by John Delacourt
As soon as the streetlights came on, I began to prepare for All Souls. I came down to the hotel bar and ordered a glass of Greek wine. I tried, Mother, I just can’t drink the Polish. This will have to do as a kind of sacrament.
It is a strange little bar: half alpine cottage with its blonde wood tables, half village nightclub with a wall of smoked mirrors. And a karaoke machine, of course. God knows you get what you pay for, even in Krakow.
In my purse I have a glass vase with a candle inside. I have resigned myself to completing this rite. Still the dutiful daughter.
I still can’t imagine why she chose—no, stipulated—that she be buried here. For more than forty years, all she wanted to do was forget this part of her life.
And I don’t know whether my mother giving birth to me here made her feel closer to me or more intent on erasing every part of this place from my past as well. So that she could once again be close to me, I suppose. Count me as an ally, not an enemy.
I was once Monika with a k, not a c. She changed my name when I was seven years old. She wanted to erase my Polishness when we moved to the east end of Toronto and I began the second grade. She had a new Canadian husband, a new life. She was not going to look back and would scold me if I brought up the past, her first few years in the country. She would will our transformation with the force of her resolve. And so my name had to change.
Now, over this glass of wine, I think of those first few years she spent, cleaning other people’s houses. She who was once so slender, a dancer, trained in ballet. That was when she took on weight to signify her transformation. Yet she always had her grace, the sharp lines to her movements. It was the remnant of her beauty that marked her. If she could have transformed herself into someone stolid and clumsy, I think she would have.
As a cleaner she was very good, very efficient. Time is money—one of her first clichés in English. I imagine if she could have gone into my memory and found the drawer labeled “First Toronto Halloween,” she would have emptied its contents. She would have taken her damp cloth, sprinkled with cleanser, and wiped along the bottom, the sides, the edges. That I still carried dirty memories was a source of shame. And there was no memory dirtier for her than the one of that night.
And here, just two nights ago they celebrated Halloween. The whole rite of children going door to door for candy—with everyone, even the parents in costume—didn’t exist back in the Soviet years. It has only been since the nineties that young families have taken this on. I went out for dinner on the 31st and observed them all going out, the kids in small packs with store-bought costumes. It made me feel angry. The young generation have so willingly become just like North Americans. All dress-up, with no fidelity to their past. When I catch myself in these thoughts, I fear I’m becoming my mother.
I finish my wine, pay the glum bartender. He has a bushy Lech Walesa moustache that meets my approval of being sufficiently Polish. I smile for him and check the vase in my handbag, that it hasn’t broken when I set my things down. And then I set out into the night.
My father was a filmmaker. In the photos of that time he was so athletic looking and handsome, with sideburns and rockstar hair. Eyes like shiny black stones. He had the grin of a man who kept secrets well.
He is still alive, though it’s been at least twenty years since we spoke. Retired from cinematography now, he lives with his third wife in Vancouver. He owns a boat and part of a restaurant in Victoria. These facts—the internet told me—only make him more unknowable now. Like his grey beard and the questionable sunglasses in his photo from the last Christmas card he sent me. I imagine I would be unknowable to him too.
He was hired to make a documentary on my mother’s dance company when they met here in Krakow. She was attracted to his “rough edges”: his village accent, his motorbike, and his nicotine-stained fingers. She was also attracted to his devotion to his craft, the way he carried a leather box with three lenses. As if the box contained a precious family heirloom. It reminded her of her father with his chess pieces. The mystery of men’s obsessions. Obsessions beyond women, of course. Within a week of their meeting my mother said he was “courting her.”
Before they met he had worked on more than ten films as a cinematographer. But the film of the dance company’s first North American tour was his chance to strike out on his own. So he did, boldly. They defected as soon as they had the chance.
It was on a freezing night in January 1971. They slipped out through the kitchen of their hotel at two in the morning. In flimsy polyester ski jackets, unprepared for the minus twenty temperature—or anything else they would face in their first years for that matter. My father left his canisters of film and a Polish-English dictionary in their hotel room. He said he only regretted not taking the book; he could have used it.
As for the film it would have been shit, he said, turned into propaganda in the edit. This is why he wanted to go make movies with actors in America. “Forget documentary. It is only with make-believe that you tell the truth.”
There are older couples, and even some families, dressed as if for church, heading my way to the cemetery. As I enter the stone gates I can see more couples and groups, walking like pilgrims on the camino with candles lit in their hands, even though the sun has yet to set. This to me, is real. I wish I had a camera to document it all. I know where my mother is, of course. I know the path. I know the stone. And so I light the candle to summon up her soul.
The city of my parents’ escape from the dance company was Winnipeg. And for my first years all my parents had were two rooms above a hardware store near St. Norbert, a French speaking part of town. Made my mother crazy; she said English was hard enough.
My father was driving a taxi, and my mother had a maid’s job at the Marlborough Hotel. I rarely saw them both at the same time. A pattern formed though: Dad—good cop, Mom—bad.
I remember less from those years the older I get, but I can still taste the instant noodles and canned soup. And there was the feel of my second-hand clothes. I had an electric blue sweater that itched no matter how many times my mother washed it at the laundromat down the street.
By the time I was six my parents were arguing all the time. They were still so homesick; this is how my mother explained it when she used to kiss me goodnight, telling me not to worry.
From the window of my room in that apartment, I would look out onto a parking lot. One winter I noticed crows would gather there in the snow. A gang, plotting its crimes. They were my TV.
To keep me amused my father gave two of the crows names: Federico and Fidelio. For some reason they had to be Italian. All my father’s secret lives.
He squawked and sang their lines in Polish as if they were characters in a crow opera. Federico was the smart one, Fidelio the fool who couldn’t bring food back to the nest. Only sticks and string. The same scene all the time. It only changed depending on who would fly away first. That would be the sudden turn to each story, never explained. It made me think of the adventures that happened beyond the parking lot.
In the autumn of my sixth year we went to a barbecue in St. Vital Park along the river. I can remember how cold the muddy brown water was already, still weeks from winter, how sluggish. And dangerous, it could take you away. There was a drunk man who had drowned. “No place to raise a child, this”—my mother’s words.
At the barbecue there was a taxi driver who was also from Poland. This Woytek was still working at being a theatre actor, his old career in Warsaw. And he had done some film work after a play he was in toured other Canadian cities. My father gravitated to him, even though Woytek had flirted with my mother. Maybe, given Woytek’s big belly and his ridiculous hairpiece, my father didn’t see him as a threat.
At the barbecue Woytek told my mom and dad about Toronto. There were hundreds of Poles living there! Our people had a little village of their own. And Woytek knew a guy who could get my dad a job teaching in a college for January. An instructor had just been let go for getting drunk and yelling at the students. The head of the department, who once directed Woytek and knew of his career in Poland, had called him about it. But Woytek had only directed two short films and had no technical knowledge. “I could try, but I like to keep my acting for the stage.” My father, however, he would be perfect for the job, Woytek said.
My mother was skeptical, but she typed my father’s CV in English for him. When he mailed it off she said she doubted anyone there would know of the films he had worked on. But of course, they did; Canada was not as backward as she had imagined. My father got the job, and she greeted the news with a sigh. Half-relief, half-apprehension.
About a month before my mother’s passing, when she was no longer in chemotherapy, she sent me a letter in the mail. She never did take to email. She tried for a while but always composed each message as if it had gone to the post office. She didn’t want instant replies, and I think she resented the expectation that hers could have been instant as well. Her company would not be treated so lightly.
In the letter she told me about this cemetery, the marker she had bought, and that she had arranged for her cremation and had financed all of this already. She reassured me that I had to do very little for her. The letter had that tone of diminished expectations she carried with her all her life in Canada. “Just please follow these instructions. Your last job as a daughter.” I could see how she would punctuate “daughter” with a thin smile.
And so here I am—walking so cautiously, my eye on the wavering flame in this little glass vase—thinking to myself, why didn’t I bring roses? Of course, flowers were not in her instructions. In my mind I must only do what she says—the minimum. The tyranny of her simplicity.
When we moved my mother took to Toronto quickly. Within two weeks of our arrival she was cleaning houses. She wasn’t making a lot of money but together, with my father’s salary, they could afford the rent on a good-sized apartment near Davisville Station. She thought that maybe she would finally teach dancing, what she had wanted to do since their escape from Poland. Real possibilities at last.
I loved our new apartment building. There was a lobby with modern looking benches of black leather and chrome. There were framed black and white photographs of a network of rail lines, large blocky buildings made of stone. Old Toronto. Along our hallway on the sixteenth floor, there were so many different smells from dinners cooking when I would return from school. Bacon frying, curry simmering, the sharpness of garlic in oil. I was hungry for it all.
I made new friends, and my English improved. Though my parents had tried to speak it in Winnipeg, when they argued they needed sharper words—words that could wound. Even the ravens with Italian names spoke in Polish back there.
I missed the birds, and I missed time with my father. His teaching at the college kept him busy days and nights. He was helping students film their projects. And also, more encouraging for him, by the spring he was meeting filmmakers through his new faculty friends.
My mother was making friends too. There was Joan, a neighbour who waited tables at a fancy bar on King Street. She had long golden hair, a prominent nose that only made her more attractive to my little girl’s eyes. And I remember her summer brown legs in black patent leather boots. Those boots—someone famous on TV would wear them. Joan was unmarried and uncaring and smoked American cigarettes she got from Chinatown. She had stories of politicians in the newspaper who dined at her restaurant. My mother never told me them though—”not for your ears, sveetie.”
Joan had her own car, a red Mustang convertible. She told my mom that a lawyer who owed her money had given it to her. She took us all the way down the Gardiner Expressway one summer afternoon to the big pool by the beach. We went so fast in that car that all I could hear was the wind and feel the summer sun on my bare arms. I was a little scared, but when I looked to Joan she smiled and laughed and everything felt okay.
She babysat me once for three hours and let me read fashion magazines on her balcony while she made spicy omelettes and played country music records. She let me try her turquoise eye shadow, as long as I took it off before I went home. When she put it on, I decided that aside from my mother she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Joan was happy to live by herself. That must have made a strong impression on my mother, that there were other possibilities.
That first summer my parents had a gathering at our apartment. It was mostly people from the college. My father had bought a hibachi, a case of Molson Export, and steaks from the expensive grocery store near the subway station. American jazz played on our record player—no more Polish singers. My mother sat on one of the dining room chairs on the balcony, smoking and talking to a woman named Genevieve from Montreal. She was a costume designer who was dating Mauro, an instructor and film director. He was my father’s new best friend. I remember the party as loud and a little out of control with the music and the vodka, and arguments that dissolved in laughter. At one point Genevieve walked out of the living room with Mauro for a slow dance in the kitchen. There was an intimacy I had never seen my parents reveal.
The night was hot, and so the air conditioner in my bedroom window was on full. I was in bed by eleven after all the guests left, and I could hear my mother and father arguing but not make out all the words. I wanted to turn the air conditioner off, but they would have known I was still up. So I just sat in the dark, my heart pounding, worried about all the anger the gathering seemed to have caused. I finally drifted off to sleep, but in the morning as I rose for day camp and had breakfast in the kitchenette, there was a new kind of silence between my mother and father.
All day long I was worried we were going to move back to Winnipeg, my mother and I. She had threatened it once to my father. But it seemed winter all the time there, and the crows Federico and Fidelio would probably be gone.
I get to the fork in the path where I know my mother’s place is. There is an older, bearded Christian Orthodox priest, in a ratty black blazer and cassock, with a huge gold cross on a chain. It hangs low on his belly and pendulums with his long strides. He swings a censer and intones Latin under his huffing breaths. I can smell the heavy perfume of the incense. All I know is that I believe in nothing after life.
The sun is sinking, and the trees look bleached and bare against the darkly bruised sky. They have branches like skeleton hands, and there…there is one…then another: crows fly off to wherever they sleep at night.
Somebody told me that you see them in pairs because they mate for life. Federico or Fidelio was probably a female.
The afternoon before that first Halloween in Toronto, I had come home early. I turned on the TV and waited for my mother to get back from house cleaning. When she finally got home at six, she told me my father would not make it for dinner. He had called and said he was working on a film with Mauro. Not paid work; no, it never was with him.
She had a cigarette in the kitchen and stirred macaroni. I noticed the cigarettes were Joan’s brand. This was new. I wondered, if she was going to smoke, why she didn’t just take some from my father’s carton in the freezer. Maybe she didn’t want to be dependent on him for anything at that point.
My mom and I ate dinner together in silence, and then I went back to the TV. She didn’t even ask if I had any homework. She had poured herself a vodka which I knew was unusual for that time of day. I also knew she wanted to be left alone, so I watched Wheel of Fortune. I knew nothing about this game show with its difficult words except that suspense was important. And that was enough to keep me distracted.
By the time Jeopardy had started I could hear my mother on the phone. She was talking to Genevieve, the woman who was dancing with Mauro at the party. My mother was practically whispering, but I could make out Ryszard, my father’s name. I knew something was serious.
Then the doorbell rang. There was a silence in the kitchen, then a small gasp from my mother. I heard the vodka bottle go back in the freezer. She then hurried through the sitting room, giving me a dirty look.
When she opened the door I could see her hand go to her mouth. She wanted to shield the wave of laughter that went through her. There were Omar and Ahmed, the Salam twins from the eighth floor. They were wearing cowboy hats, fringed vests, and holsters on their belts with silver toy guns. They held out two bags for my mother, but she just shrugged.
When she saw how disappointed they looked she held her hand up and asked them to wait. She brushed past me once again and went in the kitchen. In just a few seconds she returned with two Arrowroot biscuits wrapped in paper napkins. Omar and Ahmed examined these and nodded to themselves. As they turned from the door they muttered, “Happy Halloween.”
Once the door was shut my mother gave me a look as if I had done something wrong. It was my fault that she was unprepared, that I didn’t know this was happening that night. I was supposed to tell her these things, I was her interpreter for all that happened among children. I slunk down and wedged myself between the chair and the wall, my eyes on the TV. I prayed no one else came to the door.
But of course, others did. Ronnie Wilson, whose face was always dirty, came wearing his hockey equipment. Bonita Salazar was a witch. By eight-thirty my mother was out of Arrowroots and Oreos, and my father was still not home.
I heard her go back in the kitchen and open up the freezer. She poured herself more vodka in a coffee cup, and then picked up the phone. It was Genevieve again, but this time my mother did not have the polite Canadian tone to her voice.
She was angry. “Tell me the truth!” I don’t know what Genevieve said in response, but there was a small pause before my mother slammed the phone down.
I heard her open a couple of kitchen drawers, and then she emerged with her purse in hand. “You’re coming with me!” She took my hand so gently in hers, as if she would not permit her anger to touch how we truly were to each other.
I still think of that moment and feel love for her.
We hurried down the hall until we got to Joan’s door. My mother told me to wait in the hall; I was not allowed to hear what they said to each other on the other side. She was only gone for a moment though, and in her hand, as we walked to the elevator, I could see that she had Joan’s car keys.
My mother drove just as fast as Joan. It was a skill I didn’t know she had, because my father always drove the used Vega he got when we moved to Toronto. She only slowed down as we got downtown. She pulled out a piece of newspaper with an address scribbled on it before turning up Parliament Street, where she then looked for the intersection that corresponded with what Genevieve had told her on the phone.
On every sidewalk, little gangs of cowboys, angels and there…just like my mother back in Krakow—a ballerina. We stopped in front of an old home with a porch covered in lattice work and vines. Two bicycles were locked to the iron railing of the wooden staircase. There was a porch light on, but the curtains were drawn. My mother was silent. I knew it was a bad idea to say a word, so I stayed silent too. She lit a cigarette, took two puffs, and then threw it out the window of the Mustang. She could have started a fire in the hedge where it landed, and I knew she would have done nothing but laugh to herself in that scary way she did when she broke wine glasses arguing with my father.
I sat there frozen looking out the passenger window, but I could see in my periphery that she had reached into her purse. I had to see what she had in her hands: a paper bag. She poked two eyeholes in it with a ballpoint pen. And then, above the eyeholes, she wrote one word: “corka”—“daughter” in Polish.
“Sveetie, put this on.”
I knew that she was serious enough that I took the bag in my hands and obeyed. No back talk, no questions. I was scared now, but at least no one could see my tears.
“I want you to go up those stairs and knock on that door. When a woman comes to the door, you say what the Salam boys said. Treaty treat. Okay?”
The woman who answered was younger than my mother. She was pretty, with hair like Cher on TV. I could tell, by the look on her face and her quick glance at my mother in Joan’s car, that she knew exactly what was happening. She put her hand to her mouth and gasped, and then she called to my father.
First I saw his blue-jeaned legs, then his torso, then the cowboy shirt my mother hated as he ran down the stairs. He put both hands on his temples as if he suddenly had one of his migraines, while I just stood there on the other side of the screen door with my paper-bag mask.
He swung open the door and embraced me. I never did get to say the right words: trick or treat. He took the paper bag off my head, patted my hair down, and told me to wait on the porch.
Then he walked up to the Mustang and got into the passenger seat. The windows were up, yet I could tell, by the way my mother was staring straight ahead, so immobile she could have been a mannequin, that her anger was different this time. After what seemed like a half hour but was probably only five minutes, I heard the porch door open behind me.
The woman who looked like Cher called my name. How did she know it? She took me inside the house and had me sit on an old maroon couch that creaked and smelled like beer.
There was another young woman I met, and then a young man. They said their names, but I wasn’t really listening, I was so overwhelmed by everything else. They were students I realized when I saw the big textbooks on a kitchen table.
The young man got me a can of Coke from their refrigerator, and then he reached into a plastic bag on the table by the books and pulled out two small packets of Smarties. He turned on the TV for me while the three of them retreated to the kitchen, speaking in whispers.
There was nothing to do but wait, eat the Smarties, and watch TV. I recognized the captain from Star Trek; he was riding a motorcycle with other guys in some desert, probably in California. Another American movie my dad would criticize if we were watching; he would have been growling at the TV in Polish.
Something was ending, this I knew.
When I finished my Smarties I walked into the kitchen with the little boxes and my paper bag. I asked if I could please put them in their garbage. The young woman who looked like Cher bent down, took everything from my hands, and hugged me. And that is when I started to sob, though I really wasn’t sure why.
There is so much I still want to ask my mother. I put this candle down in front of this little plot, and all the words are still there in Polish. They are waiting to be whispered, made real. I want to ask her if she really ever found love after my father, if she ever forgave me for my resistance to all that she had done to make our lives “normal” and “Canadian” after she left him. After my own failed relationships, did she ever see in me the same dissatisfaction, the same yearning for something more than what was offered, that she had throughout her life? I often thought it was the one gift she gave to me, among all the ridiculous clothes and jewelry over the years, that I seemed to accept without question. God knows, I wouldn’t put on any costume she ever imagined for me again, would not be a prop on any stage she could gracefully dance upon, transformed.
The last question I have for her is about this place itself. All those years of exile, never returning, all those years of reinvention—did she always imagine she would return here in the end? Perhaps it was a bitterness that amounted to a final statement: all they deserve are my ashes. If this is so, it is a declaration that no one is left to hear. No one from her past, but me. No one around us, but a solitary crow. I can sense him just behind me, perched on a branch and watching, not even speaking Polish anymore.