Centennial

Pushed by the sea breeze the waves dance back and forth, white foam marking the apex of every peak. Rolling together, they march inland one after the other crashing into the barriers guarding the shore. Larger waves send spray upwards, salty water falling over those gathered near the edge of the pier. They are strangers to her, yet she’ll have time to get to know them. It will take ten days for the ship to reach her new home.

Rocks are piled high before her, the man-made slope the final barrier between her and the ocean. Far to her left, a ship is moored, waiting to take her off to an unknown destiny. Her old place in the world had been taken away, yet with it came an opportunity. It was up to her what she would make of it. A long somnolent horn echoes out over the water. They are calling for her.

“Ma’am?”

A young man dressed in a sailor’s uniform leans down to speak to her.

“The water is actually quite nice, you know.”

She blinks, looking at the shirtless fellow. He smiles reassuringly at her.

“If you would like, I can help you get in. It would be good to get a bit of exercise today.”

The water in the pool glistens in the sun, warm and inviting. It is the perfect temperature for swimming, though it smells of chlorine.

“No thank you.”

“All right, perhaps some stretches then? You’re going to have a big day tomorrow, I think it would help.”

Puffing out her cheeks, she sighs. Using both hands, she forces herself up put of the chair. Something tells her that this fellow won’t leave her alone until she gives in. He seems like the pushy sort, though he’s not bad looking.

Taking her hand, he leads her to the mats set out in the sun. Several older people are going through slow motions and routines on some of them. A frail gentleman is being assisted through his exercise by an aide. Nodding to him, she copies their movements.

“That’s it. You’re doing great.”

Putting the nonsensical jabbering out of her mind, she moves through the routine. Her body seems to know what to do on its own. Quelling the ache in her back with shear willpower, she works through the routines until the others have all left. Her body aches, but she’s dealt with worse.

A hand on her back brings her around. A middle age woman smiles at her. Slowing, she stretches her hands above her head. Despite the aches, the movement feels good.

“Dinner is ready.”

With a nod, she turns towards the source of the smell wafting over the patio and starts walking. The dining room has several long wooden tables, each set with tablecloths. Is it a restaurant of some kind? She turns to ask the woman how much it would cost. She doesn’t have much, and her children need the money for school.

“Mrs. Stawski, we made tonight’s dinner especially for you. Please, have a seat.”

So, someone else was paying for it. Seated, she turns towards the sound of footsteps. A man in a white apron leans in to place a bowl before her. Another sets a plate with toasted bread beside it.

“Mrs. Stawski, we made you bialy barszcz, white borscht. We tried to follow the recipe but had to change some of the ingredients. We hope it reminds you of home.”

“Thank you, I’m sure it’s lovely.”

Dipping her spoon into the bowl, she takes a bite. She knows this taste.

Seated in the farmhouse, she smiles at the wagon as it moves past the doorway. Rolling its ears, the horse whinnies at her.

“Get on you!”

With a nod, the worker urges the horse onward. Cows are waiting for the feed that lays in the back. The smell of animals mixes with each bite of the borscht.

“Not so fast, little miss. Take your time. We’ll be taking you into town today, but we don’t need to leave just yet.”

Her governess smiles at her. Slowing, she savors the next bite, and the next. Scraping the bottom of the bowl, she licks her spoon clean. Taking it away, the governess laughs.

“What would sir say if he saw you now… Come then, let’s get you ready.”

Following her outside, she blinks in the evening light.

“That’s it. Just like that.”

A tightness settles around her chest as the top falls into place.

“There we are Mrs. Stawski. All ready for tomorrow. It’s a big day, you know.”

“Oh, I suppose it is.”

Leaning over the bed, the woman pulls the covers back. “Here you go.”

A yawn interrupts the protestation that she is not tired. Giving in, she steps into the bed and allows the other to throw the covers over her.

“I know you don’t usually like this kind of treatment, but we’re all excited for you Mrs. Stawski.”

“Dinner was nice.”

“I’ll be sure to tell the chiefs you liked it. They will be very pleased.”

Eyes closed, she breathes slowly as she works through her jumbled memories. When was the last time she had eaten bialy barszcz?

Standing by the kitchen table, she looks down at four bowls of borscht and those bent over them. Spoons clank against bottoms as three children eagerly finish the meal before turning to face her. At her nod, they run into the next room. It was almost time for their favorite radio show, one they wouldn’t miss for the world. Resting a hand on her protruding belly, she smiles at her husband.

“So Ed… what are we going to do?”

Stirring the borscht with a spoon, he shakes his head. “Erik knows of some work in the city. He said he can get me in. I’ll go down tomorrow and take a look.”

Moving her hand, she nods. “I’ll take the kids out to the field tomorrow and have them prepare the second acre for planting. If we expand our garden, we can store or sell the extra produce. That’ll help.”

His knuckles turn white around the spoon.

“We’ll make it work. We always do.”

He shakes his head, bringing the spoon up to his mouth. He swallows, then offers a half-smile.

“It’s good.”

Fading away, the scene is banished by a voice and the feeling of a hand on her shoulder. Both bring her back to wakefulness.

“Mrs. Stawski? Good morning. It’s time to get up.”

Rising from the bed, she shakes off the other’s offer to help, moving into the shower alone. Taking her time, her fingers linger on her head. Had her hair always been this short? Once finished, she dresses in the clothes laid out for her before opening the window to allow the breeze inside. The scent of flowers and spring fills the room.

“Here, don’t forget to take these.”

Pushy, wasn’t she? Still, she was blocking the door. Accepting the pills, she takes the cup and uses the water inside to swallow them all at once. Holding the cup over her head, she examines the mark on the bottom. It was well made, she’d have to remember this brand.

“If you’re done, I can take you to the others. Some of your guests are already waiting for you.”

Handing the cup back to the woman, she follows her into the hall. The other’s words drift away as the feel of the cup in her hand gains weight.

“To our daughter, A — —. Congratulations! You worked hard. Now you are the first of us to hold a degree in this new land. You will make a fantastic teacher.”

Blushing, A — — raises her cup before they all take a mouthful of the strong liquid. They’d brought both the cups and the liquid all the way from home. There was no reason to pay for such things when you could make it yourself.

Slapping his sister on the shoulder W — — — grins from ear to ear, his wife standing beside him.

“I told you that you could do this. You always were the smart one.”

Blushing, A — — touches her cup to his and they share a silent toast.

Other family members stand nearby, chatting amiably with one another. Ed moves closer to her side.

“It’s good we could all come down for this.”

Throwing an arm around her, Ed turns to face their children. W — — — ’s wife was expecting a child, their first grandchild. There was much to look forward to. Moving together, they approach the recent graduate.

Dropping his arm, Ed steps in to hug his daughter. “We are very proud. You will do great things.”

It’s her turn. Releasing her from a hug, she smiles at her second born. “I love you honey.”

“Thanks Mom.” A — — smiles back.

Children run past, one of them brushing against her leg. People are scattered throughout the room. Those closest smile and nod as she enters.

“ — — , good to see you.”

“You look well.”

“Congratulations.”

“Mrs. Stawski, would you like a seat?”

Shaking off the question, she moves to the side the room, smiling and nodding at the strangers. Another group of children run past. The day they’d gone to see their first grandchild had been much like this, though not as crowded. He’d been far younger than any of the children running around.

“ — — ? Can I show you something?”

Standing a respectful distance away, a handsome young man waits before her. Well, she was not one to turn such a man away. “Certainly.”

“All right. It’s in the parking lot. Can you walk there with me?”

“Of course. I’m not an invalid you know.”

Stepping beside the youth, she heads away from the packed room. Something about him is familiar.

“What is your name, young man?”

“Emeryk. Everyone just calls me Ed.”

“That’s a good name. Both of them. My husband was called Ed.”

He smiles at her. His face even more familiar, somehow. “I know.”

Blocked by a cloud, the sunlight is not so bright. Different shapes she can only assume belong to cars fill the lot. One stands out. Walking up to it, she puts a hand on the hood.

“This car is a beauty.”

“Isn’t she?” Ed beams at her. “This is what I wanted to show you. I’ve been restoring her for years. Original paint and interior, though I had to fix up the engine before it would run. It’s as close to the original as I could make it.”

Stepping back, she admires the grill before walking around the automobile. The mint green paint is lustrous even in the diffuse light. She’d seen a car like this before.

Holding a plate of food, she pushes the door open and steps into the garage. It had taken a few weeks to get back on her feet after the birth, but she was fine now. Standing before his beloved Catalina Coupe, Ed drops the rag he holds to turn to her. Behind him, the radio babbles on about something or another other.

“Ed, you need to eat.”

Closing the hood, he keeps his eyes on the car.

“I was thinking — — , Yuri has had an eye on this for a while. I could sell it to him.”

Moving closer, she pushes the edge of plate into his chest. He takes it before she lets go.

“No.”

“I’ve not found work. I didn’t marry you so our kids could go hungry. They need-”

“They need you.” She presses a finger into his chest. “We’ll find work. We’ll make ends meet. We always do. You know how they love it when you pick them up from school in this car. No. We’ll not sell it.”

A slow waltz starts to play over the radio. Moving the plate to the side, he places it atop the hood before reaching out to her.

“Ed, your hands are filthy. My dress will get dirty.”

“You can wash it later.”

Protesting, she allows him to move in. Slowly, they start to sway to the music.

“You remember this?”

“Our first dance.”

“That’s worth a dirty dress, I’d think.”

“Maybe.”

“What do you think?”

Blinking, she turns to face the young man.

“It’s a beautiful car. Ed had one just like it.”

Moving closer, the young man smiles at her. It holds a trace of sadness to it. “Yeah, he did. You know, I’m going to give this to my kids someday. They’ll treasure it, like I do. Like Ed did.”

“What a wonderful idea. You are a very nice young man.”

Footsteps bring them both around. A young girl runs into the other’s knees. Leaning down, he rubs her head.

“What’s up ‘coz?”

“They’re waiting for her!”

Looking up, he smiles. “Why don’t you bring her in? I’m sure she’d like that.”

Walking over, the young girl reaches a hand upwards. Accepting it, she allows the young girl to lead her away. She turns back towards the beautiful green car.

“Thank you for showing me your car…”

The name of the young man escapes her. She smiles at him instead.

Inside the building, there are now even more people. They all turn to look at her. They smile, making odd comments. Holding fast to the young girl’s hand, she smiles, nods, waves, and murmurs small innocuous commentary.

Coming to a stop, the young girl drops into a chair. Rows have been set up through the room. Most of the others are now already seated. The girl pats the top of the chair next to her. Taking the hint, she sits.

“Did you save this chair for me?”

The girl grins. “I did!”

“What a dear. Thank you for that.”

“Attention please. Now that — — is here, we will get started. A — — will speak first.”

Stepping away from the podium, the speaker allows an old woman to move behind the microphone. Grey hair has been tied behind her into a bun. Despite her age, she moves without aid, every step certain and composed. Behind the podium, the old woman turns to her, then looks over the crowd.

“Thank you for coming. I know it was quite a journey for some of you to make it here today. Yet if it wasn’t for the woman we are here to celebrate, none of us would be present now. If she had not persevered, we’d have far different lives than we now do. When she left Poland-”

Poland. The barn. 1939. She had hidden when the Russians came for them. Her father had owned land, something they’d loathed. They’d found her hiding under straw, the whinnies of the horse giving her away.

Laughing at the straw in her hair, they’d put her into a wagon and taken her to town. Then there’d been a train. A train that had taken them far away, until everything was bitterly cold. Her hands hurt every morning. Flexing her fingers, she’d swayed in place as the boxcar rocked too and fro. Her mother had warned her not to fall asleep unless she was with others. To fall asleep alone was death. Some had not survived that journey. She remembers the touch of a cold back in front of her.

Then it had been the camp, with men shouting in Russian. She understood most of it, but they didn’t like it when she spoke back. The things that followed had been hard. Too hard. Pain and anger mix, colors and feelings merging into a mass of emotion. Faces of fallen family members float before her.

A slow chant nudges her consciousness. Words that resonate with her soul. A ritual, known to the depths of her being. Pain and anger fade, the forgiveness of decades in the making taking its place.
 “…debitoribus nostris: et ne nos inducas in tentationem: sed libra nos a malo.”

“Here.”

Held in the child’s hand is a small wafer marked with red. Blinking, she takes it from the youth, searching for the source. Her eyes find the robed man standing at the head of the room. With a friendly nod, he smiles at her.

Good. All was in order. Holding up the wafer, she smiles at the young child. “God bless you dear. This is a beautiful thing. It is hope.”

Swallowing the wafer as the other does the same, something about the girl brings a second smile. Her face reminds her of an old black and white photo she’d once had of her mother. This young girl is the spitting image of her as a child. With an answering smile, the young girl looks back at her.

The old woman has taken the podium again. The speech continues. Eyes studying the girl beside her, only part of it gains her attention.

“…five generations. All because family never gives up on family. I learned to laugh, to live, and to walk in faith and hope from her example. Love is stronger than any problem we will ever face. When you face a problem together, it is never stronger than family.

“I know there are some we wish could be present today. W — — — would have loved to see that old Coupe looking as it now does . You’ve done a wonderful job Ed, your grandfather would be proud. He’d also have loved to see his first great-grandchild. Yet he’s with my father now, in glory. Some of us will see him soon, but others had better wait a lot longer before you get to know him.”

She waits for the laughter to die down.

“To my mother, I want to say thank you. Thank you for taking the hard roads. Thank you for everything. Thank you for being who you are. Happy birthday.”

Confused, she claps along with the others. They are all looking at her. She looks down, abashed, and notices that that her fingers are old and wrinkled. When had that happened? She frowns.

Stepping away from the podium, the old woman is walking towards her. A gentle prod from the girl beside her brings her to her feet as the other reaches out. Putting her own arms around the woman, she leans in. A warm scent fills the space around them. A scent she knows. She presses in closer.

“Thank you Ania. You have always been a wonderful daughter.”
 Over a hundred members watch as the two embrace. They hold each other with wrinkled hands that have seen hardships and joy, pain and triumph. Silence marks the solemnity of the moment, the weight of age and dignity making the embrace all the more poignant.

One by one, the throng of decedents around them begin to clap.