Here’s how I realized my family was poor. I grew up in a very small town in Poland where everyone knows one another and so the gossip can be vicious. We had a small market, a school, and a bus stop right on the edge of town where you could take a bus to the city or a bus to church. If you were in a plane flying over my town you would see a few red rooftops and mostly woods that seemed to go on and on. You might even think to yourself that you’d like to visit there one day, that being there would be a return to simple times and some kind of spiritual retreat.
I was still small enough to be completely dressed in one of those children’s coats that is a onesy. So it has a pants part and coat part all together.
The memory starts with us walking home from the lake. Since it was winter we would save money on bus fare by walking to church across the frozen lake in our town. The lake would get very frozen. Thick ice. It was always a cold winter in the part of Poland I’m from.
The mood was what I could back then only understand as “thick,” because I really understood moods in my family in terms of textures and levels of thickness, like those moods were something I could touch. My dad had either just gotten fired from a job or had just gotten paid for a job but spent most of the money drinking.
I was holding my mom’s hand, and my dad was walking alongside us when I saw it, “MONEY!” I shouted pointing at a spot in the road ahead of us. No one else saw it at first. They peered closer to the spot, and indeed there was a 10 złoty bill trapped underneath some ice right there at our feet. If you’re wondering if that’s a lot of money, it’s not. It’s no more than three dollars.
With no discussion, we all got down on our knees and started jabbing at the ground. My first attempt with just my gloved hands was useless so I found a little rock to pound at the ice with. My dad had his keys out and jab jab jabbed. My mom found a stick. The ice was melting a little where my knees were and some of the water was soaking into my coat, my wet gloved hands were starting to have that pins and needles feeling that would be followed by a wave of warmth—which was confusing because it was still really cold. At this point, I drifted up above us and saw the three of us on our knees in the ice and snow like that to get 10 złoty. That was when I realized we were poor.
Finally, our cold bony fingers got under the ice and the money was carefully and gently removed.
“She saw the money. It is hers!” my mom declared and handed it to me. I can never be sure if she had to say that so that my dad wouldn’t take it.
I carried it solemnly using both hands. It was on my open palms, handled so carefully and gently, like a patient after a serious surgery being taken to the recovery room.
As we got closer to the market my mom asked what I’d like to get with it. And though my knees were cold wet and numb, and my hands felt on frozen fire I wanted the same thing I always wanted but couldn’t get, “Ice cream!”
At the store I picked out the ice cream I wanted and paid the lady with my wet money. She clinked the register open and gave my mom a few coins of change, but laid the wet money out to dry on the counter next to the register. She handled it between the tips of her forefinger and thumb—as though she wanted to have as little contact with it as possible, this wet, cold, poor people money.
Malwina Andruczyk is a New York-based writer and therapist. She is a 1.5 generation immigrant from Poland.