Nine hours to Białystok from Berlin, to a city teetering on the Polish border. The train noses through fields of yellow flowers, which to me are eternal reminders of Europe in spring, but which are actually new additions, planted in recent decades for the rapeseed harvest. On the way to Warsaw, we sit in a car with a classical musician, our age, with a confident nose and sculpted, striking eyebrows. “She looks like Anna Karenina,” we whisper. She tells us about witches in Podlachia, because we are going to Podlachia. Past Warsaw, on a hotter train, portly men in cheap suits flank the compartment, carrying the odor of polyester, sweat, spirits.
I’ve brought us east to find traces of that universal language, Esperanto, created by a man from Bialystok named L.L. Zamenhof, a Jewish man, born here when this land was Russian Empire. Legend says he went to the city market as a child, eavesdropped on Yiddish, Russian, German, concluded that division by language was the great tragedy of mankind. What if we all spoke the same tongue? Wouldn’t pogrom and war fall away? He gathered 28 Latin letters, prefixes and suffixes, and he tried to share this with the world, and they called him Dr. Hope.
Here in Ann Arbor, unable to travel, I am missing the Greek balcony, a private and public space: it’s neither in nor out but something in between. Poet Alicia E. Stallings, who lives in Athens, notes on Twitter: “Very Athenian neighbor quarrel tonight: we fired up the grill in the yard to pretend like it was a Friday, but it turns out lady upstairs had just done her laundry. Words were had.” (It was indeed Friday, but what is Friday anymore, anyway?) When I write her about this, laughing, she adds that the woman also menacingly suggests she might water her plants while Alicia’s husband works on his laptop below.
In the early weeks of quarantine, from balconies in Athens, friends filmed videos of their neighbors clapping for health care workers. On Easter, when Athens is often eerily quiet, as many Athenians return to their home villages, say, or travel to an island, the quarantined city’s balconies shone bright with candles.
At the second hospital in as many days, my father starts seeing crows. He points at the nurses’ station with his chin, speaks in perfect Polish, the kind I haven’t heard him speak in decades. His brain lights up momentarily with the speed and language of the young man he was when he first came to America, before Multiple Sclerosis and age started robbing his body. My father tells me to look, look, look. Tells me the roof is so thin, that the small one is looking for its nest. I can tell by his eyes he really sees it. He’s hallucinating, I say. I’m startled, then startled a second time when the nurse and doctor don’t think much of it. They tell me it’s ICU psychosis, the lack of sleep and all the beeping.
I create an occasion for my grandmother. I don’t call it anything, but it’s an occasion nonetheless. For the occasion we travel in her car to the park she shared with me when I was small, a little piece of valley we call the ice cave. For the occasion she chooses her blue flannel and a white fleece hat with flaps that would shield her eyes from the sun, except it’s misting. I wear one of her old coats, a black jacket with Mayan floral weave on the chest, a jacket I haven’t seen in decades. One of the effects of Grandma’s dementia: all of her coats are equally unknown to her now—one is not younger or older, one is not her good coat, none remind her of that fight she had with her son or her husband’s beer drunk resentment. Her husband is the reason for our occasion. Because he is not here. He is in a nursing home she cannot enter due to a highly contagious and sometimes deadly virus she calls the Corawhatever. He is stranded—cramped room, Fall Risk band on wrist—and she should be able to get to him, should be able to help. It’s all she can think about. And so, we go to the ice cave. Do you know how to get there? she asks. I think I do. I drive her car. I tell her at the top of a ridge that feels like my entire childhood, I used to be afraid of this hill. It’s still pretty scary, she says. At the bottom, the bridge is wider than it used to be, but it still bumps us, and in the valley, we pass the schoolhouse where, for a few years, my sister and I lived with our dad, putting scratch-and-sniff stickers on tooth-brushing charts. They painted it red, I say. Sure enough. Pine trees grown up on the hill where we used to sled, the last bend in the road, and we’re there. Small gravel lot by the sagging faces of sandstone and rushing creek. I don’t know if Grandma can make the mile-long trek, but I tell myself it doesn’t hurt to try. We go slow, notice the shape of the land without ferns and foliage for cover. I bend down and touch the lace of white fungi on a rain-soaked log. The warm days have brought the cranes back and melted all snow from the hollows, but ice in the cave is still possible. We won’t know until the end, until we’ve crested the hill obscuring the mouth. Is this it? Grandma asks. I can tell she’s tired, but I say, No, it’s a little bit further. I speed up on the last incline of rust-colored pine needles. White. Ice! I say.
On a crisp fall day in 1974, you are walking with your third-grade class up Central Park West to the museum. You smell the hot pretzels just before the statue comes into view. You want to pass by quickly in an effort to avoid the poop from flocking pigeons, but your best friend and partner for the trip, who is white and blond, slows your pace and squeezes your hand. She is frowning up at the statue, red-cheeked, the way she gets when she is angry.
“How come the Black man and the Indian man don’t get horses too? They’re just as good as the white guy.”
I grew up on an island called Broad Channel in southern Queens that was at or below sea level, depending on the tide. My dad’s house was one that was high and dry. We lived on Cross Bay Boulevard, the main street which ran down the spine of our croissant-shaped island. The boulevard only flooded during hurricanes or nor’easters that came on the full or the new moon. In some of the lower streets in the town, kids would show up late to school because they had to wait for the tide to go out before they could step out of their homes. Often, the high tide water flooded their blocks.