I’m feeling rather accomplished this week. I digitized a number of boxes of documents. My husband keeps scraps of paper, putting them in boxes like you sweep fall leaves and bag them for pick-up. A classic paper hoarder, he keeps it all. There are phone numbers, addresses and little scribblings that look like alien code. Many of these bits are sayings, lyrics or cartoons. Words of wisdom that he holds dear and wants to remember I suppose.
Maybe his mother Krystyna (Krysia) influenced this behaviour. When he was a child she would clip cartoons from the newspaper for him. Laying out the breakfast dishes she’d place the strip next to his spoon for him to read first thing in the morning. Sometimes, especially as he grew, the cartoons turned into advice columns cut from the newspaper; everything from how to be a gentleman, to what kind of woman to bring home to mama.
More recently, Krysia continued this tradition with me. Whenever an Easter, Christmas or birthday card would arrive, there nestled among the customary twenty-dollar bills would be a newspaper cutting. Mainly articles centred on the perils I was currently suspected of subjecting my children to. My favourite was about the ability of a cat to suck a baby’s breath away. But I kept them, and now tucked away in my mementos box waiting to be digitized are faded “Dear Abby” columns. Who knows, there may come a time such wisdom should be shared again.
The warm summer evenings were giving way to the cooler nights of fall by the time I met Krysia in 1989. She would hold court on her couch, commanding me to sit beside her as she talked. Initially, these were a series of interrogations worthy of the NKVD (Russian secret police). A mother of three sons now myself, I can appreciate her attempt to vet the budding romance of her youngest son. There was no mercy offered.
Over the years as I came to know this strongly opinionated Polish woman she would repeatedly frustrate, infuriate and leave me shaking my head. Krysia was a woman with simple tastes but she was far from simple herself. Manipulative, suspicious, jaded, but yet this woman believed every National Enquirer conspiracy story about Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor, or Elvis. Conversations always starting off with, “but no, wait…I was thinking…why would…” Her versions of world events outlandish to all but herself.
But Krysia was more. She was also loving, compassionate, and giving to a fault. A visit from her meant a week’s worth of groceries whether you were down and out or not. Into your home, she would stroll with plastic bags full of the blue-light-special she scored that week. Oh, how Krysia loved her Wednesday nights at her beloved K-Mart. She worried about her family. Could they cope with the lot they were dealt? Most importantly, she worried about contributing in some small manner to help carry the burden.
When our relationship matured and the conversations deepened, Krysia shared with me intimate details of events that shaped her life. Krysia loved to talk about her childhood in Poland, her grandparents, and her family in England. As she opened up I came to know this woman and comprehend how such juxtaposition of behaviour and feelings came to be. Sitting here I can’t help but think of the old English nursery rhyme:
Rich man, Poor man
Beggar man, Thief
For as I would learn, the woman who sat next to me on that couch clicking her knitting needles, while nibbling on chicken nuggets, had been all of these at least once in her life. And more. So much more. She was a survivor. No, even more. She found a place to thrive, blossoming into an English rose.
It all began, when at the tender age of twelve, Krystyna Borkowska, a Polish citizen, found herself arrested, and exiled to a Russian Gulag, charged as an enemy of the people by the Soviet Union.