It may come as a surprise to some of my readers to learn that as of this writing, a full 95% of the all the world’s Poles now live in Ireland, with the remaining five percent living, of course, far to the east in places with hard to pronounce, multiple consonant bearing names like “Manchester” and “Birmingham”.  It wasn’t always this way, of course. Prior to the Great Migration, most Poles actually lived in Poland, and in the early 90’s a family moved from there into the neighborhood that I lived in at the time. They had no family there, and no friends save for co-workers of the parents and a few contacts in the church. The parents themselves didn’t speak a great deal of English. They had two children, both boys. The older one, Tomasz, was about three years my junior at fifteen. I called him “Dood”, because he started (or ended) every sentence with “dude”. One of the first things he said to me was “Dood, I am worried about school. I am worried about the Polish jokes, dood.”
“You needn’t be,” I told him. “The Polish jokes will take care of themselves.”
He didn’t get it.
The younger boy, Stosh, was five and spoke English fairly well. He was an almost criminally adorable and completely guileless child who was always asking questions like “Why is the sky blue?” and expecting a real answer. He quickly became a sort of mascot for our street.
One day I was sitting outside watching some of the younger boys play football. Stosh wandered by and decided he wanted to get in on the action, even though he was far too small. The other boys tried to shoo him away, but he just kept smiling and trying to get into the thick of it. At one point the play became very intense. Another boy tripped over Stosh and they both went crashing to the ground. The older boy swore at Stosh, jerked him to his feet by his shirt, and slammed him to the ground. I stood up and gave a verbal warning that included a threat of ultraviolence. I was ready for Stosh to burst into tears, but he just stood up and walked over, and we sat down together.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Jesus Christ yes I am,” he replied. “That boy had bad temper. He should get time out.”
I laughed. “Do they have ‘time out’ in Poland?”
“All the time my mom put me in time out. For no reason.”
“Well, that’s what mums do now, I guess.” I went back to pretending to watch the match, but I was really waiting for Stosh to ask me one of his profound questions, which he did.
“Where were you when you were a little guy?” he said.
“Another town. I only moved here a few months before you.”
He ignored my statement. “I see you in there,” he said, pointing to our front door. “When you come out, you are already a big guy. But where were you when you were little? I am thinking you were a little guy in there and you just stayed inside until you were a big guy and say, ‘Okay, I am big. I can come out now.'”
There is something very touching about the way children try to make sense of the world, especially as it concerns the origins of people other than themselves. As far as they are concerned, they are the centre of the universe. Nothing could have possible existed before they did, therefore all things came into existence along with them, and some just evolve at different rates, or even in secret. It’s not a bad philosophy, as far as those things go. However, not being one to lie to children, as they already have people to do that for them, I tried to explain to Stosh that I had been first a baby, then a little boy like himself and was now, technically, an adult. He was ready with his counter-argument by the time I finished speaking.
“You are way too tall,” he explained patiently, “and your mom is not tall. You couldn’t have come from her.”
“But I was a baby,” I insisted. “A long time ago.”
“But I didn’t get to see you then!” He was getting flustered, and so was I as I was failing to explain a relatively simple concept to a kindergartener.
“This was before you were born, Stosh. Before you were here.”
That was when it happened. I could see it in the depths of his eyes, which were brimming with tears. The realisation. The horror. Because of there was such a thing as “before you were here,” that must mean that there is also…
After you’re gone.
The reason that this incident comes to mind, many years later, is that not too long I ago I heard from a friend that Stosh, having long ago become a citizen of his adopted country, is now also a dentist and a husband and a father. (And of course, an adult, although the last time I saw him he was just a little guy. How did it happen?) This happy news got me thinking about the possible advantages he may have had. It’s not easy to be an immigrant anywhere. It’s not easy to be a child, either, although you have the distinct advantage of not knowing that, at least for a while. But being an immigrant and being a child may have an upside. I’ve been both myself, but I don’t think I took full advantage the first go round, so I wrote this to remind myself.
You can ask questions about things that seem obvious to everyone else, instead of pretending to already know the answer. You’ll learn new things everyday if you pay attention. Sometimes you can even go back and look at the same thing twice and learn something new. The same thing goes with people, as they’re constantly changing. Growing up and all. Someone you knew twenty or thirty years ago, who you’ve immortalized in your mind as “this sort of person” or “that sort of person” may have evolved in secret, without your knowledge, into a different sort of person altogether.
 According to the old lady down at the Spar.