by Jean Iversen
I met Christina in aisle 7 at Dollar Tree. Mops & Brooms/Closet. It was my first time navigating the store. Why is it that the cheaper the merchandise, the harsher the lighting? As my eyes scanned the shelves for dishwashing gloves, she approached me from the other side of the aisle.
“Przepraszam? No speak Engleesh.”
I glanced over. A short elderly woman in a black winter coat and hat was holding out an item from the shelves, looking straight at me. I peered up and down the aisle. Was she talking to me? I didn’t understand her, but I imagined what she said based on the few words I recognized.
”Czy wiesz, do czego to służy?”
She held a small pink bottle of Wizard Room Mist in front of her, fully extending her arm so I could see it up close. Her hair was thick, white, and streaked with gray falling in tangled waves to her shoulders. Blue eyes sparkled above two masks. I sized her up. This Dollar Tree was on Milwaukee Avenue, known in Chicago as the Polish Corridor, and we were pretty close to Avondale, once known as the center of Chicago’s Polish-American community. I knew two Polish phrases: one a greeting, the other derogatory.
”Jak się masz?”
It was probably misleading to use any Polish with her. I’ve made this mistake while traveling in Europe; better to use English, I learned. Otherwise, people started conversing with me in their native tongue, and my guidebook phrases were never a match. I was often mistaken for Polish when I frequented the businesses in Avondale. I’d learned a few words while dating a guy whose parents were from Poland and preferred he marry a girl from their country. But that was decades ago, when my hair was a lot longer, a lot blonder, and my face wasn’t obscured by glasses and a mask. Could I still pass for Polish?
The old woman’s eyes brightened when she heard my greeting, and she immediately launched into a stream of Polish, sprinting into a conversation I couldn’t join. She kept pointing to the Wizard Mist, so I tried my best to tell her how to use it. “Any room,” I said. “Bathroom, bedroom, doesn’t matter.” I increased my volume, the most rookie mistake anyone can make when talking with someone who speaks a language different than their own. I added gestures, to cement my idiocy.
At this point, it would be a reasonable assumption on anyone’s end that I spoke absolutely no Polish other than my initial greeting. But this woman had already decided I could understand her and kept talking. Clearly things stopped being reasonable for her long ago. I didn’t stop her.
“To okropne, co się dzieje na Ukrainie. Trwają ciężkie ostrzały i walki. Bomby. Samoloty. Rosja bierze na cel Donbas. Trzy miliony ludzi w Polsce. Trzy miliony.”
Tears sprang from her eyes. I stood, unmoving, in the aisle, next to displays fully stocked with dishwashing sponges, squeegees, and rags. Putin’s armies had pushed millions out of Ukraine by then, most of whom were seeking refuge in Poland. I surmised that her people were in danger back home. I wondered if she were all alone here in Chicago, and that’s why she needed a stranger’s ear. My heart started breaking into shards as she continued.
“Bomby. Samoloty.” She gestured wildly, her arms mimicking aircraft. “Trzy mliony. Trzy miliony. Wszyscy się boją. Samoloty. Przyjeżdżają do Polski. Putin przyjeżdża do Polski. Zbombardowali nawet oddział położniczy. Wszystkie te dzieci.”
I stood there, nodding, stone silent. Finally I spoke. “What’s your name? My name is Jean,” I said, a little less loudly, pointing to my chest. This, she understood.
I looked into her beautiful blue eyes. They were the eyes of the saints in the Catholic Book of Martyrs and Saints from my childhood, eyes of the statues that filled Chicago’s Catholic churches, sixty of them Polish. The soft crinkly folds at the corner of those eyes splintered as she smiled through her tears.
“Brakuje jedzenia. Nie ma gdzie spać, tylko stacje kolejowe, parki. Ale ludzie się boją. Boją się postrzelenia. Ukrywają się w piwnicach. Wszystkie te dzieci.”
I nodded like a fool. “I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say to her. The state had ended its mask mandate two weeks ago, and Christina and I were the only ones in the store still wearing one. I knew little of her pain, but I had learned enough about grief and suffering to know that the only thing anybody can do is to simply be still and listen. She seemed so fragile. I tried to frame her circumstances in my mind. Children back home in Poland? How did she get here, to the Dollar Tree?
She had brought a wheeled metal cart, now filled with items. I tried to divert our awkward encounter by plucking a couple of pairs of dishwashing gloves from the pegs on the wall, and talking excitedly about my purchase as though it were the most interesting thing in the world. This seemed to lift her mood. She reached down into her cart, proudly displaying her items for me one by one, talking animatedly. A few pair of socks. Dish towels. Cleaning supplies. You’d think we were two old friends comparing newly purchased outfits.
“I love you,” she said, bringing a fist to her chest, tears springing from the corners of her eyes again. My heart shattered more.
“Thank you,” is what I think I said, if anything.
Then, she dove into something that I couldn’t quite make out. “Wolfram” was the only word I latched onto. It was the name of a street, not far away. She drew numbers in the air, as though giving me an address. Was she talking about going to church? The next day was Easter Sunday. “Wolfram” she repeated over and over, drawing the number. I racked my mind for nearby Polish Catholic cathedrals. Was she talking about going to mass on Easter Sunday at St. Hyacinth? She probably assumed I was a practicing Catholic. Nothing that stumbled out of my mouth connected. She started to find more English. I caught “birthday” and “no cleaning tomorrow.” Was she preparing her house for a birthday celebration? I was practically sweating from trying to understand her, but it seemed essential to her that I know what she was trying to say.
“I’m sorry,” I finally shrugged, surrendering, strenuously smiling on top of my mask as hard as I could.
She said she loved me again. I touched her arm with my hand. This breached my COVID-19 protocol of not touching strangers, for the first time since the pandemic started. There were no rules anymore in that aisle. She was my ex’s mother, who always had a pot of blueberry pierogi on the stove—my favorite—waiting for me when I came over. Then she became my own mother, who had shrunk to this height as she aged, and had fewer and fewer people to talk with as she transitioned to an assisted living facility. I missed her fiercely in that moment, missed being the source of someone’s comfort. I wondered about my ex, who married a very American woman and settled down in the suburbs years after we broke up.
I wanted to drive Christina home. I wanted to make her tea and sit with her in her kitchen. I tried to ask her if she needed a ride, and I think she understood me, as she shook her head no. She seemed pretty agile when she was bending down into her cart, so my worry lifted, but the weight of her sorrows planted us there. It seemed awkward to just leave her, tears flooding her beautiful blue eyes. I asked her to wait.
I scoured the aisles for paper products. One small box of facial tissue. As I anxiously stood in the checkout line behind a young mother who exchanged Spanish with the cashier as she rang up her basket of bubble blowers, I thought about how Avondale had been a gateway neighborhood for tens of thousands of Polish immigrants after the collapse of the Soviet Union. How it became known to Poles outside of Chicago as Jackowo Wacławowo, referencing the two Catholic Polish parishes, St. Hyacinth and St. Wencelaus. Locals called this part of Avondale the Polish Village.
I thought about how Polish Americans represented the majority of the population in Avondale and surrounding neighborhoods until about 2000, when these areas became predominantly Hispanic. By the time Russia seized control of parts of Eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2022, more than half of all households in Avondale were Hispanic or Latino. The majority of Polish Americans in Chicagoland now dwell in the suburbs, unseating Chicago as the city with the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw.
I rushed back to aisle 7 as quickly as I could, knowing Christina would be there waiting, and cursed the power of the clumsy comfort I offered this woman. I pierced open the box with my thumb and extended a handful of tissues to her, trying as gently as possible to signal this was our good-bye. Her eyes sprouted tears once more. Shit, I thought. I can’t leave her like this. She took the tissues, making one more attempt to communicate something to me. In lieu of any concrete understanding, I nodded like a bobblehead, touching her arm again. A young woman pushed her cart nervously past us, straining to avoid eye contact. Twenty years ago, that would have been me. I stood, waiting, until Christina’s tears dried and she met my smile. If only I knew the Polish words for Peace be with you. May God bless you. Instead I wished her Happy Easter, a soft good-bye, and drove home.
[Czy wiesz …] Do you know what it’s for?
[Jak się …] How are you?
[To okropne …] It is terrible what is happening in Ukraine. Heavy shelling and fighting continues. Bombs. Planes. Russia targets the Donbass. Three million people in Poland. Three millions.
[Bomby. Samoloty.] Bombs. planes.
[Trzy mliony …] Three million. Three million. Everyone is afraid. Planes. They come to Poland. Putin is coming to Poland. They even bombed the maternity ward. All these children.”
[Brakuje jedzenia …] There’s no food. There is nowhere to sleep, only train stations, parks. But people are afraid. They’re afraid of getting shot. They hide in cellars. All these children.
Jean Iversen is the author of Local Flavor: Restaurants That Shaped Chicago’s Neighborhoods, which chronicles the histories of eight beloved eateries. For more information, go to jeaniversen.com. This is her first appearance in Slag Glass City.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 9 · April 2023
Header image by Frank Malawski.