Warsaw, in the late 1990s
Sister Marie-Cécile looked around Warsaw’s Old Town Market Place. The buildings were all so colourful. She’d expected them to be grey. People always said that buildings in former Eastern Bloc countries were grey, but these weren’t.
She was so grateful to the Mother Abbess for allowing her this time to come to meet her mother’s relatives and see something of her mother’s country. She knew so little of her mother. No-one had ever said much about Marya Humphries, beyond the fact that she’d had a “delicate” constitution which Jem Russell had said was hereditary. Maybe Ted Humphries had found it too painful to speak about the wife he’d lost so tragically young. Or maybe it was just that she hadn’t asked him the right questions. Everyone had made such a baby of her at the Sonnalpe. The questions that a more mature child might have asked hadn’t occurred to her, and by the time she’d begun to grow up Ted had gone as well.
Dick Bettany had been able to answer some of her questions about her father’s background, but there’d been no-one in her life who’d ever even met her mother, and no-one who knew anything about Poland. Ted had never kept in touch with any of his late wife’s relatives. He’d probably never even known them: he’d met Marya in Germany.
She’d once said to Joey that she wondered if there might be any way of tracing her mother’s family, but Joey hadn’t understood. “Why would you want to trace a bunch of complete strangers?” she’d asked. “I’m your family now. You’ll always have me. You needn’t worry that anything’s going to change because I’m marrying Jack: he’s already said that he wants the right to take care of you as well as me.” It was different for Joey. She’d never known her parents but she’d had Madge and Dick and their aunts and uncles to tell her anything she wanted to know about them, and she was part of a large and close-knit family. Robin had Adrienne, it was true, and now she had Adrienne’s husband and children too, but as for her mother’s side of her family she had no-one and knew almost nothing.
Then they’d had to flee Austria, and then the war had broken out. It hadn’t seem to occur to anyone how she might feel about the news of the Nazi invasion of Poland and what that invasion had brought to her mother’s country, but then everyone had had more than enough to worry about in those dark days. Later, when she’d taken her vows in Canada and Poland had been behind the Iron Curtain, the prospect of ever finding her mother’s relatives had seemed so remote that she’d tried to push it to the back of her mind. Unsuccessfully. In 1978 she’d seen the pictures of the vast crowds of people who’d turned out to welcome the new Polish Pope back to his homeland and been unable to stop wondering if anyone who belonged to her might be amongst them, and in the 1980s she’d followed the changes which had swept Poland with hope in her heart.
Then, a couple of years ago she’d received a letter from someone she remembered as a little girl but who was now in her sixties – her namesake, Cecilia Marya di Bersetti, now living in Saskatchewan. She’d remembered that Bette di Bersetti, formerly Bette Rincini, had gone to work as a housekeeper for a Canadian farmer, but they’d long since lost touch. “I’ve often wondered about you, knowing that I was named after you,” Cecilia had written, “and I’ve always wanted to meet you. It’s taken me a long while to trace you, but now I’ve found you at last.”
Cecilia had known all about tracing people. It was she who had encouraged Robin to get in touch with the numerous Polish-Canadian organisations and family history societies that she hadn’t known existed. She’d had so little to go off, and it had all been so complicated. Russian Poland, Austrian Poland, Prussian Poland, shifting borders with Ukraine, shifting borders with Lithuania … but eventually she’d managed to locate the village that her mother had come from and, miraculously, to contact the descendants of her mother’s sister.
The young man who was meeting her, the English-speaking great-grandson of the aunt she’d never known she’d had, had wanted to meet her at the airport, but she’d said that she might as well see something of Warsaw whilst she was here. Then he’d offered to show her round, but she’d wanted to spend her first few hours on Polish soil alone.
She took out the postcard that she’d bought. There were a lot of these postcards here. She’d never seen them before. Split down the middle, with one half showing Warsaw as it had been in 1945, razed to the ground, and the other half showing the rebuilt city as it was now. She felt tears come to her eyes at the thought of all the atrocities that had taken place here during the war. Someone stopped and spoke to her, but she could only smile and nod. She assumed that they’d been asking if she were all right, but she neither understood nor spoke a word of Polish. Her mother had always spoken to her in French.
Had she made a big mistake in coming here? She wanted so much to learn about her mother and about Poland, about the half of herself that was like a closed book to her, about these people who were her own flesh and blood, but just what was she going to find to say to a family of strangers? Still, it was too late to turn back now. She glanced at her watch. It was almost time. She walked over to the café where they’d arranged to meet, and took a seat. She didn’t even know the Polish for “White coffee, please.” The waitress understood when she ordered in English, doubtless assuming that she was just another tourist.
She looked up into the smiling face of a young man with a green and white football scarf round his neck. He had a mop of dark curly hair and a face that somehow seemed familiar. Could it really be that he reminded her of the mother she’d lost nearly seventy years ago?
She nodded, holding out her hand. “Please don’t call me that, though,” she said. “It sounds so formal.”
He smiled as he took her hand. “Very well,” he said. “Welcome to Poland. Cousin Robin.”