The memory keeper

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“How do you keep the memory of a country, the place that birthed you, that imprinted itself on your bones and brain?”

By Gosia Wozniacka

Last summer, fall and winter, I watched them come. People from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  Crossing, swimming, floating, pushing on across land and water to escape. Toward Europe, a safe place to anchor.

Their images and words filled my computer screen, inhabited my body. I was angry at Europeans who protested their arrival. Angry at friends and acquaintances who likened them to terrorists. Suddenly I felt the anxiety and uncertainty of my family’s own departure and arrival.

28 years ago, my parents, younger brother and I left Poland, a country in eastern Europe, seeking refuge. I was eleven, it was 1988. We were not escaping war, but a broken communist nation with food rations, no private enterprise and militia pacifying striking workers. The Berlin Wall stood 400 kilometers west, imposing, unimpaired. No one could then imagine that countries in the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union’s so-called satellites, would change so rapidly, so soon.

My parents were desperate to give us a better life. We left in a cramped, rust-eaten Fiat, squeezed in between comforters and pots and pans. My parents didn’t even tell my grandparents we would not be coming back, for fear someone would stop us. At the borders, they lied to the guards who threw our belongings to the curb in search of trafficked people and goods.
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“How do you preserve images, words, scents?”

We set up a large, ugly ridge tent on a camping ground in Paris. My brother and I spent days in nondescript offices alongside other children, white, brown and black, eating apple butter from vending machines while our mothers and fathers asked for asylum. After two years in France, my parents decided to begin again. They sought to go to the United States, where job prospects were better. Catholic Charities sponsored the four of us: we were, for a second time, refugees, crossing the Atlantic toward a new life, each with only a leather suitcase.

So many years later, I knew well the work Europe’s new refugees would soon begin. Learning a new language. Figuring out the intricacies of another culture. Missing home. Translating and re-translating school work. Finding a job in a place where your education, experience or social status do not count. Surviving the first few years while pretending to family back home that you have gained more than enough. Fitting in. Blending in. Building again.

But there was something else these new migrants didn’t know, had no way of knowing yet. One day, many years from now, they and their children would face a different challenge.

How do you keep the memory of a country, the place that birthed you, that imprinted itself on your bones and brain? How to preserve images, words, scents? And should you? And is it useless, because after so many years your country has no scent and you do not love her anymore. And what was it that you once loved? What was it that you could not carry, but yearned to maintain?
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“We were not escaping war, but a broken communist nation with food rations, no private enterprise and militia pacifying striking workers.”

This I could tell them: Do not mistake the memory of a country, of a language, with patriotic pride. It isn’t the love of flags, of national heroes or bloodied history. Look and listen for scraps of certain light, reflections of dreams, ephemeral syllables that long ago formed and shaped your ability to imagine and to speak. The undersoil of you.

This I could tell them: It is — it will be — a great pain when your own language retreats into you, becomes an intruder. When you discover it occasionally, with surprise, while sitting down for a quiet moment. Fontanna, you think, water fountain. Mouth the word, taste it. Krople, water drops. Woda, water. These words are still inside, forming, shaping, minuscule eggs in the ovaries of the brain. They may be your first thoughts in weeks in a language that once was your own, that once was fully your own. But maybe you dream in it, and you don’t even know? No, you dream without language. Ever since you have moved countries you have always dreamt without language.

I have tried to find it again, the sights, the language. You will, too. You’ll rifle and nose, sometimes in a fury. You’ll return often once the political situation has stabilized, bringing back suitcases full of food and books. You’ll photograph fleeting things: fields, trees, your grandmother’s hands. It won’t be enough. And yet, if you do not try, if you are not conscious of it, your life could deflate. People get bent out of shape from losing what they cannot name, from letting go of this language of themselves. They hang without bottom, reaching for alcohol, drugs, razor blades. Or they turn angry, abusers, terrorists, jihadists, thugs. Forgetting cannot easily replace a scaffolding collapsed.

Nearly three decades after I left my country, a peace. It arrived when I ceded: there is loss and more loss will come. I am not who I was. I do not fully fit in my own country, nor in my adopted one. I switch languages, I switch worlds, I am a beat behind. I leave people on continents with warm plates on tables, with children to be born and old people to be cared for. I had to make a choice. About the place I live, the people I love. This, all this, is harder than living out your language, your country, stationary, straightforward, rooted. You — migrant, refugee, immigrant, newcomer — are everything else: in motion, active, porous, open wide. Your heart can crack, but it can also build new tissue.

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Gosia Wozniacka: “I had to make a choice. About the place I live, the people I love.”

This year, after visiting Poland, my country, still my country, I flew back. To Oregon, North America, where I now live, another country of my own. I camped in Mount Hood wilderness, walking around the volcano covered in greyish veils. I sat with friends in my garden, eating fat raspberries from the bush outside my bedroom window, in awe of the community of people I have found. I biked along Portland’s buttes, at sunset watching deer ramble out of the forest to browse. Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams floated above the clouds.

At the fish ladders of a dam on the Columbia River, salmon and lamprey slid past the current, repeating an ancient migration rite. Landscape, animals, plants and people have bound me to this land. They are my vocabulary, the new language I am building, the slivers of light and sound I hold. I am, like these fish, imprinted with the early years’ magnetic field, the tattoo of a far-away birth. The salmon and I travel to the ocean, but do not forget the way toward home stream.

Gosia Wozniacka is a writer, news reporter, photographer and observer of the world. She has traveled across the continents, but has also found happiness in being still and enjoying the people and geography in front of her. 

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Editor’s note: The opportunity to meet aspiring journalists who were not only talented but also wonderful human beings is what I enjoyed most during the years I spent as The Oregonian’s newsroom recruiter. Gosia Wozniacka was among the cream of the crop — a UC Berkeley graduate student who was fluent in four languages (Polish, French, English and Spanish), had a love of international reporting, an interest in immigration policy and a gentle, gracious personality. It was my privilege to recruit her to Portland, where she became an award-winning reporter and later wrote for the Associated Press.
Tomorrow: Michael Granberry, America: still ‘the beautiful’?