Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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Made of Sugar

Józef J.’s bakery had opened in Częstochowa just after World War II, on the first floor of an old tenement house on Piłsudskiego Street, which in the fifties was renamed Świerczewskiego and then in the nineties restored back to Piłsudskiego. In fact, it barely escaped being renamed Dojazd, the way it had been called under the Tsar, because one day the city’s frustrated postal workers discovered that after the fall of communism two different streets had been named in honor of Marshal Józef Piłsudski.1 Piłsudskiego Street a.k.a. Świerczewskiego Street a.k.a. Dojazd Street, or simply the Street of the Bakery, faced the main railway station, so my grandfather would carry the hot pans stocked with cheesecake from the oven to the front of the store in the rhythm of recurring announcements: “Attention passengers! The Kraków express train stopping in Ząbkowice, Jaworzno-Szczakowa, Trzebinia is now arriving on Track 1. Repeating: the Kraków express train . . .– ”

To me, those were the only pieces of evidence of the bakery’s former existence: that tenement house pointed out to me each time we visited the train station; the red caramel-scented cellophane stored in my grandfather’s pantry; the stamp “Józef J. Homemade Baked Goods, Piłsudskiego 11.” By the time I was born, in the nineteen seventies, the bakery on the multiname street had long collapsed under the weight of surtaxes for overproduction and had been replaced by a Społem store.2 Yet, there was now another bakery, almost my peer in age, won through hundreds of applications and bribes. It was located just a few blocks away, in the basement of another, uglier tenement on a street, which, almost hard to believe, had always been called Katedralna.

Naturally, Katedralna ran near a cathedral, so this time my grandfather baked the cakes and pastries to the music of church bells or the sounds of the holy mass: ding-dong, ding-dong, a mechanical claw kneaded dough in a giant metal bowl; holy, holy, a wide brush spread icing on the brown crust of babka; pray for us, a white cloud of powdered sugar fell through a sieve on neatly rowed napoleons.

One would enter the store by descending the concrete steps, past a small latticed window just above the ground. Then, one would push the flimsy door, step onto a floor covered with checkered tiles, and there behind the counter with tall two-pan scales, dazzled by mirrors that backed the display case, one could see shelves nearly bending under the weight of goods. And this sight was almost politically dangerous, because in those days the shelves of Społem stores were always empty.

But Grandfather’s bakery held a bounty, appearing the more bountiful when multiplied by the cunning mirrors: slabs upon slabs of poppy seed strudels, big squares of layered apple pies, mounds of puff pastry fingers and punch-soaked sponge cakes. Amidst this opulence, my grandmother stood behind the counter, dressed in white overalls and white cap over her black hair. Turning her proud gaze to the long line of customers that stretched past the store door, all the way up the concrete steps, my grandmother could hardly contain her joy, when she asked politely:

“How can I help you?”

The insiders accessed the bakery through the back entrance, a dark, musty staircase leading to the double-sliding door, opposite the restroom, which always seemed in need of cleaning. With a solemn face, I would help my grandfather unlock the heavy padlock, and, conscious of my privileged position, I would enter the back of the store, where a huge table with wrapping paper and reels of string waited for the orders of cakes and tortes.

To the left of the door stood racks with baking sheets and tins, some empty, some full of crumbs and scraps. From time to time, a fresh, hot pastry also appeared there, ready to be carried into the store, when the space was cleared for it. Past the racks, the store’s back entrance revealed the half-silhouette of my grandmother: one sleeve of the white overalls, one side of the white cap above one side of her head, one side of her smile and her proud gaze as her hands weighed, wrapped, counted the change and slid it gracefully to the register. When I peeked inside, the white sleeve moved, revealing a row of buttons, and my grandmother’s full, smiling face asked:

“What would you like, sweetie? Some cheesecake?”

Ta-da! My grandmother approached the mirror-backed case with a huge knife, suddenly doubled like wings of a giant dragonfly and cut me a piece of cheesecake, seasoned with raisins and candied orange peel.

That’s for the road, for the long, gray corridors of this shop, a sweet charm against the giants that lurked in each corner. Giant scales in the corner of the prep room, where my grandfather had promised to weigh me, right after the enormous bags of sugar and flour. The giant stove in the next room, always hot, with a tall door that opened and closed in regular intervals, swallowing raw dough and spitting out freshly baked cakes. Next, giant refrigerators filled with blocks of butter and yeast, buckets of cream and crates of eggs. The giant eggbeater with a long whisk that revolved like a perpetual motion machine. Further behind it, the giant, curved claw, kneading dough in an immense metal bowl. And by its side—the towering figure of my grandfather. Since his youth, which I had known only from photographs, the dough he worked with every day had filled and rounded his stomach, fattened his legs and plumped up his cheeks, failing only to reach his big hands, which remained hard and wiry. With those hands, he held onto the metal bowl as if it was a side of a ship. My mighty grandfather, in his white cap and white overalls wide as a sail, tended to the kneading of the dough.

Sometimes, I’d sit there all day among the giants, watching the figures in white overalls walk to-and-fro between the rooms of the bakery, carrying cakes, baking tins, bags, and armfuls of stock. My father was there too, together with Grandfather, but he was almost unrecognizable, smaller than the father I knew at home. A single word from my grandfather, and he would be in the corner, churning dough for crumb toppings or squeezing hazelnut frosting onto a torte.

There is an old photograph, which they had shown to me then, perhaps because my father was exactly my age when the picture was taken. My grandfather is standing in the dusty courtyard of the tenement, with a dumpster and a carpet rack in the background, holding the hand of a little boy in white overalls and a white baker’s cap, custom-made for him. The boy—my father—is frowning, but he is standing obediently, clutching the grown-up’s hand, as if mindful that he won’t escape the career that fate has chosen for him. Something inside him is still resisting, he’s fretting and making faces, but just like I will be in the future, he is already fascinated by the bounty of cakes, the warmth of the ovens, and the movement of the giant mixers and beaters. And gradually, he’s beginning to treat the sweet scent of fried doughnuts as if it was inborn to him, the scent that has already saturated my grandfather, grandmother and aunts, and that will eventually become mine too, as well as my mother’s and sister’s, the scent of the whole family for whom the bakery will become the only provider.

When I recall these images now—when I’m already as old as my grandfather was when he first opened his own bakery—I am surprised how little I know about this founder of our pedigree. In the period when my memory starts, my grandfather and grandmother have just moved out of the tenement with the dusty courtyard to a new apartment building at Lelewela Street. The name Lelewela didn’t mean anything to me, but I liked to pronounce it because of the gentle flutter of my tongue against my palate.3 And I liked when, after the whole day of watching giants in the bakery, we walked down this street lined with concrete apartment buildings, almost identical with the building that held our apartment in a different part of the city. On Lelewela Street, in a four-room apartment on the second floor, in the living room with an oak table and a TV, my grandfather rested in a large armchair, smoking cigarettes through a glass holder, stained yellow with tobacco. He put me in his lap and bounced me up and down, playing horsey, chanting: Pata taj, pata taj, pojedziemy w cudny kraj! “Hobbledy-hoy, hobbledy-hoy, to a marvelous land, on we go!” At the final word, the pitch of his voice rose and his knees straightened, so I slid down his legs with a giggle. This was my favorite game, and I climbed back into his lap, impatiently slapping his thighs: “Giddyap, horsey! Pata taj!”

Scenes like this I still remember, but through some strange whims of memory, other more important matters are blurred into my recollections. For example, the times I marched with my grandfather in the Corpus Christi procession, under the standard of Saint Nicolas, the patron saint of bakers. And since I don’t remember these annual processions, even though the photographs show me walking proudly in an embroidered velvet serdak, how could I remember my grandmother’s funeral, of which no pictures were taken?

Cancer, the big crab from the horoscope, ate Grandma.

The crab ate her prematurely because she was soft and sweet. I don’t remember the funeral, but I remember kneeling in front of the picture of Our Lady of Częstochowa, praying for a successful surgery and then a ring of the telephone and the message from the hospital that it had eaten her. That only crumbs were left of her, and they needed to be swept onto a baking sheet, which would be placed by the entrance to no one knows where.

I don’t remember whether my grandfather cried. I remember that he worked. Without stopping. Now it was my aunt who served me cheesecake from the mirror-backed cases while Grandfather walked back and forth through the shop. Dressed in his white overalls, he carried baking sheets in and out. He tended the curved claw rotating in its metal bowl. He kneaded mounds of dough on the long table. I remember that my parents convinced him once to take a vacation in a seaside resort. He cut it short, returning after merely two days. He could not manage without the dough kneading, without the carrying of the baking sheets or the beating of egg whites. Separated from the smell of doughnuts, he could not accept the salty sea breeze instead. After two days, he came back to his bags of sugar.

I remember this incident, but remembering it doesn’t make me know my grandfather any better. And I did not get to know him any more two years later, when one day, as he walked with me from Katedralna to Lelewela, he suddenly pointed with an awkward gesture:

“The Jewish ghetto walls used to start here.”

The following year did not change our relationship either, even though that summer my parents took Grandfather with us on a trip to Lvov. While there, we stopped near a Jesuit church in front of a tenement where my grandfather had worked as a baker’s apprentice just before the war. He walked in through the entrance and walked out almost immediately. He walked just as fast in and out of the Jesuit church. The church had been turned into the Museum of Atheism and as he walked in he saw a big bust of Lenin where the altar used to be. I don’t know what he saw in the entrance to the tenement. In those days, I didn’t ask any questions. I wasn’t interested in anything but myself, since suddenly the dough made at the bakery began to fill my body, and I was growing. My grandfather, on the other hand, began to shrink. He lumped and hardened like a slack-baked bread, and I could no longer sit in his lap, singing Pata taj! I just greeted him politely during one holiday or another, Christmas of gingerbreads and poppy seed strudels, or Easter of babka sponge cakes and glazed mazurkas, and during the occasional Sunday visits, long and tedious, when my grandfather constantly discussed the bakery with my father. The large armchair now had enough room to hold a dog by my grandfather’s side. The dog slept his days away snuggled against the backrest, and his eternal sleep was broken only by regular walks, on a long leash down Lelewela Street. In fact, there had been two dogs, uninterruptedly succeeding one another; however, their habits and preferences were so much alike that my memory merges the two dogs into one. Besides, they were both of the same breed: dachshund. First, a fairly fat dachshund, named Balbinka. Then, a very skinny one, named Bobik. The fat one when my grandfather was still big and plump, the skinny one when my grandfather had shrunk.

But while the physical proportions between me and my grandfather were being reversed irretrievably, nothing lessened his influence on my life. The bakery prospered. Despite my grandmother’s absence behind the counter, long lines still formed opposite the mirrors of the display case. Seeing the plenitude of pastry, customers could hardly contain their appetites. They lined up one after the other on the checkered floor, seizing the chosen goods with their hungry eyes, and then, united in common gluttony, they transformed into one organism that moved to the rhythm of the store transactions: may I havehow muchthank youmay I have . . . Only after they had left the basement—up the steps, through the entryway, onto the street—did the organism disintegrate back into individual customers, who carried their loot to every corner of the city. My grandfather knew they would come back. Throughout the years, stubbornly, despite the obstacles, he had made a name for himself. J., his trademark, was recognized all over the city. This way, although nobody had planned it, the bakery made me learn the taste of popularity. What child wouldn’t like to be friends with a baker’s daughter? And it wasn’t just my access to an unlimited supply of doughnuts that mattered. It was also my impressive knowledge. While others could see only display cases and mirrors, I got to know things from the inside. I was the one who knew the workings of machines and hands and who possessed the mysteries of recipes and methods.

Yet, for my grandfather, the knowledge and popularity were not enough. Even the most coordinated lines, choreographed by an incessant demand, did not please him if he could not host them inside his own store. That’s why, more or less during the time when the skinny dog replaced the fat one in the large armchair, my grandfather had made a decision to move the bakery to a different location, in fact, to a completely different part of the city: Dekabrystów Street, which had still been farmland, when the street by the train station had switched its name from Świerczewskiego to Piłsudskiego. It was at the Dekabrystów Street that the Guild of Miscellaneous Crafts (to which both my grandfather and my father belonged as deemed proper of good citizens in a socialist country) started the construction of the Artisans’ Emporium.

The city had awaited this development for years: a new shopping district—with stores privately owned by fifty of its best entrepreneurs, artisans of all kinds, from bakers and pastry chefs to leather workers and shoemakers. One would set out to shop there as excited and feverish as one did at the city’s very first boutique, Caro on Krakowska, or even as at the famous Marszałkowska Street in Warsaw! In this district, the ravenous lines of customers would finally get satisfied, pick up the slowing pace of consumption and come back as often as they wanted, panting “May I have, may I have, may I have . . . ” But most of all, there, the bakery would finally be able to grow roots, get anchored in a place that could truly be owned, though—how else would it be possible—under the patronage of the Guild of Miscellaneous Crafts.

Yet the bakery could not be moved entirely right away. At first, its new incarnation was the bank loan used for the down payment to the Artisan’s Emporium Construction Committee, which my grandfather was paying off—despite his significant financial capacities—in installments small enough not to raise the government’s suspicion. Now, during those tedious Sunday afternoons, blueprints covered the oak table at the Lelewela apartment like a tablecloth: the Artisans’ Emporium, our new shopping district, drawn meticulously from various sides and angles, including the space for a fountain and rows of flowerbeds. And we all understood that this miracle, this property in the shopping district drawn in front and side views, with areas reserved for long lines of customers, will eventually pass from my grandfather to my father’s management. One day, in a bout of enthusiasm for such a clearly foreseeable future, Grandfather had a stamp made that said “Jerzy J. Homemade Baked Goods, Dekabrystów 33.”

The problem is that my father never liked to manage anything. In fact, though he never talked to me about this, I sensed he didn’t even like working in the bakery. When he was no longer fascinated with giant mixers and eggbeaters, his interests focused on trains, whose departures and arrivals he followed in his childhood through the window of his father’s store. And then, he set his heart on photo cameras, which allowed him to capture trains and other objects before they departed anywhere. When he met my mother, he still worked for the railway, and carried a Soviet-made Smena in his conductor’s bag, pulling it out every time he saw an image worth recording. On dates with my mother, he carried the camera openly, dangling around his neck. He paid homage to my mother’s beauty with a ritual of setup: he kneeled, drew back, adjusted the focus, solemnly held out his light meter. However, to everyone’s surprise, he photographed only her eyes, a rectangular close-up of her face: from her eyebrows to the arch of her nose.

When I think about it now, ten years older than he was during that time of courting, I am struck by how deeply he must have believed in the power of photography. He captured my mother’s gaze in moments of intimacy so she wouldn’t look the same way at anyone else. Perhaps this belief came straight out of a lesson he was already learning about life. He probably sensed that he himself would soon become a captive of the photograph taken in his childhood. Despite the joy he felt riding trains every day, he knew that his days with the railway were numbered, and that the decisive pull would come from grandfather’s strong hand, which, in that old picture, squeezed the hand of a little boy in a custom-made baker’s cap.

There are no pictures of my father in the conductor’s uniform, so the railway episode of his life is hardly credible to me. However, there are shots of landscapes, views from our apartment windows onto the tramline, the hospital, and the playground; there are scenes of our everyday life—my mother and me, grandfather and his dog, my aunt behind the bakery counter—hundreds of black-and-white photographs, which prove that long after he had accepted the baker’s cap for good, my father continued to carry around his camera.

What good was it, however, if even in his beloved area of photography my father’s management skills turned out to be lacking?

After all, there is this picture of me, an echo of that childhood picture of my father, of the doom of the family tradition: a five-year-old girl with a playset “Little Ice-Cream Vendor,” hands full of plastic cones and scoops, bowing in a humble attitude of a merchant over a little cart decorated with logos of ice-cream brands. What would have happened to me if the meanders of history, vagaries of economy and caprices of fate had not completely deprived my father of faith that he can be in control of anything?

Because soon the blueprints of the Artisans’ Emporium turned out to be worth no more than a fortune slip, drawn at some country fair. My father and mother witnessed joyfully as the foundations were being laid, but then, for three years, watched them deteriorate in rain and snow, waiting for the court to rule if the Guild of Miscellaneous Crafts truly owned the title to the land. My parents’ enthusiasm sparked again when the court decided in the Guild’s favor and, finally, the bakery’s walls began to grow. Yet, a week later their spirits fell again when the communal bricks and cement, obtained with so much effort and only through connections, disappeared out of the warehouse, as if they had never been there. My father and mother nodded in approval, when, at the Council meeting, someone proposed to use the artisans’ own resources as a way of cutting costs, but then they could not hide their anxiety when the task of constructing terraces got assigned to the hair salon staff. The money accumulated in the Committee’s account while my grandfather’s savings lost value month after month, and though during its quarterly meetings the Council apologized for the additional fees and ensured that the problems were temporary, each of the fifty co-owners of the emporium stores began to design his own rescue plan.

Even the Local Daily, which from the start rooted for the new shopping center, suddenly became concerned about the project’s impact on the readers’ mood. In panic, it tapped the city’s sickly infrastructure, examining its joints and spans to find some positive models that would restore the residents’ faith in the existing order. Instead of articles about the emporium, the Daily now published long columns about the achievements of local department stores. It lured the readers with gossip about the end of rations, forecasts of more frequent deliveries of oranges and lemons, and descriptions of the newest models of cold storage. And while this news somewhat helped to boost the level of local optimism, at the emporium construction site, the spirits remained grim. Reading the newspaper, my parents imagined what pastries they could make out of the now more-frequently-delivered citrus, and they felt a frustration, which they increasingly vented on each other.

Now, almost every Sunday at breakfast, placing a bowl of scrambled eggs on the table with an ostentatious bang, my mother muttered under her breath, though loud enough for my father to hear:

“I could have chosen better.”

My father kept silent, full of remorse. He knew it wasn’t just love that made my mother agree to have her gaze arrested in a photo frame. When he proposed to her, she had just graduated from college, and as every graduate, she had big plans for life: notebooks thick with poems and a portfolio of watercolors, which she hoped to turn into publications and exhibits. And he, bowing shyly with a camera around his neck, could only offer her some improvised promises. So he told her what Grandfather had always insisted on: that he would leave the railway and take over the bakery. That although he didn’t really know how to talk to her about art, his hands, ready to bake pastries, would create for her the conditions in which art could thrive.

She believed him. In her imagination she could already see those afternoons in a house with large windows, through which the sun would fall gently on her walnut desk, or an attic room crowded with easels, where the nanny would knock at an appointed time and ask whether her painting for the day is done, whether the children could look at her work. Unfortunately, now all the money that could possibly be saved for the house and that could even be stretched enough to pay for a nanny was being spent on the construction of the new shop. My father’s reassurance and pleadings for patience did not work for her anymore. Every day she felt trapped between laundry, dinners and suppers, and on Sunday mornings, which, theoretically, should have given her some rest, her nerves gave out completely, so she banged the bowl against the table:

“I could have chosen better.”

My father cowered in remorse only initially. He showed her official letters and plans, promised that things would be different soon. But after a while he became irritated. It wasn’t his fault, was it? He did everything right, even put his camera away. The same malicious force that locked his hand forever in Grandfather’s powerful grasp pushed them both into a frame that none of them had foreseen. Now they were stuck together in this photo, forever in the same pose. Had they ever even had any choice?

These were my father’s thoughts, but because he hated confrontation, he never brought himself to present his case to my mother. He kept all inside, and when all those squished and dwarfed sorrows started to suffocate him, he pretended he had a cold. In this way, communicating only through grunts and indirect messages, my parents gradually became strangers to each other. My mother looked for salvation in the ritual of makeup. Since she could not create paintings, she mastered the art of painting her own face. She sat down in front of her portable vanity, which, in the proper light sometimes resembled an easel, and covered her face with foundations, powders and blushes. She applied eyeshadows in three shades of gold onto her upper eyelid and drew a copper green pencil along the lower one. She combed her thick eyebrows with a tiny comb; separated her eyelashes with a needle after applying mascara; finally, having put on lipstick, she drew away from the vanity and proudly sized up her work: a slim face painted the warm colors of byzantine icons. My father, on the other hand, found his haven in sleep—first, a well-deserved sleep, essential for someone who starts work at dawn every day—but then, the sleep became his excuse, excessively prolonged, his only mode of existence beyond work, a cocoon that sealed him well, exempted him from responsibility and made him immune equally to anger and tenderness.

But perhaps it wasn’t quite like this. I know that my memories should be more reliable the closer they approach the present, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot recover details that have already blurred. Something other than my ability to remember makes me revisit those past events. For when my mother gave herself up to the polychrome of her own face, and my father found solace in hibernation, I also found an occupation that was supposed to save us all. I started to write, with a zeal only a fifteen-year-old could have; I filled my notebooks at a pace that exceeded the allowances from stationery stores. So I wrote in the margins of newspapers, on ridiculously thin paper napkins, even on toilet paper, which was still in shortage. I wrote down facts, dreams, and stories spun out of thin air, words selected carefully and those just heard in passing. And my only excuse for this paper frenzy was the goal I set out for myself. I wanted to turn my parents into characters from a book or a poem, to give them life made entirely out of text. While I, with my almighty pen, would keep revising the text, correcting errors, even deleting passages that were not up to my liking. I would have them make love when for months they did not even exchange a kiss, or talk to each other when they fell into long silences. I would have my mother put on a baker’s overalls at dawn, and my father cook two-course dinners every day. I would turn our whole city upside down, stretch out its dimensions at will, create new streets, and build a house and a shopping center there, yet without sacrificing farmlands any further.

And because in my imagination I was already reaching for such an unlimited power over the world, I refused to subject my memory to the tyranny of accuracy. That’s why I don’t know exactly how many chances for different life scenarios passed my parents by while they waited for the new bakery to be built. Houses with large yards sold at attractive prices, ice-cream kiosks that could be leased right by the Jasna Góra monastery, or basements rented out in the city center, which could be turned into coffee shops or art galleries. There must have been opportunities that tempted my father with a radical change of fate: full-time jobs with the railway or photography courses. And there must have been paintings on display in the windows of antique shops that my mother examined with a sigh before she continued on to the bus stop with a bag full of groceries. But neither of my parents had time to think of other possibilities. We were all absorbed in our lives as they were marked out. I attended school. Mother cooked dinners. Father carried pastries back and forth. Grandfather held regular tumultuous talks with the Artisans’ Emporium Construction Committee. On Saturdays we all visited the site to watch the construction progress, as if in hope that our determination would force the stubborn walls to grow faster. When after eleven years of frustration, the Committee finally brought the construction to the frame stage, as we looked at the gray, haggard skeletons of the buildings, we could not help thinking that their next stage, inevitably, would be the stage of rot.

Meanwhile, the times were changing. Someone had skillfully forced his way through the red tape and, despite the official designation of the center for “artisans,” he opened a disco club, Manhattan, where the carpenter’s shop was supposed to be. Soon his example was followed by the owner of the pizzeria, La Bamba, who sneaked into a shop eagerly rented to him by the tailor. Finally, the character of the emporium was decided for, when instead of the expected shoemaker’s shop, a bar, Cinema Pub, opened in its place. Several months later the Artisans’ Emporium Construction Committee simply dissolved, almost at the same time as the Central Committee of the Communist party dissolved in the country. And just like its more powerful namesake, the Construction Committee left hundreds of unresolved issues: Who will finish these rows of drab and gloomy buildings? Who will remove the trash? Who will clean? Who will perform the impossible task of dividing one water bill by fifty users of the meter?

Into this stream of questions with no answers moved the bakery from Katedralna Street after eleven years of waiting; it moved, at last, to its own place, finished, in the end at my family’s own cost and design; it moved into the neighborhood of the disco club, Manhattan, and the pizzeria, La Bamba, the district that never truly became the planned shopping center and never got the promised fountain or flowerbeds. During that first summer in the new place, I sold pastries, cakes, and breads together with my mother. I cut them and weighed, packed them in boxes and paper, then counted the change. The mirror-backed cases from time to time reflected single customers. The store doors opened onto a muddy courtyard with patches of grass and tire tracks of delivery vans. Grandfather walked around the place in his white overalls, with my father, some employees, a few apprentices. They closed the stove doors and decorated the freshly baked cakes. The giant claw kneaded dough in a now slightly rusty bowl; next to it, hummed quietly a new ice cream maker. The ice cream maker, although the youngest, was the first to give up. The more profitable ice cream of a foreign brand arrived in a refrigerated display case and stood with no sense of shame next to the counter. Later, the puff pastry fingers, éclairs and meringues withdrew to the sides to make room for sodas, juices, and chewing gums, which came to help the less profitable “homemade baked goods.” Grandfather walked around, but he walked around less and less. He was already weak and sickly. Or he only pretended to be because at his age one was expected to be weak and sickly. Whereas he, unfortunately, kept feeling strong, even though he appeared shrunken and thin, and he moved slower, with less self-assurance as if it was him being led on a leash by the skinny dachshund.

Soon, a new shopping center really opened in the city, constructed in less than six months and quite close to Lelewela Street. And now, as long as the dachshund would allow him, Grandfather strolled around among subtle neon signs and tastefully designed display windows. We found ourselves in a new world, so one day even the famous Blikle opened a bakery here, to the thrill of the pastry lovers, who until recently took pilgrimages to his shops in Warsaw. Having heard of the Master’s arrival, Grandfather put on his best shirt, left the dog at home, despite his reproachful whines, and leisurely walked out to meet the new world order.

There was a long line at the Blikle shop, but it moved fast, so before Grandfather had a chance to examine the goods displayed on glass shelves, he found himself facing a young woman behind the counter. The sudden confrontation flustered him. He blushed, and when he felt his cheeks burning, he blushed even more, irritated that the woman was able to see his weakness.

“How can I help you?” asked the woman in a high-pitched voice, vibrant, like the glass door at the entrance.

Grandfather pressed his sweaty hands against the granite counter. He looked towards the glass shelves arranged on the gilded rack. But although he strained and squinted his still-capable eyes, put on and took off his eyeglasses, used only in exceptional circumstances, he had a hard time recognizing the kinds of pastry displayed there. Dressed up in corrugated tissue paper and tinfoil, decked out in strings of nuts and dried fruit, the pastry formed some elite society, among which his simple cakes would seem like intruders.

“How can I help you?” asked the woman again impatiently. Behind Grandfather’s back, the next customer cleared his throat loudly.

“A doughnut, please,” said grandfather quietly, looking down at the veins of granite.

“With custard or rosehip?”


Grandfather took his seat in the furthest corner, and stared for a long time at the strange creation on the white saucer. Much smaller than his doughnuts, sinking in gold-splattered tissue paper, it resembled a lifelike copy of a pastry, an inedible ornament of the kind used by some of his colleagues to decorate their store windows. But when he removed the paper and bit into the fresh, brown crust, the feeling of strangeness went away. When was the last time he had doughnuts with rose hip preserves? Throughout all these years when he was condemned to using strawberry marmalade from big cans with yellow labels, the taste of rosehip always lingered at the back of his palate. And now that he found its slightly pungent flavor in a strange doughnut, his mouth revealed also a storage of other flavors whose existence he would have preferred to forget. Alarmed, he felt his mouth fill with the bitterness and mold that he had long excluded from his menu. “That’s what doughnuts used to taste like on the corner of Pierwsza Aleja, before the war.” He had just returned from Lvov and for several weeks he visited all bakeries in Częstochowa, examining their décor and assortment of baked goods. He had some money saved up, and in the vicinity of Katedralna he searched for an affordable place to open his own store. And then the war broke out, but he kept searching regardless, so dazzled by his dream of ownership that he was confused when one day he saw the ghetto walls around the neighborhood on which he set his mind.

After that first visit at the Blikle bakery, Grandfather gave up his walks to the new shopping center. As a matter of fact, without any regard for his dog, he gave up walking altogether. One day, he simply decided not to get up from his bed, and although the family doctor repeatedly assured him of his good health, with a firm grasp of hand, Grandfather persuaded the doctor to prescribe him some sleeping pills.

He needed sleep, he argued, to calm down his nerves. For, as he explained forcefully to the stubborn doctor, ever since he had eaten the fateful doughnut at Blikle’s, he had been waking up every night, with a feeling that his body prostrated in bed was actually made of dough. And in the face of this surprising fact, with a deep sense of a baker’s duty, he would start to knead himself with his own hands: he pressed and turned himself over, sprinkled himself with flour, greased up the pan in which he placed himself before sliding it into the oven, and after the recommended time had passed he would take himself out, transformed into a miraculously well-baked glazed holiday babka. Ready to be consumed right on the spot.

I don’t know if this is all true. This is more or less what I’ve heard. A few words that my father had told me about Grandfather at that time were enough to unleash my hyperactive imagination; they rubbed against my metaphysical sense, unbearably tensed up then. I had just moved from Częstochowa to Kraków, running away from my parents’ arguments and my grandfather’s secrets. I began my studies at the Jagiellonian and, immediately, Kraków drew me in with its aura of poetry and decadence. In lecture halls, in coffee shops, and in pubs, I absorbed everything as it came: knowledge and depravity, art and kitsch, history, but also the future, which tempted me like the growing noise of a distant carnival. I also continued to write, but suddenly my background as a baker’s daughter started to hinder my work. Walking in the footsteps of the bohemia of yesteryear, through places that still exuded a contempt for the parvenus, I got scared that, in my writing, people might discern thoughts of middle-class quality, that some astute readers might blame me for my lack of culture, or that the humming of the bakery equipment would draw their attention away from the essence of my story. But the scariest of all was the thought that in my voice they would hear the sounds of the Corpus Christi procession and they would guess that deep inside I still waved the standard of Saint Nicholas; that they’d accuse me of kinship with the sellers of holy lockets.

That night, after another day of arguments with myself, I was sitting on a futon in my rented student room. Those days I usually read Baudelaire or Emily Dickinson, but that particular night for some reason I started to browse through my childhood copy of Moja pierwsza książkaBaby’s First Book. That’s where I found the lyrics of this old lullaby. In childhood, I liked it a lot because it brought to mind the special sugar, gingerbread, and marzipan men sold at the bakery only during holidays. Yet I had always been puzzled by the lullaby’s ending:

Then came the day of their terrible fate; a cruel death befell them.
The dog ate the king, the cat ate the page, and the mouse ate the princess.
But if you mourn for them, my beloved child, abandon your sorrow now
The king was made of sugar, the page of gingerbread, the princess was marzipan.4

Yes, I knew that sugar, gingerbread, and marzipan were the stuff not to be taken seriously. And yet the fate of those three—their death by devouring—filled me with immeasurable grief.

It was getting late, but I still had not returned to Baudelaire. I picked neither my pen nor paper, which I finally had in full supply. Instead, until dawn, I sang this lullaby to myself, over and over again, and the more my voice pleaded that I abandon my sorrow, the more sorrow I felt.

The next morning, the phone rang, bringing the news of my grandfather’s death. The pills that were supposed to cure him of nightmares and delusions turned out useful for dealing also with his persistent life. When I heard the news, conveyed in my father’s telephone voice, full of euphemisms, long pauses, and frequent outbursts of static, for the first time in my life I felt that I finally got to know my grandfather.

So perhaps this is how it happened:

A lump of dough lay on the bed, soft and pale, with a grayish tone. It stirred slightly, as if yeast was working inside it, but as the yeast made it rise, some unfamiliar, dead weight simultaneously pulled it down. Grandfather touched the dough, somewhere in the middle, and felt a distant tingle, like in a numbed leg. He withdrew his hand and lay still in his bed, embarrassed and frightened. For a moment in the pale lump he recognized his own flesh, but then his eyes misted over and he stood at a big table, dressed in his white overalls, leaning over the moist, flour-smelling dough, and ready for work again. He started on the left side and then steadily worked his way to the right, then down, then up again. First, he kneaded slowly and deliberately, as if he had gone out of practice and searched for reminders on how to do things that had been mechanical not that long ago. But soon he regained his confidence and started to knead more vigorously, pressing the dough with his fingers and then his palms, pounding and turning it over, sprinkling it with flour, and then pressing again. When the dough had the right texture, he packed it into a pan and slid into the hot oven.

He waited.

While waiting, he got sweaty like never before. At times, it seemed to him he could not see the oven, just the darkness of his bedroom and the shadows of the crumpled sheets. Yet soon, a sweet smell of baking wafted everywhere, so he felt safe and confident again. After an hour, he took the steaming pan out of the oven and put it aside to cool. Waiting again, he paid no more attention to the relapses of darkness; he just cuddled in the warmth of the oven, breathed in the soothing smell of the fresh cake, and listened for the familiar sounds: the quiet crackling of the pan and the oven racks as they cooled down. When the cake was cool enough, he pried it with a knife, and turned the pan upside down, sliding the content out onto the table. He dipped the brush in glaze and ran it over the cake’s golden brown crust. Then he looked at his masterpiece with pride: the fresh-smelling, glazed babka, crunchy on the outside but soft inside—made with his own hands. And suddenly he was seized by monstrous hunger, uncontrollable pangs in his stomach, so he cut a thin slice off one end—almost as if nothing was missing—he put it in his mouth, chewed and swallowed it up, but the hunger was still there, and the sweet taste on his palate enticed him to eat more. He drew the cake toward him with a guilty feeling—after all he had intended to share it with others—so he broke just a tiny piece off the other end, and picked up a crumb with a big flake of glaze that had fallen on the table. Still, the hunger and the craving for sweetness kept tormenting him, so he nibbled on another piece and yet another piece, and then he completely lost control of himself; he cut off more and more, and finally, raised all that remained to his mouth, biting into the crust with a passion; he chewed, sucked, smacked, and gulped until at last his stomach filled with a sweet, drowsy bliss.

He had eaten.

He had eaten almost everything, leaving only a few crumbs. When the darkness returned, deep and irreversible, and yet filled with the scent of a freshly baked cake, Grandfather realized that by devouring the homemade goods with such zeal, he had accidently eaten himself.


A few years after Grandfather’s death, in a different part of the city—which had still been farmland when the bakery’s down payment was made to the Artisans’ Emporium Construction Committee—giants started to move in. First, there was just one, with a short, hard-sounding name, Real, but soon others started to crop up as well: Géant, Makro, Tesco, Auchan. They formed a cordon around the city and entered all of the city’s quarters, even those where farmlands had still spread out when Grandfather, with a full stomach, fell into his blissful sleep. It seemed that the giants did not need to ask anyone for titles to the land. They just came, swept away houses, barns and sheds, paid high compensations to their owners, and then feeling absolutely immune and entitled, they settled in for good.

If Grandfather were alive, he probably would have laughed at how narrow his imagination had been: neither flowerbeds nor fountains, not even Blikle with his granite counters, just enormous halls with rows of identical shelves, clinically white floors and fluorescent lights illuminating the boundless stock of goods. And no fresh-baked doughnuts with rosehip, in a fancy tissue, just the prepackaged ones with preservatives, guaranteed “fresh” for a suspiciously long time. Forever on sale: buy one, get one free. And though we did not even conceive of the idea, when we paid visits to the Caro Boutique on Krakowska or when we spun visions of the future at the construction site, it was these and no other emporia that had already germinated from our love for shopping. This is what we subconsciously dreamt of while waiting in the long lines.

My father, who now had to manage the bakery himself, watched the arrival of the giants in confusion. Left to his own devices, he had already made several mistakes. He hired new employees, whom, as it turned out, he did not need, but in the kindness of his heart, he could not fire them. He announced sales and discounts that did not pay off, but now he could not cancel them for fear of disappointing his faithful customers. He did not make enough mazurki cakes for Easter, while he overdid the poppy seed strudel for Christmas. And now, in the final desperate attempt to save the bakery’s failing finances, he sent an awkwardly written offer to one of the giants: To deliver the cake and pastry selection listed in the appendix, in desired quantities, every day except Sunday at a wholesale price. The offer was accepted under one condition: Returns will be refunded in full. And my father, to whom it did not even occur that one can be picky with the magnanimous giant, signed the proposed contract with a dreamy face.

This started a new chapter in the bakery’s life. Every morning my father would load doughnuts and panfuls of cheesecake and other pastry onto his rusty Polonez, and drive from Dekabrystów Street to the giant’s abode. At the delivery door, the workers’ hands would take the goods and carry them through halls lit with fluorescent lights to the display cases, where the pastry would crowd together with products from other bakeries and the prepackaged goods with an extended shelf life. Yet, in the opposite direction, through the same halls, stale cakes and pastry were returning to my father: soured cream puffs, poppy seed strudels turned bitter, babkas with tarnished glaze. Putting them guiltily back into his Polonez, my father tarried a little. He shook crumbs off his trousers, then threw a few dried-up raisins to the pigeons lurking behind the corner. And when the pigeons flew away, carrying off their loot, he watched Toyotas and Opels arriving in the parking lot. Every now and then, he would lift his hands up to his face and look at the fragment of the world framed by his thumb and his index finger. “Snap!”—he whispered to himself, pressing the invisible button. And then, as if remembering something, he banged his hand angrily against the hood of the trunk. “Snap!”

When, one day returning from his usual visitation with the giant, my father saw the owner of the neighboring Mega Pizza at the bakery door, he was ready. In fact, he had been waiting for this moment ever since Grandfather died. He had always sensed that sooner or later all Mega Pizzas would outgrow their original premises. He shook his kind neighbor’s hand, invited him in for coffee and a fresh doughnut with rosehip. Yes, he will consider selling, please come next week to discuss the terms. After the neighbor had left, he entered the shop and with a single pull of the cord, he stopped the ever-humming claw of the eggbeater.


Actually, I cannot quite tell why, after graduating from the Jagiellonian, I left Poland to continue my studies in the land of giants. Perhaps I was still ltrying to find myself, or I let myself be driven by my thirst for knowledge, or I was simply seduced by the idea of always being on the move. Yet, I remember well that when I first saw the main streets of American towns, my thoughts turned to the bakery with sorrow. Looking at the boarded-up windows of family-owned stores, I finally understood what the giants were capable of. The sickly downtown homes, abandoned by all “decent” owners for the sake of the suburbs stared lifelessly at me. I heard the heavy breath of the deserted stores, still trying to understand what they lost and why. But before I had a chance to share my observations with my father, he had already made the deal with his neighbor, took the equipment apart, and decided to bide the time to his retirement, working as a driver for the Sanepid.5 He could no longer return to the railway, but the driver’s position gave him the same feeling of freedom that he had experienced with the trains. Again, he could move from place to place, dodging both destiny and history, inside the polished-up vehicle that carried the Sanepid officials to inspections, with which, at one time, they had tormented him as well. During his first weekend off, my father dug his old camera out of the closet, and through its slightly scratched lens, like in the old days of courting, he looked into my mother’s weary eyes.

My parents seem happier now, but as for myself, I feel uneasy with how my identity has transformed. I have just grown to like my background of a baker’s daughter and now I have to get used to being the daughter of a driver. And that’s not all. While, so far, my two feet have sufficed as a mode of transportation, as a driver’s daughter I feel obliged to learn how to drive. So with some reluctance, I get in the car—aware of its bodywork like an armor around me—and in the land of giants, where I still live, I hit the road. I, who had once known things from the inside, and even aspired to take control of Fate, I move on uncertainly. I drive through the streets with no sidewalks along them, and pass by enormous parking lots, advertisements for churches and banks, and neon signs announcing the current gas prices. I look around at the STOP signs and at the traffic lights, and get anxious whenever I have to turn left. But otherwise, my eyes focused on the road, I drive straight ahead into the infinity of shopping centers, carrying only this childhood rhyme preserved in my head: Pata taj, pata taj, pojedziemy w cudny kraj. “Hobbledy-hoy, hobbledy-hoy, to a marvelous lan d, on we go!”  

     1Józef Piłsudski – a Polish revolutionary and statesman, the first chief of state (1918–1922) of the
      newly independent Poland established in November 1918.
     2Under communism, Społem was the largest Polish food co-operative.
     3Joachim Lelewel (pron. Lelevel) was a 19th-century Polish historian, geographer, politician, and
      freedom fighter.
     4Orig: Lecz straszny los, okrutna śmierć, w udziale im przypadła,
              Króla zjadł pies, pazia zjadł kot, królewnę myszka zjadła
              Lecz żeby ci nie było żal, dziecino ukochana,
              Z cukru był król, z piernika paź, królewna z marcepana.
     5Sanepid is the Polish equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration.

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