Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Merry Christmas from the Stupid Girl

Let me be clear: I do not know Polish. My family is Polish, yes, and my grandparents infused some Polish words into my lexicon, but those were mostly words for food (kapusta! pierogi! placek!) or body parts (butt=dupa!) and thus were not enough for me to pick up anything substantial.

Upon hearing that I was Polish and could not speak the language, two of my old (perverted) customers at the diner--the ones who, when I asked them what they'd like to eat one night, gestured to my apron, which was slung over my hips, and said, "Oh, you know.")--took it upon themselves to teach me parts of the language. But they always chose the worst possible times. They'd test me on last week's lesson on a swamped Friday night, when I was running to and from the kitchen with my arms piled high with plates of fish fry. I was a very bad student. I'd always end up muttering something that was halfway correct or in no way correct, and they'd always look disappointed and tell me to study harder. "You have to listen to us," they'd insist. "You have to listen very carefully."

But I was less interested in listening to them and more interested in making it through the summer so I could get out of that diner and to Maine, where I would start my full-time teaching job. After all, it was possible these men were not being good teachers. It was possible that while they were telling me, "This is the phrase for 'good morning to you'" they were really telling me the phrase for "Your female bits look mighty delicious this morning, and I'd wish you'd take off that apron and service me right here in the dining room."

I didn't trust them, and I didn't trust their Polish.

And so my Polish is still rusty.

As it turns out, if I were a little better at speaking the language, I wouldn't have had to rely on my brother's girlfriend on Christmas. She was the one who ended up translating for me when my grandfather started hissing Polish words at me shortly after dinner, just as the cousins and I were setting up our annual Uno Smackdown in the living room.

Here's the deal: My grandfather has many things wrong with him--legs still riddled from a childhood bout of polio, heart disease, no peripheral vision due to stroke, bad lungs, general bowel craziness, etc.--but the one thing he takes the least care of is his diabetes. He hates taking his medicine, he hates pricking his finger, he hates having to care about the number that his meter beeps back at him. So mostly he does none of those things.

I was over at his house the other day--not because I am a good granddaughter, but because I had to give him something of his my mother had accidentally left at my apartment in Maine during her Thanksgiving visit--and while I was there I felt compelled to make his lunch and do his dishes. I knew he was supposed to be taking his medicine and worrying about his blood sugar, so I made him do it while I stood there and watched (or, more specifically, pretended to dry a pan for fifteen minutes), and so he did. When the number came back as 346, I asked if that was good or bad.

"Well," he said, "it means I'm about ten seconds away from a coma."

But he just doesn't care about those things, and that became even more clear on Christmas, when the cousins and I were sitting around waiting for the Uno to begin. Grandpa was in a recliner in the corner, watching us through slitted eyes.

When my cousin Sarah got up to get herself a raspberry candy, my grandfather said, "Hey. Give me one."

I watched as Sarah took one of the candies for herself and then lifted the whole bowl and transported them over to where he was sitting. He slipped his fingers into pile and drew out several candies that he immediately shoved in his mouth.

"Grandpa..." I warned.

"Be quiet," he said.

Later on, it was sponge candy. Sarah was heading back to the kitchen for some, and my grandfather requested that she bring him one. Actually, several. Actually, bring the whole plate.

Appealing to or guilting my grandfather wasn't doing the trick, so I said, "Don't do it, Sarah."

She looked between the two of us, and then my grandfather narrowed his eyes at me. He started mumbling something under his breath. It was garbled, fast, angry. It was Polish.

"Well, I don't speak Polish," I said. My voice was light, bright, cheery. "So here's a bonus: I don't know what mean thing you're saying about me right now!"

But my brother's girlfriend, whose very Polish grandmother has taught her more of the language than I'll ever know, was there to translate.

"He's saying, 'Shut up, stupid girl!" she said.

And I nodded, said, "That seems about right," and turned back to the game at hand.

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