If Time is a Revelator, What is Distance?

Mom on her boat to the USA

How the journey began.


The words came out fast.  Too fast. 

Mom, Ciocia Genia had a stroke.

This would be mom’s other living sister. The one in Lithuania. The one she hasn’t seen since 1997. The one she hadn’t seen since 1984 before that. The one who calls at Christmas and cries with them. The one that looks most like Babcia, my grandmother. The one I recently saw black and white photos of when she was young and said, ‘WOW! What a looker.’

Ingrid Bergman came to mind.

I always thought I will see her again. Mom choked.

Mom! She’s not dead yet. Don’t worry you’ll see her.

(That’s some Massachusetts comfort right there. Straight-up.)

I know there are immigrants who come to this country and visit their homeland every year.  I know some who have never been back. As an American, it seems easy to ask, Why don’t you just visit? I can tell you that it is a very complicated answer that starts with, “I wish…”

*

I wish I had softened my words some. Mom’s silence let me know that the news was a shock. I thought about how readily I told her. Perhaps, unknowingly, I had punctured the place that exists between her old life and her life now.  In the old days, she would have eventually received an airmail letter. News would have been old. The recovery would have already happened. She could feel sick for a moment and when the worry made her stare out the kitchen window and watch the birds pecking at seeds, she would remind herself that this was all past tense. Everything’s okay.  “Thanks God.”

Now she anxiously waits for more news.  We’re in the moment. We know Ciocia Genia’s in rehab. She’s praying for her sister. I don’t even need to be told.

Is distance both the pain and comfort for an immigrant? Is longing a cradle?

This is how it was for decades. But the phone and the internet have changed that. There was a time my relatives in Poland and Lithuania didn’t have phones. Calls to the USA were from Telecom booths.  Precious and expensive minutes were spent listening to each other’s voices echo; a gift to the ear.

Now cousins have cell phones and Skype.  We’re directly plugged-in, well, at least I am. Mom still approaches these mediums as if she is being led onto an alien space ship with reluctance and awe. Last Christmas, we Skyped with her late brother’s daughter. She seemed nervous. Excited.

Click twice. Your niece will appear on the screen in moments. Talk as long as you want. It’s free. Really.

Click twice. To lift an immigrant veil 48 years in the making.

Click twice. To listen to your heart pound and wonder what to say to the face looking straight at you.

How does this immediacy feel to a woman who journeyed from Poland at age 26 on a 12-passenger freight ship, sailing toward a country whose language she did not know? Whose main connection back home over the years was a hand-written letter?

She doesn’t think about these things, but I do. I’m constantly striving to bridge the gap between these two worlds. I don’t know where this comes from. I only know I have a compulsion to do it. Look how easy it is now, I want to say. Look how easy it is to go back.

*

I think about delicate air mail paper, thin enough for tracing, and how it held longing, sadness and joy. Letters could be picked up, read again, talked about at length over percolated coffee. It allowed news to settle for a life in two places.

I think about the thoughtful way Mom approaches a phone call. The way she looks for her metal address book, puts on her glasses and sits on the couch with the cordless phone, punching in numbers like she’s launching the Space Shuttle.

I’m all speed-dial. Mom uses a calling card.

Twice last year, she misdialed when calling Poland and wound up with a $90 phone bill she wanted to dispute.  It took two conversations with me and my brother Adam to convince her that the calling card wasn’t faulty and Verizon wasn’t to blame. It’s likely she didn’t press all of the numbers correctly or as we suspected put them in at all.  These things, they get confusing.

Still, I know Mom appreciates the technology when we bring it to her: Email, Skype, Facebook. She’s happy. Eager. I know she’s hungry for the wiadomości, news. Thankful when cousins and nieces write to me via “computer”.  I read the emails to her in Polish. I’m slow, but understandable. When I stumble on a word or two, she corrects me. She listens.  It’s a good thing I can read in Polish, I tell her–looking for a scratch behind the ear.

This is how we do it now. This is what I’ve grown into.

I am the intermediary. The buffer. The hooker-upper. The one facilitating the modern connections. I wonder if that makes the immediacy of connecting with the past possible or bearable, like looking at an eclipse indirectly.