    And it truly was. But she brought out a saucer for herself, and I immediately felt silly because OF COURSE you’re supposed to drink tea with a saucer. I mean, that’s how it is in Anne of Green Gables, and it really is the saucer that makes drinking tea so elegant.

    I bit my lower lip in frustration. One day, MAYBE when I’m like THIRTY or something, I’ll be grown up enough to remember to be civilized and drink tea with a saucer. I can only hope.

    Blast.

    My mind began to drift along with the steam that rose from my tea, until Erin’s grandmother took a strained sip from her cup and then asked me what I did over the fall.

    Naturally, I recounted my trip to Poland.

    Of course, I insisted that Polish people in Poland are the nicest, most welcoming people in the world, and I wanted to show her pictures from my trip off my phone, but I didn’t know if she’d be able to see them – her eyesight isn’t very good – but I could also tell she wouldn’t have wanted to see them. Talk of Poland was clearly bittersweet and rather unwelcome, and I didn’t understand why at first. I was a little hurt she didn’t share my enthusiasm, but she quickly explained why. Poland had been her home and her beloved family’s home for the first and happiest 18 years of her life. Then, the war happened and she was taken to Germany to a camp and from then, on, she was alone.

    “I didn’t have the luxury of ta-king to my family about hard things eee-n my life,” she said, solemnly, as her accent grew thicker. “You, you see, you have family. You talk to them, but my family was all gone. I was alone. I was so alone. Maybe that was worst part. Being left. I was the only one left.”

    I wonder if she knew my grandfather?! Maybe she knew my grandfather! Maybe they were in the same camp. Maybe they were neighbors. Maybe…

    My mind drifted again as I considered all the possibilities of their fates intertwining. Their stories were so similar.

    I wanted to bring up my experience with a concentration camp and see if she might have information to add. For a split second, I contemplated the degree of my chest puff and carefully calculated the tone of enthusiasm in announcing how I had visited Auschwitz in November and “what an experience! So tragic but SO incredible…”

    Because that’s how I usually describe it to most people.

    But I choked on that breath intended for the chest puff and the dramatic delivery of my introductory line, like a showman in a circus, who measures out each level of suspense and carefully presents it for maximum effect.

    Before I could orchestrate that performance, I saw the memories on her face. I saw sadness. I saw horror. I saw what I cannot imagine and could never describe. She was still focused on the loneliness. She was 18 again, reliving the horrors of being torn from her only home, taken to a strange country, and put to work in a cold, disease-infested labor camp.

    I saw that visiting Auschwitz as a tourist is neither an accomplishment nor a pleasantly relatable experience to a 93-year-old who was taken from her home and her family at 18 and shipped to Germany to a labor camp to slave on a farm for 5 years.

    “I wasn’t a prisoner,” she said, trying to reassure me that her experience was not as horrific as it could have been. “Because I was just Polish.”

    Which is why she was “only” taken to a labor camp. Which she assured me was a world and a half better than a concentration camp, which is also not to be confused with a death camp.

    “I was taken to a labor camp where I was a slave. I worked for not-ing.”

    Is that better? I wondered, half rhetorically and half horrified, specifically with humanity. But also because she recounted it with such resolution. The same resolution I have when I casually mention I used to be a working student (which is akin to “slave” in the horse world) in exchange for riding lessons.

    But A SLAVE? She was a REAL slave?

    The harsh vulnerability of her weathered face told me that she was.

    I had so many questions, but they all disappeared into a wave of sadness when SLAVE really sunk it.

    I knew I couldn’t ask her. Every ounce of determination and persuasion I had promised myself I would have had with my grandfather disappeared.

    “Was there enough food?” I asked, wide-eyed.

    The question just slipped out, and I instantly regretted it.

    Every movie and book I’ve ever seen and read about World War II and the Holocaust (and I’ve seen and read HUNDREDS of accounts) recalls stale bread and watery beet soup. Sometimes, I think I can TASTE it. Just the smell of beets overwhelms me with strange remnants of de ja vu, which makes my curiosity burn hotter, because, I mean, WHAT WAS THAT LIKE??? Eating so little? Always being cold and hungry and tired and working so hard? I saw Auschwitz. HOW DID ANYONE SURVIVE???

    “I can’t say anymore because it’s too difficult. The memories,” she said, with a swipe of her hand through the air, “too much.”

    “It’s completely okay,” I said, afraid I had deeply affected her with my thoughtless, impulsive question. “I totally understand,” even though I didn’t.

    I mean, how could I? How could anyone?

    Truthfully, every bone in my body ACHED with curiosity. It’s always been that way. I’ve asked my grandmother and my father at least a thousand times to tell me everything my grandfather ever mentioned about his Holocaust experience, and every once in awhile, a tiny, never-before-mentioned detail will seep out of them, but usually, the facts and the answers are all the same. “He didn’t talk about it. It was too hard on him.”

    Sometimes, I hate my grandfather for that. Didn’t he think someone like me might want to know? He SURVIVED the unthinkable, so why didn’t he find his story worth telling? He EARNED that story. He should’ve told it.

    Other times, I just wish I’d gotten the chance to meet him. To study him. I KNOW he would have talked to me. I would have asked him, begged him, insisted, sat with him until he told me. And I would have written it all down. Every word.

    I think about it all the time. More than I should, really, given the fact that he died before I was born, so truly, neither of us ever stood a chance.

    The only thing I understood about what happened with Erin’s grandmother today was the pain I saw in her face. The loneliness. The strength. Her humanity and the inhumanity of what was done to her.

    And then she burst into tears over her son, who died two years ago.

    “He was such a nice boy.”

    Today, I learned that grief is ageless. It doesn’t matter if you’re 30 or 40 or 93. Mothers are not meant to witness the loss of their children. Women feel sadness differently than men, a mother’s worst nightmares CAN and DOES sometimes come true, and whatever this woman went through during the Holocaust does not compare to what she went through two years ago.

    I think maybe she sobbed for only a few moments, but they were so full and deep, and I felt each one, as if it weighed more than the whole world. I was gripped with sadness and incomprehension. I wanted to hug her, but I’d never seen anyone look so fragile in my life. I was afraid I’d break her if I even dared to breath too deeply.

    So I held my breath, and I whispered superficial words of comfort, but I know she didn’t hear me.

    All of a sudden, as I helplessly sat at the table swirling my tea amidst her sobs, she swallowed her grief, and I sat there, in disbelief, as it disappeared almost completely, though only masked by a strength and resolution that wholly conflicted with her frail frame.

    “And tell me, how’s your mother?” she asked, in the most convincing and heartbreaking attempt at changing the subject and not dwelling on the grief over her son, which was so incredibly worth dwelling on.

    I gulped down my bleeding heart.

    I tried to smile. I tried to pretend this was a perfectly smooth transition, which felt like the absolute wrong way to handle it, but I could only proceed polite and ill-equipped, especially holding my tea cup with no saucer.

    But I also couldn’t bear to see her cry again, so I put on my best sing-songy voice and tried to make her laugh as I assured her my mother was as right as rain.

    Meanwhile, I asked God why an extraordinary and extraordinarily weathered old woman should ever be exposed to the loss of a son or shed a single tear over anything, for that matter, after all she’s already been through.

    Though I wasn’t sure if I truly wanted to understand.

    Erin’s grandmother blinked at me expectantly. I felt ashamed because I think she could read my prayers, so I quickly changed the subject.

    “Where did you and your husband meet?”

    It was another potentially dangerous question, but another I was dying to ask and never intended to until I couldn’t think of another.

    “At a camp. But he went crazy in dee end. Most men did. There was drinking. Bad dreams. There’s a name for it now, but I don’t know it. Dark, dark times. A man can’t live on normally when he gets older after all he went through when he was younger. It catches up with you, you see.”

    I said I did see. Because that’s what happened to my grandfather. That’s why he died, and that’s why I never met him.

    “It’s not good, Jeneeefer, especially because people started to question God. Where was God during the war? That’s what de all want to know.”

    If I was a preacher, and a Holocaust survivor asked me that question, “Where was God?” I don’t know what I would ever say.

    “It’s not God that did this. It’s man,” she said. “Men do dose tings to each other all the time. Even now. They learn not-ing.”

    Erin’s grandmother showed me a side of humanity I’ve never seen before. A lack of humanity from others is what has built up all this grief. It’s what tore her life apart. There I was, questioning God for her, and in her own way, she explained that it was men who should be questioned. Not God. Men had their reasons for the war, and some of them made sense and some of them didn’t, and when there isn’t humanity worked into the logic, horrific things happen. Yet, somehow, she has more humanity than anyone I’ve ever met, as she has never once questioned God, and as painful as it is for her to talk about what happened to her, I know she’s also trying to protect me. She doesn’t want me to know what happened to her. I guess my grandfather didn’t either. Which doesn’t lessen my curiosity in the slightest, but I think it’s a decision I might eventually come around to respect. And be at peace with. Maybe.

    What I could never understand until today is that so many of these people WANT their stories to die with them, and while I know history is important, when I really think hard about it, I don’t think I’d want my children or grandchildren to know how terrible a lack of humanity can really be, either.

    Living it once is already too much. And so, those that have survived choose to spare themselves and us from re-living it again. If only through stories, or lack thereof.

    When we finished our tea, I surveyed her condo again and took note of the walking canes, the old paintings, the silk flowers, the array of walkers, and the stale pillows where she sleeps on the couch, all which decorate her immaculate condo. Everything has its place. Photographs of grandchildren and great-grandchildren are displayed on end tables and shelves and calendars, most of which display the wrong months.

    She’s so proud of her family. She has a big family now. She beamed as she talked about them.

    “They are only here because of YOU,” I said. “Because you survived. You know that right?!!”

    From my perspective, she’s a matriarch. She’s a 93-year-old wonder woman. She’s brave and strong and determined. She’s might be frail, but she’s as tough as nails. She took care of her husband. She raised her kids. She worked her whole life. She LIVED. She SURVIVED.

    But she doesn’t see it like that. She DOES love her family. But she has no one now. She’s the most vulnerable she’s ever been, and she’s there in that condo all alone.

    Superwoman doesn’t always get a happy ending, I guess.

    “It’s hard to enjoy life when your eyesight and your hearing goes, like mine has,” she told me.

    I could feel the loneliness of that.

    Slowly losing your senses. Alone. It must be terrifying. Lesser known forms of inhumanity are all around us. Why do we leave the elderly to fend for themselves? To live out what should be the best days of their life ill-equipped, vulnerable, and alone? Who let this happen to her? It breaks my heart.

    But she still has her faith.

    “My grandkids and my great-grandkids. They come soon. Maybe tomorrow. I wait for them.”

    Meanwhile, she spends her days rotating among the windows, watching people, and eating toast.

    I could tell she was getting tired, so I gently suggested I head back downstairs so she could rest. I promised I’d see her the moment I was back in town. She walked me to the elevator, and I worried if she’d get back to her condo alright. I gave her Brian’s numbers and insisted that she call him if she needed anything.

    “Tell him that my name is Regina. So he knows me if I call.”

    Regina. This whole time, I never knew what her name was.

    I sulked back to the condo and tried to distract myself with emails, but I couldn’t focus.

    I wanted to cry all the tears I had sheepishly held onto in front of Regina, but I decided those weren’t my tears to cry. She wouldn’t have wanted me to cry.

    Waiting for sunset, when I’d be ready to face the world again. Or at least, just drive.

    I hoped Regina could still see the pinks and the oranges of the sunset from her windows. The clouds were unreal - purple and flimsy and fluffy - as if dangling by puppet wires over the mounds of snow and sand that have settled over the frozen lake.

    Sunset, and the twilight after, is my favorite time of day, when the freedom and quiet of darkness is finally dawning – and the leftover light hangs in the sky, casting a glow over everything. It’s when the angels come out and you can see them and they make you feel better about everything.

    The newly fabricated windmills scattered across the farmlands turned methodically and helped to return my sense of time while I drove. I looked behind my seat and saw Gabriel silently staring out the window. I always wonder what dogs think about when they fall so silent.

    I passed a flooded field off the highway a few kilometers past Port Franks, just before the Army Camp. The dwindling twilight lured me off the road. I was mesmerized by the glistening water, which practically sank my foot into the brake.

    The first swans were there, effortlessly floating, as they sang and cooed to their new chicks – a beautiful poem that floated across this fleeting, slowly receding, melancholy lake and filled the air with beauty and peace and early whispers of spring. A sign that the earth is not dying, and just maybe, humanity isn’t either. That despite a long, merciless winter, new life is emerging above and below these icy, enchanted waters. A double interface between Heaven and earth.

    And so, the swans come here, as they always have. A floating nesting ground – one of many, as they migrate.

    The air was still, I forgot it was cold, and I stood there in awe, helplessly conflicted about taking a picture and taking the scene in second-hand, behind the lens of my pathetic camera phone, or living it fully, but risking this one moment passing as quickly as it had come, without any warning or something to remember it by.

    In another moment, it was darker. And in another still, a car pulled over to get a picture, too.

    The moment lasted only a moment, but it was beautiful and one that resonates for lifetimes, before, now, and later on.

    Amen.
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