Sunday, October 04, 2009

Want to Hear Something Creepy?

My mom arrived in North America in October 1961. (Well, that’s not the creepy part, just stick with me.) She went, alone, on a boat from Gdansk, Poland to Montreal, Canada. She was just 24 years old, and all she knew how to say in English were “Bristol Pennsylvania” and “Ham sandwich.” The boat she traveled on was called the Stefan Batory, and she found a way to game the exchange rate en route and made a bit of a profit before landing in Canada.

She had no idea how long the train ride from Montreal to Bristol would be. She stayed awake the entire time, terrified that if she fell asleep she would miss her stop and be lost without being about to communicate. She kept herself awake for 48 hours until her cousin met her on the platform in Bristol. She eventually made her way to Chicopee, Massachusetts where she met Dad. Then all of her siblings and parents ended up in America, and Mom wasn’t alone anymore.

On the day she died, October 4, 2001, we were going through old photos of her so we could put them up in the funeral home. There was a picture of Mom riding a motorcycle when she and Dad visited Poland in 1973 that just had to go into the collage. It was their first time back since they’d left more than a decade earlier, and I was born 9 months after the trip. There were pictures of all of us, and Mom and Dad’s wedding pictures. Dad scoured the house and couldn’t find the picture of Mom parasailing when they went on vacation to Marco Island. We tore the house apart and looked in every cabinet, every drawer and through every photo album. No dice.

Dad opened Mom’s memento box that she had kept on the floor on her side in their closet. The box had always been there. We’ve all seen it a million times when in there, but none of us ever thought to ever open it. It was just one of those things that we didn’t even notice anymore because it was always there.

I don’t think Dad ever thought to open it until that day when he was looking for that picture. Inside the box was a print of the Stefan Batory that Mom had saved from her boat trip. The picture was on the front of the dinner menu on the boat, and Mom’s legendary sticky fingers had swiped the menu and taken it from the boat as a souvenir. On the back of the print was the menu. That night’s dinner selections were written in Polish, and the date was at the top.

It was dated October 4, 1961—exactly 40 years to the day before she died. She was 24 on the night she swiped that menu. She was on her way to a brand new life in a new country. If someone had told her that night “Forty years from today you will die” she would have laughed at them. She was young, brave and invincible. There was a certain brilliance and vibrancy about Mom right up to the end, and I would have loved to see her in action at age 24. (Hell, I’d love to see her in action at age 72, which is what she would have been this year.)

Dad stared at the menu, speechless. I don’t remember who asked him what was wrong, but he showed us the picture and the menu and we all fell silent. The air in the kitchen felt heavy and none of us knew what to say. It was a feeling we all felt all day long. We fumbled around the house while picking out what she’ll wear. We all shrunk into ourselves, exhausted and drained from the day. My sisters made grilled cheese sandwiches that filled the house with a smell that nauseated me as I couldn’t stand the thought of eating anything.

We debated on whether or not we should put shoes on her feet. My cousin Theresa once told us a story about how Mom went to help pick out a suit for Theresa’s father, who was Mom’s older brother, when Theresa was making her father’s arrangements. Theresa had asked Mom if she should bring shoes for him as well. Mom said, “Of course he needs shoes. How will he walk into heaven without shoes on?” My sisters recounted the story and laughed at how it was “so Mom.” All I could do was cry because it was just “so Mom.” I can just see her saying it with that spunk that she had. It was the same spunk she used when she would yell at the ref at one of my high school basketball games. I can still hear her, with her accent and rolled r’s, “Ref! She travel! Blow the veestle!” And then she’d holler to me “Bih Jay! Dreeble! Dreeble the ball! Shoot!!”

The thing about the date on that menu haunts me still. I wonder if my 40 year out mark has passed or not. When Mom was my age, her 40 year mark had already passed; in fact, she only had 29 years left. I wonder when Dad’s was, as he’s 71 now. I look at my brothers and sisters and wonder if theirs passed or not too. Has Todd’s? Has anyone’s? My friends? Strangers I see when I am out and about? Unfortunately, not everyone will have a 40 year mark, and that bothers me too.

So, I pose this question to you, Internet. If you had the chance to know when your 40 years left mark would be, or when it was, would you find out? Would you live your life differently if you knew?

I wonder if Mom would have done anything differently.

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Anonymous Taoist Biker said...

I think I would live my life differently, and for that reason I think I'd like to find out. I think I'd need that psychological help of knowing to have the fearlessness to live my life the way I'd like to.

October 5, 2009 at 7:36 AM  
Blogger BJ Knapp said...

But TB, wouldn't knowing haunt you too? Like, you'd look at your son and think "I have this many years left with you..."

I mean, you could still live differently without knowing, right?

October 5, 2009 at 7:42 PM  
Anonymous crisitunity said...

No, I wouldn't want to know.

October 5, 2009 at 8:04 PM  
Anonymous Taoist Biker said...

In theory, yes I practice, would I?

Sadly, I somehow doubt it.

October 5, 2009 at 9:16 PM  
Blogger hannahjustbreathe said...

Wow... Stumbled over here from Crisitunity's blog and...well, wow. Such a thoughtful, moving, haunting post. I so appreciated it.

My mother is about to hit her 60th birthday, and so my family has spent a lot of time lately reflecting on her life, on what kind of party we should throw, on how to celebrate, on the great milestone she's about to reach. And I think this post resonated deeply with me, because all of that is so top of mind right now---and because you wrote this so beautifully, and because I am my mother's daughter, ever seeking connection.

October 7, 2009 at 12:24 PM  
Blogger BJ Knapp said...

Hi Hannah.

Thank you for your comment and your compliment. It was very nice of you.

We just did Dad's 70th as a surprise last year. It was a fabulous party, and my bro made a wonderful slide show of his life. Beautiful. Not a dry eye in the house.

60's a big deal. I say you make it HUGE.

October 7, 2009 at 6:35 PM  

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