H
O
M
E

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

C
U
R
R
E
N
T

I
S
S
U
E
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

TOP

 

 

Silence

by Danusha Veronica Goska

One summer afternoon I was dozing on a tour bus in Poland. I was weary from working to internalize Polish language, the only natural barrier in that invader's nation of choice. I had had to start from scratch, from "My name is...."

As I drifted off to sleep, all these things happened at once: I was suddenly a tiny child snoozing on a spiral of rag rug. I was safe within the field of a goddess with the fierce protectiveness of shielded Athena. She sat at a secretary, adding figures. I heard her whispering over and over all the numbers: "jeden, dva, czy," and I knew they were words for numbers, and I, an adult, could hear the women in the bus seat in front of me saying numbers, and I recognized their words, because of that jolt of living memory of my mother doing household accounts. I didn't know before that moment that I knew those foreign words. I did not even consciously remember sleeping next to my mother when she did her figures. And my mother is Medea to me now, not Athena. Apparently she was not always so. Apparently some part of my memory does not speak English.

I grew up in a house where Polish and Slovak were spoken daily. My parents doggedly resisted my prodding for lessons and translations. Though I sometimes felt like the only immigrant born in America, I could not speak a word of my native tongue.

Those among us who couldn't speak English were different, old, dying out; there had been some catastrophe; they couldn't reproduce. When I was born Aunt Tetka was old and she's old now. When my elder brother was a baby she was old, when he was a grown up man, strong like bull, respected in town, she was old. Now he's dead and she's still old, still speaking Slovak, a one-woman ethnic enclave in Bayonne, New Jersey.

My siblings and I felt a polite pity for them, combined with repressed ridicule. Realizing that we shouldn't make fun, and not, was one of our first opportunities to act grown up. But making fun would have been superfluous. All those ridiculous accents and guttural efforts at English were like the cooties in the Nolan kids' hair. Whenever Nurse Grundinger teased the sharpened point of her #2 Ticonderoga pencil over our scalps, she had to pull the Nolan kids aside. We couldn't mock something that obvious, somethin g that so clearly communicated everything that needed to be understood. We could smirk, though.

Sometimes these tongues were ugly and embarrassing. Sometimes, often when I was far from home, on a Girl Scout trip, maybe, feeling that current in the sol es of my feet and palms of my hands that new situations cause, a passing stranger speaking some Slavic language would sound so alluring, so intimate. I would follow, struggling to make eye contact, to produce the secret handshake that would indicate our kinship, to possess the comfort. The rich luxury of words and syllables would flow over me like warm dill soup and I would be pricked by that common, maddening experience: "It was just on the tip of my tongue." The meaning of those familiar sounds seemed just a moment's mundane concentration away, like the message of a half-forgotten dream.

In fact I would have no idea what the words were, no notion in my fingers of what collaboration of the coins in my pocket met the requirements of the price tag staring me right in the face. I would literally have nothing to say.

So I was forced to skip past the essential—words—and rush to my heart, believing that when I heed my feelings, somehow it is right. I knew what those people were saying, no matter their home address. I heard them with the third ear my multilingual household gave me. They turned; they smiled. Their eyes were as blue as ice, as my cousins' eyes. An American passed, and, suddenly, I blurted, "I'm sorry. I thought you were someone I knew." I scurried to rejoin my troop.

However it may have sounded to me, we knew what a Slavic accent meant in America. Cartoon, movie, and national news villains spoke like one of our uncles. Because of men like Khrushchev, grandpa and Boris Badenoff, America had to keep making nukes. I never let my father forget that he couldn't pronounce "th." "'North,'" I nagged, relentless, fanatic. "Not 'nort,' 'north.'" I wanted to cool my shame. I wanted to make him a better person. I wanted to diffuse him.

I knew the fear and envy saved for the stranger in your own backyard, or snoring on your living room couch. Can they speak of something in that language that we can't? Is there some piece of reality they, like physicists, can lay claim to with their strange words and grammars? And if this isn't so, then why do they break off in the middle of a perfectly good English sentence to pile on these impossible syllables? All the uncles and aunts suddenly, solemnly, nodding, saying, "Ai, tak" ah, yes, in dense agreement, and maybe even breaking into song. In impatient answer to my nagging my mother gives me one word to say and I try to repeat it and she explodes: "No, no." I know, somehow, some way I said one sound, or didn't, is breaking my mother's heart, and betrays her. There must be some sound in there that I don't hear, all part of this secret society they make and keep with their tongues.

When your parents speak a language you don't, they can orchestrate your life with the switchback drama of a Washington sex scandal. They can, for example, wait for the most vulnerable teen years of self definition to reveal that your grandfather may not have been an itinerant shepherd come up from Hungary after all, but the village priest, a fact they'd been discussing right under your nose all along.

I envied them. They seemed more sophisticated and yet somehow more innocent. My mother attributed this to goat's milk. The photos Soviet bloc censors let through stunned me. My cousins: hard jawed hunters, slung dead boar over shoulders; ice-eyed nymphs on skates. Ice skates were something we couldn't afford. English, then, seemed to vitiate us the better we learned it; America was now defined as the purgatory where we paid with being poor, fat, and lost for the crime of abandoning our home.

They never talked of home in front of us; they bit their tongues. Having this language meant crucifying their organs of speech. I am supposed to remember this day because it changed the hearts and minds of my generation forever; well, no. I was appreciating the nice black horsy on TV and my father said, "They've got to stop talking about J.F.K. Momma said that if you talk about somebody after he dies, he sticks around to listen and misses his chance to get into Heaven."

I was galvanized. Finally some news of these people, in words I could understand! I held my breath, marshaled every cell in my body as one great big recording machine. I lay there pretending to sleep. This was how I acquired most data in my home.

"Shut up, Tony," barked my mother. "I don't want you talking that Skunk Hollow crap in front of the kids. They'll pick it up."

I'd show them. I'd go to the library, to school...No. Apparently teachers, publishers, the town fathers, were all in on the conspiracy. The maps of Europe in my textbooks stopped at Germany. The year's new teacher, would, when calling roll for the first time, act is if my name were a Communist plot. They were not amusing in this. Our town library's admittedly meager card catalogue didn't have a single entry under "Poland" or "Slovakia." At bookstores I became acquainted with the little laugh. "No, we don't have books on a ha Poland." "Oh, so you're a ha Polish?"

The jokes were unequivocal in their assessment of what it meant to be me. "How do you know your house has been robbed by a Polak? The garbage can is empty and the dog is pregnant." "How do you know if a Polish girl has her period? She's wearing only one sock." "What is the pile of manure for at a Polish wedding? To keep the flies off the bride."

I claimed defunct ethnicities: Austro-Hungarian; Prussian. I felt no immediate loss. I wondered if anyone Polish had ever done anything good. I wondered if my German classmate was right, and we were a subspecies. I wondered if my parents had made it all up, just to be perverse. No matter what I tried, they wouldn't talk. My father gave me family names to research; years later my mother would reveal these to be fictitious.

I wondered if they felt that I was calling them liars. Wanting their language in my mouth impugned their myth: that we were in training, waiting, stoic, to be something else, something better. My hankering for their language showed that what they were had its own value, and was missing from this world they thrust me into, with such expectations.

In this vacuum of vocabulary I sensed terrible secrets, terrible shame, an invisible leprosy that made us different from other people, those winners called American. We were often beaten.

"Why?"

"Don't be a smart aleck. You know."

So this was the vile species of bum we were. Inhabited by unclean spirits we never met who committed the worst crimes one could in a Catholic society, we had to be beaten, over and over, to crush those nameless monsters within.

I concluded that Poland and Slovakia are ever shrouded in some dense fog, as plump, white, clotted and shifting as Aunt Tetka's upper arms, that people there walk with heads tucked into collars and never speak but cryptically, and not above a whisper.When fingering that arc of my globe I pictured days clocking dawn and dusk but no noon; I pictured mountains of an impossible steep and pitch that limit all communication to cuneiform tablets hammered at great effort, carried once a year by masked runners who'd had their tongues cut out.

It was a mystery, the other being sex. Somehow they became one in the deep reptile root of my brain. The foreign tongue: a fearful thing, a cause of shame, but that felt good, of which I wasn't getting any. I looked upon my first Slovak-English dictionary the way I looked at my first sex manual: the mechanization of the last great mystery, a Promethean act. We'd all just better lay low and wait. I soon found both volumes to be inaccurate and incomplete. I said to myself, "Of course."

But they were in and among us, like Giants. My grandfather, or a ready surrogate, out in the garden, up to his hips in vines, huge, suspendered, blunt and boom syllabled, trailing fruit scented smoke like a winter chimney. He brought the folds and mountains of Slovakia with him to America; he must have found it hard to move about freely here, the rocks and falls of his distances crashing into parlor walls and company stores when he moved. He didn't last long in the mines.

I have perfectly clear memories of my Slovak grandmother, his wife, all in crisp black and white, uncompromising colors. A smart black dress, a white lace collar, (copied and stitched after a few minutes perusal of a downtown plate glass window), all haloed in the silver luster of a Remington blade or Ansel Adams print. Confronted with a newspaper in Hungarian, (our particular oppressors at that time), she'd read aloud in Slovak, never missing a beat, and she'd clobber her kid brother on the head when he was slow in picking up this linguistic trick. He died, seven decades later, of a brain tumor.

I am in breathless admiration of her spare peasant musculature, for which any task, from finger cracking walnuts to reaping twenty hectares of wheat, is easy. I smell her cologne, brisk, no nonsense, from Paris. I see her seated before the TV, also black and white, slicing up the apple in her lap, urging on Saturday night wrestlers. I feel her knotted fist pummel my thigh during palm-sweat, gasp scenes in movies. I live in fear of her temper and in gratitude to her example, which makes me feel flow in my veins something better. I know that there is simply nothing in this world tougher than she, and all I need do is claim her in my hour of need. Of course, we never met. She died before I was born.

My father's mother was a bootlegger who spoke only Polish and refused unto death to speak of Poland, a peculiarly Slavic vow of silence. The only sentence I know with certainty that she ever spoke was, "Because the czars burned our books," in answer to the question, "Why did we come to America?" This tiny woman hid in a wagon under a pile of blankets and cabbages to cross a border bristling with police; she did this to get to books, books she'd never have the luxury of learning how to read.

Crossing the water, when I finally did it for a few short weeks in my early teens, didn't help. I mostly remember the dizzying, oceanic effect of fields of heavy ripe grain and my flint-muscled uncle who lived hard by them. He was a tight-lipped communist who could finger queen bees and find baskets of mushrooms where I saw only brown leaves; who denounced the priests as blazons, lunatics; who worked his own schedule from dawn to dark on meals of smoked pig fat and fistfuls of raw hot chilies.

We asked about now and our own flesh and blood looked in four directions and then hissed, terrified, "No. The secret police." We asked about then and the wailing began. The Cohen boy next door who once fished my mother, drowning, out of the River Nitra; he died in the camps. That wonderful blonde who was raped so many times by Russians and became a timid spinster. The emigrants who left and never wrote. Did they find bread? Slovaks who guarded prisoners for the Nazis, and were paid with sandwiches. A skinny, black clad aunt who spanked these hungry collaborators with her broom. "But, Tetka! They feed us!" Jozho in the bar who just last year stood up and sang, "I was born Slovak and I'll die Slovak" and was taken away never to be seen again.

Even I could not talk. Thank God for my fat, greasy cousin, who pinched me when no one was looking and played fiddle like the Devil, for the gooseberries, the dumplings, and the booze.

And I remember my mother and my aunt suddenly stopping on a street corner, and staring at a little black-haired girl in a flounced white dress saying some kid thing to a rounded blond boy in red overalls. And I remember my mother and my aunt looking at each other, with the same look, one I'd never have, or understand, and gasping, and crying. And my pulling their sleeves: "What? What?" What story prompted these shared tears? They couldn't remember this child; she was born long after they left. And my mother turning to me and saying, "Children. Speaking Slovak."

Back home, I wrote a high school report on immigration. I found out in the Encyclopedia Americana that the year my mother entered this country Congress, under great pressure from all sectors, including scientists, who had proof, passed The Emergency Quota Act to keep us out. We were racially inferior. That law was on the books in my lifetime.

I went to my parents, and asked again.

Yes, they were beaten, by racists, teachers, even their own kind, who wanted to save them from these languages they brought with them, these languages they could not get off of their tongues, these tongues that betrayed them. If only they could escape them, cleanse their tongues. If only they could abandon memories of their own grandmothers who were clever or sturdy or wild enough to survive, who may have had their own tricks to better my grandma's with the newspaper. If only they could replace their music, its rhythms Western scholars couldn't even write down, their unique internal metronome, their proverbs, their prayers, their memories, their instincts, their desires. If only they could replace their every word, said or dreamed or imagined, with silence. No loss; what they will be will be so much better. Let them jump out of their skins. They can live with their grief, shame, their own terror that with one false move, one wrongly said word or misplaced laugh, they'd expose themselves, they'd lose what the journey across the water had brought them and hurtle back into being landless, hungry, hunted, owned.

My father was incarcerated at eleven years old. His father was beaten, eventually died. My mother was beaten and kicked out of school. She cooked and cleaned for others, from age 14, until her body couldn't, anymore.

I thought that that profound silence, the absence of songs, costumes, rites, that void, was all my parents had passed on to me. They, so frequently absent from me as they worked maybe two full time jobs in factories, cleaning, carrying bags in country clubs, assumed that I was somehow absorbi ng being a good American. Until my twenties, when I actually met WASPs and the American middle class, I guess I thought so too. But when with people who threw food away, who bought their clothes, who did not share, I, too, practiced the silence. "Real" Americans' culture, reminiscences, experiences, perceptions, expectations, the very meanings of their words, were puzzle pieces, which, if I listened carefully and patiently, I could gather to create the complete language of who I should be. In comparing myself to them I found that what I valued, what I found beautiful, what made me laugh or cry or angry, were foreign. I thought that those things were what made me wrong, and that I needed to get rid of them. "Real" Americans concluded from my silence not that I was different, but that I was a failed version of themselves.

I left America, again and again.

While living in Africa and Asia I felt a comfort I never felt in America. I had an accent; I was apparently different. Folks were willing to learn about me. In answering others' courteous questions, their humble hesitance to presume acquaintance: "What do you do? See? Think? Believe?" I became acquainted with myself. Back in the United States, suddenly able to speak, I was told I was a "blue collar ethnic." People were as certain of my identity as the tellers of Polak jokes. I had learned to speak; my interlocutors, eager to create an America that erased me, had become deaf.

Collecting words like seashells, I had to spend a year of my life in Poland, a year of chilblains and food lines and not earning any money. The night I came back my parents' first and only question was: "Were they good people?"

"They were bitter and difficult," I replied, without hesitation. "They were moody and obsessed with their suffering. And no matter where I went, I knew, even if I didn't have a dime, that I'd be safe, and have a place to sleep, and something to eat, that night."

My parents nodded and looked at each other. "They were good people." My father lifted my backpack, stuffed with poppy seed and plum liquor and sausage thrust on me by people who expected me to be as clever evading customs laws as they. "Ona jest bardzo mocna," he said to my mother.

For the first time I understood the words shaped in my father's voice, in his mother tongue. There is no word to describe what I felt. Suddenly it wasn't a random code my parents had devised on their own, out of a perverse eccentricity, to torment and exclude us; suddenly I was part of it, and it stretched back for centuries, and included some good people, who had done some good things. Suddenly I wasn't crazy or peculiar or possessed, or worse, random; suddenly I could lay claim to my thoughts, my feelings, in my own legitimate tongue, which, if I kept speaking it, would make sense to somebody. And, suddenly, a wall fell, to be replaced by a frighteningly vibrant connection between them and me.

"Yes," I said. "I am very strong." My parents looked at each other, paled and red speckled, open mouthed. The spell was broken.

"She understands."

One day, when I was a kid, my mother had pulled me aside to teach me how to iron a man's shirt. It was my father's, gotten, as we got all our clothes, from great black plastic garbage bags donated by the rich people whose burdens my father carried. I don't know how many people had worn it before my father, or with what degree of care.

My mother lifted it; it was limp, sky blue, short sleeved; you could see through it. "It may be just an old rag," she said, "but it is what your father has to wear. Treat it with care, as if it were a rich man's shirt." My mother knew how to iron rich men's shirts.

She showed me where to start, how to point the iron, how much to spray it with my fingertips, after dipping them in a bowl of cool water she kept nearby. She placed the shirt carefully. In the end, it looked perfect, to me. I felt very proud.

I know now that in that lesson, in hearing her leave for work before dawn, day after day, never calling in, walking on legs that looked like contour maps, in my father's feeding us on berries and mushrooms and bread-and-butter-leaves—he could find provisions for a family of eight on any patch of land, on a highway margin—my parents taught me more, silently, about my culture, than I will ever be able to shake, in order to become the successful American some part of them wanted me to be.

© 2001 Danusha Veronica Goska


Danusha V. Goska, PhD, is an experienced teacher, an award-winning writer,
and a published scholar. She can be reached at dgoska [at] yahoo [dot] com.
Her web page is http://www.codypublishing.com/goska/goska.html

TOP

Back to