It’s still dark when I enter the kitchen in the early morning to check on the radishes. I’ve never planted anything before; I’m nervous and eager to see what I’ll find nesting in the moist soil—I feel like a little girl about to unearth a treasure. The leaves are bright green and look almost happy, as if they too had been waiting for today. Not a sound can be heard. Gabby is still sleeping and I know I have to wait for her to wake up before exploring the contents of the ceramic pot that has been sitting on our windowsill for twenty-five days now. Outside, the hushed wind seems to pay its respects to my memories. In my mind, I hear Galina’s strong voice declaring the radish a most loyal vegetable, because every part of it can be eaten and it’s easy to plant and care for. Her smile was yellow and nonchalant. I’m wearing her favourite pink robe and suddenly wish I had some of the lilac perfume she used to wear, to feel her even closer.
It’s been eleven years since we were last together in this same place. I wanted to do something special to say goodbye. To part with her in a happier mood, and feel less guilty about letting go. No. Letting go is a euphemism. I was betraying her and even though everybody said I was exaggerating and she wouldn’t know she was being moved into an old-age home, it was enough that I knew it. Her getting out of the house unnoticed and wandering alone around the city for an entire day, in the cold, asking for directions to get to her childhood home—striving to arrive at an apartment that had been long gone, on the other side of the world—finally did it for me. Remembering the fear that gnawed at me during those merciless hours trying to find her still makes me shiver. The police reports, the driving around the neighbourhood screaming her name, the making of flyers in a flash to hand out to anyone who would take one made me realize how blind I had been. I couldn’t take care of her on my own any longer, especially when I was about to become a single mother. Only a few days later did it dawn on me that our last afternoon together happened to be on November 11.
Only a few days later did it dawn on me that our last afternoon together happened to be on November 11.
For weeks now have I been trying to decide how to share the story with Gabby. What will she say when she sees me dressed like this? At what point should I tell her about Galina’s notebook? A shy ray of light is starting to crawl through the window. It will be a partly cloudy day. Perfect to fit my mood.
As my Galina—she never wanted me to call her Grandma, complaining it made her feel old—began to fade away, I made an effort to claw her back from oblivion. To keep her with me for as long as I could. So I began doing the things we always used to share together: baking cookies, going out for walks to familiar places, reading stories. I reminded her again and again of the time she gave me a “pooch of honour” for being brave at the hospital when my appendix was removed. I smile and look at it now, still sitting proudly on top of the microwave table—it’s a stuffed toy in the shape of a lamb but she called it pooch, with a strong p. Everything about her had always seemed strong and everlasting, and that’s what made it so hard to witness the frustration in her eyes and her half-open mouth as she tried to reach inside herself to retrieve words and memories that were eroding. Even her body seemed to shrink as she forgot how to sit and walk straight. I didn’t understand how small she had really become until she started mistaking me for her little sister, Agnieszka, who hadn’t survived the war. It was then I remembered a story Galina had told me once, about how during her last summer at home with her mother and sister—they never saw my great-grandfather again after he joined the army a year before—they had tried to rekindle a feel for happiness.
When war was declared between Germany and Russia, and the sirens in Warsaw started to howl more often than ever before, Agnieszka suffered panic attacks.
When war was declared between Germany and Russia, and the sirens in Warsaw started to howl more often than ever before, Agnieszka suffered panic attacks. It was very hard for Galina and her mother to take her down to the shelter because she would freeze and refuse to move. As the Russian flyers began to circle around Warsaw, the sound of bombs made the air tremble. There was no way they could even think about happy times then, and Agnieszka’s health was deteriorating quickly. So one day, after they emerged from the basement, Galina came up with an idea.
“Let’s wear these.” She had their swimming suits in her hand. “It’s very warm right now, and I’m sure these suits will make us feel better.”
Agnieszka and her mother hesitated, but the moment they held those suits in their hands, they smiled—and Galina’s amber eyes beamed as she shared the memory with me. There remains only one photo of Agnieszka and it’s the image I recall whenever I think of her: a scrawny preteen with long, braided hair, a vivacious gaze and a nose just like mine.
Galina was very excited to be out of her regular, worn clothes and have her bathing suit on, but she had lost so much weight that it was too big for her. She would have cried if she had seen herself in the mirror, but instead she went to the living room and hung an old sheet close by the window, under the sun. She laid another sheet on the floor, and sat down to wait for her mother and little sister.
“We are having a window-side party,” she declared as they came in, clothed in their way-too-big suits. None complained or made fun of the other. They lay there, letting the sun warm their bodies, eating radishes they had grown in their kitchen.
Later, in July, there was a typhus epidemic, and people became sick with dysentery and pleurisy. Mother asked them to stay indoors. Agnieszka and Galina, to console themselves, wore their bathing suits and sat down under the sun that came through the window. They sat reading, their shoes and dresses and a first-aid kit ready in case a siren howled. Agnieszka still cried but at least she had stopped refusing to follow Galina and their mother to the building’s basement.
By the end of September, Kiev had fallen and London was under severe bombardment by the Nazis. Shots were often heard on the street. It was risky to go outside.
By the end of September, Kiev had fallen and London was under severe bombardment by the Nazis. Shots were often heard on the street. It was risky to go outside. Their window-side parties were over. It was safer to live with the curtains closed. Galina said: “I don’t know if Mama noticed this, but Agnieszka still wore her bathing suit under her regular clothes. She was holding onto something that could make her happy, my little sister.”
That is why, on our last afternoon together, I turned up the heating and helped Galina sit down in a chair by the living-room window. I sat on the floor on a spread sheet. It was a sunny afternoon and Galina was quiet and all I could hear was the crunching of radishes and her soft breathing. I was about to be lost in sadness, but just when I thought Galina had forgotten how to remember that last summer with her family, and as I fought to hold back my tears, Galina took me by surprise:
“I hope you never have to live through a war, ever, my darling,” she said, her hand reaching out to caress my hair, her hand bony and raddled by liver spots, and yet so beautiful. I was about to say something, but she hushed me and went on: “Little Agnieszka looked like a fairy in her swimming suit. It was blue, did I tell you that? It matched her eyes.” She fixed her gaze on my swollen stomach, and blew it a kiss. I moved closer to her pale, venous legs and let my head rest against her knee. We stayed like that for a few minutes. I felt so sheltered sitting there, her hand resting on my head. For a moment, I thought it would all be okay, it would all be back to the way it was. But when I lifted my head to look at her, her gaze was lost again. I rose to my feet and tried to make her speak, to make her recognize me, but it was useless.
Galina never returned to Warsaw after the war. She never told me why, never wanted to share those details with me, but I discovered the reason when I was leafing through an old notebook of hers after she passed away. I didn’t want to do something she would have disapproved of, but found it so hard not to read it. So I allowed myself a random paragraph. Galina’s words surprised me, because my eyes landed on the one that seemed to answer most of my questions.
Galina’s words surprised me, because my eyes landed on the one that seemed to answer most of my questions.
I can’t fight the tears as I sit down with her notebook and re-read her words in this crisp, early morning light. I’ve decided that Galina’s notebook will be Gabby’s. One day, she will be mature enough. My Galina will not be forgotten and I’ll still have respected her privacy the way she wanted me to. For now, however, I take advantage of the peace around me as I ache for her soft touch.
I heard a troop of German soldiers coming close to where I had been searching for Agnieszka and Mama. I immediately looked for a place to hide. I entered a building and went into an open apartment. There were so many abandoned apartments then, all looted by Polish and German thieves. Most of the first apartments that had been vacated belonged to Jewish families, because they were forced to move into the Ghetto. We got used to that happening and even began seeing it as a normal procedure. And now we were in the same situation. Even though my own apartment looked now abandoned, too, it somehow took me by surprise to find so many others desolated in the exact same way. I could make out silhouettes on the walls, the marks left behind by furniture and paintings. And I got this idea that, somewhere inside the walls, the lost voices of the people who had once lived and laughed there were still trapped, wondering what had happened, why everything had gone so wrong. All of a sudden I knew it: while I had been waiting in vain for Mama and Agnieszka to return home, I had searched for their voices inside our apartment, trapped inside the walls. That explained my urge to lean against them, to caress them the way I had caressed Agnieszka’s hair at night when she crawled into bed with me. Those walls had seen us grow up. And they had seen my family be taken away. Somewhere inside them, their last words had found a nest.
With Warsaw’s destruction, the voices that for centuries had been asleep between the walls of the old buildings and houses, the voices of the people who had lived and died in Warsaw’s dwellings, were left homeless. I imagined they became blind, invisible butterflies floating above the rubble. They had nowhere to go. None of them would ever rest again. They had nowhere to go back to. And it was then that I knew there was no going back for me, either.
No matter how much time goes by, I still feel a need to return to Galina, and have chosen to do so every November 11.
The thing is, in the end her mind played a trick on her and she did try to go back and, in doing so, she hastened our parting. After our last afternoon together, Galina did not come back to me either. I visited her every other day but the light inside her eyes was ever-dimming. She disintegrated slowly and there was nothing I could do to stop it—only Gabby’s kicks and hiccups inside me kept me going, a constant reminder that not even the most magnificent of miracles comes to us free.
No matter how much time goes by, I still feel a need to return to Galina, and have chosen to do so every November 11. Today will be the first time that I will have let Gabby into my little tradition—my precious girl, whose slumber steps are now filling the hallway and coming close to me. As I turn to welcome her into the kitchen and into our past, I can’t help but laugh when she asks, her mouth suddenly wide open:
“Why on earth are you wearing a swimming suit?”
I need to blow my nose, to dry my eyes; most of all, I need to hug her—but before I go to Gabby, I hide Galina’s notebook behind my pooch of honour. It will be safe there for a few hours, until I can put it back into its drawer. I embrace my surprised daughter—my plump, tall and healthy daughter—the sweet scent of shampoo still lingering in her hair, and I know that we are blessed. Holding her tight, I whisper:
“Remember the seeds we planted a couple of weeks ago?”