The big plane shuddered as its flaps lowered and caught the rushing air, jostling me from an uneven sleep. Moments later, the landing gear locked, with a thud, into position. I shifted in my seat and leaned left toward the window, shielding my eyes while trying to gauge the remaining time in flight.
Beneath a thin scrim of clouds, a sparse brown landscape passed beneath us, splotched by gray remnants of a recent snow.
Across the aisle, my mom closed her magazine resolutely, tucked it into the bag resting on her lap, then removed a compact and checked her face in its small, oval mirror.
She smiled, seeing I was up, and asked if there was anything I needed her to carry. Here she was 66 years old, asking if I, aged 39, needed any help toting my luggage. I said I was fine.
We had flown through the night from Boston to London, and now we’re about to land in Warsaw for what was to be a combination reunion/work assignment. Poland was the country of my mother’s birth, and its capital, Warsaw, was hosting the 15th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, an event I would cover as a journalist.
Mom had not been back to Poland from her home in St. Louis, Missouri, save once, in the 42 years since she escaped in the aftermath of World War II. That first and only visit had come 12 years earlier with Pop. Though she kept in close contact with her relatives, this was a special time for her, as much because of my presence as for the time between visits.
We touched down and taxied slowly to the terminal. Finally, the cabin door swung open, and we stepped out onto the plane’s stairway where a chilly March wind pinked my cheeks.
At the base of the stairs, I passed a pistol-wearing soldier in a dull brown uniform facing the terminal in wooden silence. The first thought that sprang to mind was good thing I didn’t lift that in-flight magazine.
Inside the arrival hall, we processed, with some difficulty, through customs, showing passports, entry visas, and luggage to an official who seemed displeased with the act of tourism. We were next forced to exchange a rather sizable sum of U.S. dollars for Polish zlotys, which had yet to be nominated for inclusion in the international hard currency coalition.
With customs breached, we collected our bags and quickly saw the expectant faces and waving hands of our family, who had gathered on the far side of the reception area.
Mom‘s older sister, Zosia, the two remaining of her four brothers, Jas and Xavier, along with her nephew Ignacy, niece Magdalena, and sister-in-law Elka, Xavier‘s wife, engulfed us like—well, like long-lost relatives. Hugs, kisses, and consonant-clotted Polish words knotted in a mass of arms and heads as we moved, amoeba-like, toward the exit.
Outside, the scene resembled any large city airport terminal. Cars with yawning trunks loaded and unloaded passengers; people exchanged kisses and hugs; while cabdrivers slung bags over shoulders and carried others tucked beneath arms with cigarettes dangling from mustachioed lips.
We only brought a few bags, but everyone grabbed something, whether bag or arm, while cousin Ignacy brought his compact sedan up from the parking lot, and Uncle Xavier hailed a taxi for the rest of our party.
As we headed into town, the streets of Warsaw remained slick with slush from the recent snow. The color matched the industrial, pre-slabbed buildings we passed along the way, all very utilitarian, but often unkempt, bereft of the color and tone of a happy population. Even the bridges spanning the Vistula River wouldn’t show up on any map, I learned, as a military precaution.
Ignacy, however, gave us little opportunity for sightseeing, as he careened wildly through town as if under attack from above.
Breathlessly unscathed, we arrived at Xavier and Elke’s apartment in central Warsaw, hoping the blood we had clenched from our hands in the ride would soon return color to our knuckles.
Thus began my first visit to Poland.
Though the seismic changes of perestroika (political reform) and glasnost (openness) started by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorchev in 1985 had filtered out of the Soviet Union, and Poland’s home-bred Solidarity Movement, centered in Gdansk along the Baltic Sea, was exerting its influence in prying Poland free, the country remained firmly under Soviet domination in 1987, and the lessons of freedom revealed themselves to me by their very absence.
Mom and I made another visit together three years later, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In even that short a span, however, the spirit of the Polish people had transformed, as the buds of freedom blossomed anew in a country all-too-experienced in partition and war.
Today, it is the Ukrainian people, just one nation east, who seek that same spring bloom. Here’s wishing all their mothers a particularly hopeful Mother’s Day 2022.