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by Paul Clement Czaja
Once in a time when all of Poland was free and happy, a young teenage girl named Anna was busy tending to her vegetables in the family garden. The garden was a short distance from the family cottage. It stretched alongside of the dirt road that went by their little farm from the city of Posnan many, many miles away to their own village, the venerable Radczuncz. A thick and high hedge protected the garden from the road. This pleased Anna for she was the shy one of the family and preferred plants to people. In looks she took after her father, Roman Glowaki. She had his broad forehead, his thick black eyebrows, his Polish potato nose, his square jaw, his broad shoulders, his thick hands, and his big feet. She also possessed deep within her the nobility that is a Polish soul nurtured by good parents and filled with the Sacramental Grace of the Catholic faith.
As a strong Polish farmer descended from Mediaeval lords and knights, Anna's father was an attractive handsome man. However, when Anna inherited these rugged masculine features, her feminine genes could only soften them a bit----not nearly enough to make her pretty. Too bad she did not inherit much of her mother's beauty.
Julia Glowaki, the mother, even though she had given birth to three daughters, still looked like the delicate flower Roman had wed eighteen years ago. No, Anna was endowed with her father's features, and that was that. Even her mother saw her as a homely girl, and yet one had only to look into Anna's gray-blue eyes to find the beauty of her happy, contented spirit.
One had to come to know Anna by her loving ways to meet the striking truth of her goodness. She cared for the simple things that lived close to the earth. If you want to know Anna, neighbors would say, go into her garden. It rivaled the Garden of Eden. Glory grew in Anna's garden. Ordinary vegetables became extraordinary there. Superabundant life everywhere you looked. To the passer by, such exuberant life seemed miraculous. Anna saw a plainer truth. Her job was to cultivate soil, plant seeds, nurture the beginning plants with respect and tenderness every day----encouraging them to so grow from the inside out until they become all that they were meant to be----perfect carrots, magnificent turnips. Anna believed her plants felt and even appreciated the good done to them. This must be so, she thought, for how wonderfully did those vegetables grow in that humble country garden. If elan vital is the surest sign of a happy spirit, Anna's plants were just so, a joyous lot thriving in the summer sunlight. Often, in a voice so soft only angels could hear, Anna would have long talks with beets and cabbages. Sometimes she would sing old ballads her father had taught her when she was little. I ask you this: were the feathery sprouts of the carrots swaying to a gentle breeze or were they dancing as best they could to the melody of Anna's song? You tell me.
Anna had two younger sisters, Marion and Katya. Marion was only ten months younger and had the features of a porcelain doll. Her every aspect was delicate. The epitome of femininity, she would not do work that might get dirt under her fingernails. She embroidered flowers with silk thread on silk cloth. She did this so well some thought the flowers were real.
Katya, the youngest, was still a girl. She had just turned six the past winter in January. She had a pretty face and delicate hands but was crippled with bones that grew crooked rather than straight. She was loved greatly by her parents and protected from the harshness of the world.
Her sisters loved her, too, but in an appreciative rather than affectionate way. They pitied the unfortunate Katya as one would pity a bird with a broken wing. Anna and Marion when seeing Katya would think: "Poor, unfortunate thing. I'm glad it's not me." They gave her small gifts almost weekly as payment for bearing such a heavy curse of misery and shame on her shoulders. Like the wind which is known only in what it does, Katya's unbearable load was invisible to the eye, but was recognized only in how severely the great weight bent her back and legs. Something unseen but massive had been buckling her since birth. She never could crawl when she was a baby but only lie on the floor and slither like a worm when she wanted to move. The first time she pulled herself up to stand like her sisters, Katya looked more like a capital S than a capital P.
The two older girls in a way were paying Katya off for being the cursed one of the family. I do not believe her sisters could ever reveal this truth openly to even their own conscious minds, but down below in the darker depths of their hearts they surely felt grateful that it was on Katya and not on themselves that this cruel affliction had fallen.
Anna's place was outside in the family garden turning the black fertile Polish earth into orange carrots and green beans.
Marion found her niche close to the hearth, there in the only stuffed chair the family owned, humming sweet tunes as she worked with fleet white fingers creating as if by some wizardry yellow irises bent by a gentle breeze on a field of green China silk.
Katya sat for hour after hour curled up on the cottage's west window seat with the family cat, both still as statues. The cat's eyes were mostly shut, but not Katya's. Her hazel eyes were wide open all day, for Katya wanted to see everything that existed in the world embraced by that window's view. Although not as busy as her older sisters, Katya had so much to see. Her absorbent mind took in daily feasts of friendly familiar things like the old apple tree planted by her great grandfather, the thick bushes where the rabbits lived, the gray wooden fence in the distance that separated their yard from the cow pasture, the rolling rye fields that never ended but became the blue sky of God's heavenly ocean which was above everything else forever. And then there were the varied clouds that sailed throughout the day, ships of all sizes. There was always something absolutely brand new that would come walking or flying into view for a wonder filled while. Katya saw everything and by the power of her seeing simply took everything into her bright mind and then deeper, deeper into her soul, there to be kept as the stuff her dreams were made of in the much later sacred and secret life of her sleep.
You and I cannot appreciate what a blessing the night was to Katya. Her whole life expanded in the night. It was as if she were magically changed into a rare moth and set free by the evening breeze to fly on beautiful wings within the midnight forest. During the day she was a humble caterpillar feeding her hungry soul by chewing and chewing every person and every thing her eyes came upon in that small but interesting world of the cottage yard. But in the night, sleep would come with its dream world where Katya's bones were straight, and she could walk and run and dance for hours and hours. Her joy in being there in this land where wishes fly like doves was unbounded, and she would sense her feet leave the ground completely whether she was dancing, or running, or walking. In her heart's heart, so alive within the magical world of her dreams, Katya knew what it was like to be one of the free things of this world---what it was like to be a winged one. In the dark of night, Katya would dream her dreams----dreams in which she always became just a little bit less than an angel.
But my story begins as I started on a hot afternoon, when the oldest of the sisters, Anna, was on her knees busy in the garden pulling up the last of her turnips. She was rubbing each one clean of dirt with her hands, finding simple joy in the purple and white beauty of these humble roots. She had already put thirty of them in the rough burlap bag when she stood to stretch her legs and to wipe the sweat from her brow. It was then that she saw him.
Coming over the hill of the road, a husky teenager was making his way from somewhere to somewhere. At first, his manner of walking seemed strange to Anna. He was walking with his head bowed, looking down at the road in front of him as he proceeded. Anna wondered if he had lost something or perhaps if he was brooding. The posture made him seem to be a melancholy boy.
Anna quickly crossed her garden and hid behind the hedge by the road to get a closer look at him when he passed by. Then the young man suddenly stopped about twenty yards away from her, and bending from his waist reached down to pick up a brown toad that was sitting there in the middle of the road. Cupping the ugly creature within his two large hands, the young man carried it over to the far side of the road and placed it gently in the tall green grass growing there at the edge of the woods.
Anna was amazed at this doing. She saw at once that this was an act of kindness. He was moving the toad out of the danger of the road. Anna had been saddened many times to find the crushed bodies of toads and snakes there on the road by her garden, hapless victims of the iron rimmed wheels of passing wagons.
As the young man continued on his way down the road toward her garden, she saw that he returned to watching the road before him----to the point of even caring where he placed down each heavy foot. He was not about to stamp out the life of some beetle or ant carelessly. Witnessing this unusual respect for the tender life of God's humblest creatures astounded Anna. This strapping, broad shouldered giant of a farm boy was mindful of the teeny-weenies of the earth.
"What a man!" Anna's soul sang out to her heart.
When the stranger passed her hiding place in the hedge, Anna recognized him as a parishioner of Saint Adalbert's Church in the next village. She attended Sunday Mass there whenever she visited her aunt, Helena. One such Sunday, she had noticed this handsome young man who looked so awkward in a jacket and tie. He was coming back down the aisle from receiving Holy Communion, and she was waiting on line to take the sacrament. For some reason she lifted her head up from her folded hands just as he was approaching. She noticed he seemed pious for all his rugged good looks. He took no notice of her, but as he passed, he threw back his head tossing a shock of blond hair up off his forehead. The gesture reminded Anna of her father's stallion who was always doing that with his long black forelock.
She blushed then and there for her heart leapt within her breast at the sight of this casual gesture. Her response startled her by its spontaneity, by its power. For a moment she forgot where she was, and stood there dazed. A touch on her shoulder from her aunt waiting behind her brought her back to her senses. The parishioners who had been in front of her on the line were already kneeling at the altar rail, and there she was four rows back keeping everyone behind her at a standstill. She became so flustered that she lurched forward and stumbled to the communion rail. "Corpus Domini Jesu Christi," the priest said softy, and Anna, saying a silent "Amen" in her heart, received the Holy Sacrament enflamed with love.
Back in the pew, her head buried in her hands, Anna talked to the Savior Who was there within her mouth slowly melting into her being. She began humbly with the greeting the nuns had taught her in the parish school when she was an innocent girl of eight and being prepared for her First Holy Communion, "Lord Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner." God knows, she was not a sinner back then and was not much of one on that particular Sunday morning----except for the sin she still could not admit to even herself: keeping little Katya in her life as a scapegoat.
Five days later, Anna confided in her mother. She said she was in love with a young man whom she did not know. She did not know his name. She had never even spoken to him. She had only seen him in her aunt's church once and then on the road by the garden. She did not know what to do. She could not stop thinking about him. With panic in her voice, she told her mother that she never felt like this before and asked pleadingly what should she do?
Her mother smiled a very wide smile and hugged her and told her love happens that way. She told her daughter that first love is a surprise thing like the first green sprouting in her garden. All of a sudden the earth is no longer brown and dead but is green and wonderful. She told Anna that the confusion and happiness she was feeling over meeting this boy was the joy of new life. It was no different than the carrot seeds changing dirt into sweet orange roots. Love happening between strangers is just like the blossoming of flowers from a woody branch. Yes, it was just like that, she said. No one can explain how the life spring of April happens, and no one knows how love's coming happens either. It just all of a sudden comes, and all we can do is let it be, let it continue, let it become all that it wants to become. All we can do is say yes to such things for they are God's doing, concluded Anna's mother.
Anna complained softly with tears in her eyes that she might never see him again. She did not know where he lived or even his name. And then she said that she would die if she never saw him again.
Village churches in old Poland are as social as they are sacred. At Holy Mass everyone sees everyone else. Everyone wonders about everyone else. At moments of the liturgy everyone is praying for everyone else. Everyone draws near to everyone within the gathering that is Holy Communion. Jesus becomes Eucharist for everyone receiving the consecrated host at the altar rail. As one Mass follows another, each parishioner becomes as familiar to the other as daily bread. Soul joins soul within the Mystical Body of Christ, and everyone becomes closer as brother and sister than within family. They know each other that well.
Therefore, Anna's young man was not a stranger to her Aunt Helena. She had seen him baptized at her church. She knew his name before she knew Anna's, for he was older by a year. So when her sister came inquiring about who this handsome young man might be that had smitten Anna, Helena recognized the young man from the description given of the events. She had noticed the encounter on the line for communion when Anna froze in her tracks like a startled deer as that handsome boy approached head bowed in prayer and looking like Michael the Archangel. It had taken a tap from behind to snap Anna out of her trance, and Helena still found herself laughing at the memory of her niece’s stumbling to the altar rail with such a flustered and fervent heart. He was the oldest son of the village miller. She had watched him grow up strong, good, noble over the years. Of course she knew the family. She never had visited their mill by the stream, but she sang with his mother in the church choir every Christmas and every Easter. The boy was the only son of the Rucinski family, millers who lived by the fast river. The young man’s first name was Ignatz, and she had watched him grow up within their village church these many years; she guessed that he was seventeen years old, and then looking deeply into her sister’s eyes averred that he was a “good Polish young man.”
Anna’s mother smiled, for she knew that such a validation of a man coming from her broken hearted sister was close to canonization. Helena’s marriage had been a tragedy; her husband abandoned her when she became pregnant with their second child. He just walked out one morning and never returned. Rumor said that he left Poland to make a new life in America. He was Hungarian, and although a handsome man of some means, there was a devilish look in his eyes that made one think of the gypsies. Helena had loved him passionately as well as with her soul. He, it seemed, had loved her passionately, and that was that. His friends could only say in defense of such a dastardly act that he just was not made to be a family man. Before the baby was born, Helena took back her maiden name and never spoke the scoundrel’s name again. Respecting her and detesting him, no one in the family ever spoke his name again either.
Responding immediately with motherly care and joy, Anna’s mother took just one week to arrange the customary Sunday dinner meeting of the two families. She would have Anna cook a wild mushroom soup to delight the guests and to reveal her daughter’s culinary skills.
TO BE CONTINUED