Eleven years ago I departed from my grandmother’s presence in tears, convinced I’d never see her again. Each time we spoke on the phone or over Skype since then, she’d tell me how she was sick, how she was tired, how maybe she wouldn’t last much longer.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived last week in Bialystok, and she looked exactly the same as last time I saw her. We celebrated her 88th birthday with her sister and grandchildren and great-grandchildren this week. She’s still sharp, still aware, and still able to get around, do things for herself, garden, knit, and cook.
“That’s her job,” said Aunt Dana. “To be sick. To be constantly sick and keep on living.”
My father’s mother is my last remaining grandparent and when we come over to spend time with her she tells us – that is, me, since Aaron speaks only enough Polish to keep him overfed – a story about the old days. About the Communists, her husband, the war.
Grandma Eugenia was born in 1928. She was 11 when Germany invaded Poland. She said her sister was a little girl when that happened, and didn’t know what was going on. Airplanes soared overhead and she grabbed her sister’s hand and ran to an army shelter. “They were shooting at children,” she said, shaking her head. “They didn’t care.”
That year marked the beginning of a near lifetime of poverty, beginning with the German occupation. There were many Jews in Bialystok. Grandma said the Germans first rounded them into the ghetto. “Then they burned it down.”
Under the Communist regime, Polish people were issued little ration tickets and the store shelves were nearly always empty. That’s why Grandma says I’m too skinny.
My aunt said, “For Grandma, anyone who is skinny is starving. For her, fat means healthy.” For Grandma, being fat means you have enough to eat.
My grandmother loves Ronald Reagan. Thanks to his policies, my father received a visa to go to the United States. In that sense, I owe my entire life to Ronald Reagan.
She went to the United States in 1984. It must have been a revelation. She returned to Poland for two years, and then came back. She returned to Poland permanently when I was eight years old. At that time, my grandfather informed her that he had a girlfriend, and he was going to divorce Grandma and live with that girlfriend.
My grandfather was charming, but he was also a party animal.Those types of people run in my family. I used to be like that. It took a lot of conscious awareness to realize how destructive that combination could be, and change it.
Grandpa loved taking his girlfriend to dance clubs. Grandma told him, “If that’s the case, if you want to divorce me and live with her, let’s sit down with that woman and discuss it.”
So they went to a bar and Grandma said to this woman who was sleeping with her husband, “I hear that you want my husband to leave me and live with you.”
The mistress said, “Are you crazy? Your husband smokes, drinks, and has a terrible temper. He’s no catch. Maybe if he was a widower I’d consider it. But as long as you’re alive, he’s all yours.”
Apparently this was news to Grandpa. “What!?” he said. “But I thought we were deep in love!”
Later after Grandpa died, Grandma wrote him a poem in rhyming couplets. I don’t remember what she wrote verbatim, but it was something along the lines of, “Leon, you weren’t the easiest person to live with. But may God receive your soul in grace.”
Grandma’s mother died in 1999, and incidentally, was 99 years old. The next year, her husband died. Her son was living all the way in Philadelphia. Her daughter and granddaughter went to Belgium shortly after Poland’s entrance to the EU. Her grandson went to the United States. It must have been a difficult period for her.
Now she’s surrounded by adorable great-grandchildren. Poland’s entrance to the European Union meant the beginning of a new era of prosperity for her, her city, her country, her children and grandchildren.
On her 88th birthday, her granddaughter’s husband said a toast. “Today is your 88th birthday, Grandma,” he said. “Your first great-grandson, Thomas, is four years old. When he turns 18, you’ll be 102. May we all be together then.” He raised his glass.
“Until Tom’s 18th birthday,” we said.
As we clinked glasses, my grandmother said, “I’ll look down from heaven.”
Who knows – maybe she can make it to 102.
Maybe when I leave her this Sunday, it won’t be the last time I’ll be seeing her. Maybe she has many more years ahead.