Looking at the map showing the movement of Polish forces against Nazi invaders right through the land of my ancestors, I imagine the shock they must have felt. From one day to the next, they became strangers in their native place. By comparison the disruption we’ve endured for the past nine months due to COVID seems far more manageable. As I walk past the “for sale” signs on businesses in Northport’s sleepy downtown, I envision post-World War II Warsaw, the national capitol reduced to a seemingly endless expanse of rubble. Things are falling apart right now, but at least for the time being we’re not at war. We’re not being forced out of our homes and crammed into substandard shacks across town. We haven’t been stripped of our citizenship or our right to work or to go to school. For all the tragedy and disfunction around us today, we have reasonable hope that vaccines will allow us to resume our normal lives in a few more months. In another year at most.
This map of the Nazi invasion of Poland got me thinking about the losses due to COVID
I thought about these things as I tried to walk my way out of a headache this morning. One consequence of being my mother’s daughter is that a part of me is always ready for the possibility that everything will fall apart, as it did for her when her junior year in France was preempted by Nazi’s overrunning her country, when her city was bombed street by street, when her surgeries left her more scarred than she had been beforehand, when a stupid accident killed her first born.
I’ve been lucky. But also, I keep expecting my luck to run out. On one hand, this makes me appreciate what I have. I don’t take it for granted because a part of me anticipates its loss. I’m reminded of a common response to challenges among my friends in Poland in the early 1990s as they struggled to adjust to the world transforming around them; they would say, “We need to be grateful for what we have.” That really resonated with me as I struggled with loneliness as the only non-native in the small town I lived in while doing fieldwork for my dissertation.
And it continues to resonate with me. Any time things don’t go my way or I struggle with loss, I remind myself, “trzeba się cieszyć z tym co my mamy.” The words flow through me in Polish and make my sadness and frustration easier to bear. I think being my mother’s daughter also taught me how to deal with loss. You don’t retreat from the emotions. You feel them, as hard as they may be. Loss doesn’t erase the good things about what is lost, either. Grief connects you with what you’re missing, whether it be a place or an event or a person. Living with grief means what’s been lost is still in your life.
Right now, I feel the loss of so much—of sociability, of travel, of normal interactions with students inside a classroom unmediated by masks and computer screens. But I’m also grateful for what I have. And for what I used to have.