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Finding Sophie

by Edie Clark
copyright 2002 All rights reserved.

We sped along the road to Tarnow, through clouds of car and factory exhaust, passing green fields where stout women and old men bent to the harvest. Andy, my driver, maneuvered his big black Mercedes around wooden horse carts, happily practicing his English on me. “What is it you want to do in Tarnow?” he asked.

“I’m looking for a woman who once took care of my mother. Her name is Sophie Kordzinska.” I pulled the worn airmail envelope out of my bag. On the back flap, Sophie had written her return address, in even European-style lettering. “She’s very old,” I said to Andy. “I’m not even certain that she is still alive.”

When I had told my mother that I was planning to go on a guided tour of Eastern Europe, her eyes had lit up. “Oh, Edie,” she had said, “do you think that you could find Sophie?” Sophie’s name was as much a part of our family as I was. My mother had not seen Sophie since she was seven years old – in fact, seventy years had passed since they last saw each other. In that time, sea change after sea change had engulfed the world. Both had grown to womanhood, made homes, borne children and passed through dramatically different lifetimes. But they had never lost touch and their friendship endured in a way I could only try to understand.

“Poland is a big country,” I told my mother as I tried to imagine how I could find Sophie in a place I didn’t know anything about. “The tour is tightly organized.” My mother’s eyes fastened on mine. I felt it would be impossible to find Sophie. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said.

In 1916, Sophie came from Krakow to New York City, in search of work and the great promise of the new world. She landed a job in Summit, New Jersey with my grandparents, specifically to take care of my mother, who had just been born. Sophie was 21 years old, a slight, narrow-waisted girl with light brown hair tied back tightly in a bun. She was hard-working, a devout Roman Catholic who, my mother remembers, prayed on her knees in her room at the end of each day. She attended church on her Sundays off. But what everyone remembered most about Sophie was her radiant smile.

My mother was often sick as a little girl and Sophie fussed over her, sitting by the bed and cooling her fevers. When her young charge was well, Sophie took my mother for walks and in the summertime, they rode the Ferris wheel together at the Jersey shore.

Every afternoon, Sophie tucked my mother in for a nap. But my mother would not sleep. She remembers that she would always slip out of bed and tiptoe upstairs to Sophie’s room. Sophie used her time off to sew. My mother would sit on the floor and listen while Sophie told her stories about Poland while working magic with needle and thread, stitching together petticoats and frilly underpants and silk scarves. These became Sophie’s Christmas presents to the family. “On Christmas Eve,” my mother used to tell me, “Sophie had so many presents for us, she had to make at least two trips from her room down to the living room, her arms loaded.”

These are nice memories but they most likely would have faded were it not for what happened. One day when my mother was seven, Sophie came into the living room holding a letter. She was sobbing. “My father is very sick,” she was finally able to say. “He needs me to come home.”

Within days, my grandfather had booked Sophie on a steamer home to Poland. He had also booked her return back to the states. “I rode on Sophie’s lap in the back seat,” my mother recalls. “We cried all the way to New York City. Sophie boarded the boat. The whistle blew. She stood on deck and waved. The ship got smaller and smaller as it moved away. And then she was gone!” My mother still cannot tell this without tears coming to her eyes. “We thought she was coming back!”

For months they heard nothing. At last came a broken-hearted aerogramme from Sophie. When she had arrived home, her father had met her at the railroad station, looking well. With him was a man whom he introduced as Wladyslaw Kordzinska, the man Sophie’s father intended for her to marry. This man, who was older and who had some fortune, had seen Sophie’s photograph and been so smitten that he had told Sophie’s father, “If you bring her home, I will marry her, and you will never want for anything.” And so to Sophie’s everlasting regret he had tricked her into coming back to Poland.

And even if her new husband was sincere in his promises, it was not to be. Eventually war came and World War II was bitterly unkind to Poland. Sophie’s husband died of starvation. She was left with three children. A letter from Sophie reached my family after the war. There was little to eat but potatoes, she told them. Her life, she said, was one of uninterrupted misery. “The only happy years of my life,” Sophie wrote in her upright script, “were my years in America with your family. Here is very bad.”

My mother tried to help. As a child, I remember the boxing up of clothes for Sophie was a semi-annual ritual. Often the boxes did not get through, but when they did, Sophie would write to us, overjoyed. Her letters were brief, written in what she recalled of the English she had learned while living with my grandparents. Communist censors made the letters even briefer.

Now a month had passed since I had written to Sophie to tell her of my plans to visit Poland. I told her what days I would be in Krakow and what hotel I was staying at. I had no way of knowing how far away from Krakow she lived. I hoped she would contact the hotel or leave me a message but I had had no reply and when we arrived at the hotel in Krakow, there were no messages. I wondered if she had died. My mother and I had figured out that she would be 98.

Andy had never been to Tarnow, which is east of Krakow and near the Soviet border. When we arrived in Tarnow, he stopped at a taxi stand. Several drivers crowded around us. Andy repeated Sophie’s street name: “Broniewskiego? Broniewskiego?” Maps were produced and a long conversation in Polish ensued.

Finally, we started winding our way through narrow streets. We passed an open-air market where vendors sold enormous bunches of flowers. I asked Andy to stop and I selected a big bouquet of yellow and red dahlias for Sophie.

Andy kept stopping, asking pedestrians, “Broniewskiego? Zofia Kordinska?” Everyone shook their heads. No one seemed to know her name or her street. I wondered if the pall of communism only recently lifted still hung on them. I wondered if they knew but would not say. It was already noon. In less than seven hours, my group was scheduled to leave Poland on a night train to Budapest. It seemed hopeless.

At last we stopped to ask an old man on a quiet street. His eyes narrowed and he pointed a crooked finger – we were almost within sight of Sophie’s house.

It was brick, covered with ivy, with a low fence around the small front yard. Sweetheart roses twined around the gate. “You must come too,” I told Andy. “Without you, I understand nothing!” He got out from behind the wheel and together we approached the house.

“I have a feeling thees ees going to be ee-motional!” Andy said, looking at me with a wide grin.

I knocked. A short, plump white-haired woman opened the door but she seemed too young to be Sophie. “I am looking for Sophie Kordzinska,” I said.

Her face flushed with excitement. “Eees thees Eedie?” she asked, stepping out onto the brick path.

“Yes,” I said, feeling sudden and intense relief.

“Oh!” she said, hugging me tight and dancing me in a small circle. “Sophie has been waiting for you!”

The woman turned out to be Sophie’s daughter-in-law, Danuta. She led us through the yard, a small but beautiful square of earth where every inch of soil was planted in vegetables, fruit trees or flowers. The house was a duplex and Sophie lived on the other side. Her door opened and a tiny, aproned woman, impossibly old, stood looking out at me. “Sophie?” I said. She put her hands to her wizened face. Tears streamed. “Seventy years!” she cried. “Seventy years!” She grasped me and wept desperately into my shoulder.

I knew once we went inside that they had received my letter. They were prepared for my visit. “We have been waiting for you,” Danuta said, in difficult English. Trays of cookies and plates of sandwiches were heaped on the counter. I introduced Andy and, through him, we began to speak. Sophie’s son, Wladyslaw, joined us. The five of us sat around an oval table covered with an eyelet cloth.

All the years of my life I had imagined Sophie’s home, but it was different from what I had expected. It was comfortable but spare. They had no car, no telephone, no running hot water and only primitive toilets. Yet the house was nicely furnished. Chairs and tables were draped with embroidery. On one wall were two shelves bearing a few books. Proudly displayed in the center of the lower shelf, in front of a mirror, were two crystal vases.

Sophie sat next to me, holding my hand and telling me in broken English about her tragic life – about the war and how her husband had died, about how they were nearly sent to Siberia, about Hitler and Stalin. She let out a small cry of pain as she recounted how her sister, her sister’s husband and their children had all been killed at Auschwitz. It did not matter that they were not Jewish.

And the tragedies did not end with the war. One of her sons had died just three years before from the effects of the meltdown at Chernobyl. Sophie’s red-rimmed eyes showed hurt and anger as she pointed to the houses on their street where others of her neighbors had died from the same cause. This tiny birdlike woman pounded the table with her fist. “Chernobyl!” she cried. “Chernobyl!” she cried again and again as she enumerated her neighbors who had died from the explosion.

Yet, her faith had moved with her unharmed through these treacherous years. She had, she told me, prayed for my grandmother and for my mother every day of her life, without fail. “Yes,” she said, nodding her head in certainty. “Each day. Each day,” she said. “Yes, even now, I pray for them.”

It had not all been hardship. Wladyslaw had recently retired from a good job as an “engineer of buildings;” Danuta had retired after 30 years teaching school. Sophie’s beloved daughter Teresa, about whom she often wrote, was in Switzerland, where her own daughter was soon to be married.

I talked about my family and showed the photographs my mother had sent for them. At the mention of my grandparents’ surname, Rahmann, Sophie began to cry again. “Mrs. Rahmann,” she said haltingly. “Mrs. Rahmann was best woman een the world!” Her voice grew soft as if she were disappearing into a dream.

Her tears never stopped, all afternoon. We sat, talking as best we could, Sophie’s wide, reddened eyes fixed on me in unending disbelief. We were strangers and yet old friends. I was an ambassador, a stand-in for my grandmother and for my mother. The love that came to me that day was unearned but I drank it in, just the same. In what words I was able to pass to them through Andy, I tried to convey to them the place Sophie had always held in my mother’s heart.

Leaving was hard. I gave Sophie the flowers and the small gifts I had brought from my mother – pink soaps shaped like scallop shells and some exotic shampoos. And a large bottle of ibuprofen. My mother knew that Sophie needed this for her arthritis and that it was hard to get in Poland. She often sent it to her in the mail. If the package managed to slip past the thieving mail service, Sophie always wrote with abundant gratitude. My mother also sent some American cash in an envelope on which she had written, “for my dear Sophie.” When at last I got up, Sophie hid her eyes with her hands and then, standing, closed her arms around me.

I was already out the door when Sophie called back, “Wait!” and gestured me back. Slowly she took down one of the crystal vases on her shelf. It was small, hourglass shaped, intricately carved, the edges soft from wear. “For Dottie,” she said.

“No,” I said. She was giving me one of the few precious things she owned, to take to my mother.

“Yes,” Sophie said. “For Dottie.”

When I returned home, I went to visit my mother. I told her of the visit, showed her the pictures I had taken of Sophie and her family and gave her the vase. She took it in shaking hands and wept.

Some time later, my mother received a letter from Sophie. She wrote in difficult script, and told her of their thrill in seeing me and through me, the family she had always remembered as her best, ever. “Edie’s visit was as the sunrise on our dark days,” she wrote at the end.

Later, I wrote about this visit for Reader’s Digest and they published it in 70 different languages, including Polish. No other magazine that I can think of could have offered me that. By the time it was published, my mother was dying of cancer. It was her great joy to know that Sophie had read the story in her own language. “The whole world is reading about Sophie!” my mother said and it didn’t matter if that was a gross exaggeration. What seemed to matter to my mother was that perhaps of all the injustices done to Sophie, this small event might ever so slightly shift the weight on her tired shoulders. For me, finding Sophie had rewards I could not have imagined when I set out on that fall day in the foreign city of Krakow.

I have no idea how lives like my mother’s and Sophie’s become entwined and stay that way despite the great chasm of distance and years. Seventy years and 5,000 miles, in fact, are a very long time and a very great distance in any of our lives. And I have no way to explain the fact that just a month before my mother died, I received a letter from Danuta telling me that Sophie had died. I almost could not bear to tell my mother but at last, I managed to find the right moment and I told her that Sophie was gone. Not very long after that, my mother died. She was 77. Sophie was 98. Their story had been told and through me their hearts had been reunited. Their distant bond remained unbroken. I don’t believe we have a word for this kind of love.