by Ted Lietz
Hania grew up in a southwest Detroit neighborhood where most people understood English well enough to follow radio broadcasts of Joe Louis fights and fireside chats. But they were far more comfortable conversing in Polish. It was the language of commerce at Nowak’s Grocery. Of play, as youngsters ran and laughed and shouted. Of Father Jablonski’s sermons on love and loss and comfort.
Like most of her friends, Hania spoke fluent Polish by the time she started school. But unlike most of them, she also spoke English that was not so bad. Ma and Pa wanted Hania to have choices in this new country, and figured English was the key. They insisted Hania speak only English at home. Whenever she was present, they did the same.
In a few years, with the help of the nuns, Hania was proficient enough to be amused by her parents’ speech. Pa’s tale of crossing the ocean on a sheep. Ma’s explanation of leakage and flow — translations of Polish euphemisms for menstruation.
By age fifteen, Hania’s vocabulary had expanded to the point her parents couldn’t always understand. She had an important request, and worried Ma and Pa might not grasp the rationale if she spoke in English.
One night after dinner, as Pa worked an index finger down another Dziennek Polski article about Poland under Nazi occupation, Hania broke the English-Only Rule.
Pa arched an eyebrow and set the newspaper aside. Ma’s stare turned icy as a January wind off the Baltic.
Briefly re-tasting the kapusta she’d had for dinner, Hania pushed on. Casper Kowalcyzk had asked Hania to go roller-skating. Yes, he was five years older. But Casper and Pa worked together making Fords and Pa himself had called Casper “a nice young man.”
Pa said, “Say again in English.”
After Hania did as she was told, Pa said. “When you were little, at same age as you now, Cousin Jadwiga from Chicago stay with us. You know why?”
Pa said Jadwiga’s parents sent her away when they learned she was pregnant. “People there call her—” He scanned the ceiling and then looked at Ma. “What is English for kurwa?”
Ma said, “Whore. They call her whore.”
Before Pa could utter one of his always-final Nos, Ma told Hania to go to her room and shut the door.
Hania did shut the door. But she also opened the transom. After a long debate in Polish, Pa agreed with Ma: If they didn’t let Hania see a nice boy like Casper, maybe she’d see some not-so-nice boy behind their backs.
Friendship became infatuation became love.
Casper took all the overtime he could get, saving so that he and Hania could marry once she finished school. At the rink, the couple would often slip away. Casper wanted to go further than Hania, but always stopped when she told him to.
One night, Casper showed Hania an official-looking paper. There was a new military draft, and he’d been called.
Hania cried. Casper held her, stroked her hair and promised to write every day. “Besides,” he said, “We’re not at war.”
The night before Casper shipped out, Hania whispered that they could do the thing he’d always wanted.
“Are you sure?”
Casper did write every day, but the letters weren’t enough to offset the emptiness, the loneliness.
Ma had once said being very upset could cause a missed period.
One cold Sunday afternoon, when Ma and Hania returned from church, Pa turned down the radio. Beaming, he handed a package to Hania, “Delivered by accident next door yesterday,” he said. He pointed to the return address: PFC C. Kowalcyzk.
Hania tore open the package. Roller skates! Inside was a note from Casper: “Wesolych Swiat, kochanie!” — Merry Christmas, my love!
Suddenly somber, Pa turned up the volume on the radio. American soldiers and sailors killed. At Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii.
The skate Hania had been admiring slipped from her hand, slightly scratching the wooden floor.
“Not worry,” Pa said. “Casper not in Hawaii.”
But Casper was in the Philippines, where he died in battle a few days later.
Soon after the New Year, Hania asked Ma if being very upset could cause a woman to miss two periods in a row. Ma took Hania to the midwife.
That night, in the living room with Hania beside her, Ma told Pa their daughter was expecting.
Pa stared a long time at the scratch the skate had made in the floor. Meeting Hania’s eyes he said, “Casper?”
Hania gulped and nodded. “I don’t want to go away like Cousin Jadwiga. I want to be here, with you and Ma.”
Hania’s parents made sure she understood just how hard it had been for Jadwiga in Chicago — gossip, sneers, painful words.
“Please!” Hania said.
Ma and Pa nodded. Then all three went to see Pan and Pani Kowalcyzk. Casper’s parents refused to believe their son was the father. Pan Kowalcyzk spat and uttered the word kurwa. Pa bloodied the man’s nose and took the family home.
The next day, Hania attributed a bellyache to that confrontation. She worried more when the backache started. Then the bleeding — so much blood. Ma put Hania to bed and fetched the midwife.
After an examination the two older women spoke in the hallway, too quietly for Hania to hear.
When the midwife left, Ma came back into the room, a tear working its way down her cheek.
“Am I dying, Ma?”
Pa, just home from work, stood in the doorway. “Dying?”
Ma turned to Pa, then back to her daughter. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she took Hania’s hand. “Midwife say you rest, you be fine.” Then, a long pause. “But you lose baby.”
Hania let out a loud moan and cried.
Ma began to say something, but stopped. Words wouldn’t come for Pa, either.
Hania sniffled and said, “Prosze, powiedz mi to po polsku” — Please tell me in Polish.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This story was originally published by Every Day Fiction.
© Ted Lietz 2020. All rights reserved.