In the father land

Can a modern girl reporter survive retroactive parenting?

Part 3 in a series

The panic had set in by Chicago. I was still on American soil, headed to Warsaw, when people starting addressing me in rapid-fire Polish. Despite my last-minute studying efforts, I still broke into a cold sweat every time I had to disappoint a new expectant face with bashful demurral. Przepraszam, nie rozumiem, I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Trohe moviem, I only speak a little.

We hadn’t been back to Poland in more than a decade. In the mercifully few photographs from that trip, when I was 11 years old, I see an awkward, chubby preteen staring back at me. I could only imagine what our family would be expecting when we arrived. When we landed, in a time zone seven hours later, in Rzeszów, two uncles and a cousin picked us up from a provincial airport that more resembled a midsize schoolhouse.

Wiadek wore a T-shirt printed all over with a roadmap of Texas. We arranged our suitcases into their tiny European cars and soon arrived at my babcia’s house. I teetered over to her in my platform shoes from Target. She grabbed me by the shoulders, strong. When we were children she lived with us, and I remember being amazed at how easily she could crack open difficult jars. She looked into my eyes. And then she muttered something incomprehensible and tackled me.

Things relaxed, thanks to our fun-loving, easygoing relatives who accepted us and our American predicament instantly. Our great-uncle Tadek, the village poet, showed us how to use a scythe and invited us to come live on his farm in Majdan. Days passed living in babcia’s house, loving her food (potato pancakes, yellow forest- mushroom gravy) and cursing my lack of language skills.

We visited Kraków, too, and walked past the prestigious university Dad had attended before emigrating, where he was being groomed for professorship — not the retail slavery he endured in America. As we walked through the old town, I felt his melancholy. This city had been the last place he’d lived in Poland before moving to the states, and I could see him questioning his path. I felt a creeping guilt that my brother and I are the chain that has tethered my father to the U.S., when he had had every reason to return to Poland after his marriage dissolved.

But then again, as a Texas transplant of 30 years, my Dad’s been changed by San Antonio, too. Even after seeing his sadness at having left Poland behind, I can’t imagine Dad on a Saturday morning without also picturing our favorite Mexican diner, a plate of huevos rancheros, our favorite waitress who remembers his order. He always wears boots. He loves cascarones. More than ever, we fit together. My brother and I face the same dilemma as any kids of immigrants, pulled in separate directions by family and country. We don’t fit neatly into either the American or Polish categories — but, I’ve come to realize, neither does Dad. •

Life with Dad appears the first Wednesday of each month.

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