A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
On this Thanksgiving, I survey all the deliciously delightful people who have touched my life and kudize them all. However, there are four in my personal pantheon that are absolute standouts. Oddly, they are all men.
Every child should/must have a Roman Felix Skarbek for a grandfather. There was and is no greater person in the world in my eyes than he. A self-employed furniture maker with his own shop, he passed away suddenly at his workbench when I was fourteen. Popsie, as everyone called him, was a rock with an amazing twinkle in his eyes. He always found time for all the grandchildren… getting down on the floor with them to play board games.
He got his pet squirrel to eat out of the palm of his hand, performed sleight-of-hand magic tricks, introduced us to opera via his Victrola and 78 rpm records, taught us pool on the billiard table decorated with decals of scantily dressed cowgirls, and told stories about our famous and fabulous Polish predecessors. And, although living his entire life in Chicago (minus the first six in Russian Poland), he had this love of Hawaii that was immeasurable.
Next on my list is Sir George Ivan Smith, Dag Hammarskjold’s UN press secretary. Unexpectedly introduced to him by Conor Cruise O’Brien, I came to Stroud in 1995 expecting to find an erudite man who had his finger on the pulse of everything international – and he was that.
What I had no way of ever divining beforehand was his unfailing devotion to Mary, his wife with advanced Alzheimer’s. I have never seen such tenderness! And he did it all the while conducting a scintillating one-on-one seminar with me on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, his memoir on Dag Hammarskjold and his untimely death in 1961 Zambia, and the Africa of 1995.
As we arrived at his cottage home that September morning, he pointed across the valley to an enormous swath of green that had to be at least ten miles away. Smack dab in the middle of it stood a crisp white Georgian mansion whose proportions – judged from that distance – had to be magnificent.
He slowly nodded, “That used to be ours. We raised our children there.” And then he beamed, “Lost it in the Thatcher years. Last year, it sold for millions of pounds.” Just a simple statement of fact. His voice had no inkling of sadness or apology as he led me into his very humble cottage. There he introduced me to his childlike, confused Mary and treated her with the utmost respect and love.
Like so many caretakers, he preceded his ill spouse in death… just a few weeks later. In all likelihood, mine may well have been the last interview he ever gave. Nearly a quarter century later, I’m still stupefied this man would have spent three to five hours with me.
More than worthy of mention, there’s my friend and adversary (read: arch nemesis), Dominik W. Rettinger. Polish TV/movie screenwriter and novelist, he “makes coffee nervous,” to quote Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail. He puts up with my silliness and I with his, as we work in tandem on joint feature-length scripts and his books. (Having translated all eight of his novels, I have also adapted three of them for American/British consumption.)
His is a mercurially agile, fiendishly witty, quixotic mind. At once spiritual and gritty, he can verbally sketch out the most profound, complex characters on the page, while others are downright self-serving and/or evil. His talent can get to his ego however; so I am called upon to prick that bubble every now and again. What’s weirder is that he allows me to do that!
In a parallel vein, I have never known anyone else on a hike to stop to usher a slug crossing the bike path to get it out of harm’s way. And when I recently told him about America’s WWII bat bombs (Google it, please; I’m not making it up.), he took umbrage and came to the defense of the poor bats. Of course, it wasn’t only that. Dominik was foursquare against a “Japanese Dresden,” which would involve more lingering deaths than Hiroshima (according to his offhand calculations).
Finally, there is my eldest child of whom I have always been in awe. When he squirmed newly-born and naked on my belly, I knew there was no way I could be the mother Rick needed. I was so woefully inept I am surprised he’s survived to this day, nearly forty years later. Chronic asthma dogging him from the age of two on, he couldn’t rough-house or play outside. So, he taught himself how to read about the same age. His mind knows no bounds. It was so incredible, years later, his fifth grade teacher called me one afternoon.
“I have to lodge a complaint,” she said.
“Oh?” was my reply.
“Yes! Rick is reading the encyclopedia for his free-time period and teaching himself German.”
“So… this is a problem?”
“Totally! I have run out of things to teach him! And, as you know, I have a masters!”
I wasn’t surprised when, as a high school junior with extensive theatre experience, he took me to Carl Sagan’s movie Contact to segue into informing me he wanted to attend Sagan’s alma mater. “Ah… that would be Cornell University, isn’t it, Rick?” He merely nodded.
While there, he not only majored in physics but learned judo and Japanese, volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, edited an on-campus literary magazine and was active in SCA (Society for Creative Anachronisms) events. To say he’s multi-talented would be a gross understatement. With all that in his quiver, he doesn’t know how to blow his own horn. I am speechless in his presence.
All these guys – to a man – are characterized by essentially the same traits: a joie de vivre, an inquisitiveness about things beyond their personal safe zone, a yearning to know, an innate acceptance of “the other,” humilité and, yes, a tenderness they’re not ashamed or afraid of showing.
How could I possibly be so lucky as to know these four phenoms? What a pantheon of prodigious fellows!
Copyright 2019 Christine Skarbek
Christine Skarbek is an American writer who currently lives in Warsaw, Poland.