Alina Sherwin has had to fight for every victory in her life. Raised in Poland, she moves to Australia with her family as a young girl. There, in the early 1970s, she becomes the first woman in her state to graduate with an engineering degree and quickly finds that her new industry won't employ her. Undaunted by rejection from the Australian scientific community and encouraged by her new American husband, Wayne, Alina decides to move again, in hopes of finding what she desires in his homeland.
To her distress, Wayne's unconditional love is marred by his desire for an open marriage. She is shocked-and intrigued. Convinced that Wayne would make a great father, she resolves to have a baby with him, as long as his yearning is limited to words. On a return visit to Poland, Alina regains confidence in her abilities and finds peace in leaving her childhood behind. The American society that spawned a secular constitution and a vibrant feminist movement, promises to be an inspiring new home. Alina is ready to seek fulfillment once again.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.72(d)|
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By Mira Peck
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Mira Peck
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The radiant pinks and greens of summer had already begun to mellow into the coming autumn of 1962. Soon the grass would disappear under a quilt of red and yellow leaves, and a few short weeks later all of northeast Poland would be covered by a deep blanket of snow. I hoped fervently that I'd still be in my homeland to welcome the new season.
Monika Bielska and I had risen at dawn, as we had done each day, and closed the door of our vacation cottage behind us. After a fifteen minute hike through the pine forest, we emerged at the lakeshore. We were greeted by the familiar view of early sun transforming water ripples into gold, and a family of graceful deer sipping their morning drink.
We spread our blanket on the grass and sat down, side by side, hugging our knees.
"It's sweet of your dad to let me stay with you the whole month," I told her.
"He's happy that we're friends," she said, chewing lazily on a dewy blade of grass.
"How did he manage to get the cottage two years in a row?"
She lay back, closing her eyes. "The same way most people get perks around here. He saved the life of one of the Commies, so now he has a godfather in the government."
"That's a twist for someone who's not so fond of this regime."
"He's making the best of it."
I lay down next to her and inhaled the aromas of sand, moss and summer. A chorus of birds chirped in the trees when a distant crackle pierced our tranquility. I lifted my head to see its source.
"A whole flock of storks is wading across the lake."
"They look serene," Monika commented, "but they can rattle like machine guns."
I watched as the black-and-white birds delicately waded on their slender legs and with long, powerful beaks foraged in the marsh for a luckless frog or rodent. One stork spread its wings and lifted into the air, soon followed by others. They soared above the water, then assembled into a loose convoy and sailed south.
I rested my head on the blanket, aware that the image of emigrating storks no longer evoked pure joy; it was now tainted by the dreaded possibility of my own emigration. In only seven days high school classes would start. I wanted to study quantum physics and the periodic table, explore modern novelists and classical poets, learn to play new piano sonatas, see my classmates again. Could I hope that my parents' emigration plans would fall through again?
"Alina, have you thought of continuing as class president?"
"I'd rather take a break from placating huffy students, and running all those meetings and field trips."
"But you love doing all that," she asserted with a teasing grin. "And you're good at it. Unless you stand firm, you'll be elected, Madam Admiral."
"Oh, you." I slapped her arm and rose to my feet. "We'd better get moving if we want to get veggies at the farmer market."
"Let's drop off the blanket at the cottage first," she said, getting up.
We passed a marina with a dozen sailboats and a couple of fishermen at the water's edge, then turned onto the forest path. Soon the trees thinned and our flower-festooned vacation home came into view. I gasped, seeing a maroon motorcycle parked by the fence.
"That's my father's Junak," I exclaimed, uncertain whether to be pleased or worried.
"Alenka, there you are," Tatko said, opening his arms as he walked through the gate. "I thought I'd missed you."
"Tatko!" I ran to him and wrapped my arms around his neck. "Is everything all right?"
He eased me away and held my hand. "Everything's good. Mama's busy as always, Sam's at a camp. And you look so suntanned and happy."
"The clean air agrees with me," I said.
Monika approached with a smile. "Good morning, Tatko."
"Good morning, Monika," he said, exchanging cheek kisses. "Looks like the clean air agrees with you too."
"We're on our way to the farmers' market," she said. "Would you like to join us?"
He shook his head apologetically. "I don't have much time." He turned to me. "Could we talk in private?"
Apprehension washed over me.
"I'll see you later," Monika said and disappeared behind the arbor.
"Let's walk," Tatko said.
I turned back toward the forest, hoping that my feeling of dread was unjustified.
"You knew that we have an exit visa but needed a relative overseas who'd sponsor us?"
So it was that. "Yes," I whispered.
"Well, we just found someone in Australia."
No, I wanted to shout. Don't do this do me! I strode ahead to outpace him, to postpone the inevitable, to escape reality. But as we emerged from the woods, I heard his footsteps crunching the beach sand behind me.
I stopped walking and faced him. "I don't want to leave."
He stared at me silently, his face reflecting the sadness I felt, then sighed. "Alenka, you've known it was a possibility for at least five years."
"But I told you all along that I didn't want to go." My voice was cracking.
I know, darling." He cupped my shoulders. "I don't want to leave either, but it's the better option."
"Better for whom? If you don't want to leave and I don't want to leave, then why would we leave?"
"Because we'll have a better future."
"What are you talking about?" I exploded, flailing my arms. "How could it be better? This is my home. I have good friends; I can go to a university and have a great life here. Everywhere else I'll be a stranger, a half-wit who can't speak or read ..." I covered my face and wept.
Tatko held me in his arms as I dissolved into full-fledged sobbing. Pulling away, I wiped my eyes with the hankie he handed me.
"Let's sit on the bench," he said, looping his arm around my shoulders.
I followed listlessly, feeling as if I were losing my bearings, losing me.
We sat mutely until my shudders subsided.
"It'll be just as bad for you," I sniffed. "You won't be a big shot anymore. You'll have to start over."
He stared ahead. "I'd have to start over anyway." He leaned forward and clasped his hands. "You know what my boss told me?"
"He said, 'You have no future in this country. There's a new generation of young people you have to compete against, and many are party members. Without a party card, it doesn't matter how much good you've done. If you can leave, go and don't look back.' He said they won't let him out because they think he knows too many secrets, but he'll help me while he can." Tatko turned to me. "He told me something else that might affect you directly."
I glanced at him askance, trying to conceal sudden fear. "Me? How?"
He frowned, and looked down at his clasped hands. "I used to think that socialism would bring equality to everyone—"
"And you changed your mind?"
"It's unfair that some people in power punish the families of those they don't like."
"But how could they punish me? I'm just a high school student."
He straightened his back against the bench. "What if they don't let you into university?"
I met his eyes. "Not let me in?"
He bit his lower lip; tears glistened in the corners of his eyes.
I stared at him, confounded and unglued. He had just torpedoed my deepest convictions. I loved Poland, its luminous beauty and profound sorrow; the millennia of history that were my history; the language that was as much a part of me as my heart. Until this moment, I believed that my life could blossom only on this soil. And yet, I also believed my father. How could I reconcile the two diametrically opposed images?
"But how do you know it's true?" I asked, although at that moment I recalled hearing rumors from some of my classmates that grades were less important than connections.
"Because I know people whose children were not admitted."
His examples rang true, leading me to an inescapable conclusion.
"Doesn't sound like I have much choice."
He covered my hand with his. "We don't have much choice."
Monika would try to comfort me, but we both knew our lives were about to change forever. The remaining week of vacation went by slowly and miserably. One part of me no longer belonged to Poland. Would my severed selves ever be one again?
Between Two Worlds
The ship skimmed smoothly along the Mediterranean framed by golden sand and blue skies. Each day of this month-long journey from Rotterdam to Melbourne took me further away from my childhood home, but my only choice was to suspend the grieving and act like a carefree sixteen-year old.
The third-deck pool was where the Polish teens gathered to cool off and play. I frolicked among them like a seal, swimming laps lengthwise and around the rim, bobbing up and down. I almost bumped into a man standing at the side of the pool, water reaching to his navel, his elbows resting on the tiled surface behind him.
I said, "Oops, sorry," in Polish.
He smiled and replied, "No problem," in a foreign tongue, which I guessed to be Dutch.
As I pulled myself up the ladder, I noticed the man's eyes burning on me.
Later that day, I strolled with another Polish girl to the canteen for ice cream. As we climbed the stairs to the third deck, a strange odor wafted up to my nose, at once sweet and nauseating. What was it? When we reached the canteen, I had my answer: tall, blond men milled around smoking cigars. I noticed that the store dedicated at least one quarter of its shelf space to cigars in a variety of colors and shapes, from long and thin to short and fat.
The blond, dashing man from the pool was leaning against the railing, his hair windswept against the sky, shirt billowing, arms muscular and tanned. He looked like Apollo. After buying the ice cream, my friend and I ran up to him to say hello.
His face broke into a broad smile; he shook our hands and said in German, "I'm Karel. And you?" He pointed to each of us.
Using gestures, sounds, all the synonyms known to us, and other universal communication devices, we managed to understand that Karel asked us to join him at 7 p.m. to watch tonight's film.
I could barely contain my excitement at the prospect of seeing him. Back in the cabin, I told my parents that I'd like to attend tonight's film with my friends. After dinner, my friends and I headed for the cinema. Karel stood in line with another Dutchman and looked pleased to see us. We conversed animatedly in our international cacophony and learned that Karel was twenty-six and had traveled all over the world on cargo ships as part of the crew. He was on his way to a truck driving job for a coal mine in the Australian outback.
In the corner of my eye I glimpsed my parents approaching. They spotted me; Mama sauntered over to our group, exchanged a few pleasantries and slowly wedged herself between Karel and me. My cheeks burned at her implication. Karel stepped back to give her space and greeted her politely in German. She maintained her position and sat between us through the showing. I felt embarrassed to be treated like a bad child and hoped Karel would not be put off.
During the following days he showed no signs of reluctance. Sometimes he'd wait at the pool and invite me for ice cream. Sometimes he'd meet me at the movie, initially with my friends, then alone. Karel and I discovered a secluded corner on the ship's bow where we'd watch the stars jump up and down on the seamless, granite-hued canvas with every swell of the waves. Hidden from curious eyes, we embraced, kissed, caressed.
Despite the language barrier, we communicated a lot. Karel knew Dutch, German, French and English; I spoke Polish and Russian, plus high school German. Karel told me he grew up in a small town south of Amsterdam. His family spoke Flemish at home, but, like most people in Holland, they were multilingual. To satisfy his travel bug, he deferred university and attended a cooking school instead. He hired out as a chef on ocean liners and had circled the globe a couple of times, with stops at various ports of Europe and Asia. He was going to Australia on a two-year working visa; after two years, the Australian government would pay his passage. Work in the outback appealed to him because it paid good money with little opportunity to spend it.
A week into the journey, when the ship pulled away from the African coast and entered the open ocean, we climbed to our hideaway after the movie.
While we embraced, he said, "I've got to go to Leigh Creek because of my contract. But I could look for a job in Melbourne later on." He paused. "Would you want to see me?"
I looped my arms around his neck and pressed my cheek to his ear, taking time to absorb this unexpected question. So there may be a future for us beyond this ship. Maybe we'll have the time to let this thing between us blossom slowly and last a long time, like an orchid.
I weighed this enthralling dream with the reality. I was only sixteen. Karel was ten years older, a man—not a boy—and that presented a problem. My parents sent mixed messages about how I should behave. My being tied down to one relationship could jeopardize their highest priority for me: graduating from university. On the other hand, a girl who went out with many boys was in their view a slut. As with other things, here also I didn't know how to please them.
"I'll miss you," I replied. "But I'll be going to school for years. If you come to Melbourne, we could take our time to see if we really like each other."
"Good." He eased me away with his hands on my shoulders, and regarded my face. "I know you're very young, but in a few years the age difference won't matter." He kissed me gently. I closed my eyes and let him explore the geography of my mouth, the topography of my breasts. My breath quickened when his tongue slid down my neck. Then he halted and sat up, restoring the straps of my bra and the short sleeves of my summer dress to their rightful place.
"It's getting late," he said. "Come on, I'll walk you to your deck." He rose and pulled me up. We shambled hand-in-hand, holding on to the swaying rail, then descended the narrow staircase single file to my floor. "See you tomorrow for lunch at the canteen?"
"I'll be there at twelve." I entered the family cabin, brushed my teeth, and climbed to the upper bunk. My parents were already lying in the two lower bunks, and Sam slept on the upper one across the aisle from me.
"Did you have a nice time?" Tatko asked.
"Yes, I did. Goodnight." I turned off the bedside light, the vivid memory of Karel's kisses quickening my breath before the gentle ocean waves lulled me to sleep.
The day of our arrival in Melbourne marked the end of the known. Images of the unwelcome shore and the shimmering heat seared my eyes and made me long for the home I had left behind. Even the tales about peace and prosperity told by earlier émigrés, and the brochures featuring graceful black swans, blossoming tropical trees and the land's majestic sweep, couldn't abate my feeling of loss.
As our family of four disembarked in Port Melbourne, sweltering November air blasted my face as if to say, "Here you are. This is your exile." A short, grey-haired man stepped forward from the waiting crowd and waved somberly. I guessed this was "uncle" Shmulke at whose house we'd be staying. Having heard his tragic history, I wasn't surprised that he looked so dour. The story went that he had escaped to Australia soon after the 1939 German invasion, but his wife and two children had later perished in death camps. After the war, he married the much younger Feyga and they had a daughter about my age.
I knew from my parents that Shmulke was kind enough to sponsor us and to guarantee that we wouldn't become freeloaders. Therefore we owed him a debt of gratitude.
Shmulke shook my father's hand and exchanged a few words in Yiddish. Then he greeted the rest of us in heavily accented Polish and led our parade of people and luggage to his car.
Shmulke sat on the right and Tatko climbed into the passenger seat. Mama, Sam and I squeezed into the back seat with the suitcases that didn't fit in the trunk. On the way to Shmulke's house in a southern suburb of Melbourne, I absorbed the new sights.
The streets were neat, paved, devoid of rubble, lined with single-story houses of red brick and terracotta roof tiles. Like people of an unfamiliar race, these houses had cookie-cutter sameness. The most striking difference from Poland was the emptiness of the streets: nobody strolled along, read newspapers on park benches, drank coffee or beer at outdoor cafes. The city appeared dead. My dread intensified. How would I find friends in a place with no courtyards, no playgrounds, where homes were spaced so far apart?
Excerpted from My Men by Mira Peck. Copyright © 2013 Mira Peck. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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