Wanting to Be Somewhere Else
The Polish word pragnąć evokes a feeling that its English translation—to yearn or long for something—does not. A single word covers the aching longing for a distant someone or a nostalgic yearning for a place left behind.
As a young girl, my longings were simple. I longed to belong, and then, when that was within my grasp, I wanted to be somewhere else.
I longed to be a latchkey kid like some of my friends, but the door of the bungalow in the small town where my family lived was never locked, and there was always an adult at home. In the early years, it was my babcia, my maternal grandmother, who came from Poland to live with us when I was six. It meant that my mother could work part-time and help out with the family finances.
Memories of my grandmother are of an elderly babushka, like someone Central Casting would send over to a movie set for the elderly Polish woman character. As a child, she seemed ancient to me; her face etched with deep lines made her seem much older than sixty, the age she was when she arrived from her village in Poland. As I look at an old photograph now, I see a woman who doesn't appear quite as old as in my childhood memories.
Babcia had travelled by boat and train, taking the same lengthy and exhausting route my parents had taken a few years earlier. Our family of five met her at the train station and collected her small trunk and a large parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with rope. The parcel contained her feather duvet: a comforter about twelve inches thick that she kept on her bed perfectly fluffed up.
Except for church on Sunday, Babcia seldom left the house. The car ride there gave her motion sickness. She sat in the front seat, a kerchief firmly tied under her chin to protect her neatly coiffed salt-and-pepper hair, which she had coiled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. With one hand shading her eyes, she (and the rest of us in the car) hoped for the best. She never got used to life in Canada. She never learned a word of English, and she disliked her boisterous granddaughters jumping on her feather duvet.
After six years, babcia declared that she had ten grandchildren back home who needed her more than we did, and she returned to Poland.
The more probable reason for her departure was the chasm separating her life from my mother's new one in Canada. But I was too young to understand the tensions and dynamics between the two women. Besides, none of my friends had grandmothers from the old country living with them. I wanted to have a family like that.
On most days, within minutes of the 4 p.m. school bell, I was home, grabbed a snack, ignored my babcia, and headed outside to play with my friends. Without much homework or supervision, I could do as I pleased.
On rainy days, I watched TV, but with only two stations, there wasn't much to watch on our black-and-white set.
Often, I immersed myself in the pages of a Nancy Drew mystery or a literary gem recommended by Miss Sadie Knowles, the petite, elf-like children's librarian at the public library. She wore her grey hair short and had round wire-framed spectacles accented by a distinct Frida Kahlo-esque unibrow, a look that made her slightly intimidating. Despite this, her recommendations were my first escape from the confines of our small bungalow squeezed in among all the other small bungalows.
I loved sunny days and summer vacations when I could ride my bike and explore, even if it meant the occasional scraped knee. The outdoors offered freedom. No parents watched over us.
The kids were swept up together like metal bits collected by a magnet. We didn't make plans to meet . We just did and then roamed the streets on our bicycles like an underage motorcycle gang, occasionally descending on the corner store and rattling the elderly Chinese owner with our over-the-top clamour and energy before spending our allowances (ten cents a week for me) on penny candy—Double Bubble, jujubes, Pixy Stix, and SweeTARTS. We played cards by the creek in the woods behind the school. Once, we flipped through a Playboy magazine some kid had stolen from his father's closet, ten kids jostling to get a better look.
I must have had an inner clock because I was always home on time for dinner. The evening meal was brief because twenty minutes later, all the screen doors in the neighbourhood, including ours, banged shut again, signalling a mass exodus of kids back onto the streets, where we stayed until dusk.
My mother did not schedule play dates, activities after school, or summer camp. Tutoring was unheard of, although she had me in a headlock on Saturdays. Saturday morning, I attended Polish school in the basement of the Catholic Church. At twelve, I rebelled. I refused to go back.
So to fill my Saturday mornings, my mother bought a second-hand upright piano and started me on lessons with Mrs. Dobrowolska, the wife of our family doctor, a Jackie Kennedy wannabe. I had limited musical talent, but I endured the hour each week, fascinated by the doctor's much younger wife and her elegant cashmere sweater twin sets paired with a single strand of pearls. At every lesson, I found myself yearning to wear pearls of my own someday.
Looking back, I enjoyed a lot of freedom. I was allowed to cross intersections by myself, do my school projects without guidance or supervision, climb trees, and put on my own bandages. Spit was great for cleaning up a cut. My mother had no idea of my feral life and how I spent my days. And who knew what she thought of the dirty bathwater swirling down the drain each evening?
My parents did not consult parenting books. They weren't alone. Little did they know that I would one day marry the grandson of the author of Canada’s version of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s bestseller: The Care of the Child by Dr. Alton Goldbloom. These were books they did not have. Yet somehow, they brought me up to be independent and resourceful.
By the age of twelve, I was babysitting other kids in the neighbourhood, and from that year on, I earned my own money. At seventeen, I left home to attend university seven hundred kilometres away. I was driven by a longing to escape the constraints of a small town, my immigrant upbringing, and the feeling of never measuring up to my mother’s expectations, yet never quite knowing what the hell it was she wanted.
Every library book, every movie, every school trip fuelled an ambition to explore the bigger, wider world. The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, the first man walking on the moon, and magazines featuring the model Twiggy made me restless to find brighter lights and adventure.
My parents survived a world war. My children live in a world where terrorists fly planes into office towers, school shootings are commonplace, a microscopic virus has made the whole world sick, and authoritarianism is rearing its ugly head again.
My in-between generation had Expo 67, bellbottoms and tie-dyed shirts, macramé everything, birth control pills, hippies and free love, confidence that jobs would always be there for us, a world-view shaped by the Vietnam war, and the feeling that everything was possible. We were a restless, freedom-loving, peripatetic generation full of hope and optimism. Anything was possible.
It was a time when I could embark on a road trip, with absolutely no fixed plans or cares about crashing on a stranger's floor, in a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle, with my boyfriend, who resembled Cat Stevens and was a lecturer in the French department at my university, across the country, down the west coast to Los Angeles, and across the United States back to Ottawa. It was a time of expansion, no boundaries, and permission.
I had it all figured out. And I longed to be anything but an immigrant girl from a small town.