A Suburban Farm of 6th Happiness.

How Mikołaj helped Jadwiga Speak

How Mikołaj helped Jadwiga Speak

by: Mikołaj diGangi
transcribed by Alan diGangi

(c) April 2019 Alan di Gangi

Mikołaj (Polish Tatra Sheepdog) with our second ewe lamb of 2017

Mikołaj (Polish Tatra Sheepdog) with our second ewe lamb of 2017

My name is Mikołaj. I am an 8 & 1/2 year old Polish Tatra Sheepdog who lives with two humans: Alan and Tamnais (“Tam”), as well as some sheep, chickens and other livestock dogs, including a lovely female Tatra named Jadwiga.

Alan has often said I was a surprise. He expected to get a Dobermann because his parents had a one when he was young. His father picked out the dog, and his mother named her Nasza (“Nah-shah”, Polish for “ours”).  Alan had fond memories of both Nasza, and his late father, but after taking many surverys, and reading about dog breeds, he found himself coming back to the Polish Tatra again and again. What’s more, he mentioned wanting a dog to his grandmother, and she told him to get a Polish dog, because every ‘Polish home deserves a Polish dog’. [1]

He didn’t have much hope as we are a very rare breed, but he contacted a few breeders, and one pointed him to someone close-by with 2 pups left out of a large litter. Alan says it was ‘meant to be’.

It was late in the afternoon when Alan and Tam arrived. The January sun was close to the horizon. At first, I was so scared! I had seen sibling after sibling disappear, never to be heard from again. Were they alive? Where they happy? Did they have a chicken coop to hide under, and space to run and play? Did they remember me, and their mother?

Our first owner picked me up and handed me over the sheep’s fence to Alan. I immediately squirmed out of his arms, and ran back to my mother, terrified. I am ashamed to admit it, but my sister was still in the paddock, and I hoped that they would take her instead! But the human hands came for me again, prying me out from under my mother who only had time to lick my nose. I wish I could remember her face, but all I have is a vague memory of her scent- maternal and loving, possibly scared and sad, but I might have been confusing some of my scents for hers. I was given to Alan again, who held me much tighter. They piled into the truck and drove away, the sight of my birthhome fading in the distance, an unknown future looming before me as darkness fell.

Tatra puppy.

Mikołaj at 3 months.

Alan and Tam first took me to a pet store. I later learned to love these places, but at the time, it was scary. It was night, yet inside it was bright as day. I quivered in the cart as they put a bunch of items in it with me, which I later discovered were for me to eat, and play with. They brought me home (not theirs, but one they rented). The next day they took me to something called a “groomer”. This was a torturous place with loud, barking dogs, and strange humans who sprayed me with water and bubbles, and then put me in a very loud box that blew hot air at me, and hurt my ears. I thought the thing would either eat me, or melt me into nothing! I was so scared, I pooped myself. The strange humans weren’t happy, and put me through the entire process again, causing me to poop again, so it all started over yet again! This time I had nothing left in me, so when they finally removed me from the scary box, they all cheered. Alan came to get me, apologised to the my torturers and promised that I’d never go there again. I never have.

After Alan and Tam brought me home, there was a debate about my name. Alan wanted to name me after his late grandfather, Mikołaj. Alan’s mother grudgingly accepted me, but warned that if his grandmother knew they named an animal, especially a dog, after his late grandfather, his grandmother would be very upset. So they gave me a nick-name, ‘Mickey’ to hide my real name from her.

I never knew Alan’s grandfather but I’m told he was a very brave and loving man, and that Alan took after him in this and other ways, such as his love for animals and farming. Alan and Tam would sometimes take turns reading books out loud as a way to deal with their chronic pain. By resting at their feet on the bed, I have become well learned in subjects like literature, science, and history.  Sometimes they’d just talk about what they read or heard or dreamt about. I will tell you some of what I learned, after telling you about when Alan was a young pup and spent weekends at his grandparents….

Like all puppies, Alan knew ‘play fighting’, but not war, not real fighting. When young, he would ask about his grandfather’s medals, which were kept in a frame on the wall. His grandparents would tell him very little, and then change the topic.

‘What happened to your farm?’ (‘Russia took it’)
‘Why’d Russia take it?’ (‘There was war’)
‘Why was there war?’ (‘There just was’).
‘What are all the medals on the wall for?’ (‘Fighting for freedom’) and ironically,
‘Why can’t we go back to Poland?’ (‘Because it is not free.’)

Alan doesn’t know if they wanted to protect him from it, didn’t want to talk about it, or were just unable to. The idea of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), let alone Chronic  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“C-PTSD”) didn’t really exist until decades after the WWII.  Before this, it was more often called “Shell Shock“, thus restricting it to (almost always) male soldiers, and even then, it was often seen as a sign of being a coward and not considered a defense in court, civil or military wise.

The idea of talking to a therapist wasn’t something people really did back then.  Even if they did, how would they do it?  It would be difficult enough with another Continental European, but for those who left for America, Australia or other countries that were not really touched by the realities of the horrors of war, getting someone to understand what it was like could be near impossible.  The war itself was so very, very BIG.  Some have likened it to infinity: after a while, the numbers of how many died become too hard to understand. Maybe it’s like when Alan tells me one of our chickens has died, so now we have 43 instead of 44 chickens. I can’t count that high…. if it was 3 instead of 4, then I could picure it in my mind, but anything over 6 gives me a headache.

Picking apples with Grandpa in Chicago

Picking apples in the backyard, with Grandma & Grandpa in Chicago

Anyway, when young Alan’s questions became too much, he might be sent out to help his grandfather in the garden, to dig for worms for fishing, or to go for walks in the forest preserve. His grandfather would take him deep in the forest; then he’d say, “Ok, find the way home,” and Alan had to learn to remember natural landmarks, which side of the trees moss grew on, and how to estimate time and direction by the sun.

Sometimes they would find berries or mushrooms or nut-trees, and he would tell Alan which were safe to eat, and which were not. If Alan was bit by a mosquito, or scraped his knee, his grandparents looked for a special plant. They didn’t need to share any words, they just knew what to do. His grandmother would chew a leaf up, squeeze on some brownish spit from the mouth of a grasshopper (which didn’t hurt it), and put this on the wound. His grandfather would wrap a larger leaf over it, tie it down, and soon Alan would feel better.

When Alan was a pup, his grandfather would tell him to say “Otwarte” when they got home after a walk. The garage door would open. Alan thought it was magic.

He figured out the trick when his father got an electric garage door opener. It made Alan doubt some stories his grandfather told… like that there was a bear in the army. A big brown bear, named Wojtek (“Voy-tek“)!  [2] Imagine that! I know many dogs have fought in wars, but I never heard of a bear before. Normally dogs like me would scare off bears that came too close to the flocks we guarded. But this was a special bear that thought it was a human, and helped load ammunitions on the trucks. He drank beer, liked cigarettes and ‘play wrestled’ with the more daring Poles. For the longest time Alan thought this was a silly story his grandfather made up. Then, several years after his grandfather had died, when browsing on the computer, Alan shouted in surprise, “The bear was real!”

Another story his grandfather told was about his first experiences as a tailor.  On the Eastern front of Poland, called the “Kresy Area“, the Soviet Russians invaded shortly after the German Nazis did from the West. This trapped nearly all Poles at the start of the war. The Nazis were known for using cattle train cars to transport people to concentration camps. The Russians did something similar. They killed many high ranking military officers, and members of the ‘intelligentsia’. Countless others were “deported” deep into Russia to be assigned heavy labour in the GULAG– a network of slave labour camps across Russia. Men, women and even children worked long hours, sometimes when it was much too cold even for a warm-furred mountain dog to be outside. They slept in cramped, cold barracks, and given starvation rations. Soldiers and non-commissioned officers were subjected to lengthy interrogations by the Soviet NKVD. They hoped for rescue or release, but the interviews were actually a selection process: if a prisoner did not seem to adopt a pro-Soviet attitude, he was sentenced to death. This happened in several locations. The largest, and best known, is called the Katyń Massacre.

Entry from the online Database of the Repressed shows Jan was arrested and his wife and children deported to the depths of Russia near the start of WWII.

Entry from the online Database of the Repressed shows Jan was arrested and his wife and children deported to the depths of Russia near the start of WWII.

Alan often talked about how his grandfather, who was quick-witted and knew many languages (including Russian), recognised that they were being sorted. When he heard their captors needed help repairing stitching on coats, and truck seats, he looked at his coat and thought- ‘how hard can it be to copy this pattern with thread and a needle?’  Taking the hand of the man beside him, he raised their hands together, offering to sew. The man beside him was Jan, the father of Alan’s grandmother.  Thus, Alan’s grandfather and great-grandfather escaped hard labor, and possibly death, for most of the others arrested with them were marched off, never to be heard from again.

When I was not yet a year old, Alan and Tam bought a house. Alan calls it a “suburban farm” because it’s only a third of an acre, and no money is made from it. It’s a tribute to his grandfather, who worked hard on the family farm in Poland and, after the war, grew vegetables and fruit trees in a much smaller plot of land in Chicago, as well as keeping pets like chickens and rabbits.

Like his grandfather, Alan planted fruit trees and put a fence around the yard. Their chicken population increased from 4 to 20, to 30, and then 40-something. They added Babydoll sheep and converted the windowed garage into a barn with pens, and a paddock. It kept the animals safe from predators, summer heat and winter cold. This let me sleep indoors at night without worry.


Joanne with my siblings, Sivy and Kriven. Photo (c) Joanne Gretel Wiedemann-Wolf, used with permission.

Joanne with my siblings, Sivy and Kriven.
Photo (c) Joanne Gretel Wiedemann-Wolf, used with permission.

Once, Alan took me to get some chickens a woman was rehoming. The woman, Joanne, took a look at me and gasped,”Is that a Tatra?”.  This was a surprise. Most people ask if I am a Great Pyrenees, a Newfoundland (which are black!), a giant white Lab, or a ‘mix’. She and Alan talked and soon realised that Joanne had a brother and sister of mine on her farm! It was a big relief to know that at least two of them were safe and happy!  They were named Sivy and Kriven, a sister and brother of mine. I wanted to see and play with them, but the humans had to get back home.

Mikolaj working as a Service Dog – watching over Tam in Hospital.

When I was six months old, Tam fell and I went to check on them and stood perfectly still so Tam could place their hands on my shoulders; this helped Tam stand up. They told me this is called a “brace” and something most “Service Dogs” (dogs that help people with disabilities) have to be trained to do. Alan and Tam were impressed, so they taught me what a Service Dog needs to know to do their special job.


Tam sometimes has “seizures”. I don’t understand what causes these, but they’ll fall down and shake in a scarey way; sometimes it even makes them vomit, which can make them choke. Fortunately I can sense when a seziures is going to happen, so I can warn Al and Tam in advance. Then Tam rests in bed until it passes.

Once Tam had a seizure when asleep, so I had to wake up Alan. He was so tired he thought I needed to go potty and kept trying to take me outside; I had to keep taking him back to Tam. Eventually he understood, and was able to do something that looked violent, but he later said it was a emergancy action to make Tam breathe again after choking, called a ‘Supine Heimlich Maneuver‘. They were both very proud of me because they said I saved Tam’s life. I don’t think I did anything special, just my job, but Alan says I live up to his grandfather’s name. I wonder if his grandfather thought he did anything special when he grabbed Jan’s hand, and said “We will sew!”

The two men were inseperable friends after that, and after the war, Alan’s grandfather married one of the other man’s daughters.

Alan brought his grandmother over to visit the new house. We met before, at the rental house, when I was a very young pup. I had wanted to jump and play, and she was overwhelmed. When I learned to sit and be quiet, she tolerated my presence, and brought me treats. One day, at the new house, Alan went inside to get a warmer coat, and speak to Tam. While he was gone, his grandmother stroked my head.

“Mickey. What kind of name is Mickey? Mik maybe. Or Miko. Hmm, Miko? Miko?” She looked at the sheep and chickens in the yard for a while, still stroking my head. “Why Miko? They took everything. They took the horses, they killed the dogs. Why? What did we do? We were just children. And everyone liked Tatusiowi…”

I didn’t know who she was talking about at the time, but when Alan came back, and locked up the house, his grandmother had finished mumbling a poem to herself:

Kto ty jesteś? Polak mały. Jaki znak twój? Orzeł biały.
Gdzie ty mieszkasz? Między swemi. W jakim kraju? W polskiej ziemi.
Czem ta ziemia? Mą ojczyzną. Czem zdobyta? Krwią i blizną.
Czy ją kochasz? Kocham szczerze. A w co wierzysz? W Polskę wierzę.
Coś ty dla niej? Wdzięczne dziecię, coś jej winien? Oddać życie. [3]

She turned to Alan and told him to bathe his sheep.

“What?” he said, befuddled.

“Your sheep! They are dirty. A man rented land from my father. He had sheep. They were all white. Pure white, like snow.”

“Grandma! They are are Babydolls, they are supposed to be off-white.”

“No, no. They need a bath.”

“Okay, I’ll give them a bath later. Let’s get lunch first.”

As a Disability Service Dog, I have the privilege of entering any building, to help my humans; this includes restaurants. I must be on my absolute best behaviour. I can’t beg for table scraps, and I must stay out of the way (ideally under the table, but sometimes I don’t quite fit). When I go out with Alan, I don’t have to worry about Tam, because after moving to the “suburban farm” we adopted a Great Pyrenees boy, Higgs Boson, and a cute little Polish Tatra girl named Jadwiga. They take turns looking after Tam when I can’t. When my focus is on Alan (or Tam), I also find myself listening in on my humans’ conversations, intended or not.

Grodno, inbetween the two World Wars.

“…So you must have had a large farm if you could rent space to a shepherd,” Alan asked his grandmother while reading the menu.

“Oh, my father didn’t farm it. He just rented it.”

“Well what did he do, if he had a farm but didn’t farm it?”

“He was an important man” she said, “I don’t know the word… ah, something like… a mayor, but not exactly. Everyone knew him. Everyone liked him,” There was a short pause as she flipped her menu back and forth, and then put it down. This was the most that I had ever heard her speak of her past, and from the restrained interest I could smell from Alan, it was the first for him as well (although he didn’t know about the part before we left the house, when she watched the sheep, and I had no way to tell him.)   She continued, “he worked in the city. Sometimes he took me with him. I was his favourite. The other men where he worked, they would bring me candy. Sometimes we would have something to give to the horse. I liked the horses best.”

“Did you have other animals on the farm? Chickens, dogs…”

“Chickens, yes.  The dogs were scary. There were some white ones like Mickey.”

“Oh well I hope Mickey doesn’t scare you…”

“No, no, he is not scarey. He is a good dog.”

After lunch, she gave me her left over fish and chips. Alan offered her a napkin, but she refused. She wiped her hands on my fur when she thought he wasn’t looking, so the dogs at home would all know where I had been, and with whom.

For several years, I went with Alan and his grandmother to lunch, and then to a store, or the zoo. Sometimes she would make jokes that no one seemed to understand except for Alan and Tam. Once, it was very cold, and Tam hadn’t brought a warm coat. Alan’s grandmother smiled and said, “let’s go to the zoo.” Alan’s mother thought this was mean, but Tam said that grandmother wasn’t serious, she had a real smile and was making a joke.

Once, when Tam forgot a coat alltogether, Alan’s grandmother gave her an extra one of hers to wear, and later told her to keep it.  Grandmother was always very concerned about people having enough to wear and being wellfed, perhaps to the point of wanting them to have an extra layer of clothes, or an extra helping of food…. just in case.   One never knows when one’s world will be turned upside down, and a hostile force appears to ‘disappear’ you in the middle of the night.

She knew what it was like to be cold, because she and her family had been deported into the depths of Siberia. Like the men, they were crammed into cattle cars, and taken to work camps. Alan’s grandmother didn’t talk about this, but I know because grandmother told him that they travelled through Russia and how cold it was. Wanting to know more about how and why his family ended up in Russia during WWII, Alan read books about it, sometimes outloud to Tam and me as I rested at the foot of the bed.

Many times, she would say she hurt, and missed her husband, Alan’s grandfather (who died in the mid 1990’s). “I pray every night, Jesus, take me now, but I always wake up,” she’d say.

“Maybe you should pray for a long life,” Alan joked, as his mother did, about grandmother’s ‘complaints’. “Then you can see grandpa tomorrow.”

“Psssshh, don’t talk like that,” the old woman scolded, and Alan changed the topic to what animal exhibits they should visit when they got to the zoo. Later he said he felt guilty about it, following his mother’s lead, because he didn’t know better at the time. But I think he said the right things more often than he realised.

Once, Alan and his grandmother found $60 on a bench at the zoo. There was no identification with it, so they got ice cream and sat there until closing time, but no one came back for the money. She told Alan to keep the money, but he said they should share it and gave half of it back to her. Later, Alan’s mother said that his grandmother said she “let Alan keep all of it”, but Alan had earlier told his mother they split it, so she complained about how grandmother was ‘telling white lies’ to ‘look good’. She said she took grandmother to a psychologist, who said the old woman had a personality disorder. But grandmother couldn’t talk much: she was never comfortable with English, and not having spoken to other Poles since her husband died, she began to feel uncomfortable in her birth language. She didn’t know the words for some of her experiences, and she avoided thinking, or talking about some of the most painful memories. So the psychologist couldn’t understand what grandmother was about, or why.

Although Alan’s mother said she told the doctor that his grandmother had been through the war, Alan said most people have “no clue” what it is like to “really suffer”, to be “terrified all the time”, or what it would do to a person to go through that during their formative years (when they are like puppies; Alan says she was around 10 years old when deported).

Tam said Alan and his grandmother were a lot alike. They had many issues in common, but Alan was diagnosed as Autistic and found ways to get around most of his problems. If not for the chronic pain caused by Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disease he was born with, he’d have been able to succeeed in one of his choice careers. The things that upset him were things he could talk about; it wasn’t easy, and Tam sometimes helped, but it was stuff a person born in the United States could understand, like the deaths of his father and grandfather when he was a teen. When young, his grandmother also lost her mother, but that loss came in the middle of a war, with guns and tanks and bombs, starvation and disease, a constant fight to survive, and the eventual realisation that she could never return to her farm, her country, or even her mother’s gravesite, because it was now in Russia. That little bit she did tell Alan.

At first, the Nazi leader Hitler was friends with Soviet Russia’s leader Stalin. Then Hitler attacked Stalin, who let the Poles leave the GULAG to join an army forming under General Władysław Anders, another Pole who suffered in the GULAG.

Alan’s grandfather, Mikołaj and great-grandfather, Jan, immediately put down their sewing kits, and went to Anders’ camp. Jan, was fortunate to meet up with his children, and say goodbye to his wife, Stanisława, in the civilian’s camp that sprung up around the official men’s camp.

Although Stalin released the Poles to help fight in the war, he wouldn’t give them enough food for the men, and he wouldn’t give anything at all to the woman and children. For military practice, the men were given pretend wooden rifles. They had no medical supplies, and flimsy tents that gave little protection against the hot summer mosquitos, or the freezing cold winter. Eventually they were given simple wooden barracks that were ‘bugged’ with radio transmitters, but the smart Poles discovered this the first day and cut the wires.

Polish graves at the cemetery in Buzuluk Russia – Stanisława, the mother of Alan’s Grandmother and her siblings, would have been buried here.

Although the men shared their meager food rations with the women and children, and they in turn, searched the forest for nuts, plants and berries, everyone was starving. Almost all were sick with things like malaria and typhus. Alan’s grandmother and her siblings found some apricot trees at the edge of a farm; when no one was around, they would steal a few (they remained one of her favourite fruits). It was not enough, and that is where Stanisława, Alan’s great-grandmother died, and was buried.

Still, many Poles were missing, and Stalin wouldn’t say what happened to them. Later, General Anders and others figured out by collecting testimonies from everyone who joined the new army that many died in the GULAG, while others were killed en mass. The Soviet Union was a sealed world, much like North Korea today. Under pressure from Britian, Stalin, who did not have enough soldiers to send to Iran (which he occupied half of, and the British the other half) agreed to send the Polish army defend the oil fields if Britian would feed and clothe them.

Of the roughtly 2 million Poles were deported to Russia, only about 79,000 soldiers and 37,000 civilians escaped; the rest had died, or were left behind (this is not to mention the numerous others that died in Hitler’s Nazi camps, which focused on the Jews but also included Christians, Roma, Gays, and many others). Even some of the 116,000 people that made it to the Middle East with General Anders died of illness, malnutrition, or injuries that they aquired in Russia. Thousands would later die in battle. In the middle of all of this, as the Poles left Russia with General Anders, the soldiers adopted Wojtek the bear when they found a young boy with him in a sack, willing to trade him for some of the soldier’s provisions.   Wojtek’s mother had been shot and killed, and the recently freed Poles identified with him [2].

Conditions in the British Middle East were much better. They finally had proper barracks and plenty of food. On their way to the Mediterranean, they moved to Israel. They practiced “taking” Mount Sinai, and celebrated Christmas in Bethleham.

Some of the orphans were taken in by local families, in the Middle East, parts of Africa, India, Mexico and Australia. Some even gave the Polish women reduced prices on food, candy, or toys for the children; some gave these for free. This generosity lasted for years, and built friendships as these Poles, who could not fight, waited out the remaining years of war, and then had to continue to wait until they could be reunited with surviving family and friends- if there were any. Alan’s grandmother always spoke kindly of them, although she assumed they all thought and believed as she did. In actuality, we don’t know who took her and her siblings in, or what their religious beliefs were, only that they knew that it was right thing to do, and that is all that mattered.

Mikołaj – decorated After Monte Cassino – 22nd April 1946 Italy – Bari

General Anders was compelled many times, by the Russians and the British alike, to separate the Polish soldiers to fight with men of other nationalities, but he knew it was important the Poles stick together for moral support as well as to fight Stalin’s propaganda that they were cowards who “ran away” with Anders.

Soon, the German threat in the Middle East disappeared, so the British decided to send the Poles to Italy instead. Alan’s grandfather and great-grandfather went there with General Anders (and Wojtek the bear). They were now called the Polish II Corps under British command. There were several battles that these two men fought in, but the most famous was the Battle of Monte Cassino. Many other countries sent troops to this location; but none could take it except for the Poles. During the battle, Alan’s grandfather was injured by shrapnel and lost a kidney, for which he earned one of his many medals.

After the Italian campaign, very few returned to Poland, due to what they called ‘the Great Betrayal’. Britain promised early on that Poland would once again be a free and democratic country, but that changed as the war dragged on. The Russian, American and British governments did nothing to save the Jews. Winston Churchill refused to meet with informants of the Polish Underground State such as Jan Karski, and while President Roosevelt did, he was more interested in how the Nazis were treating Polish horses! These three leaders secretly decided Poland’s fate amongst themselves. [4]

Poland, the first to fight, the country with the greatest percentage of dead, the greatest number of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, the only country not to cooperate with its Nazi occupiers (it had a fully functioning underground government [5]), was handed over to Stalin, like a gift for changing sides. Poland had its borders redrawn, so that the Poland that Alan’s grandparent’s grew up in was no longer Poland, but Belarus. Worse, it was under Soviet control. Like most who escaped with General Anders, they refused to return to Poland, but a some did.  A few were able to rebuild their lives there, but many others could not, and they had to escape for a second time, through Czechoslovakia, through Germany and back to Italy, to warn the others not to go back home. There were also postcards sent to friends with haunting messages likes: “We lived very well at Cervinara. We travelled to Poland very well. We arrived very well. In Poland it was very well. I very well deserved it.” [5] Another letter described a life on a peaceful communal farm with plenty of good food, but the last letter of each word had a slight slant that was not typical of the writer’s handwriting; when the last letters were read in sequence, it spelled out “Eternal Slave”. [6]  Alan was told at one point that his family couldn’t return to Poland because they would be considered “enemies of the state (of Communist Poland under Soviet Russia)”.

So Alan’s grandfather, Mikołaj, his friend Jan, and his children, including Alan’s grandmother, stayed in Britain with the majority of those who escaped Russia with Anders. They were given free English classes, basic housing, and lessons in a trade to help them get started in a strange new land. Some stayed in the UK, but Alan’s family moved to Chicago, USA.

Alan’s grandfather’s WWII metals.

When I was a young pup and didn’t know the whole story, I heard Alan ask if he could have one or two of his grandfather’s medals. His grandmother was conflicted; she felt they should stay together, and that Alan’s uncle, who I never met, should get them. Alan reminded her that he had no children to give the medals to, so he’d make sure they’d ended up together again, either with his uncle or his uncle’s sons. He wanted to remember how they survived that horrible war, despite everything. He told her that if they could make it through all that, then  maybe Alan could get through Tam’s illness, his own illness, and the physical pain they suffered daily.

I think his grandmother understood that Alan understood more about their experiences than they had actually talked about.  One day, she took him aside, removed the framed medals from the wall and removed two of them, which she pressed into his hand.  “For your body, and for your soul” she said, and told him to take good care of them.  One was for Military Virtue, and the other was for Monte Cassino.

After moving to the suburban farm, when Alan still took his grandmother to lunch, the store, or the zoo, he once asked how she met his grandfather. She said that her father showed him photos of his daughters, and that Alan’s grandfather liked her photo best, and wrote to her. Soon they were writing letters and sending photos. She said her older sister was jealous because the oldest should marry first.

When Alan shared this, Tam said maybe there was another reason. Alan’s grandmother told him her father took her to the city when she was young because “[she] was his favourite”, but Alan’s mother said grandmother just ‘didn’t play well with the others’ and her father took her to keep peace between the children and give their mother a break. Tam said “it might have been to keep peace and because she was his favourite. Its not like they knew anything about autism back then. Even now, girls are diagnosed later and less often, than boys. And so-called ‘higher functioning’ autistics often relate better to adults than other children.” Maybe Jan knew his daughter was a “little different”, like Alan, so he was more protective of her. He wanted to be sure that she married someone he trusted to keep her safe and cared for, in an ever changing, frightening world. Mikołaj was just that person.

A time came when Alan spent a good amount of time on the phone with his mother, arguing over dates and times, and whether or not “that dog had to come”, and Alan insisted “that dog”, who had a name, must. Alan, his mother, his grandmother and I would go someplace near Alan’s house for lunch. Soon, this also stopped.

Alan would curse and not understand why his mother wouldn’t drive him to see his grandmother; it was hard for him to drive because of the Ehlers Danlos disease. “She knows my back and arm are injured, and its a 40 minute trip. 20 more, and we’d be staying at a hotel for a long weekend so I could recouperate to drive home. I can’t do this! She knows I can’t do this!”

Eventually Alan packed a bag full of medicine and took me in the car. We drove to his grandmother’s condo. She had a plastic tube that went from a machine to her nose. A strange woman, that did not speak very good English or Polish, was staying with her. This woman smelled very different. I knew at once she was not family.

“Happy Thanksgiving, grandma,” Alan said.

I was so excited to see her, that I forgot my manners and tried to lick her face.

“Oh, down down”, she said. Ashamed, I backed away.

The woman that was not family started to ask about me: what breed was I, where did Alan get me, did we come in other colours…? Alan sat at the table beside his grandmother, who introduced him to the woman as “my special thing”. She was giving him a hug while the woman was pushing another plate of food infront of her.

“Eat, eat,” she said, “You must eat”.

“Oh no! No, no! I ate already. I ate soup,” she protested, even though I could smell the woman brought one of her (and my) favourite foods: sweet cheese perogies. Instead she asked for, “Water. And medicine.” Her voice was soft and hoarse; the air tube dried out her nose and throat.

“My mum’s soup- the broccoli and cheese?”


“It was only a cup!” argued the strange woman.

“That’s pretty thick soup,” Alan said in earshot of the woman, “a meal in itself.”

“Yes. I’m full. I want water. And medicine.”

“Have the pizza slice from lunch?” The strange woman said.

“No! I want medicine. Water. Medicine.”

Alan said his grandmother never ate big meals; she preferred several small snacks. The woman huffed and went back into the kitchen.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner or more often,” he said, as his grandmother took his hands, and traced over his swollen, prematurely arthritic knuckles.
The strange woman returned with a fried egg, “eat, eat,” she said, pushing the food infront of Alan’s grandmother.

“Oh no, no, Water. And Medicine,” she cried. I could tell by ther scent that she hurt a great deal. Alan repeated it for the woman again, adding that grandother could ‘think about’ the egg after that.

Finally the woman brought the water and medicine; Grandmother took it with so much relief that she choked on the water. The strange woman didn’t seem to care and kept asked about how much I ate, and the brand of food.

“What’s his name again?”

“Mikol- Mickey,” Alan quickly corrected himself.

His grandmother, still coughing, said “Mick-ey. Mik. Miko. Mikołaj,” and slipped the egg under the table for me. “He was… a good man. He is… a good dog.”

“Thank you grandma,” Alan said, and as the strange woman began talking about how her sister had pain, and all one had to do was accept Jesus and live with it. Alan suggested that they go to grandmother’s room, “because it feels weird talking with a stranger here.”

His grandmother got the idea and grabbed her walker, leaving the woman to clean the dishes. Alan’s grandmother asked after the girl Tatra who was with Tam; would we have puppies soon?

“Maybe, we hope. Our Baby Girl just saw a vet who might be able to help,” he said. ‘Baby Girl’ is what they called the girl Tatra, because as his mother warned, his grandmother would not take well to a dog being named after her, any more than she would a dog being named after her late husband.

“Alan.” She spoke in gasps, “You should… name her… Harriet.”

Harriet was what her name was changed to when they moved to the United States. The correct translation would have been Hedwig, but Alan’s grandfather thought Harriet would “fit in” better.

“No, her name is Jadwiga,” Alan said.

“That’s… my name,” she smiled, pointing to herself.

“I know, grandma. Daj mi uścisk. Daj mi buzi.”

The two embraced and kissed.

“You remember?”

“Of course. I wanted to know more, but…”

His grandmother nodded, and made a gesture he didn’t recognise.

“Tell me…?” he began but she just motioned with her hand again. “Okay, you seem tired. Shall I go?”

She nodded. Alan dimmed the light, said he would try to come back soon, and took me home.

He spent the rest of the week in bed, in pain, because he had used up most of his medicine to go see her.

A few weeks later, Alan and Tam took me to shop for clothes very suddenly one evening. We didn’t get any sleep as his mother and stepfather came for us very early in the morning.

“Mikołaj, Come here, hurry up, we have to go see grandma. We have to get your vest on.”

I didn’t understand what the rush was about, but after I had on my Service Dog vest, and we were all in the van, we took off. We didn’t go to her condo, but a strange building. There were other people that smelled like they could be related, but I never met them. If they were related, why didn’t we ever see them before? I looked everywhere, but couldn’t find Alan’s grandmother.

Finally someone told us to line up and walk past a large, lilac coloured box. I realised that this was like the box they put the pet rabbit in when it died, only human sized; grandma was in the box, and it was closed. Why did they say we were going to see her, when we saw everyone except her? The line moved until Tam and I were in front of the box.

“Goodbye grandma.” Tam petted my head, “grandma’s gone, Mickey.”

My whole body drooped…. Alan’s grandmother would no longer pet me, slip food under the table for me, or talk to me in confidence.

We drove to a church, and then a cemetery, which is like a giant backyard full of shoe-boxes for dead people. Alan helped his cousins carry the big box from the hearse to the buildings, and then back again. Alan said that this was called being a pallbearer, and that if he was older at the time, he’d have done it for his father and grandfather. It hurt him a lot, but his doctor gave him extra medicine, and he spent a lot of time resting afterwards.

Even though it was a cold and windy December day, Alan and prepared something for the side by side gravesites of his grandparents. I had the honour of carrying a spade and some envelopes in my service dog vest. They took these out and dug a small hole over Alan’s grandfather’s grave. I looked into his grandmother’s grave, wanting to say goodbye one more time, but there was just a big box. The hole was very deep.

Alan opened the envelopes, one by one, removing something from each one as he did so.

“I am very lucky to know many people around the country and the world thanks to the internet,” Alan said, explaining how he asked if anyone had anything from Poland, either pre-WWII or after the fall of Communism (when it was finally free from Russia). Someone sent a crocheted angel for the casket, others sent złoty (Polish coins), seashells, and many other items that, as Alan requested, would eventually degrade, and become one with the earth and his grandparents.

“These stones came from local quaries, watersides, and the Gardens of people’s homes around Poland, by other Polish Americans those who had the good fortune to return to visit their friends and family…

“These shells come from Poland’s lakes and rivers and the Baltic sea. It is said that Poland was the first and only country to be baptised, in the late 900’s when it became a unified country…

“…Poland is home to 18 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Some of them quite old and beautiful. I don’t know if my grandparents saw any of them, but with the fall of Communism, most anyone with the means now can…

“This salt comes from the heritage salt mines in Wieliczka. It has mazes, an underground lake, four chapels, and many statues by miners and modern artists. It has been visited by Fredryk Chopin, Karol Wojtyła before he became Pope Paul II, many politicians and royalty, artists, writers, musicians, and common folk from around the world. Salt signifies permanence, loyalty, fidelity, value, importance, and purification. ‘Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’ – Mark 9:49….

“These złoty, were minted after Poland threw off the yoke of communism and regained its sovereignty. Each shows the White Eagle, once again crowned. May the White Eagle lead you to the freedom you fought so hard for…

“This soil comes from the World Heritage Site, the Primeval Forest of Białowieża which straddles today’s Podlaskie Voivodeship in Poland, and the Brest and Grodno Regions in Belarus, which had been part of Poland when my grandparents were children. Grandma, being from Podczernicha, near Hoża, Grodno, and grandpa from near Drohiczyn, it is possible that they, or others in their families, once looked upon that magnificent forest, or even travelled through it…

After each explanation, Alan placed the items in his grandmother’s grave, and the hole we dug above his grandfather’s: the shells, the salt, the stones, the coins, and the Polish soil.

Tam said thank you to grandma, expressed a wish to have met Alan’s grandfather, and added a short prayer for people of a diaspora that die away from their homeland:

“May the American soil weigh lightly upon you.”


The condo smelled like her, yet musty. Alan immediately went to a pile of old books, falling apart at the bindings. He pulled one off the shelf, paged thru, set it aside and repeated the action a few times, until he became immersed in one.
“Whats that?” Tam asked.
“Rozrzucone po całym świecie.”
“Scattered around the world….” he said, sounding slightly puzzled. “But it was printed only a year before my grandfather died. And he always took very good care of his books.”
“Looks like it’s been read a hundred times.”
“Not just that,” Alan said holding a page open to Tam. “All the underlined passages are the same.”
“They’re all first hand accounts of families from the Kresy, and how they were disappeared at gunpoint in the night by the Russians… what the cattle cars were like…”
“So after your grandfather died, she had no one to remind or console her of the past, so that she could relax and get on with life. Once alone, she spent the last years of her life reliving the experience.” Tam said. “That’s not uncommon for trauma survivors- especially when they don’t have words for what happened, or when people repeatedly tell them it didn’t, or there’s no one to tell them that it did.”
Alan nodded, and sat down on the plastic-wrapped, white sofa with gold trim. “I just realised, when I was little, I’d ask for bedtime stories. I grew up on the old, gory versions of the Brothers Grimm. Well, she told me one, and I thought, wow, that was the worst bedtime story ever! And I never asked for another from her again.”

Tam asked how the story went, and Alan recounted it:

“Some brothers and sisters were lost in the forest. They were cold and hungry and had no way home. One day they found a cottage made of candy. And that was it. There was no evil witch as with Hansel and Gretal- it was just a house made of candy. Whatever they ate, grew back over night, so they were never hungry or cold again, and they lived happily every after.
“After all these decades, I just got it. The story was ‘In medias res’: the monster wasn’t in the house- it was outside the house, it was the whole world, coming for them in every direction. There was no place safe. Her siblings wandering, cold and hungry, in Russia, after their mother died, and they were separated from their father. The candy-cottage was their leaving that world for a better one, where they didn’t have to fear famine and war and death.”

Tam consoled him: he had been a young child, how could he possibly have known what she was talking about. She probably didn’t even know for sure herself, she was still processing it, the repeatedly underlined sections in the books supported that. Maybe Alan’s being sick, and being honest about the pain, and the frustrations it caused when other people would pass judgement on them for being ‘lazy’, or ‘looking for attention’ helped her in her; maybe when Alan asked for the medals to help face being sick, she knew he understood her past in some way that others did not.

He shrugged, wet eyed, and continued to go through stacks of books, contents of cabinets and closets. I sniffed at her favourite tan sweater-vest hung on the back of a kitchen table chair. It still held her scent. I tugged at it and Tam, noticing, asked if I wanted it. I tugged at it again, and Tam took it down, and gave it to me.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

Only a few weeks later, Alan and Tam took my own dear Jadwiga to the vet. I had to stay home, worrying. They returned later that day, with a very tired and woozy Jadwiga, and three suckling puppies, a girl we named Bibianna Sivy Mikołajczyk and two boys: Wojtek Kriven Mikołajczyk, and Władysław Anders Kriven Mikołajczyk. Their middle names are those of my brother and sister that Joanne adopted. Kriven unfortunately was sick; nothing could be done about it and he is gone. My sister, Sivy, is still healthy, and has some new dog friends, but I am told that just like their human, she still misses him. I do too, along with the seven other brothers and sisters I don’t know the names or whereabouts of.

Alan and Tam promised to find Wojtek a good home. Bibianna and Anders will stay here to learn more about being service dogs. When they are old enough, before Wojtek leaves, I will tell them that sometimes bad things happen, but good things can happen too. I will tell them about how big the world is, and how our ancestors, and our humans’ ancestors, came from the other side of it… about Polish heroism, and how I was named for Alan’s grandfather Mikołaj, and their mother was named for Alan’s grandmother, Jadwiga, who talked to me, so that she could talk to Alan.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~


[1] – During the 20 years interbellum, Polish pride resulted in kennel clubs promoting Polish breeds, saying that a Polish Home should have a Polish Dog.
[2] The profession of faith of the Polish little child is a poem composed by the Polish patriotic poet Władysław Bełza over 117 years ago, the goal of which was to raise and preserve patriotism among Polish children during the 123 years in which Poland was partitioned, ceased to exist on a map, and the world was nearing World War I. It was taught in every home.

Who are you? A Polish child.
What is your emblem? The White Eagle.
Where’s your home? With my people!
In which country? The Polish land.
What is this land? My beloved homeland.
How was it obtained? By blood and by scar.
Do you love her? With my heart and soul.
What do you trust in? In Poland – as a whole.
What are you? Her grateful child.
What do you owe her? My whole life.

[4] An Army in Exile. Władysław Anders. Battery Press. pg 287
[5] Story of a Secret State. Jan Karski. 1944.
[6] The Captive Mind. Czesław Miłosz. 1953.

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