Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Very House Itself

……… The woman from the church listened to my dziadek and dom and szukam and looked hard at the photograph of my Grandfather’s house. She shook her head but she signalled me to follow and we went into the church. An old man was inside, putting fresh flowers in a vase next to a portrait of the recently deceased Pope John Paul 2.

The woman explained the matter to him at some length and he peered closely at the photograph. He shook his head and was about to hand the photo back when he stopped and pointed to something – a small mark on the lintel above the door, a mark I’d never noticed and could barely see now. His face lit up and he said, “Tak! Tak!” “Yes! Yes!”

He led me and the woman out of the church. She pointed to her watch and indicated that she had to leave. I shook her hand and thanked her, “Dziękuję”. She got into her car and drove away, waving as she passed me hurrying along the road with the old man who was grinning with excitement at this little diversion – helping an Englishman to find his roots. We eventually stopped outside a house. It had a small yard and a barn or stable on the far side. I suppose I had been expecting to see something less prosaic than this squat building with its corrugated asbestos roof and uninspiring greyish walls. Could this really be the place?

The man led me round the back and through a doorway that certainly did resemble the one in the photograph although I couldn’t see the mark that had led us here. He called in through the open door and then stepped inside. An old couple was there, evidently just about to eat. The woman was at the stove stirring a steaming pot of soup and the man was sitting at the oilcloth-covered table. My guide pointed to me and rapidly told my story.

When he finished, we were invited to sit at the table and were offered a bowl of soup. We accepted and in that small, bare, steamy space, eating a simple vegetable soup I began to feel a tremor of emotion. Perhaps my grandfather, all that time ago, had eaten similar simple fare in this very room. While we ate, my guide asked question after question of the old couple, occasionally turning to me and smiling and nodding or giving me a thumbs-up to indicate that, as he had guessed, we were in the right place.

We stayed for over an hour after the meal and with the aid of the trusty phrase book, a map of Europe and a crudely drawn family tree, I managed to indicate my grandfather’s journey and my relation to George Leo Hinz. My guide pointed to my grandfather’s birthdate – 1858 - and then looked puzzled. How old was I? he asked, and I could see that he couldn’t square the grandson being there almost 150 years later. I quickly drew a rough timeline. My Grandfather born in 1858, marries in 1888, has my father and his twin in 1892; my father has me in 1941. And here I am, a 64 year old man in 2005. The guide and the couple indicate that I don’t look my age and we all laugh.
It’s my turn for the questions. The couple have been here since just after the 2nd World War – he shows me medals he has won during the war. The house had been in a dilapidated state when they took it on and they had done renovations, alterations and extensions but affirmed, when they looked at the photograph, that this was indeed the building I was looking for.

I looked round at the walls, thinking of my young grandfather. Here, in this space, he had lived. And then, one day in 1870, he had taken that momentous decision to leave. He would have had no clue where he might end up or if he would ever see his family again. He would have walked out of that door into the unknown. I had known the bare facts but, here, it all became so much more real and I was unexpectedly moved. The old lady must have guessed my thoughts and she smiled at me, waved her hand round to indicate the room, then patted my hand. The tears I was fighting, came closer to the surface. I felt I had to leave now before I was overwhelmed.

Outside,  I diverted myself with taking photos of my guide and the couple.

I gave profuse thanks for their hospitality and help, said goodbye, and made the way back to my car. I drove along the road, past the house and out towards the main road to Naklo nad Notecia.

My Grandfather must have taken this route, I thought. And that was it – the tears I had held back now poured out of me and I had to pull over and stop the car as I began to sob. For him. For my father. For my dying father-in-law. For me. For the brief nature of everyone’s passage through this world. “Lif is læne” says the Anglo-Saxon poet who wrote Beowulf.  “Life is fleeting”.  I don’t think I have ever felt this truth so intensely as I did on that small, deserted Polish backroad.         

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