It is one thing to make a promise, "I will visit her grave, someday."
But it is something else to keep that promise, especially when it involves a several hundred mile journey back to the hometown, a city haunted by memories, both municipal and personal.
Such as the classic bank building, on Main Street, of course now closed, as are many of the stores--five-and-tens, men's clothing stores, a bicycle shop where you could buy a new Schwinn, but also bring your older Schwinn in for repairs, knowing the work would be done conscientiously and well, even for pre-teens with few dollars in their pockets. And we must not forget the florist shop, famed for chicks in display windows as Easter approached, and the savings bank building, also in classic architectural style and briefly a Bank of America branch until it, too, succumbed to the city's declining population and a shriveling industrial base that no longer promised summer jobs for teenagers, then years of steady work, five days a week, 40 hours, and frequent overtime.
But, speaking of personal memories, there was also that junior high school building where, many years ago, I, a tenth grader and hall monitor, "happened" to notice two younger students coming up the hall stairs. I accused one of taking a couple steps two-at-a-time—forbidden behavior. So I sent her back down the stairs. She, along with the other girl, dutifully went down the stairs. When they came back up the stairs, she passed by me and softly said, "You were mean to me."
Next time I saw her, I apologized ... She said nothing, but smiled, very gently. I soon learned her name, Genevieve, but always called Jenny, and when one day she asked me how I knew her name I told her, "Your friend told me." Jenny, I suspect, already knew the answer.
"My friend's name is Jill," Jenny told me, "and I am Jenny Sieczka."
She laughed when I said "Jenny S-I-S-K-A", spelling her last name, wrongly!
Her response: "I can tell you don't know Polish", and she spelled Sieczka out for me. Turn about is fair play, I told her my name ... She said she knew it, but did not tell me how she learned it. My former English teacher, now one of hers, probably told her...
From time to time our paths crossed, and she always would smile and say to me, "Hi, Kent."
One day, I saw Jenny at her locker and somehow blurted out, "There are some good movies coming downtown, and I could take you to one Sunday and get you home before sundown."
"Kent, my father will not let me date until I am 14. Ask me then, and if you no longer send me down the stairs, I might go out with you."
"Jenny, I did that just once." We both laughed, and then went down the halls to our separate classes.
But, by the time Jenny turned 14, another girl had entered my life, and sweet and gentle Jenny ... well I all but forgot about her Next school year, I went on to the senior high, while Jenny was still in junior high. Never again did we meet in the hallway ... or any other place.
After school and Saturdays, I worked at a toy and stationery story, another of those Main Street stores now out of business. One Saturday, Jill came in to buy ... it was typing paper I remember. I rang up her purchase, for I was permitted to run the cash register. I gave Jill her change, and after I thanked her, I said, "Say 'Hi' to Jenny."
"Don't you know, Kent, she died!"
I burst out with a "NO!", much, much too loud, but my boss asked learned why and forgave me for the disruption. Jill and I awkwardly looked at each other, but I hope my "NO!" told Jill I hurt for her, as well as for myself.
Back in those days, teenagers seldom merited newspaper death notices, so Jenny's name never appeared in the "Deaths" column. My parents said I could phone Jill and ask about Jenny's death, and I did that.
Jenny died, Jill told me her parents thought, because she had caught the flu, or something like that. They hoped broth and several nights' sleep would make her well, but, one night, she fell asleep and never woke up. Before that day, though, she asked her mother to phone me. Apparently she did, but no one was home at my house to take their call. She also wrote a note to me, I later learned. Decades later, I read it for the first time.
Jenny's parents were poor, I sensed, so they must have thought they could not afford a doctor and Jenny would get well without medical attention. I felt very sad when I learned all this, for I knew my uncle was on the hospital board, and thought he could have arranged to have a doctor see Jenny. I was sad, too, that I missed her funeral. Yes, there was that other girl, but I still remembered the shy but very lovely Jenny.
My parents, and especially my mother, sensed how I felt about Jenny. As mothers often do, mine must have tucked Jenny's name away wherever they store memories of their children's teenage years. Then, by unlikely chance, one day my mother happened to read the "In memoriam" column in the local paper, and showed me one of its entries...
I still remember its words: "In loving memory of Genevieve Sieczka, who passed away one year ago. Always remembered and sadly missed", and Jill's name followed.
"Your Jenny must have been quite a girl," my mother commented. "Teenage girls almost never read In memoriams, let alone submit one."
When Jill graduated from high school, I saw her name in the list of graduates, and felt sad that her friend, and mine, was not there. Four years later, Jill was listed as a senior year honors student at an area State University College ... again I thought of Jenny, and wondered if, she, too, might have become a graduate of that, or another, State University College.
Jenny had teased me about not knowing Polish, so when I took a college course in World War II diplomatic history, I picked Poland as my nation of special concentration. During that course, I read that Polish aviators had joined the Royal Air Force and fearlessly attacked Nazi aircraft during the Battle of Britain,. I also learned that twice—in 1943 and 1944--Poles in Warsaw rose up against the Nazi occupiers and fought bravely, incredibly bravely, against overwhelming odds. And yes, I also realized how cavalier the Allies were—especially Winston Churchill--towards the situation of the Poles as the war progressed, a war that started when Germany attacked Poland, a nation bound to Great Britain and France by military alliances.
One of my classmates spoke for Ireland in that World War II diplomatic history course. I recall reminding him that Eamon de Valera, prime minister of Ireland, sent condolences to Berlin after Adolf Hitler committed suicide. I remember that classmate, and yes he was Irish, gulping a bit and admitting that it was not one of Ireland's finest moments. He reminded me, though, that the Irish really hated the British.
During the early 1980s, I even wore a red and white Solidarity badge for a few days when Polish workers in and near Gdansk demonstrated against their government, of course Communist-dominated. This time it was my father who said, "You still remember that girl whose name you could not spell..." He had said that almost haltingly, for my ex-wife had been Polish, and good memories of that marriage had been outnumbered by bad ones.
Yes, it is one thing to promise, "I will visit her grave, someday." It is another thing to keep that promise. I reminded myself of that promise one Thanksgiving weekend, when I was in the library and noticed its collection of telephone books. On a whim, I looked up my home town and the name "Sieczka". No Sieczka at the address once Jenny's, but there was a Thaddeus Sieczka living in a nearby village. I wrote the name and phone number down on an ATM receipt and tucked in away in my billfold.
After New Year's, in the spirit of a new beginning, I went through my billfold, tossing a few outdated membership cards, and finding that ATM receipt with Thaddeus Sieczka's name and phone number. And I phoned him.
"Are you Mr Sieczka," I asked. "Yes," he answered, "I am Ted Sieczka."
"Well, ah," I sorta mumbled, "this is a voice from the past. Did you have a sister or daughter named Genevieve?" He paused a few seconds, then said that Genevieve was his sister, but that she had died before he reached his teenage years...
"I still miss her," he told me, a complete stranger ... and I apologized for not identifying myself, telling him my name.
"Oh, you are Kent," he replied, as if somehow he knew me. Then he explained, for he had somehow dredged me, or at least my name, out of long-ago memories.
"I remember," he told me, "Jenny saying, 'Mom, will you call my friend Kent, please?'"
"If she phoned," I assured him, "there must have been no answer, for my mother would have told me of such a call..."
Ted also spoke of a a friend visiting, and I realized Jill was that friend. "Jenny asked for a sheet of paper, and I guess she wrote something on it, then given the paper to her friend."
I apologized for bringing up painful memories, then asked, "Ted, will you tell me where Jenny is buried?" He told me, and I mentioned my long-ago promise to visit her grave, and that I intended to keep that promise.
Jenny is buried in my home town's Polish cemetery, and I am not Polish, so I felt it wise to explain to cemetery personnel why I wanted to visit one of its graves.
Cemeteries often have part time staff and are open few hours per week, so I sent a letter asking where exactly Jenny is buried and explaining why I wanted to visit her grave ... I did not want my visit to the cemetery to seem to be that of an interloper. Barely through my first sentence in that letter, I felt a need to tell the cemetery person reading my words about Jenny. I mentioned sending her down the stairs when I was a hall monitor at the junior high and that she had said I had "been mean to her". I spoke of the gentle and awkward friendship we developed, and that she had laughed at my first spelling of her last name.
Jenny, I wrote, was a slender and lovely brunette, with a nice smile, and I remembered that she was in the school orchestra, talented in art, and on the honor roll. I once asked her for a date, I wrote in my letter, adding that told me she could not date until she reached fourteen. To my regret, then and now, I never asked for that date and I did not go to her funeral because I did not know of her death.
When I visit Jenny's grave, I wrote, I will grieve all the years on earth she did not experience. I can still quote my final words: "The world is such I doubt those years would have been years with me, but I trust they would have been with a good man who loved her and was grateful for what I hope would have been quality years with her and their children,"
What I wrote must have been persuasive, for within a few days I received a cemetery map with an arrow pointed towards where her grave is and a note from "Pat" giving me permission to visit the cemetery "during daylight hours and as late as midnight".
"Thank you, Pat," I thought, and for a while I did not do anything...
Then, just after New Year's, I received a printed invitation to an art gallery open house featuring paintings by a high school friend of mine. The day of that open house the weather forecast was for cold but not frigid temperatures and no snowfall, so I made the several-hour drive back to my home town, avoiding the unpleasant memories a drive down Main Street would have evoked ... I did spend several hours viewing my classmate's paintings and sharing a few memories with him and others. I stayed overnight at a motel once owned by another classmate's family and, just before noon, slowly drove down gently snow-covered roads to the cemetery.
Once there, I made what I thought would be a perfunctory visit to the cemetery office before going to Jenny's grave. But "perfunctory" it wasn't...
"Good morning," I said to the older lady at the office, whose name tag gave her first name, "Patricia", and last name that I knew was Polish and knew, too, I could not spell or pronounce.
"Oh, you are Kent," she said, welcoming me. "I believe I have something for you." She told me a woman "about your age" had visited the cemetery quite recently and because she, Pat, had known that woman was a good friend of Jenny's she, Pat, told her about my letter asking where Jenny is buried...
"Is her name Jill?" I asked?
"Yes," Pat answered, "it is." Pat went on to explain that Jill had stopped at Jenny's grave, then returned to ask a favor of Pat.
"Jenny gave me a note to give to Kent," Jill had said, "but when he didn't come to Jenny's funeral I figured if he didn't care enough to be there, he would not appreciate Jenny's note to him, which I read and shed tears over."
Pat said she went to some files and got out my letter asking where Jenny is buried and shared it with Jill. Jill read it, Pat said, then said 'Now I understand" and then asked me,
"If I send you the note Jenny wrote to him, will you share it with him whenever he visits?"
:"I told Jill I would, and, well, here it is," Pat told me.
It was just a small sheet of paper, and looked as if it had been folded and unfolded a number of times. This is what Jenny wrote to me, giving her note to Jill to give to me. Jill did that, albeit decades later.
"Dear Kent, I miss seeing you at NJHS. I hope to see you next year at the senior high. But I have missed school awhile now and I do not feel good. When they think I do not hear them, my parents say that I may not get well. So maybe the next time I see you it will be in Heaven. You will always be my first love and I hope you will remember me.
Love, Jenny 'Siska'."
Grown men are not supposed to shed a tear, but I shed a few reading Jenny's note. If Pat knew the note's contents, she said nothing. But when I smiled and told her about my first spelling of Jenny's last name, she, too, smiled, ever so gently, then said, "You keep the note, I think Jenny would want you to have it."
I thanked Pat and started walking the several hundred yards to Jenny's grave. While I walked, I thought ... of the children Jenny never had, and what I would say to her, as I prayed at her grave. I thought of the haunting "You'll never walk alone" from Carousel, but decided that wasn't religious enough. I know "Ave Maria" has meaning to Catholics, and Jenny of course was one, but I did not—do not—know its words.
And then a song came to me. It is a traditional Irish song, although the best known version was written by an Englishman. He says he will "say an Ave" at her grave, and so will I, at Jenny's. It is not a Polish song, but it is Catholic, so I felt okay using it.
This is the song I sang, the several parts of it that I recalled. I sang it more to myself than out loud. And the final words ... well I was at her grave, kneeling. I did not go behind her tombstone, but I looked at the soil, rather the snow, above, I was sure, her coffin.
"Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
from glen to glen, and down the mountainside.
The summer's gone and all the roses falling.
It's you, it's you must go, and I must stay.
But should you come, and all the flowers are dying,
if I am dead, as dead I well may be.
You'll come and find the place where I am lying,
and kneel and say an Ave there for me.
And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
and all my grave will warmer, sweeter be.
For you will bend and tell me that you love me.
and I shall sleep in peace until you come to me!"
Singing those final words, and kneeling in front of Jenny's tombstone,
I heard myself saying, "I love you, sweet and gentle Jenny, and I hope I will
see you in Heaven."
It was a strange and emotional moment, when I touched her tombstone one
final time and walked back, lost in my thoughts, to my car, parked near the cemetery
office. Pat was still there, and I stopped in to say 'thank you" and "goodbye"
"Pat, I noticed the anniversary of Jenny's death is soon ... if I have flowers sent, will
you place them on her grave?"
"Kent, I will be pleased to do that for you, and I will say an 'Ave' by her grave for you."
This story should end, perhaps in a month or so, after I send those flowers to Pat for Jenny's grave. For I had said, "I will visit her grave, someday." And I did.
But actually, its ending is a bit earlier. For the very next day, I got a phone call, and it was Pat.
"Something very unusual has happened at Jenny's grave," Pat told me. She said the snow above where Jenny's casket is ... is gone. Did you brush it away?"
"Pat," I didn't, and then I told her the song I sang.
"Kent, I know that song. It has a line about the girl's grave being 'warmer, sweeter be'
because the man who loved her came and knelt by her grave."
"I know you are Protestant, Kent, and not Irish. But I think you have been part of a miracle."
I pray I will see Jenny in Heaven someday. I will want to see my parents, my grandparents, the great-grandmother who died in my third year, and maybe Abraham
Lincoln and Winston Churchill. I will chastise Mr Churchill about how he treated
the Poles during final years of World War II. But I will very much want to see sweet and gentle Jenny, that is my prayer. I will tell her, as I did at her grave, "I love you".