Each summer when I travel to Poland, I re-visit the place that was my first home. I tell myself I have to see family. But I also go to see how much there is in me of what I left behind and how much of me there is in it. I don’t count on finding myself in a time warp. I hope for an encounter with my past, knowing all too well that it’s impossible to enter what exists only in the subjective time of my memory. My visits can yield nothing more than crumbs, odd fragments, loose impressions, which, despite their chaotic character, feed my memory. A clothing store in one of the buildings on the town’s main street makes me remember the bookstore housed in the same space when I attended elementary school. An empty area where a row of tall maples used to grow reminds me of my preschool playground that the trees gave shade to. A familiar-looking stranger’s face brings back the woman who lived in a small wooden house right next to the railroad crossing, surrounded by lilacs the neighborhood kids raided when the shrubs were in bloom. My mind registers these random items, yet they refuse to coalesce until I have left, as if the din of the here-and-now dissolved my past’s contours and I could exist solely in the present. I need distance and solitude to sort through the recovered debris of memory and recapture what I can of my lost past. It’s when I’m gone that the details, like segments of a mosaic, come together and turn into images, scenes, narratives. Being away, I can smell the smoke from fall fires and the wet odor of the soil in the fields, and conjure up in their totality the days when my school went to a collective farm to dig potatoes. I can feel the frosty air biting my cheeks when I pull my sled up the hill and keep riding it down until it gets dark, and my toes feel cold and numb in the thick woolen red and blue socks my grandmother knitted whose tops stuck out of my ungainly dark brown boots polished each Sunday morning by my father. I’ll hear the neighbor from the top floor of our building yelling “Daaarek” through her kitchen window to get her son to come home for supper while all the children are playing ball in the backyard on a warm June evening, hoping for a reprieve from their own mothers. What I thus recollect seems more vivid and real than the sights I see when I visit.
We like to bemoan time’s thievery, but if the past has been plundered, a fixative has been applied to it since only things that vanish stay forever the same, immune to change, frozen in memory. How credible is my memory? I won’t claim it’s foolproof. I sometimes remember what I couldn’t have witnessed. I’m fine, though, with some of its failures as long as it retains the emotional weight and meaning of experience.
Forty-two years ago, when I left the small provincial town I grew up in, I was ready to go. The last year of high school I dreamed of escaping to the larger world the way Chekhov’s three sisters dreamed of moving to Moscow. At that time, I had no conception of loss, and like a child who believes the golden summer days will last forever, I thought that even with my absence, my life in the town would somehow be preserved, and, when I returned, I could easily retrive what I left behind. So I always came home for the holidays, stayed in touch with friends, saw traces of my previous life everywhere. While there were changes, my frequent visits let me see them soon after they happened, so they remained in my continuous present. Eventually my ties to my hometown began to weaken as they invariably do. But it was my moving away to America that began the process of disappearance. I left for the States in 1984 and returned only briefly to Poland the following summer. After that visit I stayed in the US beyond the two years that my exchange program allowed because I’d married an American. Five years later, a year after the demise of communism, I went to Poland and visited my hometown with my husband and our two daughters. By then I could safely enter the country and not worry whether I’d be permitted to leave. That trip was nostalgic, bittersweet. I was moved to see the place where I’d grown up. I badly wanted it to be the way I remembered it, and yet I also welcomed any changes that were the harbingers of the new political order. And even though my aesthetic sense revolted against some of the ugly manifestations of the newly embraced capitalism—the disorderly open-air market on the town’s outskirts selling practically everything, or the previously nonexistent gaudy billboards dotting the roads—I knew they were signs of the changing times. Time alone knows how to do its job and make things disappear from the visible world, but the process would have been gentler and slower were it not for the political overhaul which contributed to the changes accelerating with each passing year.
Now the town I knew is gone, and when I visit I hear the voice whispering, You’re no longer ours and we’re no longer yours. You’ve left, you’ve forsaken us, so what do you expect?
Some of my old high school friends have never left and have maintained a sense of continuity. Since the town and its vicinity have changed before their eyes, they would have to see the “before” and “after” photos to realize how profound those changes have been. For them, not much has been lost of the familiar surroundings of their childhood and adolescence; they smoothly moved into adulthood and never experienced a rupture. Whereas their connection to the place remained intact, mine was loosened when I left for college and broken when I immigrated to the United States. My loss of connection to the place entailed the loss of connection to my friends. I still see two of them when I go back, even though both they and I sense that we meet out of loyalty to our shared past since there’s little we share now. When we get together and exchange the required pleasantries and basic information about our families, our conversations invariably lead to questions beginning with “Do you remember?” Like most such reminiscences, ours look pale. They remind me of stories children try to tell, skeletal summaries of what this or that someone did. They jog my memory and help me later recall some incidents in their full glory. Someone reading this might think I’m morbidly obsessed with the past. But I’m not. I wonder sometimes if I’d be going there so often if my remaining family moved away.
I don’t mourn the disappearance of the town I grew up in. It’s still there. It’s just not the town I used to live in: its tissue isn’t the same. The Teutonic castle that lay in ruins has been carefully restored. Footbridges span the canal and the river outlets, so the walk to the municipal beach takes one third of the time it used to; an amphitheater has been built close to the lake where concerts and plays are performed in the summer; a lot of old buildings have been given a facelift and boast freshly painted facades; and the barracks dating back to the Prussian garrison and then occupied by the Polish troops have been converted into high-end apartment buildings and luxury stores. All the changes are for the better. They represent the leap the country took from communism to democracy and a free market economy.
Though I still recognize the places I knew as a child, they’re not what they were. I used to ride my bike on the sidewalk along Jakub Lake and by a dairy. Once past it I’d take a left on the road that had signs saying “Toruń,” a university city about 130 kilometers away. I’d bike a while longer and turn left again, this time onto a dirt path in the woods. About ten minutes later I’d come to a small lake covered with water lilies. It was my secret refuge, peaceful and quiet. Now right across from where I used to enter the forest is a huge meat processing plant, and the formerly sleepy road is full of loud trucks and exhaust fumes. The old German cemetery in the middle of town, where each October my friends and I tidied the graves of the Germans whose families escaped before the Red Army arrived, is gone. The hospital I was born in hasn’t changed much but the area around it has. It was originally located in an isolated spot that couldn’t even be called the outskirts. Now apartment buildings have crept up to it, and it’s surrounded by businesses and close to a highway. If by some miracle I were a child again, I wouldn’t be able to sled down the hill across from our apartment building. Concrete steps make the climb and the descent easy, and little stores occupy the space of the dingy apartments where the tough kids from our neighborhood lived.
Whenever I go to the area, I stay either with my sister or my aunt. This time I’ve been staying for a few days with my aunt in Olsztyn, the city which, many years ago, seemed glamorous compared to my hometown. I often went there with my high school friend Basia. We’d go to a café that served the best napoleons and, in summertime, strawberry ice-cream with large pieces of fruit, their specialty. Then we’d stop by a secondhand bookstore across the street from the café, where I bought the Polish translation of Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp, and on a subsequent visit his Other Voices, Other Rooms because the owner saved it for me after someone brought it to the store. He remembered that I had told him I wanted to major in English and was trying to read any contemporary British and American writers I could lay my hands on.
My hometown is about forty kilometers west of Olsztyn. I usually travel there in a car, my sister’s or my uncle’s, since no one in my family lives there anymore. Today, though, I choose to go on a train, maybe trying to recreate the way I used to travel years ago. I also want to be alone. I’ve decided to visit the house we lived in. My motivation is scientific, if you will. I want to see what it looks like. The apartment building has been there all along, yet not once during my many visits did I feel like going there. Was it my last sentimental outpost where old memories could stay sealed without being subjected to the corrective of reality?
You can enter and exit the train station on both sides of the tracks, but I exit the way I used to, not through the main building since we lived on the opposite side. The house across the street is still there, looking better than it once did. I walk alongside a concrete fence that separates the railway tracks from the street. Lightly traveled in the past, it’s congested now. Our old apartment building is a short distance away. The empty area where I used to play with neighborhood kids has been built up.
A few minutes later I reach the building. Someone has left the front door slightly ajar. I enter and climb the stairs to the third floor, counting the steps like I used to when I was a child. I stop before the door to our old apartment and listen. It’s silent. The whole building is quiet in a way it never was when I lived there. It couldn’t have been, with twenty-eight children of different ages living within its walls, from infants to teenagers, the result of the postwar baby boom. It was a very communal place back then—neighbors stopping by to chat or borrow sugar, children running up and down, doors opening and shutting, noise and havoc. The interior has a smell I can’t recognize; it’s not the smell of cooking coming from all the apartments and mingling together the way it used to. If someone is cooking, the smells don’t escape outside. I’d like to sit on the stairs like I once did, waiting for my mother to come home or for my grandmother to return from the bakery. These are the same stairs my father climbed lugging buckets of coal from the cellar, the steps I used to skip two at a time when in a hurry to announce some momentous news to my grandmother peeling potatoes in the kitchen. I touch the banister I tried to slide down after I saw our neighbor’s son doing it. But it’s not the same banister. And the girl sliding is and isn’t me. Maybe I would feel more like her extension if I hadn’t left. She is now a shadowy figure whom I have a hard time recognizing, just as I can’t recognize the building I once lived in.
The seams between the past and the present haven’t come unstitched. If I expected an epiphany, it hasn’t arrived. This visit has confirmed what I already sensed—that as we try to resurrect the past, memories alienate us from ourselves. We begin to see our former selves as strangers who might as well be fictional figures we can endow with lives that haven’t been exactly, or truly, our own.
Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough is the author of the essay collection Objects of Affection (Braddock Avenue Books, 2018). Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, AGNI, The Threepenny Review, The American Scholar, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. One of them was selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays 2012; two others were listed among the Notable Essays of 2011 and 2013. She is also a literary translator. (updated 10/2018)