by Tayak Salinas
December 2012: our last Christmas. It’s a day I remember when it feels like you’ve been gone too long, or else when all the people who aren’t you start to irritate me. You’d had four, many five beers, and were just drunk enough to start talking about your long-dead friends as we unwrapped gifts. It was the first in ages I’d heard you mention Janek, your buddy from the Polish army and later, your roommate when the two of you immigrated to the US. You stood up and danced a solo waltz around the living room, the way your friend had done in the apartment the three of you shared, waving your hands in the air like a tipsy college freshman and singing the tune of a song I’d never heard or maybe one you’d made up. Grandma laughed when all ninety-two years of you collapsed back onto the couch, exhausted.
“He was much better looking than I was.” You shook your head and took another swig of beer. “Perfect blonde hair, unblemished skin. Almost better looking than your grandmother. And hoooooo, did the women run after him, begged him to get married. But he wasn’t interested,” you said with a shrug. Janek had been gay, I remembered. You’d known, but even in the early 50s, not cared. It made me proud to be your grandkid.
Dad’s girlfriend, the one you never liked (“she has no manners,” you’d tell at Sunday breakfasts) was there that Christmas Eve. I think you were trying to make her uncomfortable when you started doing your Hitler. You slammed your palm on the coffee table, mouth foaming like your always-pissed Shih Tzu. “Das kannst du deiner Oma erzählen!” you shouted, or some other line of your forgotten German. I thought the table would crack. Grandma glared at you from her seat. She hated when anyone brought up the war (I always thought she felt guilty. But for what? About what?). But you? You made your days as a POW sound like summer camp, Hitler more like Chaplin’s Dictator. (After the torture those bastards put you through, the shit they put everyone through, you still didn’t take them seriously. They weren’t worth your time, I guess, didn’t deserve the respect you reserved for professional wrestlers and collectible coins.) My brother and I laughed with you. But we should’ve been frightened, too. You probably already had the cancer by then, but none of us knew. You didn’t know, or at least I don’t think you did. I’m sorry. We didn’t know.
No one ever got you good Christmas presents, probably because you didn’t like receiving them, or maybe people don’t like giving men sentimental gifts. So the dogs were sniffing out the annual red-ribboned package of beer and Polish sausages when I handed you the packages I’d wrapped for you. You tore open the green foil wrapping and started to laugh that closed mouth laugh I still try to imitate.
“I used to be able to see Babia Gora from my window as a boy,” you said. “It’s the mountain where the witches lived,” you whispered, and I felt my brother roll his eyes behind me. But you were still smiling. Because you knew as well as I did that you’d never go back to Poland, that you were already too old, or maybe you even knew that you were dying. And I hated the idea that you’d never look up and see it again. You hung the frame next to your suburban Illinois bedroom window the next day.
In the second package: a birch tree I’d etched into the surface of a slab of wood I got at the craft store. I’d traced it from another drawing, but it still looked like shit, its lines like waves. You couldn’t believe I’d managed to do it without burning myself or setting the house on fire (even though I was 24), and you seemed relieved, like it was a sign that I could take care of myself.
“Isn’t that beautiful!” grandma said over your shoulder, jealous like she always was when anyone paid attention to you. “Where should I hang it?”
You shook your nearly bald head. “No, Marcieu, she made it for me.” After you died, she took it off of the dresser and hid it in a desk drawer. Whenever I go back to the house, I make sure to put it back on display, the place you left it so I could see it.
We sat down for dinner, the usual pickled-cabbage-and-ham holiday spread at the same table I’d played under as a child, the place we’d celebrated my seventh birthday and your ninetieth, where we’d rang in every Christmas since time immemorial. The ideas I heard being discussed from under your dinner table (where you sneaked me sips of beer) were not the same ones my friends’ families discussed, the tables of families who banned discussions of politics or religion. It was at your feet, always clad in dress socks, that I learned to think, to question. (The things we’ve taken years and thousands of pages to learn you seemed to know by instinct.) “All politicians are crooks, Nikolé,” you would always say in the thick Polish accent you maintained through the end of your life, groomed as carefully as the few white hairs on your bald brown head.
You stood up and broke off a piece of that square cracker, the ones they sell at the Polish deli that look like communion wafers. “Merry Christmas,” you said, and walked around the table to kiss each of us on the cheek. We all broke off a piece (are we supposed to share our pieces with each other, too? We can never remember how it’s supposed to go now that you’re gone), and you told us to be healthy and wealthy, like you always did, and I knew that what you meant by that was don’t be miserable, or enjoy this while it lasts.
Then you sat down (next to me, always next to me) and cracked open another beer.