AUGUST 31, 1939
That was how I remembered our names. Spoken in a single breath, always blended together.
Antonina and Helena. Helena and Antonina. Two lives braided into a single strand. A tie as certain as the ground beneath our feet and the air flowing through our lungs.
A bond that would remain immutable even as we watched our father go off to war.
For war would come to Poland. Few remained in doubt of it. Only the delusional, or the desperate, clung to the unraveling hope of peace.
I wasn't delusional. But weren't we, all of us, a little desperate? Maybe desperation bred delusion as we sought assurance that the ordinary would remain unbroken. That nothing would happen in the end. That the rumblings would die away, after all. We told ourselves and each other and kept telling ourselves because who, in spite of the flush of patriotism and bravado, could reckon with the alternative?
I stilled in the doorway of the bedroom. Beside the bed, Tata stood, his back to me as he fastened his rucksack. I stayed where I was, taking him in, gathering the moment close. The constancy I always found in his presence without him even speaking a word. His hands, steady and methodical, as they secured the rucksack. The way morning light touched his profile, outlined his uniformed shoulders.
He turned, caught sight of me. "Tosia."
I gave a little smile, abashed to be found hovering in the doorway like a child, and crossed the room. "I wanted to see if there was anything you needed." My fingers brushed the rucksack on the bed, the lumpy canvas out of place against the cream-hued counterpane.
"I think I have everything just about sorted."
"Good." I paused, trying to look only at his face and not at the uniform that transformed him from an attorney in a pressed suit to an officer in the army. He'd served during the last war—not the Great War, he hadn't been old enough then—but the one that followed, between Poland and the Bolsheviks. Helena and I hadn't been born yet; our parents hadn't even been married. Tata returned in 1920, the Bolsheviks defeated, the independence of the infant Republic of Poland established. I'd glimpsed his old uniform hanging in the back of the armoire and seen the earnest young man in the photograph taken before he left, but neither had prepared me for the reality of him in uniform, as if time had unrolled backward twenty years, to another war and a younger man.
Silence lay between Tata and me. I didn't know how to fill it, what to speak, what not to speak. The women of the previous generation were no strangers to sending their men off to war.
I'd had no practice. Not yet.
He paused, drew something from his pocket, held it in his palm a moment. "Your mama gave me this the day I left. The first present I ever had from her. When she found out I would be leaving, she came straight away, didn't even stop to put on a coat. I can still see her, so young and lovely, her cheeks bright, shivering as she insisted she wasn't cold. Stubborn as ever. Quite like someone else I know." He gave me a pointed look and chuckled.
I tried to laugh, but it tangled in my chest.
"We stood in front of my parents' house, and she unfastened the chain from around her neck, placed it in my hand, and told me to keep it safe." His mustached mouth softened, his gaze far away. "I suppose that must have been the moment I realized she cared as much as I did."
He'd told us the story when we'd been young, but never quite like this. Then it had seemed a scene out of a novel, the heroine bidding farewell to her sweetheart before he marched into the glory of battle. How romantic I had thought it. For it had been only a story, a glossy reminiscence.
It had not been real then.
He pressed what he held into my hand, the small oval still warm from his touch. The medallion he always carried, the tarnished silver engraved with the image of Christ. "I want you to keep it now, while I'm away." He swallowed, and it twisted something inside me, such a look on my father's face.