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 of 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 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 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, 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 Jenny's name 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 chose 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 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 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 recalled 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, please 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 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 again asked for a date and I did not go to her funeral because I did not know of her death.