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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Blanka, Bold and Beautiful

“We knew the war was coming. They taught us to shoot.” Halina pulls me down to sit right at her ear, down into the faded upholstered sofa, an overstuffed shelter that invites secrets and has, over the years, harbored confidants from London to Kiev, Montreal to Minsk. I ask why she decided to join the resistance and take up fighting. I had might as well have asked her, why didn’t she live on the moon. “Was there a choice? Not for me. What else would I do?” Algebra comes to mind. Halina’s gem-blue eyes are not the least bit clouded, not with age or with sorrow, and her tone is nothing but blunt as she answers my question, “but where, how did you learn to do this?” I could be asking her telephone number, for all the drama I get out of her. She is all matter-of-fact, cool, unencumbered by emotion. “In school,” she goes on. “Our teachers prepared us for war. For life.” The tiniest edge of exasperation creeps into her voice as 86-year-old Halina, code-named “Blanka” by the Polish resistance in World War II, describes her school curriculum in the months leading up to Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. “What else would we do? What else should we be learning?” Of course, I think. This makes sense. I think again. Fifteen-year-old school girls, learning to shoot? People. Learning to shoot people. To shoot soldiers. Using torsos for target practice. Preparing for war? This makes no sense at all. Halina is the best friend of my best friend’s mother, Leonarda. They lived in the same building, across the hall, for thirty-five years, and Halina lives there still, climbing six flights of stairs up and down, maybe more than once a day, avoiding the elevator unless the steps are being washed – she knows what time this is done daily – or she is exhausted from too many errands, from too long a trip across town. Halina makes me feel lazy. She has taken three buses and a tram, no, two trams, to get here today, to Leonarda’s new home, a garden apartment on the far edge of town, a long subway ride from the center – if you’re a subway sort of person – or the three buses, two trams and, did I mention, the mile walk at this end.. Halina is impeccable in her everyday outfit, a tailored, silky blue blouse with pearl buttons and delicate ruffle detail around the collar, handsome wool sweater and coordinated, plaid skirt, fashionably sturdy shoes and leather handbag. I, on the other hand, look like a campaigner just in from the march, blown through a windstorm, by the time I arrive, shirt half-untucked, scarf askew, and hair falling out every side of my bun. Halina has not a hair out of place; it is exquisitely and, it seems, effortlessly swept up in a silver chignon. She is perfectly prim and proper, and tailored to a “t”. I quickly imagine that she would have been the well-turned out lady at the finishing school. And I would have come in need of a whole lot of finishing. She has a teacher’s mien. You feel obliged to say, “yes, ma’am; no thank you, ma’am.” I suck in my stomach and try to sit up straighter. Unfailingly gracious, she doesn’t raise an eyebrow, sigh, or silently groan. Rather, she greets me warmly, ignores my disheveledness, shakes my hand in the manner of a queen, then takes me to her bosom like a long-lost friend. I feel as though I should curtsy. Halina gossips to me about politics, customs and, surprisingly, Dancing With the Stars – the Polish version. We agree to disagree about our favorites, dancers and otherwise. After a fine chat about this season’s strawberries and breaking news from friends in Kiev, she resumes her stories about her history. “Every day we had shooting practice. Eventually, we stopped our other studies and spent all day preparing for war. Guns. Ammunition. How to run through the woods without being seen. What to do if we were cornered, caught. It was a routine.” Routine. In the same spring of 1939, my mother was perfecting her pie crusts, preparing embroidered towels for her trousseau, crocheting the edges of bed linens, making the antimacassars that remain carefully boxed in tissue paper to this day, passed on to her daughter, to me, safely tucked away in an antique carved bureau. When she was fifteen, my mother studied flower arranging, the care and keeping of fine fabric, and menu planning. Exactly the same age as Halina, my mother came of age in another world. In the days of middle adolescence, in the class for practical arts, my mother was sewing. Halina’s world required a different sort of home economics: Defend. And preserve. Halina learned to shoot. On the dry Colorado prairie, my mother maintained a steady battle with errant mice, straying under doorsills and up into rafters. A world and more away, in eastern Poland, Halina fought against invading Nazis, an army intent on the devastation of everything she held dear. In class, Halina learned to take apart, clean, put together, and load a gun. Blindfolded. All of a sudden, she stops. Interrupting herself in mid-sentence, Halina intuits a certain energy emoting out of the ether and she clicks the remote. Across the room, channels change and familiar music comes through the television. She is gone, lost to me now, enveloped in a reality as intense as the one she had been describing. She lets go my hand, drops it like lead, left awkwardly in her lap until I pull it back. I am forgotten. Her exploits are forgotten, she has dropped the thread of her story and it has vanished as surely as the world it recalled. Halina now exists entirely within the world on the screen. I turn to look at her face, concentration so intense it is unnerving, captivated by these characters who stand in a Hollywood apartment, with metal blinds and galley kitchen, and again, at a grim, hospital bedside. She is as there as they are. She penetrates through to their reality and she is part of it. For the next thirty minutes, she is Blanka, with The Bold and The Beautiful. Halina never misses her soap opera. Neither would my mother.

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