by Eliza Sarnacka-Mahoney
Soon the Christmas season will be with us again.
The abundance of lights, color, good spirits and above all, of course, "goodies" which we will shop for until we drop, until we can no longer remember what was it that we wanted to purchase in the first place, irritated by the crowds of other shoppers we return home, tired beyond the point of wanting to talk or smile or even look at those we share our lives with. And all that will happen regardless of how often we promised ourselves that this year none of that would take place. Like many other emigrants in this country who desire to preserve some of their native Christmas foods and traditions, I will face an additional excursion to a far - away Polish store where I would purchase some "real" sauerkraut, some "real" dried mushrooms and many other "real" foods without which my Christmas table would not be the "real" thing. And then, on just that one magical evening, I will be transported back to my Polish home the way it was years ago, and especially on Christmas 1982.
The good "Gierek times" when life seemed to be normal and people did not have to stand in lines in order to purchase basic life necessities exist in my memory only in flashes. Even so, I am not sure if my memories are real or whether somehow I wove them out of my parents' stories I often heard as a small child. The times I can remember well are already those after 1980, when the persistence of the serious economic crisis turned everyday survival into a real challenge.
Winter 1982 was the hardest of all. Because of heavy snowfalls, power outages and road closures were an everyday thing, while deliveries of food and supplies to the stores became even more scarce. I truly wondered how my mother would manage to acquire all the ingredients needed for the preparation of the Christmas Eve Dinner, yet somehow, when the day came, we had it all: fried carp, marinated herrings, cabbage with dried mushrooms, fruit cake, even walnuts and chocolate. But it seemed that to be able to celebrate the right way did not come without a price. Since my parents had spent so much of their after-work hours in lines to obtain the desired food and fruit, they told to me that they had not been able to "nail down" anything worth buying as Christmas gifts. With the crisis, the transportation failures, and of course everybody out "hunting" for presents, not a sock, a toy or even a bar of soap remained on the shelves.
A brave child, I tried to stand up to the situation and to understand that such were the sacrifices one should accept in the name of "circumstances". But naturally, it upset me, it disappointed me so much that even today I can still remember that particular chill that spread across my stomach and stayed there for days. It simply felt as if I were being stripped of the most charming part of my childhood, and that the best, trouble-free part of it was leaving me for ever.
The Christmas Eve dinner began in a prim if somehow dispirited atmosphere. I could not help glancing towards the Christmas tree, hoping that maybe, somehow, a miracle would occur and I would see a small box wrapped in a shiny paper, or, if due to box shortages it couldn't be a box, then at least an ordinary plastic bag or even a scrap of the last year's tissue paper lurking its way out towards me.
But the dinner went on, the amount of food on the table melted and nothing happened. Sometime between the "kisiel" and the "kluski zmakiem", when the meal was beginning to wrap up, mom sent me to the kitchen to put on a kettle. I did that without any fuss or dawdling but when I returned and glanced at the Christmas tree once more, I could hardly hold back the tears that had been creeping under my eyelids ever since the beginning of dinner and were now very close to forcing their way out.
Resigned, I slumped into my chair and reached for the fork that lay half hidden underneath my plate. But clearly, it was not just the fork that was stuck in there! Next to the fork gleamed a metal three-color pen in a red rubber sheath! A present! A surprise.
I looked at my parents. Their eyes, a curious combination of reflected Christmas lights and love that a child becomes to comprehend only on occasions like that, looked at me. None of us cried. But then, none of us laughed, even me with my heart literally jumping from joy. Somebody on one of the floors above us opened a door, inviting someone inside. The radio we left turned on in another room gently rocked the air with the tunes of popular carols.
Naturally, the miracle that happened was not a miracle at all. It turned out that on Christmas Eve morning, a neighbor from a flat opposite ours popped in to borrow some flour. When she heard that my mom had not managed to get me any presents, she ran back to her flat and came back with that three-color pen, one of the gifts she had intended to give to herown kids. To obtain that pen, together with a pack of crayons and a couple of coloring books, she had to stand in line in a stationery store for two hours.
One day, perhaps one Christmas when my own child is old enough to understand the story as it should be, I will tell it to her. I will try to explain what it meant to live in those times, to be on the other side of the curtain segregating people into the ones who were privileged and the ones who were not, how it felt to try to be older and more knowledgeable than one really was. And I hope she will understand that even though there are many things I hate communism for, there also is one I received from it like a hidden treasure I would never want to lose -- inner strength. Without that sad child whom the whole world cheated almost twenty years ago, I might as well forgetting what Christmas and family are all about and why Christmas present needs to be app- both by the giver and by the one who receives it.