Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Uprooted, my Babcia, and me

It seems like the deadline part of my summer is behind me now. I'm left with the piles and piles of stuff I ignored in deference to stuff that had to be done by a certain time. Yesterday my son and I finally started sorting through my children's playroom--a cozy slanted room above our garage that when we designed the house was intended as an attic space, but that when framed in proved too cute not to use. My children have outgrown the playroom, however, and eventually I'm going to move my floor loom up there, though I'm certainly keeping the best of our toys.

After that I read Naomi Novik's new novel, Uprooted. I'd been saving it for when I could read it in one or two long goes, because it was the sort of novel that needed real attention. Naomi Novik is primarily the author of the Temeraire series--intelligent dragons helping to fight the Napoleonic wars. I don't read a lot of fantasy or science fiction, because I absolutely hate it when it's done poorly. If I can poke holes in the world-building or the science, I lose my mind. (I'm also not a fan of endless world-building. I used to love Robin McKinley but her recent stuff bores me senseless.)

Anyway, I read the reviews of Uprooted and figured I'd like it, and I trust Naomi's writing ability. What I didn't expect was the memories her book brought back to me.

Some of the reviewers on Amazon call Uprooted a Russian fairy tale. It's not--it's Polish. It's not a traditional Polish story--I believe the whole plot is Naomi Novik's creation (and I looked her up--she's a first-generation Polish immigrant)--but it's completely Polish in the place names, and the character names, and, somehow, in the language itself. It brought to mind a flood of very early childhood memories, visiting my babcia and dziadek (I just looked those spellings up in Google translate; I pronounced them "bushy" and "jah-jee.") in their little house in Gary, Indiana. Babcia, my mother's mother's mother, would pour me a little glass of 7-up and then, with a smile, dribble a bit of cooking sherry into it, so that it turned pink. Dziadek was blind from an accident in a steel mill. He'd come to America as an adult and never spoke English well. According to the rest of my family he'd been a stern parent and a somewhat disinterested grandparent, but when I sat on his lap in the front room he would run his fingers gently over my face. Then he would smile and say the only English word I ever heard him use: pretty.

Everyone spoke Polish, words floated around my head, all those comforting phrases. Babcia had a little garden out back, with tomatoes, I think. She also brewed her own beer. They came down the front steps very slowly, blind Dziadek leaning heavily on Babcia's arm, when we picked them up to go to Mass. Their parish priest spoke Polish, too.

I remember them as being the oldest people I ever knew, and was shocked to learn, years later, that they were both in their early 70s when they died. Dziadek's funeral postponed my seventh birthday party. After that Babcia came to live with my grandmother. After a few months she decided to visit her younger son, my Uncle Johnny, in California, and we all drove to O'Hare to see her off. We waved and waved as her big jet pulled away. A few weeks later she had a heart attack while Uncle Johnny was at work, and died.

My family stopped speaking Polish as there was no longer any need. I still use a few phrases, most of them rude. But I remember more than I realized; Uprooted brought it all back.