The Polish Tale
It was late November and we had completed our annual excursion to one of the several malls that lie north of Newport, Rhode Island. We’re not particularly fond of malls, preferring instead the quaintness and novelty of the many local shops that are scattered throughout the city. But, to appease the wishes of our daughters, our off-the-island expedition had brought us to Providence Place this year, a multi-level shopping complex that was recently constructed in the downtown district of the capital.
At one of the stores, I purchased a Christmas present for a business associate, whose devotion to his automobile was well known throughout the circle of co-workers with whom I was employed. At the time it seemed the perfect gift, the disparity – between the joy of presenting it and the anticipation of how it would be received – reduced to a negligible margin. How little I knew then that unforeseen events would highlight my initial speculation well beyond my expectations.
As the pewter chill of November evolved into the cold steel of December, the relationship that I shared with the business associate began to rapidly change. In fact, it deteriorated beyond repair – to such a point that, standing in the dim light of my study several days before Christmas, I didn’t know what to do with the present that I had purchased. Tagless, it was wrapped in decorative metallic paper, with two brightly foiled, chocolate toy soldiers taped by the crossroad of ribbon that mushroomed into the golden bloom of a bow. Because our differences had become irreconcilable, I acknowledged the sad fact that I couldn’t bring myself to present the gift to the business associate. Putting it on the bookshelf, I left the study, resolved to deal with the issue after the holidays had elapsed.
For my wife and I – as for many, I’m sure – Christmas Eve is usually characterized by an intense hubbub of activities. No matter how well we plan for that rapidly approaching deadline, which materializes ineluctably on December 24th, we are rarely prepared. Having three daughters, there are always last minute presents to wrap, schedules to keep, foods to prepare and mad sprints to the store because, invariably, the scotch tape or wrapping paper has mysteriously disappeared; or, because yes, I forgot to buy the nutmeg for the eggnog and the dressing for the salad; or, because one, or two, or three of our girls want to do this or that, or needs to be driven here or there, and of course with minimum notice beforehand. Christmas Eve is often a frenetic exercise in multiple digressions, leaving us out of breath, nearly gasping for closure. But this year – and I’m not sure why – Christmas Eve was an exception.
Of relatives, friends and acquaintances, Carol, my wife, is surely one of the most genial – certainly one of the most hospitable – persons whom I know. I could relate many accounts but they would extend well beyond the scope of this particular recollection.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Carol drove to the local market, though not as the result of a dire “necessity” or of a rapidly escalating “emergency”. It was a leisurely trip – unrushed, proactive rather than reactive, made solely for the purpose of picking up a few incidentals. Arriving at the deli in the market, Carol viewed the offerings in the casement: cold cuts and cheeses, prepared entrees, assorted salads, appropriately “seasoned” with sprigs of parsley and sprinkles of paprika, with alternating rings of green and red pepper. Nearby, was a band of five, each speaking to the others in the group in an unidentifiable language. A man and a woman in their mid-thirties, another couple, who were noticeably older, and a young girl. The young woman did most of the talking, turning periodically to point at the variety of foods in the casement.
“Excuse me”, Carol interjected, sensing their puzzlement. “Is there something I can help you with?”
The woman looked at Carol and smiled, relieved that someone had come to her assistance. “Yes, you could help please?” she replied in skewed English. “These are things we do not understand.”
Apparently, of a more problematic issue than the language barrier was the effort to interpret the assortment of prepared foods festively displayed throughout the casement.
“What is that, please?” she asked, pointing. “And that?”
Her name was Beata and, in due time, she explained to Carol that she and her husband and daughter, accompanied by her parents, were vacationing in Newport until the first week of January. They were from Poland and had wanted to celebrate the holidays in New York City, but had waited too long to secure accommodations through their timeshare association. It was their first trip to the United States and, though they had fared reasonably well, they were sometimes utterly stumped by things indigenous to American culture.
With minor difficulties, Carol translated the assortment of foods for Beata, wished them a “Merry Christmas” and went on her way.
After a stop at the pharmacy and a visit to the card shop, Carol proceeded toward her car. At the bookstore, peering into the window, was the familiar group, speaking the unfamiliar language.
“Excuse me, Beata,” Carol said. “I’m so glad that I met you again because I wanted to give you something. “Here,” she continued, scribbling across a scrap of paper and handing it to the Polish woman. “I wanted to give you our phone number in case we could help you with anything during your vacation in Newport.”
The excitement of gift-giving and the personal inspiration that we experience throughout the yuletide season had come and, though the exhilaration had passed, hopefully the spiritual element would extend well beyond the last month of the calendar, its joyous light spilling into all the pages of the upcoming year.
It was after dinner on the Thursday following Christmas Day. Our daughters were visiting friends as Carol and I enjoyed quiet cups of tea in our kitchen, the sound of Christmas music rotating a medley of moods from the new CD player. The telephone rang.
It was Beata. She extended an invitation for us to join them for coffee and pastries at their timeshare. Countering, Carol suggested that Beata and her family join us the following evening in our home. Beata was reluctant to accept.
“We do not desire to impose”, she insisted.
But after some discussion, Beata relented and Carol proceeded to map out the directions to our home.
When the Polish family arrived the next evening, the initial awkwardness and discomfiture, typically engendered by differences in language, was quickly eclipsed by a warmth and friendship that could not be suppressed by something so simple as the spoken word. Acting as spokesperson and translator for the group, Beata introduced her parents, Helena and Kasimir. Gracious and stylish, Helena looked particularly elegant in the long silk scarf, draped about her neck and shoulders. Witek, Beata’s husband, shook our hands, wishing us “Merry Christmas” in Polish. Polite and petite, Iga, their daughter, smiled pleasantly before gravitating toward Katelin, our youngest.
For well over an hour, we sat around the large kitchen table of our home, drinking coffees, eating cookies and pastries. The exchange of conversation, filtered through Beata, had become a perfected exercise in communication.
Beata had two jobs: she was a schoolteacher and worked as an assistant editor for a newspaper during the evenings. Both Kasimir and Witek were engineers. Their combined salaries enabled them to reside in the comfort of a three-bedroom flat, a commodity of limited supply in their hometown of Lodz, Poland. Iga was a student.
As Beata explained, collectively they owned a timeshare in Spain. Each year, during their winter vacation, they exchanged it for a unit in another part of the world. The previous year, they had spent their vacation in that unlikely of Christmas locales, Kenya.
At one point, Iga told us about her interests in art. Katelin reciprocated by communicating her fondness for music and photography.
I recall a lengthy eruption of words from Helena to Beata. We all listened patiently as Beata absorbed Helena’s words, the sounds merging, blending into one another though punctuated periodically by a single word that we could all understand: “Volkswagen”.
Although it was a rare luxury in Poland, Helena was so fortunate as to be the proud owner of a new Volkswagen. Her face literally beamed when she spoke of it.
When Beata concluded her translation, I addressed Helena:
“So – you have a Volkswagen, Helena?” I asked, looking directly at her.
“Yah,” she replied, after Beata’s translation.
It struck me with the intensity, though certainly without the calamity, of lightning.
“In that case, I have something for you,” I said, excusing myself from the table and proceeding into the study.
Blowing off the thin veneer of dust that had accumulated on the package, the metallic paper and foiled soldiers and bright, gold bow returned to their former glitter.
“This is for you”, I said, after returning to the kitchen and presenting the gift to Helena.
The expression of her face was shaped equally by the perplexity of the gift as by the lavishness of its wrappings. But as she opened the present, with careful and thoughtful deliberation, exposing the sheen of red and green mercury glass and the unmistakable shape of a Volkswagen, the joy and rapture of her face was itself an unexpected gift – one that I shall always remember.
With both hands cupping the sizeable Christmas tree ornament, Helena held it up for everyone to admire and then carefully tucked it back into its box. Springing from her chair, she rounded the table to embrace me, kissing both cheeks before turning to address Carol. Her eyes were wet with emotion. Removing her beautiful silk scarf from about her, she wrapped it around Carol and, though whispering something in Polish, it’s meaning could not be misunderstood.
Throughout the remainder of the holidays, we saw the Polish family on several occasions. They joined us for dinner on New Year’s Day. My brother and his family, as well as my mother, had come to visit from New Jersey. Standing around the dinner table, we stretched out our arms to hold each other’s hands as my brother, Dan, led us in prayer. When he concluded, Helena requested an opportunity to offer the Polish version.
Later in the week, after accepting an invitation to visit Beata and her family at their timeshare, we were introduced to the special treat of “Polish sandwiches”. Open-faced, they were prepared with a delectable, albeit unfamiliar, combination of meats and cheeses, spices and dressing. As evening unfolded into night, we realized that this was the last time that we would see them. Climbing into our winter coats, we made our way to the front door and, accompanied by the Polish family, to our car in the parking lot. Embracing each other, we said our farewells and drove away. I remember the image of the five of them – huddled together in the bitter cold like brave orphans pitted against the challenges of a sometimes hostile, sometimes hospitable, world.
We often communicated with Beata through the mail and the Internet. Once we received a Christmas card from Iga. The worldly travelers had flown to the steamy climate of India for their holiday vacation. I wonder if an Indian family, in trying to decipher the strange sounds of a Slavic language …
I sometimes think about the events and circumstances that transpired during that remarkable Christmas season. There was the exchange of gifts – the “Volkswagen” to Helena and the silk scarf to Carol; there was the joy of Helena’s face. But there was a fourth gift – a jewel that glimmers across the changing skies of memory because there are indeed moments, tiny gems in the cumulative cycle of calendars that promise such peace and friendship and good will that we are forever graced by the gift of their glow. I know that we are. And I think the Polish family is too.