by Iza Wojciechowska —
My father started baking bread when I was sixteen. The first loaf was a tragedy—lumpy, too yeasty, the texture of coarse cloth. No one ate it. We feebly praised his effort. After years of experimenting—developing careful proportions of different kinds of flour, grinding it himself with a contraption in the garage—and after baking loaf after loaf with varying degrees of success, his bread has been perfected. From his oven in Texas emerge replicas of the dark ryes and wheats my parents grew up buying from tiny bakeries in Poland twenty, thirty, years ago. My father is proud of his accomplishment; the longest conversations I have with him tend to revolve around dough and molds, poppy seeds and crusts. I receive picture text messages of particularly successful graham-flour rolls.
“No bread in Europe is as good as Polish bread,” he says, after returning from a summer road trip from Warsaw to Athens and back again. As he speaks, he saws open a fresh loaf, its porous interior still steaming, and asks me if I want any. “Although one can always hope to find something even more perfect.”
“I want half a slice. The smaller half.”
“You know”—he looks up from the knife—“halves cannot be smaller or bigger. A half is a half.” And we move to the table considering fractions, eating the bread religiously.
My mother has told me to be nice to him, because he thinks I hate him, so I stay at the table and listen as he feeds me math problems he created while driving through Romania or Hungary or Greece. I give up. I don’t know how to prove that the speed necessarily must, at some point, exceed the distance remaining. He examines the jam jar and says it might help if I drew a diagram.
I used to sit at this table and practice multiplication. I’d hold my hands in front of my face and fold a finger down to learn the nines: three times nine, fold the third finger. Two remain standing on the left, and seven on the right. Twenty-seven then. Easy. Sometimes, if the numbers were being particularly uncooperative, I’d stop and watch my father at the other end of the table: a small, thin man with large eyes that don’t focus on the real world for too long, eyes that don’t hide frustration or disappointment, or his constant preoccupation with math. At the table he’d be filling pages with some sort of cuneiform that he said was research, but math is so fundamental that I wondered how it was possible to discover something new. I wondered if you had to be incredibly smart, and grew suddenly self-conscious of my finger-folded nines.
Now, many years later, we still sit across from each other, he resigned and chewing, me on a second cup of coffee. I know I don’t put much effort into calculating the area of a triangle or the distance a snail has crawled, but even when he offers up other questions—about my life, for instance—and pretends they aren’t difficult for him to ask or somehow intrusive, I still answer with shrugs and monosyllables. He expects me to elaborate, to make some sort of effort, but I pick at my fingernails and at crumbs on the table. He stares at wrens through the blinds. I have nothing to say—I have never had anything to say—but it is far from hatred.
He grew up splitting Christmases. Christmas Eve with his mother, an artist and actress, who lived in a small flat overlooking Warsaw’s National Theater. A quiet dinner of soup and fish, an elaborate dessert; forks conversing with plates, and the basset hound watching from the corner. “It’s too salty, isn’t it?” she’d say, and he’d assure her it was delicious. “No. No, it’s too salty. As usual.” And they would stare at the centerpiece and move spoons toward their mouths.
Christmas Day, he would take the tram back to Warsaw’s Żoliborz neighborhood, to his father’s cramped apartment with an intelligent cat. Here, sometimes there was a stepmother and sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes the meat was burned and sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes they’d tell jokes: A rabbit and a hedgehog pass each other on the street, and the hedgehog is chewing something. Co jesz?—“What are you eating?”—the rabbit asks. Co, zając?—“What, rabbit?”—the hedgehog responds, presenting an untranslatable play on words. “What are you eating?” sounds identical to “What, hedgehog?”—which the rabbit ostensibly didn’t ask, but which the hedgehog chose to hear.
After the holidays, my father endured a battery of questions from both sides—Whose Christmas was better? Whom would you rather spend time with? Did I give you better presents than your mother? Was my dinner better than your father’s?—and he’d have to be diplomatic, though no response was ever satisfactory. He liked clean, simple solutions. He spent his childhood doing geometrical proofs.
At the University of Warsaw some years later, he spent weeks with hundreds of other students camping in abandoned buildings, demonstrating against the Communist government already on the verge of collapse. And yet he would have preferred to spend this revolutionary time alone at his desk poring over textbooks, doing what he had come there to do: to study computers and math. He became preoccupied with an advanced and obscure field of higher-order algebra, and right after I was born, he was invited to do a PhD under the discipline’s foremost scholar at a university in distant, exotic Ohio.
He accepted, but leaving the country then was difficult. He answered the phone when it rang one day in 1987, in his father’s apartment in Warsaw.
“Meet me in the Europejska Café at noon tomorrow. We’ll talk about America,” said a male voice on the phone, and my dad said he didn’t know who was speaking. “I know,” the man said, “but I know who you are.”
And so my father went, because in those days you followed orders, and he waited until a stranger walked through the door, sat down next to him, and pulled out a file. They’d had their eye on him for some time, the man said, and they’d like to offer him a visa, along with arrangements for the family.
“To leave the country?” my dad asked. At the time, this was a near impossibility; people did not leave Communist Poland, and obtaining a visa required a run through a gauntlet of muddied bureaucracy.
“Yes.” A pause.
“But there is a catch, of course?”
“Of course,” the man murmured in approval. “You will be at an American university, getting a doctorate degree, and working with computers. You will hack into their programs, learn their secrets, and write us monthly letters about what you find. You agree.” It was not a question.
My father agreed—though he never intended to follow through on his promise and never did—and he braved the Atlantic shortly after that, stepping off a plane onto a Greyhound, and off the Greyhound onto a curb in the middle of the night in the middle of the country. It was snowing and silent and foreign, and he left footprints in the newly fallen snow as he walked toward town, gripping the two gray suitcases bearing most of our possessions. My mother and I brought one more when we joined him a few months later to make our way through the American Dream, first in Ohio and then in Texas, where my dad ended up teaching math at a university and baking bread.
In the summers, we returned to Poland, and each time, I fell in love anew with the countryside and the wildflowers, the small dangers of roadside nettles, and the characteristic gray smell of rain. I fell in love with the legends that engulfed the tiny Polish villages and with swans and storks and the idea of heritage.
I would go outside and whisper childish secrets into the trunks of trees or the yellow centers of flowers that grew along the sidewalks. I’d imagine that I belonged here and that my home was not my home. I imagined I was someone else, a lost child at the end of the world, and that someone would always, eventually, come save me. I was a long-lost princess waiting to reclaim my long-lost throne. I imagined these things, walking slowly and quietly through the fields alone. Whenever someone talked to me, I hid behind my mom and stared with big unblinking eyes until my parents answered for me, saying, “Thank you, she’s just shy.” And to me they’d say, “Why don’t you talk to anyone?” And I’d say I didn’t know.
It’s unusual for children of foreign immigrants to speak their native tongue to one another, but my brothers and I do. We were forbidden to speak English at home growing up, and every time an English word surfaced, it was immediately corrected.
But I have always been too literal. I perversely took the rule too far and clung to sweeping associations: English wasn’t allowed, and therefore, I decided, neither was anything that occurred in that language. My parents wouldn’t hear about what happened at school. If they asked about my classes, I’d answer but not elaborate. If they asked about friends, I’d shrug. In order to explain anything, after all, I’d have to pull one world into the other, and one language into the next. I’d have to mix Polish verbs with English nouns and use them with the appropriate declension. It felt unnatural. I couldn’t do it. I refused. So I kept my worlds—and my words—separate.
Whenever my father picked me up from school, in a dented Chevy with a broken door, he’d make attempts. “How was school?” he’d ask.
“Good,” I’d say.
“Okay,” he’d say, and we’d drive the rest of the way home in silence.
Maybe it wasn’t just me. Maybe it wasn’t just my arbitrary decision to keep my languages separate, to leave Polish for bread and holidays and straw-thatched villages, to leave English for everything raw and unfamiliar. Maybe my father just didn’t want to pry. Maybe he didn’t know how to deal with American childhood. Maybe I had already been incapable of normal conversation the first hundred times my parents had tried, in kindergarten, in first grade, in one language about another, and so maybe they gave up. My father is non-confrontational and so am I, and the line between confrontation and conversation is fine. We talk about easy subjects—numbers and bread—and then retreat to orbit our own stars in silence. My father withdraws into hobbies and algebraic formulas—clean and reliable pursuits that eventually give the desired result. If I won’t yield, he won’t push. But for years I waited.
My parents once met a teacher of mine who told them I was smart and that he liked to talk to me.
“She talks?” my parents asked and looked blankly around the room. An unfamiliar variable can stump even the most expert mathematician.
Now I come home only once in a while. It is not the perfect fruit of my childhood imagination; I have not been rescued and returned to the throne.
My parents invite their colleagues to a dinner party. I set the table and walk toward the kitchen, pinching olives from a bowl before anyone arrives.
“What are you eating?” my father asks in Polish as he opens a bottle of wine.
“What, rabbit?” I respond, and we laugh as someone rings the doorbell.
But once the guests arrive, it’s accents and English and small talk. “Are you finishing school now?” my parents’ friends ask me, and I nod, explaining trivialities.
“And what kind of job are you looking for?” my parents say to me in English to keep a conversation afloat, even though they know the answer.
“You know I don’t know,” I say in Polish and shrug meekly at their friends. I grew up speaking Polish to my parents, and it is now an unbreakable habit. I grew up saying little to my parents, and that will not change either. It is muscle memory of the tongue.
“She says she doesn’t know,” they translate and apologize on my behalf. They shoot me looks that implore me to act my age. This entails speaking a language that doesn’t belong in this realm. This entails some sort of inexplicable betrayal.
“Poproszę o sól,” I say in a secret act of defiance, and they reluctantly pass the salt.
Maybe it is simply because of the languages. Maybe it is because of some failure—but on whose part, I don’t quite know. Now, my dad and I talk on the phone.
“How’s New York?”
“We planted more tomatoes in the garden.”
“They are suffering this year. And I’ve begun making white rolls.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“Assume there are x number of sparrows and y number of wires. If the sparrows sit in pairs, there are one too many wires. If the sparrows sit individually, one bird won’t have a wire. How many sparrows and how many wires?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you. You’re doing well?”
“Good. Well. Thanks for calling.”
Then we both hang up the phones, staring at walls or into receivers. It seems too late to change anything. This is a habit we have spent years carefully cultivating, one of attempts, hesitations, and small talk. Nonetheless, I understand the problem. I know that there are four sparrows and three wires. While the others perch, one sparrow flutters, alone, wanting something, reluctant to intrude on someone else’s wire.