by Ewa Mazierska
In our village there were three families with many children. The Zs., with eleven children, were the record-breakers. Then there were the Bs. with eight children and the Ms. with seven. Such large families brought to my mind the stories of prewar times in the Polish countryside, when peasant families were very poor and some children died early from disease or hunger. My own maternal grandmother was one of nine children, but all the children survived and my great grandmother lived past ninety. Although it was in a different part of Poland, it was still presented as an exceptional case, almost a miracle.
The Zs. and the Bs. did not fit the stereotype of a peasant family. Indeed, the Zs. did not fit any recognisable pattern, as from their huge wooden house, strengthened internally with bricks and always undertaking some kind of renovation, originated two teachers, one vice-chairman of the main Polish peasant party, one district scouts’ leader, two thieves, one convicted rapist and one mad woman who ended up in a mental asylum (not unlike Mrs. Z., who also lost her mind after so many births). The Bs. did not even have a farm and their children, mostly girls, did quite well in life, becoming teachers and clerks. But the Ms., Roman, who was my distant cousin from my father’s side, and Helena, were proper farmers, living from their small plot and services paid to the richer farmers and increasingly non-farmers, such as my mother. Again, I imagined they lived in a way Polish peasants lived before the war and during the time of partitions: in literal and metaphorical obscurity. Indeed, their large farmhouse felt always dark inside and they lost a large proportion of their offspring before the children reached adulthood. Their oldest son, Kazik, suffered from diabetes, had two legs amputated and died at the age of sixteen. Another son, Bartek, perished in a motorcycle accident, being the passenger of another boy. Their other son also suffered from diabetes and Helena spent a great deal of time travelling with him to a distant town to see specialists.
I used to talk to Roman when he was coming to cut grass in our garden with his old-fashioned scythe, which was essential to get rid of high grass growing between the trees, or put tar on the roof of the shed. In his peasant way, he was very candid about his personal problems and everything else. Usually he was in good spirits, even when talking about something sad. When I was looking at him, I thought that he must have been handsome in his youth. Even now his muscular body with its natural suntan, his surprisingly dark and thick hair, and relatively delicate hands rendered him almost attractive. My mother said that he was the most attractive of the three sons, in the same way my father was the most attractive of his three siblings. Roman’s main blemish was his missing teeth; he confessed that fillings and dentures was too much bother for him. When any of his teeth got cavities, he asked the dentist to remove them. And so he was left with maybe ten in total.
When I met Roman the last time, he told me that the death of his sons was not his biggest heartache. Of course, it was a very sad thing, a tragedy, but it was all God’s will. Kazik’s death even came as a relief as looking after him was a heavy burden for Helena and took a lot of resources which needed to be allocated to their younger children. The greatest problem was that his in-laws had practically disinherited Helena, dividing their land in such a way that most of it went to her older sister and Helena got only a small piece near the forest, where the soil’s quality was sub-standard. This decision upset Helena so much that she became sleepless, took up smoking which she had not done for twenty years and stopped seeing a family doctor regarding contraceptives. Because of the disinheritance, she became pregnant again and their last child was born, after a break of almost ten years. Roman was so upset by this new addition to their family that he got drunk as his wife was taken to the hospital. This had not happened with the births of all their other children, as he was not a macho man, enjoying himself when his woman was suffering, and he never liked alcohol, apart from an occasional beer.
‘How can parents be so mean to divide their land so unjustly, giving to one child who is better off almost everything and to the other, who is poor, almost nothing?’
‘Did you ask them?’ I asked.
‘For sure I did,’ replied Roman.
‘And what did they say?’ I asked.
‘That they already gave us much money over the years, unlike to Helena’s sister and it is not worth giving us more as we are like a sieve, without a bottom. We spend everything on our children rather than modernising our farm. They see us not as humans, but as some pest which proliferates when it gets more nourishment.’
‘What would the priest say to that?’ I asked, not out of curiosity, but embarrassment, as I did not know what else to say.
‘I do not talk to priests. Like everybody, they look down on people with many children. They regard them as stupid, not good Catholics. And probably rightly so.’
‘The Walesas also have many children,’ I remarked, again, just to say something.
‘Well, yes. And therefore Walesa is seen as stupid and his children are the laughing stock of the whole country’.
We were about to finish this talk, when Roman added, ‘This is not the first time we were disinherited. Previously my father hurt me when he gave the good land to my brothers and to me what was practically fallow land. When I realised what happened, I felt like killing him, but by this point he was already dead.’
I haven’t heard about Roman for almost a year, till in my weekly telephone conversation with my mother she told me that he went to prison for assaulting his brother with an axe. The story was that his brother, Ryszard, the one who moved to a different part of Poland and got rich there and whom I always found shifty and sly, offered to swap Roman’s fallow land for a piece of land of much higher quality. Ryszard, in his typical viciousness, presented it as a way to make up for the harm inflicted on Roman by their parents. Roman agreed and the appropriate act was signed with the notary, only to learn later that the value of this land which he swapped was many times higher than his brother’s, due to the fact that a motorway was meant to be built in its proximity. Thus Roman’s own brother effectively cheated him. This made Roman so angry that he went to his home with the axe. He did not kill him, either because the brother disarmed him or he changed his mind, but the police were called and took Roman away. Apparently this event upset Helena so much that she tried to take her own life, hanging herself in a barn, but she nailed the hook to a rotten plank in the ceiling which detached itself at the crucial moment. All in all, as my mother said, this was worse than the Holocaust. Plus now, with Roman in jail, there was nobody in our village to cut our grass with a scythe. This story brought to my mind the feuds my father had with his siblings and how after a fight with his sister he told me that if she came to the house again, he would kill her. I wonder what would have happened to us if he really did as he’d said?
That evening I watched ‘Taxidermia,’ a grim Hungarian film about three generations of Hungarians, who live and die in an undignified way, with the youngest, the taxidermist, cutting himself into half using complicated machinery, to become an object of art, displayed in an art gallery. It occurred to me that such a film could not be set in Poland, where ropes, axes and naked hands are still the principal ways of finishing life prematurely. I found this thought comforting – if I was to be murdered, better to be killed with an axe, than be tortured beforehand and displayed later. Better to die the serfs’ than the artist’s death.