Work Mother A Letter From Warsaw

July 28, 1991|By KAY WITHERS

Warsaw. -- A busy day. Morning appointments. The year's final Cub Scout meeting at midday. Kids to be driven 150 miles to summer camp. An article to finish in the evening.

A busy day. Not frantic. Not suicidal. Just working mother busy.

The housekeeper starts it badly by coming an hour and a half late. "And if your mother says one word to me," she tells the children angrily, "I'll walk out."

That's East Bloc egalitarianism. She says her bus filled up with smoke, and long use, poor maintenance and empty coffers at the Transport Ministry lend her story credibility.

But now, will I make Poland's brief banking hours? Summer camp is in serious jeopardy since they don't take checks. I grab the Cub Scout and the bankbook and run.

The ignition key turns. The engine doesn't. The car doesn't function after rain. I race to the mechanic's. He is out. His assistant doesn't want to push the car. "Why damage my health?," he says. I leave the keys and we take a taxi to the bank.

A long line. Sotto voce to the clerk. "You'll have to ask these people's permission," she says loudly, "if you want to be served out of turn." I beseech each one. I indicate the Cub Scout. "His passing out meeting," I explain incoherently. "He's getting a bead. Fifteen minutes. Have to be there."

Taking mutters for acquiescence, I get a number and head for the teller. Fifteen minutes later I head back, foaming at the mouth. The line is gone. The clerk is transcribing figures from a stack of papers onto the card files Bank Handlowy uses instead of computers. "Just doing it now," she says cheerily.

We are late for cubs. "Don't ask me why," I snarl at the den mother. "You poor thing," she coos. "Would you like a drink." Sure would. "How about a nice cold Coke?" Uh, right, no alcohol in front of the scouts.

We leave late for summer camp. Pani is curt. She has made sandwiches for the children, who after five minutes are hungry and after ten ask if we are nearly there.

We are nearly there when, regardless of the mechanic's ministrations, or because of them, the car breaks down again. Flat battery. A push will start us but the return trip will be without lights. The camp recommends a mechanic nearby, but naturally he is not in. I decide to race the dusk.

Poland has just built a new Warsaw-Plock highway. But signposts mention only Gdansk and Lodz, plus hamlets like Slubice, 5, and Nieslawa, 2. I opt for Lodz which, like Warsaw, is in central Poland. At last I see, old and faded, "Warszawa". Soon I find myself in a wheat-growing district I have never seen before. Some prewar ribbon of fraying asphalt is conducting me to Warsaw via God knows where.

Darkness falls. The car breaks down definitively.

And so does feminism. Where is a masterful husband to earn the money, drive the kids, take the responsibility? Damn freedom. (I would have preferred a more alliterative expression, but it won't pass muster in a family newspaper.)

Peasants inspect me. Because I am "a lady," they say, they tow me to a mechanic. Because I am a Westerner, they tell me the price of their old-world courtesy is up to me. Shrewdly they perceive that in doubt I will over-tip.

But in Slubice, Pan Ryszard Helman and his wife are untainted by such opportunism. They are old-style country people, who work honestly from dawn till dusk, who scrimp and sacrifice to keep their children at school, who, despite relative isolation, talk calmly and intelligently about their country's problems.

Pan Ryszard works on the car through half a dozen of the power blackouts plaguing Polish rural areas. His wife makes tea and relates the woes of the peasantry who, she says, "are not going to put up with things much longer" in Poland's post-Communist poverty.

In the intervals of illumination, Pan Ryszard fixes the car at a quarter the Warsaw price and gives me simple directions: "Go left where the road forks in Ilow and follow the signs for Sochaczew."

Fine. Except that Ilow has only one Sochaczew sign and more forks than a White House cutlery set! Desperate, I knock on a door next to a lighted window. The light goes out abruptly.

I come to a highway. Not even Lodz and Gdansk are signposted here. Self-pity is taking a firmer grip, with hysteria close behind. I turn back, miss the street, and reverse again in despair toward the highway.

At midnight the Polish countryside is utterly dead. Not just no roving police cars or open precinct stations, but not a light, not a sound, not even a drunk.

Somebody has to wake up, I decide. I push open the gate to a large darkened house. It is freshly painted. So, consequently, am I. The house, I see too late, is an empty, incomplete husk.

I scream at the scudding silver clouds. "Get me out of here!" I'm cracking up, I think. MOTHER OF TWO FOUND FLIPPED IN REMOTE POLISH VILLAGE.

In the rehabilitated car I liberally smear the steering wheel with brown paint and the Polish countryside with epithets.

Another house. Dark. Quiet. I lean on the car horn. Two dogs set up a cacophony of barking. I approach the fence and they redouble their efforts. I shriek, "I am asking for help, I am asking for directions!" And all three of us keep it up until a fourth voice rises above the din.

I get back to Warsaw at 1:30 in the morning. The dog, in solitary for 11 hours, has peed in the hall.

One of those days.

And now the article to be written? The working part of working mother?

2& One working mother has just quit.

Kay Withers writes for The Sun from Warsaw.

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