Little Details (7/2/09)

Realizing America’s Dream

July 2, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

“Strawberry ice cream soda, please,” the young woman asked in tentative, uncertain English.

Helena’s break was 15 minutes. She’d soon return to the laundry where she cleaned and pressed crisp-collared shirts and delicate dresses. Linguistic skills were not a job requirement. A strong back, nimble fingers and the willingness to endure hours of monotony amid steamy heat were.

Uttering these seven syllables in a language that felt strange in Helena’s mouth was easier than struggling to “make conversation” for 15 endless minutes with her English-speaking co-workers. She would stop at the same counter and order the same soda — for weeks. She lacked words to request anything else.

Helena’s arrival in America hadn’t been easy. Poland’s communist government was disinclined to issue a passport to a single, able-bodied, 20-year-old at risk of seeking permanent residency in the West. The American government was equally leery of issuing “tourist” visas to potential political or economic refugees. Stars aligned in Helena’s favor. Polish officials granted her a passport they could have easily denied. A sympathetic Foreign Service Officer at Warsaw’s American Embassy stamped the magic word “visa” into her passport after she spent hours waiting in line amid a parade of hopeful émigrés posing as “tourists.” A direct application to emigrate from the police state would almost certainly result in denial.

Helena wasn’t supposed to go to America. As the youngest of seven, she lost the birth order lottery. Last-born status predestined her to life on the family farm and caring for her parents in their old age. She sadly watched older siblings leave their tiny village for further schooling, jobs and marriages in cities far removed from the rural foothills of the Carpathians. It didn’t matter that Helena was smart and had dreams of her own. It was the custom, the expectation.

“Someday … all this will be yours,” Helena’s father said, gesturing toward his small farm.

She looked at the thatch-roofed house with its earthen floor, the nondescript barn, and smelled the manure. Her heart sank.

She harbored quiet resentment toward her baby sister, Zosia, who died of scarlet fever during the war. Helena still remembers the small, white coffin carefully placed atop her parents’ wardrobe. Helena couldn’t recall a wake or funeral, just Zosia’s humble grave near where her grandparents were buried amid stones etched with names like Burzec, Pikul and Waz.

Jancia, Helena’s older sister, was destined for America. She was somehow picked from the lot as “the one” for whom the golden door to America would open. Maybe the American cousins — Antonia and Priscilla — who visited the village with their hired driver and well-made shoes, maybe they decided they liked Jancia best. She was mellow and demure. Helena was feisty, possessing an internal drive evidenced by academic prizes won in school that, for her, ended after eighth grade.

“I was shy. I’d hurry home after church,” Jancia commented decades later. “Helena, she’d be walking home with a whole group of boys and girls, joking and laughing. She was popular and had many boyfriends.”

Jancia would not go to America. Her boyfriend Hubert, who spoke with a German-tinged Silesian accent, proclaimed he would kill himself if she left. She relented, staying to marry Hubert. Times were such that Jancia didn’t recognize the warning embedded in his profession of “love.”

Jancia’s door shut, opening a window for Helena. Her boyfriend tearfully asked her to stay. She ignored his plea, reaching instead for opportunity.

Older brother Piotr stepped in to take over the farm, assuring their parents comfort in old age. The land spoke to him in ways it never did to his younger sister.

On June 23, 1959, Helena stepped onto an airplane in Warsaw. Her mother Maria, on her first trip to the capital, was allowed to accompany her daughter onto the aircraft to say goodbye. Maria marveled at “how large” the interior appeared.

Helena’s mother offered one final embrace. She was sending her youngest daughter to America to live with her older sister, the one who’d left Poland between the wars. Maria had been the youngest in her family, the one who stayed behind to care for aged parents while her older siblings, Piotr and Katarzyna, sailed to America to seek their fortunes. Maria ushered their parents through old age and endured the horrors of the Second World War as the village was eviscerated by land mines, aerial bombings, and brutal German occupation.

Fifty years later, I remain grateful my mother, Helena, had the courage to come to America. She speaks flawless English, with barely a hint of accent. Mom enjoys an occasional ice cream, but isn’t apt to order a strawberry ice cream soda. She sipped far too many in 1959.

As we celebrate the Fourth of July, I’m reminded of so many from so far who continue to come to America to realize Thomas Jefferson’s bold assertion that we — ALL of us — are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or