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.

 

 

 

 

13 comments on “If Time is a Revelator, What is Distance?

  1. Young B. Kim says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about your aunt :-(

    I hope your family is doing well and has the support they need, whether it be in person or digitally.

    Your post reminded me of the interactions I’ve recently had with my mom in the last few years. She finally figured out email and even texts me now. IN ALL CAPS and sometimes only in small caps but without punctuations

    I dare not correct her. She had a brief stint on “the Facebook” but she didn’t understand it. If I try to explain Internet etiquette to her something is bound to get lost on translation.

    Even the concept of calling her on her mobile seems foreign to both of us.

    What matters is that we are talking and sharing.

    Sending good thoughts to your family. Technology or not, they are loved, and they are not alone.

  2. Jannett Matusiak says:

    Thanks so much Young for your kind words. We’re hoping she makes a full recovery. I can so relate to the stories about your Mom. I love that she writes to you in ALL CAPS. Is she shouting? lol. Your mom calls it “the Facebook” my mom calls it “Spacebook”. haha. I am amazed they try. How strange it all must feel.

  3. Jannett,

    Yet another beautiful post. I especially love the details that are so telling, like “percolated coffee.” Sets the reader smack dab in the kitchen with y’all….

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      Thanks for the kind feedback Colleen. I wish you could join us for percolated coffee Sundays. I think the crew would make you laugh.

  4. Adam Matusiak says:

    When mom hears the word digital she always says digital smidgetal. She’ll be the first to tell you that her analog thermostat and rotary phone worked better than the digital ones today. I get a chuckle out of her digital resistance. LOL…

    Speedy recovery Coicia Genia!

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      As a person who just got a smartphone, I think I can relate to Ma. I really do want to go back to the rotary phone!

  5. Tiffany says:

    Jannett, this is beautiful.

  6. I so get where you’re coming from, Jannett, about the desire to connect the world of your family’s past and otherness with your own present and American-ness. I too find it funny that I have this desire, when I’m the one with the least apparent investment in times and places unfamiliar to me. You say it all so beautifully. I especially love this: “Is longing a cradle?” My best to your aunt for a speedy recovery.

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      Thank you so much Cara. It feels great to connect with other people who feel the same way. Such a strange and mysterious urge to connect the past. It feels like a calling, doesn’t it? More urge than conscious choice.

  7. Thanks for the post, Jannett. It brought back so many memories of those early days in America when my parents tried to stay in touch with our family in Poland. They were scattered by the war, and for a long time we didn’t know if any of them survived. Then in the mid fifties, we started getting letters from them. My mom would read them and cry. Sometimes she would be weeping so hard that she would have to hide herself in the bedroom so we children wouldn’t see her tears. I don’t have any of those letters now. My mom destroyed them before her death. I’m not sure why. I tried to imagine what they were like, and I wrote a letter that I hoped would capture that, my sense of what one of those poems from Poland was like. Here it is:

    A Letter to My Mother from Poland

    Dearest Tekla, my only sister,

    The war has been over for so long but still we suffer the leavings of war. We have tables but no food, pain but no medicine, strong metal beds but no straw to sleep on.

    Each day I wait for night to free me from the longing but it only brings me dreams of our dead mother crying about the wash, blaming me for the dresses I can’t get clean. I hold them above the tub but haven’t the strength to lower them into the water.

    Sometimes, I see her standing in the doorway looking east toward the autumn forest where snow already falls. Perhaps if you could come back to Poland and travel back to the village with me, maybe we could find the grave where they dropped her and Genja and Genja’s baby. Someone there must know where they are buried. Maybe then mother would stop coming to me.

    If you could come in the spring, perhaps you could bring me a bolt of blue cloth, blue with little white flowers. You know the kind we wore the year before the war. A new dress for summer would be so nice.

    Your loving sister,

    Sophia

  8. Jannett Matusiak says:

    John, thanks for your sharing your thoughts and letter. Very moving. Reading your blogs, I know you and your family endured so much. I share your urge to write and reconstruct the past. I think it helps to understand what our parents’ journeys were so that we can in turn understand our own. Thanks again for sharing and connecting. I appreciate knowing you’re out there.

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