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The Amber Summer
There are distinct characteristics among the three countries that have shaped the person I am today: that of the American, whose respectful reflection of the world garners in my heart a respect for all people; that of the Canadian, which remains my birthplace, but nothing more; and that of the Polish, which in an organic way is predominant within me, a burning flame that brushes the sky.
Over the years, many moments have been engraved into my mind as instances of realization. In fourth grade, it was the laughter of my American class over an accent dying, but not dead; as a teenager, the awe of Canadian cloud-scrapers looming over a land that resonates with European value; and, spread over time, moments of homey Polish warmth, one that I draw as an essential incident, the key to balance.
Bustling in Poland—my homeland—stems not from the feeling of time closing down on you, but from a rhythm set by the sun. Poles rise at sunrise, eat at noon, stay past sundown; a cool breeze brushing against skin through open windows means bedtime. Time is of secondary importance to the soul, after all.
I visit my grandmother in Olsztyn the summer before high school. On a Saturday morning, we delight in the expansion of time before us: there are hours and hours until either of us will have to return to real responsibilities, regardless of how much we might enjoy them.
For her, it is market day, an unbroken ritual that began seventy-some years ago.
For me, it is Thursday: unimportant, relative to the time I have already lived.
I spontaneously choose to wake early and go with her. Together we breakfast at the cramped table in the kitchen, the tangy zing of lemons and tea spicing the air in a way that intoxicates far more than coffee. When I help her stand, my palm grasps the papery feel of hers, something so different it feels of another world—perhaps the world of the old. She takes off her apron, reveals the flowery pattern beneath, and then pulls her hair back under a white kerchief that matches her graying pallor.
“Jak to wyglÄ…da, dziecino?” How does it look, kiddo?
“Grandma, absolutely wonderful. You look twenty.” I kiss her cheek.
With a smile, she locks the door and we climb down three stairwells to reach the exit to the apartment building. Outside, we take a left through the garden gate to head downtown.
“So you are starting liceum in September?” she asks, referring to my transition from middle to high school.
“Yes. I’m so excited, Babcio—Grandma!” I launch into an explanation: “It’s such a cool transition, even though I’m going to be the youngest in the building again…” I sigh dramatically. “Oh, well, that doesn’t matter. It’s still liceum.” A grin blossoms across my face.
“I remember when I went from gimnazjum—middle school—to the last four years before the uniwersytet—university.” We trudge down the hill, our eyes glimpsing the first parts of the market: a bright red tent peeking out next to the Cathedral, a bus stop on the corner. It is a walled city without walls, treasured for its leather sandals, used power tools, cheap Chanel tops, and fake furs; you can eat Polish sausage, buy a knitted sweater, or browse for vintage lamps. You walk into it with a purpose. “We were still fighting the effects of the war. Those darn Germans.” She stops for a breath and I wait for her.
“Yeah, I guess I know what you mean. With Americans in Iraq–”
“No, Nina, you know nothing.” My grandma looks at me, really looks at me, her eyes blazing with a ferocity that I don’t understand. “That war dents Polish history forever. What do you care about what is going on over there with America? These days, politicians are stupid. You can’t expect anything smart anymore.”
I open my mouth to spurt a reply. It’s not like politicians were much smarter then. Instead of saying that out loud, though, I choose to think for a minute.
“Isn’t it important to care about what’s happening now?” Not wanting to offend, I ask the next question carefully: “I know it happened, Grandma, but…isn’t there a point at which it becomes, like, history?”
She’s quiet for a long time.
“No, darling. It’s not that easy.” I can see her struggling with breaths as we continue plodding downhill.
“My mother died in that war and she didn’t die just because. She was murdered, but she lived her life fully so that I could learn how to, so that your mother could learn how to, so that you may now learn how to.” Filled with sadness and despair, and a longing for a lifetime with a mother that she never had, my grandma points at the Cathedral.
This place is the reason for my everything. It delivered my parents and the mechanisms they would use to raise me; is it through the Church that I have access to spiritual guidance and knowledge.
We go inside and approach the altar. The Cathedral marks the northern part of the market and smells of candles and wax, of incense and loneliness, but yet it is the smell of home, of belonging. As we kneel to murmur our prayers, I draw in a breath and smile as the stress drizzles away. My grandma knows this place, respects it, and treasures it: it is where all her requests rise to her God. Regardless of whether or not He is my God, too—a question I have not answered—I give her my time and support.
We walk back onto the market plaza thirty minutes later. I have forgotten the conversation, the American pride that overwhelms, and I exist only in the present.
“Popatrz,” my grandma says. Look. “If you remember anything about Poland, my dear, remember this.” She swings her arm around as we both take in the sight before us. The market is nothing special, except to those who understand its history and the relationships it cements; tents are filled with Baltic amber, silks and tapestries, paintings and candles, and flags. The city rises over the hilltops and beyond the castle built from bronze, which is a living artifact that proves Copernicus’ existence and findings. He worked at it for many years.
Once my grandma and I make it through the tight-knit bundles of people piled along the road, she asks to sit down on a fountain’s edge, and I oblige. We close our eyes and the laughter of children lifts to the sky around us telling poems of many varieties, some shy, others bordering on obnoxious; yet, regardless, all the laughter is happy and prompts a giggle of response bubbles from my own lips.
As I laugh, my grandma presses something into my hand. “This is for you, Nina.”
My fingers enclose a felt box. I run my thumb over it, relishing in its softness and the gold trim of the engraved writing. It feels expensive. Catching me in a moment of vulnerability, the amber necklace folded inside takes my breath away in a gasp. I run my finger over the rounded fullness—and the blemishes—then tease the colors inside with my fingernail, awed by the toughness the jewel represents.
“Take this place with you.”
A difficult request to make of me, I think, for this place is not an intrinsic part of me—at least not yet—so there is no reason to take it. I look at my grandma, who has closed her eyes and rocks back and forth in her thoughts. She looks fragile, dying. My heart twists in my chest at the thought of her passing away: when she is gone, I will have no one to visit, no connection to make. It’s a difficult recognition that time runs out.
In that moment, as I think of home, it’s hard for me not to feel sorry for the guitar player sitting along the sidewalk, his hand tapping against his guitar as he sings a Czerwone Gitary piece out loud, a cappella. His voice is strong, seductive, invigorating, and it rises and falls with each breath and chorus he sings, like the wind rustling through the trees right before a storm. He has no comparison to make of his life, not like I do.
I make a decision then, to take it with me, take it away, and hope that someday it will serve as a cultural reminder of what once was and what I carry on to be. There is no one else who can do it for me. I can drop the amber back into the sea, watch it sink and fragment under the rolling waves, or I can hang it around my neck and wear it like the beauty it’s supposed to be, the defining aspect of me.
“Thank you, Grandma. Kocham Ciebie.” I love you.
One week later, I am at the airport, my weary self filled with adrenaline at the thought of returning home. My grandma is too old to make the six-hour drive to the airport with us, so our goodbyes are of the past. Trembling, my hand instinctively reaches for the amber stone that hangs around my neck, an impulse I cannot control. The slippery piece slides along my fingers, its touch as cool as morning dew.
I fly home, then, with my heart already blending the memories and tears into a feeling, an emotion. It shall be a manifestation of all the little details I will soon forget; of that I am conscientious. Perhaps someday I will find my way to Heaven and call her name but, until then, the affection she offered will carry me through, her touch an engraving on the inside of my wrist.
For the most ordinary of women she was capable of harnessing more love than anyone I know. When people will ask about the peculiar gem, I will not say much: “It’s from my Grandma.” The woman who taught me to be.
09/17/1926 to 06/28/2008