Unanswered questions about my mother came back to haunt me on the eve of my wedding when I was twenty-four years old. After a week of parties and showers, I’d come straight home from the rehearsal dinner and collapsed on my bed. She was tired, too, but she came in to say goodnight and urge me to sleep late the next morning. As she turned to go, she paused and caressed the chiffon folds of my wedding dress which hung on the closet door. “I remember how soft my dress was,” she murmured. Then, as if realizing she’d said something wrong, she snatched her hand away and disappeared.
Though I thought I’d fall asleep immediately, I lay away trying to make sense of her words. What wedding dress? She and my father had slipped off to City Hall on their lunch hours one Friday. After work, they’d taken the train to Atlanta for the weekend. They always talked about another honeymoon, but it never happened.
Lawrence Pascow, my father, had worked as an accountant for the water department in our town since he’d mustered out of the army after the war. My mother Eveline had been a seamstress at Nodwell’s Department Store before I was born. After my brother Larry and I went to school, they store asked her to come back, and she agreed to three days a week.
I always felt we were a good family. We lived in a comfortable house in a quiet neighborhood, and Larry and I always seemed to have whatever we wanted--within reason, of course. We spent two weeks every summer with our grandparents who lived on a farm a hundred or so miles away, and the whole family packed up to go there for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I had more aunts, uncles, and cousins than I could keep up with and loved the crowd which always overflowed onto the closed-in back porch to sleep and eat.
Once I asked my father why nobody in the family was kin to my mother, and he said, “Well, Frances, she doesn’t have anybody but us.”
“It’s a long story.”
He shook his head. “You don’t need to know anything except the whole family loves your mother, and she loves them.”
I never asked again.
But now, lying in bed with the moonlight streaming through the curtains my mother had sewn, I reflected on her word and wondered. The next morning when she brought me breakfast just before noon, I asked her what she’d meant by her wedding dress being soft.
“Nothing,” she said. “I didn’t mean anything.”
“You and Daddy got married at City Hall on your lunch hour.”
She walked to the window and angled the venetian blinds against the mid-day sun. “Yes, we did. I wore a navy blue skirt and a white blouse with pleats down the front and a bow at the neck.”
“Did you make the blouse yourself?”
“As a matter of fact, I did.” She turned to smile at me. “Cole has called four times this morning, and I told him you’d call back when you woke up.”
I nibbled the thin buttered toast. “I think I’d rather talk to you.”
Her laugh was almost a titter. “How silly! I’m your mother.”
“But I have a feeling I don’t know you, not really.”
“Of course, you…” Her voice trailed off, and she sat down in the padded armchair she’d upholstered for my sixteenth birthday. My father had had a phone installed in my room, and she said I needed a place to sit and talk.
“What do you want to know?”
“What do you want to tell me?”
“For starters, you have an accent. Not much of one, but it’s there. I hear it when you get excited or try to tell something in a hurry.”
“So where’s it from?”
She seemed to be considering. Finally she said, “Poland. I’m from Poland.”
“A little town on the German border. Uciszają It translates into Meadowland.” She glanced down at her hands. “It’s not there anymore.”
“The war, Franzciska, the war.” The unaccustomed sharpness in her voice stirred a bad feeling inside of me.
“What did you call me?”
She frowned. “Frances. I called you Frances.”
“No, you didn’t. You called me something in another language. In Polish.”
Her eyes widened, then cut away from me. “Frances is Franzciska in Polish. It was my mother’s name.”
“So I’m named for my grandmother?”
“In a way.”
“What happened to her?”
She rose so quickly her robe made a swishing sound. “It was a long time ago, and this is your wedding day. You have your whole future ahead of you. Talking about the past doesn’t do anyone any good.”
“But I want to know, Mom.” She was gone before I finished my sentence.
Unlike my parents, the honeymoon Cole had planned for the two of us turned out to be phenomenal. We didn’t have a lot of money to spend, but the loan of a friend’s cottage in a little village on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, plenty of free and inexpensive historical sites to visit, and time to be alone together and wind down from the wedding turned out to be what we’d remember for the rest of our lives.
I’d put the conversation with my mother out of my mind until the last night. That’s when I told Cole. “Why do I have the feeling you’re not going to turn loose of this?”
“I don’t want to hurt Mom, but I want to know.”
“Maybe you should ask your father.”
“He told me years ago the subject of my mother was off limits.”
“That’s something to consider.”
“Maybe one of your aunts or uncles knows something.”
“No, I can’t go behind their backs. I want Mom to tell me herself.”
“You’ll figure it out, babe.” He squeezed my hand. “Let’s take a last moonlight walk along the beach.”
We spent the next month juggling work as paramedics and setting up our apartment. One night Cole came home and said he had an idea. “I got called to a retirement center this afternoon. A man thought his wife was having a heart attack.”
“No, thank God. It was anxiety more than anything else. That and the fried fish she had in the dining room.” He chuckled. “But when I was taking her vitals, I noticed she had a number tattooed on her forearm. When she saw me looking at it, she jerked her arm away.”
I frowned. “Didn’t we study something like that in history? The Jewish Holocaust during the war? The Nazis tattooed the people they put in concentration camps.”
“Yeah, and coupled with her accent, which was pretty heavy, I put two and two together.”
“My mother doesn’t have a number tattooed on her arm. She’s not Jewish anyway.”
“I know, but she told you she came from Poland from a village destroyed during the war. It’s another piece of the puzzle.”
“But I don’t know where it fits.”
He stroked my cheek. “I’m betting you’ll figure it out.”
I spent the next six months researching the Holocaust and Poland’s place in it. I couldn’t remember the name of the village Mom said she came from, but I remembered how it sounded and worked it out phonetically. The local rabbi’s wife who volunteered at the library helped me come up with the location. Then she did some research on her own.
“It was predominantly Catholic,” she told me on my next visit. The church was St. Simon’s, named for a saint who died tending victims of a plague epidemic in 1482.”
“We’re Baptists,” I said without thinking.
“So you’re looking for information about your own family?”
I nodded. “It’s kind of personal.”
“That’s all right. You don’t need to tell me. I also found out there was a small Jewish community in the town, which is why it was targeted by the Germans.”
“Do you mind me asking if any of your family were involved in the Holocaust?”
“Not my immediate family. They were Austrian Jews who got out before things heated up. But most of the extended family members who stayed were wiped out.”
“I know several survivors who immigrated here after the war, but they don’t like to talk about what happened to them.”
“I can understand that.”
“Mostly, I think, it’s because they feel a certain guilt for having survived.”
“But they shouldn’t!”
She looked at me for a few minutes. “I can’t explain it, but that’s the way it is.”
I thanked her for her trouble and left.
“I’ll never know anything unless Mom tells me,” I said to Cole over dinner that evening.
“You understand a lot more now though.”
I shook my head. “More than I want to.”
After that, I just let things go. Cole and I saved our money, bought a house, and started a family. By the time we’d been married a dozen years, we had two rambunctious boys and what we hoped would be a girl on the way. My parents were semi-retired and were enjoying being grandparents when they weren’t traveling the world. With my brother Larry married and living in London, they had plenty of excuses to cross the Atlantic on a regular basis.
Colleen was two months old when I ran into the library volunteer who had helped me with my research years before. “It’s Deborah, right?” I asked. “You probably don’t remember me.”
“I remember you, Frances. My husband and I moved on about a year after you stopped coming to the library, but now we’re back to retire. I can see you’ve been busy.”
“This is number three.” Colleen smiled on cue. “The boys are in first and second grades.”
“Did you ever find the answers you were looking for?”
“No. I decided maybe I wasn’t supposed to have them.”
“Well, if I can help you again, here’s my card. I do professional genealogical research for people, but it would be on the house for you. We go back a ways.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said. “I don’t have much spare time.” I dropped her card into the diaper bag which doubled as a purse.
She laughed. “I had five, so I understand.”
A few days later, I dropped off Colleen with my mother so I could go unencumbered to a dental appointment and maybe pick up a few groceries since Cole had complained about the dearth of snacks in the pantry. When I came back, she handed me Deborah’s card. “I found it in the diaper bag,” she said. “Are you into genealogy these days? I wouldn’t think you’d have time.”
“No, Mom, I just ran into her the other day. I’d known her before, right after Cole and I were married.”
She didn’t take her eyes from my face. “I guess it’s natural to want to know something about your family history.”
I shrugged and tried to change the subject by mentioning the sale on granola bars, but she wasn’t fooled.
“You never mentioned again what I told you the night before your wedding, but you didn’t forget, did you?”
I shriveled. “No, Mom, I didn’t forget.”
“So you went looking.”
“And what did you find out?”
“Nothing about you. I learned a lot about the Holocaust and even about the town you were from, but…”
“It was a long time ago, Frances.”
“I know that.”
“I have a good life now.”
We sat taking each other’s measure for a few minutes.
“But you didn’t always, did you?”
“I’m sorry if you feel like I went behind your back.”
“Maybe I should’ve told you the truth before.
I waited, but she didn’t continue. “Well,” I said finally, “like you said, that was then, and this is now.”
Colleen woke up screaming. I’d pumped two bottles of milk for her, but she liked the real thing. After changing a soaked diaper, I settled back on the sofa to nurse her.
“What did you find out about Uciszają?”
“It was mostly Catholic with a small Jewish community, and that’s why the Nazis targeted it.”
“That’s not why. Not exactly.”
I didn’t look at her.
“When I got out of Poland at the end of the war, I promised myself I wouldn’t look back, but it’s foolish to think you can forget something like that.”
“Mom, it’s okay. You don’t have to tell me.”
I knew she hadn’t heard me. Her dark eyes peered past me from her face which had become a frozen mask. “Lawrence made it easy for me. When we met at the community center dance for those of us who had just come to town, he didn’t ask any questions. Later I told him a little of it but not all. He still doesn’t know all of it.”
“I was fifteen when the Nazis invaded Poland. Fifteen was a woman in those days. I was already engaged to Przemek. His name meant bright thinker, and he was. I don’t think I ever met anyone who knew so much. He was twenty-one, a medical student in Warsaw, but when he came home to visit, we were always together.”
Her accent grew more pronounced as she spoke.
“Once the Nazis had occupied Warsaw, they fanned out into smaller places like Uciszają. They told all the Jews to register. I’d just had my sixteenth birthday, so I urged my parents to let me go ahead and get married because of all the uncertainty. They said it was the thing to do. They thought we’d go back to Warsaw so he could finish school, and then…well, who knows what might’ve happened then?
“I was to wear my mother’s wedding dress. It was real silk, and she’d packed it away very carefully, so it was in perfect condition. Two days before we were to be married, someone who’d known Przemek’s grandmother in another town told the German commandant she was Jewish, and they raided the house and took everyone away. Przemek came home for the wedding and found his entire family gone. We were in the garden discussing what to do next, whether to have the wedding or not, when eight or nine German soldiers stormed through the house and out the back door and…
“They took him away. I screamed. I begged. I tried to tell them he’d been baptized and confirmed at St. Simon’s just as I had, but one of them knocked me to the ground and said I was lucky they didn’t take me, too, just for talking to a dirty Jew.”
She covered her face with her hands. “People had begun to talk among themselves about what the Germans were doing with the Jews, and some of the braver ones even went down to the Miejska sala and let their voices be heard. Of course, it didn’t do any good, and when the German commandant heard about it, he called everyone to assemble in the town square and told us that the next person to speak against the Reich would be shot. Someone in the crowd threw a rock at him, and the soldiers charged into the crowd and began shooting. Eleven people, including three children, bled their lives away on the street. I can still hear the screaming, smell the blood…”
“The next night, the night that would’ve been my wedding night, they burned the town. We barely escaped with our lives and the clothes on our backs, and for the next few years, we survived as best we could. My brothers joined the partisans. I don’t know what happened to them. My mother--Francziska--died of pneumonia the second winter. My father just gave up then, and in a few weeks, he died, too.
“But I survived somehow. After the war, I tried to find out what happened to Przemek, and when I found his name on a list of those who died at Auschwitz, I decided to immigrate.” She spread her hands. “So here I am, and here you are…and Larry and his son…and Charlie and Casey and Colleen. And now you know.”
She rose and left the room. I heard the bedroom door close behind her. When she didn’t come out, I finished nursing Colleen and went home.
“It sounds like she just needed to get it out, and the time was right,” Cole said.
“I feel like it’s my fault. If I hadn’t left Deborah’s card in the diaper bag, she’d never have known what I did, and Daddy’s going to give me what-for if he finds out I upset her. He’s always been touchy about Mom.”
“Cross that bridge when you come to it,” Cole said. “Hey, did you get me some Cheetos?”
The call from my father never came, and Mom acted like nothing had happened. In the spring, they flew to London to see Larry. He emailed me after they left.
Mom told me some story while she was here. She said you knew, too. When they left, they said they were going to Poland to find her village (I can’t spell or pronounce the name). Why would she want to look for a place that disappeared almost fifty years ago?
P.S. You and Cole and the kids should come this summer for the Shakespeare Festival.
Will S. and I never got along in high school, so I’m not cool about celebrating him. However, we’d love to see you, Ruth, and Trey, so we just might turn up.
I think Mom’s going to say goodbye. I’d be willing to bet they’ll go on to Auschwitz where her first love died. Maybe after all these years she’s finally ready to let it all go.
Mom didn’t talk about the trip after London, but I noticed a difference in her. The subtle shield she’d worn ever since I’d known her was gone, replaced with a softness I’d glimpsed sometimes but never really grasped. She and Daddy continued their volunteer work, traveled as long as they were able, and died within a year of each other.
Among Mom’s things, I found a detailed family tree with a note saying Deborah had helped her put it together. All her pictures had been lost when the Nazis burned the village, but she wrote descriptions of her parents, grandparents, and two brothers, and included dozens of vignettes about life as she’d experienced it in Poland until she came to America in 1947.
She’d had a double marker placed at the cemetery. The man at the monument company called me to say he’d been out to add her date of death. “And there was one more thing,” he said slowly. “It seemed odd to me, but she wanted it done. Under her name I put something, maybe another name. I’m not sure.”
Cole and I went out to the cemetery alone on Saturday. Mom always called herself Eveline Barton Pasco, and that name was inscribed beside Daddy’s. But underneath was another.
Agata Ewelina Bartosz
Cole took my hand. “I guess she really did let go of the past and embrace it at the same time.”
I leaned over and ran my fingers across the chiseled words. “I guess she did.”
“There’s a lesson for all of us, huh?”
“Maybe. But I think we’ve always lived in the present and looked to the future, don’t you?”
After a few silent minutes we started back to the car. “Next time we go to London, maybe we should take a side trip to Poland. What do you think?”
“I think I’d like to get acquainted with my roots. Half of them anyway. And the children should know.”
“Then we’ll do it.”
When we reached the road, I turned back to face the grave. “I’ll see you in Meadowland, Mom. I have a feeling you’re there.”
Cole squeezed my hand and opened the car door.