Sometimes the simplest memories can be the most powerful. Chris Wiewiora shares a story from his childhood in Warsaw, Poland.
In a forest, outside of Warsaw, two rows of metal faucets gushed water into white ceramic sinks. I stood in line holding Dad’s hand. One of the spigots squeaked closed; the flow stopped, and then a Pole left with a filled container. I could whistle more birdsongs than I could say Polish phrases that I’d memorized. I stayed quiet with Dad. Another Polish person stepped up and untwisted the valve, opening the flow again.
Mom didn’t trust the tap water in our house. She said the pipes could be made out of lead. Even Superman couldn’t see through lead, so how could anyone know what was in the city water? This water from the spring was clear and had to be clean.
I breathed deep and got a whiff of the pollen from the trees and the diesel from the parking lot. I knocked one of the plastic jugs against my leg. Dad held his jug steady. Rivulets of overspill mixed with the dirt path.
I moved away from the mud. I didn’t want to get my Air Jordans dirty. Mom had wanted me to wear my leather sandals, but my toes always got cold, and socks in sandals looked dumb. I was wearing my matching purple shorts and shirt with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bursting out of their sewer hideout.
I knocked my jug harder and the empty plastic echoed in dull thunks. The jugs were as big as the luggage that we packed each summer when we flew from Warsaw to Chicago before driving to West Virginia. At the airport gate, Grandma Anna always wore her apron tied around her waist. She would call me Serce/Heart. When Grandma bent down to kiss my cheeks, a gold cross plunked out of her shirt. She smelled like the strings of dried mushrooms wrapped in plastic that we brought her. She smelled like the earth at the spring.
Dad took a step forward. He set one jug in a sink. I set my jug down on the ground.
Dad picked me up underneath my armpits, and I tried not to laugh because I knew a Ninja Turtle wasn’t ticklish. I forced a frown. Behind my head Dad reminded me,
I unscrewed the faucet. Water splashed into the jug, filling it fast like when Mom would turn on the bathtub at night. I wasn’t going to wash with this water; none of us were because the clean, safe water was for drinking. One jug would sit on our porch next to Patch’s doghouse, and another jug would sit in the kitchen next to the frosty glass windows with the hinge. Mom always opened that window to yell at Joe and me in the backyard when we used the clothesline to launch forked sticks into the air.
Dad reached out and twisted the faucet closed. He set me down. The water trickled and then dripped. Dad capped the jug and then gripped the handle and curled it out of the sink. Dad’s bicep curved like a softball pitching out of his sleeve. His muscles inflated as big as Popeye’s arms after gulping a can of spinach, but Dad’s arms were built from walking Patch, who always pulled his leash forward.
After Dad had filled up the other jug, he lifted them both and began to walk back to our car. I followed, whistling the cardinal song that Grandma Almond had taught me. In West Virginia, she said the song of the red bird made the words, “What-cheer, what-cheer. Birdie, birdie, birdie.”
Dad and I walked down a path. Tree roots made a stairway to the parking lot. The water sloshed back and forth.
Photo: Flickr/Stephen Graham