By Zeljko Svedic
It caught me by surprise. It was a nice skiing day in Flachau, and I had taken my six-year-old daughter to her third day of ski school. “She is excellent!” the ski instructor had said the day before. “Tomorrow we can go to a real slope!” So I had brought her to the school the next morning and tucked a child ski pass in a pocket of her pink jacket. “Just show this pass when you go to the button lift,” I explained. She nodded. We sat down and waited for other kids to arrive. After few minutes of silence, it started.
“Daddy!” she said.
I turned around and saw tears streaming down her face. I hugged her tight and tried to comfort her.
“What is the problem, sweetie?”
“I don’t want to go to school today. I am afraid of the button lift,” she wept.
Here we go, I thought to myself. Fear of the button-lift monster, the one that suddenly crosses your skis on the way up so you fall and get dragged by the lift while spectators laugh at you. It’s funny because it is harmless—nobody gets hurt on the kids’ ski lift. Landing your butt in the snow doesn’t really hurt. But I knew my daughter’s fear was real—because that same monster has been chasing me.
Some people are born lions and some deer. I was born a chickenhearted deer. I was shy and scared of being hurt. Hurt physically or, even worse, socially. Therefore, while other kids were playing outside with balls and sticks, I was reading encyclopedias at home. I especially liked the “R” section because it had rockets. Some encyclopedias put rockets under “S”, in the space article. As a kid, I always thought such amateurs shouldn’t be allowed to write encyclopedias; rockets deserve a separate article. I was quite a happy child, doing my exciting and non-scary things. But adults were not happy with me. I was too shy.
“I am really afraid,” my daughter cried. I was holding her, while tears were relay-racing down her cheeks.
“Don’t worry sweetie; everything will be fine.” I tried to comfort her. “Look at all these kids around; nobody is scared.” True, there were five kids in the same group. A younger kid was looking at her in surprise: “Ski school is fun!”
She was not always like that. As a baby she was loud and she started walking early. She would fall down, bump her head, and in a few minutes try to walk again. But then, after the age of three, kids in kindergarten separated into loud ones and shy ones. She went to the shy side, same as her father. I read later it was something genetic connected with the amygdala. I felt guilty.
“I am going to be there next to you. Your ski instructor is going to be next to you. And the guy running the lift is going to stop it if you fall down.” It didn’t help. If it is so easy, she thought, then why are there three adults helping her?
When I was five and I had cut my eyebrow in an amusement park. I was bleeding but not scared while my parents drove me to the hospital. Once inside, the doctors had me lie down on a bed and put a local anesthetic over the cut. They told me it would not hurt but I didn’t believe them. If it is not going to bloody hurt, then why were two doctors holding my head and a third one leaning over with a light on her head and large stitching needle in her hand? I totally flipped. Fortunately, a few weeks before, I had spent a weekend with my grandparents in the countryside. My grandpa was disappointed that such a big boy still didn’t know how to swear. So he took a weekend to teach me every juicy Croatian swear word he knew. I could now defend myself. By eyewitness accounts, with every stitch that went into my eyebrow, my profanities increased by an order of magnitude. By the time the last stitch was in, I was comparing the doctor’s vagina with slutty farm animals and her mother’s vagina to well-known religious figures. Christian religious figures. The hospital staff had never experienced anything like it. Neither had my mother, who was standing in the hospital room. We lived in a small city and for the next month she pretended not to recognize acquaintances on the street if they worked at the hospital. My father checked if my comic books had any swear words. He only found “@#$%&!”
Back on ski slopes, my daughter was still in tears but at least she was not making a scene like I did in the hospital. I decided to play it cool. “You are crying for nothing. It’s easy. You will see.” The ski instructor said we could start walking toward the slope, which was five minutes away. It looked like my daughter was crying less as we walked hand in hand. She just needs to cry it out, I thought. She can’t quit now. What kind of life lesson would that be—to just quit every time you have an irrational fear? The other five kids would learn to ski and she wouldn’t.
This fear was similar as singing is for me. I always found it dreadful. Our music teacher in primary school had demanded that each of us sing in front of the class to get our mark. She would randomly open the class register and read the name of some unlucky bastard. When it was me, I refused to sing. No matter if the three previous kids sang, I didn’t want to do it. Just give me an F and continue with it.
One time we learned how to intonate rhythm, which was quite easy because you sing te-ta sounds instead of words. When it was time to sing, she looked at me. She skipped the usual class register routine, so I didn’t have time to start panicking properly. I decided to give it a try. With a lump in my throat, I started singing: ta te ta fa te fe, ta fe te ta ta te, ta te ta fa te fe. I finished without a single pause or error. Then she said to the whole class, “Zeljko did it without an error. Which means that all of you can also do it—it’s that easy.” My cheeks blushed. I guess that everybody’s good for something, even if it’s just to be a bad example. To this day I refuse to sing.
My thoughts moved back to the present time. My daughter was still crying and I was getting annoyed. Is that the way she is going to lead her life? Hiding from irrational monsters while everybody else is having fun? I decided I would not let that happen. No way. “Stop crying. You are just being a baby!” I raised my voice. I needed to push her so she could overcome her fear. You always need to push yourself. Don’t give up to the fear, fight that monster. I pushed myself that way when I was younger.
Take the time I had asked a girl on a date for the first time. I was in high school and I had been seeing her every day. We had a really nice communication going on. She would smile and I would get goosebumps. I thought it was obvious I fancied her. I would offer to come and study at her house. She would make me a sandwich. But that is all I would get, no kisses or anything. Not that I tried. I was too scared. So I decided to take it to the next level, to ask her for a date. I contemplated my fear for days. One day I decided to call her on the phone; I didn’t want her to see me nervous. I put my red phone on the floor and sat in front of it. For thirty minutes I looked at the phone digits in silence. They looked back at me. My heart was pounding. The scene looked like an advert for cheap long-distance calls. But I decided to fight the monster. I picked up the handset and dialed the number. She answered the phone.
“How is your day going?” I tried to be cool.
She started talking about homework, as that was often the topic of our conversation. I was thinking, though, this conversation wasn’t going well. I mean, mathematics is sexy but not in that way.
“Do you have any plans for tonight?” I said.
“Actually no, I am free tonight. Why do you ask?”
“It’s a nice day, maybe we could go to the city for drinks?” I replied.
“Well… yes, I guess we could go. Were you planning to invite somebody else?”
She was clueless. After all that math and all those sandwiches.
“No,” I said, “I wanted only the two of us to go for a drink. You know, like a date.”
“A date?! You are kidding, right?”
“No, I am serious.” I decided to go all the way. Fuck being cool. “I like you. I like when you smile, I like when we talk. I think we would be a nice couple. That is why I am inviting you for a date.”
There was a long pause. The beating thing in my chest wanted to jump out. Onto a silver platter, maybe? Then the silence stopped.
“Ha ha ha, ha ha ha!”
She was laughing.
“Ha ha ha ha!”
I really wanted her to stop.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked.
“It’s funny! I’m shocked! Why did you think we had something going on?”
“Well… I thought it was obvious that I like spending time with you. Doing homework, talking in the class. Didn’t you notice?” I asked.
“Listen, I like you as a friend. I don’t want to go on a date. Nothing is going to happen with us. I can’t believe you asked me that! Let’s finish this conversation and talk about it when we see each other.”
That was the end of the conversation. After she hung up the phone, I held onto my handset for some time. It was the first time in my life I had asked a girl on a date. It didn’t go quite as I had hoped.
People in high school noticed I was a bit sad that month. I guess she noticed it too, but she never said anything. She avoided conversation about it. To this day we haven’t exchanged a word about it.
Standing in the snow, I couldn’t understand why my daughter was afraid of the stupid button lift. Even if she broke her goddamn legs on it, that would be minor pain. Physical pain is nothing compared to emotional pain caused by other people.
She was still crying. My strategy of being tough didn’t help. I realized I was an idiot. Why am I pushing her to go on the lift if she doesn’t want to do it? So I can make her a “strong” person? So I can cure my childhood frustrations through her? I am a fucking idiot. Let’s just ask the ski instructor for a refund and call it a day.
But as I was facing the ski instructor, I remembered something. As a kid I panicked the most when I had a choice, that is, when I thought my panic could stop the scary thing from happening. When I was faced with something certain, I would often accept it.
“You know what?” I said to the ski instructor, “She is only crying because I am here. She knows if she cries a lot I will take her out. What if I go and hide behind that building for five minutes? If she doesn’t stop crying, just wave to me and I will come back.”
The ski instructor nodded in agreement. I kissed my daughter on the cheek, said goodbye, and pretended I was going away. I hid behind the ski storage shack and found a hole to peek through. She was still sobbing. But after a minute she was sobbing less. And after another minute even less. She accepted the inevitable. The ski instructor sorted them out and all the kids went to the ski lift.
She is all good, I thought. The ski instructor will call me if she panics again. I took my skis and went off to an adult ski lift.
On the ski slopes, I was getting nervous. It was close to noon and I was wondering if everything had gone well with the ski class. I approached the bottom of the ski lift but nobody was there. I checked my phone. There were no calls or messages. Then I saw a small parade of kids in oversized helmets coming down the hill. My daughter was one of them. She was skiing like a pro.
“Daddy, daddy,” she said with a smile, “It was great. We went on the lift, and we skied down and again and I was not afraid. Can we go again? Please!”
I thanked the ski instructor and went with her on a few more button-lift rides. After five trips, she got quite sad because my ski pass had expired and we needed to go. I couldn’t believe the change in attitude.
But in my heart I understood.
When you are shy, you need to fight your fear monster every day.
Photos by Zeljko Svedic
Zel moved to Berlin to become a philosopher, a writer and a Weissbier addict. So far, Weissbier part is going as planned. Zel publishes his works on a personal blog, a professional YouTube channel and a crappy Youtube channel. Sometimes people invite Zel to give various talks, which, as any aspiring philosopher, he is delighted to give for free. And don’t be fooled, this short bio was also written by Zel, it is in the 3rd person because editor asked him to do so. Which probably puts him in the same category as selfie stick owners.
By Agathe Osinski
Photograph by Prima Alam
In the chaos of my uprooted life, there is nothing more soothing than listening to my grandmother talk about her childhood. Whether my studies or professional life have brought me to Brussels, London, or to Berlin, year after year, I return to Warsaw. For a weekend by train, with almost as much time spent travelling as actually seeing my family. For a week around Christmas time, in the freezing and dark Polish winter, with the only warmth emanating from steaming bowls of barszcz and the sound of laughter of my loved ones gathered around the table. For a couple of weeks in the summer or autumn, when the circumstances permit it, to take walks in the forest, hugging trees with my grandmother. “Only birches have the good energy,” she insists, waving away my invitations to embrace the pines, willows and oak trees that we pass.
Usually one or both of my sisters will come from France at the same time, and sometimes my uncle will join us from Spain. We fly in from across Europe to be together in Poland, in this country that continues to have significance for us despite many years spent abroad, despite feeling like foreigners at times, despite the frowns we get from the grocer when one of us makes a grammatical error that reveals our exoticism. We return, perhaps because this is where our roots are, and we need to feel them and see them and taste them, and to listen again and again to the story of how we were distanced from them.
As I lie with my head in her lap, eyes closed, my grandmother strokes my hair with her smooth hands. Her wide palms gently trace the shape of my head and her long fingers, adorned with a few simple, silver rings, explore the texture of my hair. My grandmother‘s large limbs supposedly bear witness to her Tatar heritage, and yet when I compare her legs, arms, neck and feet to my own, it is hard to believe we share a common lineage. Next to her, I will always be a child. At eight-eight (or eighty-seven, she can’t be sure – her birth certificate was destroyed during the war), she can barely see. An eternal fog has settled before her green-grey irises, but her memory is sharp, especially when it comes to those early years of her life.
My grandmother grew up in the Poland of the 1930s. This was a Poland celebrating its rebirth as an independent state, a politically chaotic but hopeful Poland with Warsaw, its gleaming capital, dubbed the Paris of the East. My grandmother’s father, Jan, was a renowned pediatrician and a man of high morals, the kind one can only read about these days. He was a devoted husband, caring father, brilliant practitioner and talented painter. His wife, my great-grandmother Zofia, was born on a large estate outside of Warsaw and studied pedagogy before marrying Jan. Despite her aristocratic background, she was deeply sensitive to social inequalities from a young age and developed progressive views that put her at odds with her own parents. Zofia had many suitors, or so the story goes, but finally chose Jan to be the father of her children.
Together, my great-grandparents lived in a spacious apartment on one of Warsaw’s busiest avenues, a flat that doubled as Jan’s clinic. My grandmother lets out a melodic laugh, shaking her head in disbelief as she tells me about the games she played with the children in the waiting room, about all the contagious diseases she caught from those little patients, about how much those kids loved her father. As always, I ask her to tell me about her brothers. I never knew them, but it’s easier to picture my grandmother as a child by imagining her surrounded by her siblings. Drawing implicit parallels between her brothers and my own sisters, I imagine their playtime, their discussions, and that unique, intimate dynamic which governs relations among kids in a household.
“Oh, Jerzy was sweet, lovable, the very essence of kindness,” she recalls of her eldest sibling.
“And Stefan?” I ask.
“Stefan was the wild one, always devising mischievous plans. But he was charming, too! Our mother loved him more than anything.”
With a note of nostalgia in her voice, my grandmother describes Sunday mass and dinner, when the family would gather around the dining room table. In the pictures she shows me, Jan is tall and dark and holds a long cigarette in his hand. Zofia is elegantly dressed with small, round glasses that have become fashionable among those of my own generation. Jerzy looks thin and pensive, and Stefan, just two years older than my grandmother, is handsome and boyish-looking. In the only remaining pictures of my grandmother’s early life, she is five or six years old, and yet she looks as she does now: stout, solid limbs, a slightly off-balance pose, a broad smile and sparkling eyes that never quite meet the photographer’s lens.
At those Sunday dinners, Jan took the time to check on the health, education and general wellbeing of his offspring after a busy week of caring for other people’s children. Zofia’s mother and sister were regular visitors to the household, and passed out marzipan treats to the kids after the meal. It’s the stories of those rituals, those traditions, those moments of unity that comfort me the most. As if, in my own unsettled life devoid of patterns, I can anchor my existence. The stories of my grandmother’s cheerful childhood help me to gain a sense of belonging to this world.
Back then, the life of my grandmother and her family was comfortable and busy in Warsaw. The real adventures came in the summertime, which was spent in their country house outside the city, near a small artist‘s village on the banks of the Vistula. For two months each year, my grandmother, Stefan and Jerzy ran free, away from the noise of the city, the traffic and their schoolteachers. I can almost taste the blueberry pierogi of those summer holidays, coated in powdered sugar and served with dollops of cream.
Their dreamlike childhood ended unexpectedly with the outbreak of the Second World War. The Nazi invasion from the West on 1 September 1939 was followed by the Soviet attack from the East on 17 September: within two weeks everything had changed and my grandmother had become an adult, aged twelve. As she narrates this part of the story, her voice grows quieter, her words sound heavier. The anecdotes are filled with stress and suspense and although I know exactly how the story ends, I follow her on the journey of unknowns and through the heartbreaks of war.
Throughout the occupation, my grandmother and her brothers were involved in underground resistance activities organized by the scouts. During secret meetings held by the family at their apartment, Jan would play vinyls loudly on the gramophone, pretending to host festive gatherings. At one such meeting, a friend of Jerzy’s accidentally fired one of the guns hidden in the apartment. The explosion roused suspicion amongst the neighbors, who gathered worriedly in the staircase of the building. With courage, Jan joined this group of neighbors, to dispel any suspicion that the blast might have come from his apartment.
Although the Nazis had shut down the official education system (with the exception of technical schools, for which Poles were deemed worthy enough), some children continued to attend secret schools. My grandmother attended one such establishment which operated as a technical school for tailors. Whilst continuing to learn in general lessons, the school also sewed uniforms for the German army. As a sign of resistance, the students sewed seams which came undone once the uniforms were worn by Nazi soldiers.
The Warsaw Uprising broke out on a clear summer’s day in 1944. Jan, Zofia, Jerzy, Stefan and my grandmother were all involved. The boys, aged nineteen and twenty-one, were part of a battalion, fighting for their city with other boy scouts. Jan and Zofia worked in hospitals, tending to the hundreds, thousands of soldiers injured each day. My grandmother worked at the hospital and helped to build barricades. On the second day of the Uprising, a stray bullet hit her best friend in the chest and passed through my grandmother’s ankle. She lifts the leg of her trousers to show me the scar but the moment passes in silence over the trauma of witnessing death in the wake of adulthood.
Another day, a missile was fired at the building where she was taking one of the rare baths of the Uprising. She ran out half-naked but safe, her wet skin untouched while flames devoured and destroyed the house and most of the surrounding buildings. By the time Warsaw capitulated on 2 October 1944, not much remained of the Paris of the East. The boys were sent in cattle wagons to prisoner-of-war camps in Germany and Austria. My grandmother wanted to go with them, to fulfill her duty until the end and accompany her injured fiancé, but her brothers plead with her to stay in Warsaw with their parents. So she stayed, reluctantly.
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
As Yalta was signed and the war came to an end, Poland found itself in the Soviet sphere of influence. Returning soldiers – young, rebellious patriots – were deemed a threat to the infant regime which was clawing its way to power. One by one these soldiers were interrogated, thrown into prisons, tortured, and persecuted. Discouraged from coming home, charming, mischievous Stefan settled in London and sweet, lovable Jerzy found refuge in Belgium, together with his wife and their best friend Piotr, who became my grandfather many years later. None of them ever returned to Poland.
Meanwhile, in 1947, my grandmother enrolled in Engineering Studies at the Warsaw Polytechnic University, where she met my grandfather on a canoe trip shortly before graduation. As a teenager, my grandfather had dreamt of studying political science or international relations. With the new post-war world and the Communist regime tightening its grip on Poland, the best bet was to study a subject with as few links to politics as possible - Electrical Engineering seemed like a safe choice. My grandparents married in 1954, one year after the death of Stalin. The following year, my mother was born.
Decades later, as a student, my mother was involved in Solidarność (Solidarity), the trade union and social movement that opposed the Communist government. At first, Solidarity was tolerated by the regime, but in 1981 the threat of social and political change became too great and the Communists clamped down on it, plunging the country into martial law in an attempt to regain control over it. In those years, the glimmers of hope for a future in a free Poland seemed bleak, and work was hard to come by for those with close ties to Solidarity. In those years, my mother met and married the son of Piotr, who was born and raised in Belgium next door to Jerzy and his family. On one summer day, my mother packed her belongings into her tiny Fiat and followed my father to Belgium, then to Russia and the U.S., then to Germany, and finally full circle back to Poland, nearly twenty years later. But having grown up as expats - the more comfortable version of a migrant – my sisters and I never really felt at home anywhere. We studied in Belgium and in the UK, and we have lived and worked and loved in more cities that we can count on our hands. Our cousins too, are scattered across the world, and grew up speaking French, Spanish, English, German, and yes, Polish too.
And so it goes, the story of my broken family, the story of émigré life and mispronounced surnames. From that first generation who cut off ancient roots and replaced them with the seed of restlessness, passing it on to their children and grandchildren. The first of many lives spent settling, re-settling, endless travels and continuous shifts, from city to city, from country to country. Poland is an independent state now, and so much has changed since 1944. And yet, we continue to wander. But from time to time, my wandering brings me back to Warsaw, to where it all began.
There, I lie my head in my grandmother’s lap and close my eyes.
Agathe is a modern day nomad, splitting her time between Brussels, Warsaw and Berlin.
She holds degrees in economics from the Universite Catholique de Louvain (Belgium)
and politics from the London School of Economics (UK), and recently left her job in
consulting to focus on writing, travelling and yoga.
By Barbara Ridley
Photography by Prima Alam
A woman in my writing group said: “Blood is always thicker than water.”
She objected to my World War II protagonist appearing more concerned about the fate of her close friends than that of her brother. It just wasn’t plausible, she said. There were other suggestions from the group, of course. I made revisions. Many revisions. And I placed more emphasis on my character’s relationship with her brother. If one reader found it troubling, it was probable that others would too.
But her comment niggled at me like a loose tooth. That was five years ago. I never forgot it. Blood thicker than water? Not always.
At the age of 18, I couldn’t wait to get away from my own family of origin. I was off to college and out of there. I never returned for more than brief visits, two or three days at most. It wasn’t that my parents were mean or cruel or abusive. On the contrary, they were liberal and progressive and tolerant of almost everything I did. But I was fiercely independent from an early age, and I never felt close to my parents or brothers. In my family, emotion was frowned upon. Stiff upper lip and all that.
After university, I lived in London for ten years, barely forty miles from where I grew up. Yet I rarely went home. Most of that time, I lived in a commune: seven adults and three kids. We had a ‘kitty’ for all household expenses – from each according to his/her ability to pay. We shared childcare, cooking, and the secrets of our souls, delving into our feelings in consciousness-raising groups and railing against all social injustice. I never went home for holidays and neither did anyone else. We were building our own community as family.
As I grew older, I came to like and respect my parents more, becoming closer to them even though – or perhaps because – I settled 6,000 miles away in California. I was no longer embarrassed by my father’s eccentricities, I took delight in them. When his research took him to Mexico, I accompanied him, driving three thousand miles in three weeks in a beat-up VW beetle. I became increasingly interested in my mother’s story as a Holocaust survivor. As a child, I always knew that she had escaped Czechoslovakia but had lost her own mother and young sister in a concentration camp – although she never spoke of these events in any detail. She certainly never dwelt on what they had meant for her. In my thirties, I convinced her to record an oral history and probed as much as I dared.
My mother came to visit me after I had been living in California for two years. By then, I was creating a new kind of family in the San Francisco lesbian community. I came out to my mother during that visit. She wasn’t thrilled, and said something about being disappointed if I didn’t have children, but she moved on and accepted the news in her quiet, unassuming manner.
I didn’t know it yet, but my life was unexpectedly developing a trajectory similar to hers. Like her, I was destined to spend most of my adult life away from the country of my birth. I was not fleeing Hitler, but – what exactly? Thatcher’s England, with its rigid class distinctions, its sense of gloom, the grey skies, and landscapes far tamer than those I’d come to love in California.
When my mother met my lesbian friends on that first trip, she commented that it reminded her of the community she’d been a part of when she was young, first in the Socialist Youth movement in Prague in the late 1930’s, and then as a refugee in wartime England. Her father and brother also escaped Czechoslovakia and survived the war, but she had never been close to them. Her father was ultra-conservative, and had literally beaten her for becoming involved in left-wing politics. Her brother had stood by and watched. She told me once that if it hadn’t been for Hitler, she would have never spoken to them again. But after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, they escaped across the mountains, dodging Gestapo bullets to join the Free Czech Army in exile, a brave act of resistance.
The World War II novel that I was writing is based on my mother’s story. It is true that she was much closer to her friends than she was to her brother. And by the end of the war, she and her friends had lost most of their families in the Holocaust. After the war they vowed to act as aunts and uncles to each other’s children. Growing up, we received holiday gifts from them each year even though some of them had settled as far away as Australia or New Zealand. Decades later, when I traveled to the other side of the world and visited their children – my generation – I was welcomed with unbridled hospitality, even though we had never met in person before.
Now I have created a family of my own in California, with my partner Judy and our daughter Abby. Judy has biological family on the East Coast but none here in California and my family is all in England. So we made our own ‘village’ from neighbors, friends, other lesbian couples. Our friends Nancy and Lynn have two sons; they served as our emergency contacts on every form since Kindergarten days.
Abby did not come from my womb, but my love for her is deep and fierce. Once, when she was three years old, we were traveling along a narrow winding road through the mountains of Mendocino.
A car came careening around the bend and crashed into us, ruining our truck and our camping weekend. We were shaken but unhurt. The other driver, instead of impressing his two female passengers with his speed, sheepishly had to confess that he “couldn’t make the turn”. As I pulled Abby from the wreckage and held her in my arms, she screamed in fright. I bared my teeth at the guy, snarling like a she-wolf protecting her den, and in a voice I didn’t recognize as my own, I told him that if Abby had been injured, I would have ripped him apart, piece by piece.
A few years ago, I shared with my writing group a short essay about the regular letters I used to receive from my mother over a twenty-year period, until her sudden death in 2002. I reflected on the abrupt end to the correspondence she received from her own mother during the war, as she anxiously waited for news from Nazi-occupied territory. At the end of the piece, I made brief reference to the long letters I also exchanged in the past with one of my best friends in England. These letters had petered out over the years, as our lives became too busy. Occasional emails and Facebook postings have since taken their place.
Several group members suggested that there was not enough balance, that I should either explore the relationship with the friend in more detail, or leave it out all together. Which is fair enough, I thought.
But then the blood and water woman raised a stronger objection. She said that letters from a mother cannot be grouped in the same category as letters from a friend. The relationships cannot be compared, she explained that one is lifelong and inescapable and the other “seemingly close, but not long-lasting”. I found myself bristling again, remembering her comment from years ago. Someone else suggested that I should consider ending instead with reference to communication with my own daughter – then a college student – thus maintaining the mother-daughter theme. I made that change, and I suppose it was successful, because the essay was accepted for publication.
Two weeks later, came the bombing at the Boston Marathon. My daughter was a senior at Boston University, finishing up her honors thesis. She’s also a runner and had completed three half-marathons.
I heard the news while I was still at work. I was shocked and horrified of course, but as I learned the details, I was not unduly worried for Abby’s safety. She did not run in the marathon, this I knew. The plan was for her to volunteer at a water stand at Mile 17, a long way from the finishing line where the disaster occurred. And she was able to text right away. Her shift was just ending at the moment of the explosion; she was on the T, going back to her apartment.
I knew this, but no one else did. The phone rang all evening. Nancy and Lynn called. My ex-lover and her partner called from Palm Springs. Judy posted on Facebook that Abby was fine, and ten friends jumped in immediately with comments expressing relief. At ten o’clock the phone rang again. It was Jill from London, the friend who used to write me long letters. It was 6am in London. She’d just heard the news, and wanted to check in. Then an email arrived from my dear friend Ulrike in Hamburg, in upper case: IS ABBY ALL RIGHT??? A text from another friend in England came through an hour later.
If my father were still alive he would have called, I’m sure of that. My mother died two years before him, but she never called. She was never able to shed her conviction that any international call “must be costing a fortune”. But my father often stayed up until 2am – 6pm California time – the perfect time to catch me as I returned from work, and he would call maybe once a month.Yes, if my father were still alive I know he would have called when he heard about the bombing. But I have two brothers, a sister-in-law, several cousins, a niece and nephew. Not a word from any of them.
Thin blood, I guess.
I know who my real family is.
Barbara Ridley was born in England but has lived in California for over 30 years. After
a successful career as a nurse practitioner, she is now focused on creative writing. She has
completed a novel set in Europe during WWII. Her work has appeared in The Clockhouse
Review, The East Bay Monthly, the Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica and The
Copperfield Review. She can be followed at www.barbararidley.com
By Katie Rendon Kahn
My family is pieced together from previous marriages and other countries. We don’t all look like perfect reflections of one another, to see our similarities you must look much deeper than eye color or skin tone. Like many mixed families, sometimes we blend about as well as oil and vinegar, but
that just means that we have to be constantly aware of our differences so that we can celebrate our diversity instead of being distanced by it.
My two oldest children have the benefit of having a grandmother nearby to share her Thai culture with them. They grew up hearing another language, eating sticky rice with their fingers, and paying their respects at a Buddhist temple. From the other side of their father’s family, they memorized Motown albums and were dancing to James Brown before they were three. They sat on their grandfather’s knee and heard stories about segregation and civil rights from someone they loved and admired. My son is a blue-eyed anomaly but was only aware of how much he loved his grandfather from Detroit, not that their skin didn’t match.
They learned from a very early age that we are all essentially the same. We speak different languages, come from different places, listen to different music, and don’t look a whole lot alike. What I learned from them is that asking about the things that make us different, connects us.
I can’t imagine what it would be like if my kids had never tasted their Thai culture, heard the stories about the elephant farms their aunt owned or the palace that their grandmother worked in. My daughter is amazed that her 70 year-old grandmother still climbs the trees in her backyard to pick papayas and goes to work every day cleaning condos. But grandma just laughs, “This is normal in Thailand.” She tells the kids how the money she sends home allows her family to live like royalty. I hope that they can visit Thailand one day and see the amazing culture in its entirety, but also appreciate the things that we tend to take for granted as Americans.
I am remarried now, to a Peruvian. He carefully tries to hide his accent and assimilate because where we live, people are chided for speaking multiple languages and for seeing more of the world. While he may not feel comfortable opening his mouth in public, I am so proud that he learned to speak multiple languages and I hate that he feels ashamed of it. I hate that he has a valid reason to minimalize his advantages. While I can’t change the world, I can influence how my children see it.
We took our other blue-eyed anomaly to Peru when he was one. While I gained ten pounds inhaling buttafarras and cerviche, our son Diego decided the only safe things to eat were Lucama fruit and churros. But when his great-grandmother chanted songs from the highlands, he danced instinctively. He was even baptized in the same 15th century cathedral my husband was christened in.
My husband had tried his best to brace me for culture shock. He talked about safety, inconveniences we might face, and anything else that he thought might send me running for the hills. The only thing that shocked me was the absolute acceptance and inclusion I experienced with his family. In Latin America, family means something. I was hugged and kissed more within ten minutes of arrival than in the last few years of my life. I knew immediately that this is the kind of family I wanted to create for my children.
I’ve considered myself to be a poet since I was eight years old. I still remember the day I decided that was what I was going to become when I grew up. I was sitting in Mrs. Michaela’s reading class and she had just introduced us to rhyme schemes. In hindsight, she probably knew my clown poem wasn’t going to win a Pulitzer but she pretended that it might. It was the first time someone called me a poet and I just loved the way it sounded. So much so, that I have attempted to turn each of my children into poets too.
My daughter told me she didn’t know what she could write a poem about for school. Reflecting back, she probably thought I would write it for her. Since she loves turtles so much, I suggested that she start there. Once she discovered that the largest turtles (tortoises) in the world were in the Galapagos Islands, she decided that’s not only what she would write about, but where she wanted to live when she grew up.The research went on for days. I remember her asking me excitedly if I had ever heard of a man named Charles Darwin. I would always respond to her question and ask another. What other animals are on the islands? What language do the people speak? Do they have a religion? What countries are closest? We used all that information to write her poem. It may have started out about turtles, but it became about this amazing place she couldn’t wait to see with her own eyes. She joked to me that she knew so much about the Galapagos Islands that she could write a book. So, that’s exactly what we did.
“Take Me to the Galapagos Islands” was the first book in The World Adventures Series that
my daughter and I wrote when she was just ten years old (it was published just after her 11th
birthday). She said, “Ya know what? We could write about ALL the places I want to go when I
grow up!” Naturally, she chose Thailand for her next book. Together, we immersed ourselves in
her grandmother’s culture. We cooked Pad Thai and Thai Beef Salad, we visited the Buddhist
temple together and she taught me how to pray, what to do, and laughed at me when I tried to
shake hands with a monk, “You can’t touch the monks, Mom, they’re holy!” She thought it was
hysterical and I was proud that she understood so much.
She has since decided that co-authoring two books at the age of ten is impressive enough. She now sticks with sports, typical pre-teen stuff, but still volunteers once a week at the temple. I went on to write a book about Peru for my husband and have continued to write the series for other children looking to find a connection to their heritage. Each book mentions landmarks, food, religion, music, animals, dances, and other culturally significant details.
Even though my daughter is no longer co-writing with me, she and her younger brother both help me look for pictures of the countries I’m researching. We always listen to original music and find recipes to cook together to celebrate the other cultures. I have just recently started adding these recipes to our website for other families to enjoy.
I hope that this project of ours not only helps them feel connected to their extended family and various cultures but allows them to accept other forms of diversity with a sense of curiosity and appreciation rather than fear, judgment, or arrogance. Finding the beauty in diversity has helped our family remain close and appreciate each other, especially in these changing times. All any of us seem to see and hear is hate, differences, and oppression. With so many families being mixed, like us, I am worried how children will observe our behaviors and how they will identify with members of their family and community.
Family has always been the cornerstone of society. Everyone seems to agree that society has changed but many fail to see the connection to home. It saddens me that in a time where we have more blended families than ever before, we are seeing more discrimination than we have in decades.
The ideas and actions we show our children will be what they carry with them. We can arm
them with fear or acceptance.
You can see the children’s book series she co-authored with 11 year-old Autumn Smith on their website, worldadventuresseries.com, which now also publishes their kid-friendly recipes from around the world in a blog titled, “A Taste of Culture.”
Katie Rendon Kahn lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where she chases adventure and
poetry prompts with her children. Her poems have appeared in Blackwater Review, Broken
Publications, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Barefoot Review, Rising Phoenix Press, Poetry Breakfast, The Panhandle Focus, and various blogs. Kahn won the Blackwater Review’s Editor’s Prize in 2012
and 2014. She and her 11-year-old daughter have written a children's book series called,
World Adventures, focusing on the acceptance of other cultures. Kahn also self-published
her first poetry collection titled, “Phantom Limbs,” in 2014.