The Meeting of Old and New World Eyes
The sudden ear-piercing grinding of train brakes woke me out of my daydream. I was clutching Stan's book in my hand, remembering the day it had been given to me by Misha. And now I was at my destination - Lublin. I nervously scrambled to get my luggage together and dragged it along the corridor to the carriage door. There wasn't even time to look into a mirror and make myself presentable. I felt like a used rag.
It was mid-afternoon when I arrived at Lublin station in eastern Poland. The dense early October fog that I had left behind in Warsaw had lifted and the sun was now shining brilliantly. The station was delapidated by American standards and looked as though it hadn't had a fresh coat of paint for at least half a century. My mind, having roamed freely into the recent past was not, however particularly interested in the picturesque sights. Like changing gear from second to fourth, my thoughts were at once focussed of the purpose of my visit. Even the doubts about the wisdom of such a trip had long since departed. I was here and I had an appointment with destiny.
My first encounter with the Królewiec family was with Stan's youngest wife, Kasia, and had I been forced to make a judgment of Stan and his way of life purely on the basis of what I saw in her, I would have given him a high score. At 24 Kasia was a fountain of youth. Her boundless energy swept me off my feet. Somehow I had always imagined Russians to be large and burly with black hair and thick eyebrows. I had read many books about Eastern Europe and had been struck at how enormous Russian women were. In truth, though, there's every shape, size, colour and texture imaginable caused by the centuries of tribal intermarrying. There was everything and anything from Mongol to Scandinavian in their genes, with a big dollop of the original Slav, of course. I had heard that whilst some of them looked like bears, others were of extraordinary beauty and elegance.
Kasia was slim and beautiful which at once excited a slight twinge of womanly resentment. I had had to buy a new skirt before leaving, dismayed that I had put on yet another few pounds. And like all women, I worried about how Stan might look upon me if I was overweight. Not that I was seriously overweight - I wasn't even plump - but as young as I was at 21, I was overweight from too much fast food. As it eventually turned out, Stan wasn't even looking at such things, though he would tease me about it a lot in later years.
Kasia was not your stereotype Russian at all. Long bright red tressels flowed over her back like a waterfall.
"A Russian redhead!" I thought to myself. "I'd better watch myself. Redheads belong to the touchy brigade."
Her face was young, fresh and rugged, and reminded me of a wild orchid that possessed both beauty and strength. Generous lips stretched into one of the most engaging smiles I had ever seen and which at once spelled genuineness and warmth. It's in those first split seconds of human encounter that you form your most lasting impressions of someone and before we had even exchanged words there was, I felt, a resonance. As nimble as a classical fairy, she almost floated over to me.
"Welcome to Lublin," she said, with a face radiating happiness with a hint of cheekiness.
I dropped my cases, extended my right hand which got left behind in the scramble for a hug. Kasia was certainly not timid and her junior years left her with few inhibitions. I was soon to learn of the spontaneous and generous warmth of the Russian soul. I had thought we Americans were so liberated before. Whatever Anglo-Saxon cultural inclinations I had brought with me seemed to effortlessly slough off like a moulting snake as the French within me took over. I liked this woman immediately. It was my turn to speak but I was at a loss for words.
"What does this mean?" I asked showing her the sanitary pad bag. Kasia squealed with laughter. We both creased up and the bridge of friendship was crossed.
She turned around hurriedly. "Alexei!" she called. A small boy rambled out of the shadows by the kiosk. With a peevish grin, he said something in Polish, and ran off again.
"Alexei!" she shouted out again, visibly irritated.
"Excuse me, Hélène, I'll be right back!"
Kasia floated off in search of the little urchin. There was a scramble somewhere in the crowd, some protesting shrieks, and once again Kasia emerged with the boy in tow. Alexei was not pleased and wanted something he had seen in the kiosk.
"Why, hello!" I said as the two came back up to me.
Alexei was in no mood to be friendly. He had been snubbed and wanted the whole world to know it.
"This is my son Alexei," Kasia said proudly, though I could see she was slightly annoyed that he had not shown some courtesy towards me. "This is Hélène who's come to stay with us a couple of weeks. Say hello!"
Nothing doing. Alexei scowled and started pulling his mother again. "I want the car," he said insistently in flawless BBC English that was every bit as pure as his mother's. But Kasia was a determined no-nonsense type. Alexei would not get his own will even though he put up a quite a protest. In the end he yielded but I never heard another word from him as he sulked in the back of the car on the way home.
Kasia and Alexei had come alone to pick me up. That was always Stan's way. I was to learn that in his kind of polygamy, friendship between the wives and a prospective wife was every bit as important as any romance that he might be kindling. The rules of classical monogamous courtship had practically no place in his world. Indeed, as I was to discover, almost all my expectations were off-beam in one way or another. I was about to enter into a totally new world.
The car sped through Lublin as Kasia pointed out churches, the town hall, and other land marks in rapid succession, most of which I cannot remember because of all the excitement of the moment and the complicated Polish words. Kasia was never short of words and clearly enjoyed company. With so much to talk about, topics changed as quickly as the trees we sped past. I was the first American she had met and she wanted to know everything about me and my way of life. Through the barrage of questions and excited answers Alexei silently sulked. I was to learn that he had a will of his own. But once home, the dark cloud over him seemed to evapourate instantly and he was the picture of cheer. If not actually a hyperactive child, he was certainly close to being one for he was never still.
It look less than half an hour to get to the Królewiec home.
"Look, we're nearly home," Kasia said as we left the last of suburbia and the first signs of countryside appeared.
My heart began to race a little. "What if the others aren't like Kasia?" I started worrying. A mental picture of Stan came into my mind and I tried to imagine how he would be in real life. I had spoken to him on the 'phone many times. Sometimes he was soft and mild, almost like a fluffy cloud, and at other times his voice was full of strength and authority like a Moses. A stupid picture of an old white-beared man sitting on a cloud flashed through my mind and I nearly giggled. I knew what Stan looked like because he'd sent me his photograph but I knew nothing of his mannerisms.
The car passed through two large wrought-iron gates which were open in anticipation of our arrival. The car purred along as we passed up a long winding gravel path bounded by maple and oak trees on either side. It must have been a beautiful place in the summer but for now everything was a carpet of red, brown, and yellow leaves. The drive ended at a large open area and there before me was Raj.
The Królewiec home was a large brick building of three stories like an old baronial mansion house. I'd had all sorts of romantic idea about European castles before coming though I knew that Stan didn't own one of those. Still, I suppose a vestige of the old childhood dream of meeting a prince charming in a medieval castle still remained. Ah well, that was the end of that dream. But the place was was more than adequate for my dream world. From hence forth it was my castle.
Alexei was the first out as the black Fiat came to a halt outside the portico. Children's faces with quizzical looks appeared in various windows, obviously forewarned of our arrival, and peered out at us. As Kasia took my bags out of the trunk the large oak front door opened and a blonde-haired boy darted out. After some excited chatter he and Alexei marched off somewhere into the garden, reappearing a few minutes later to the call of another woman.
"Come on," said Kasia cheerily, "let's go into the warmth".
I had half expected the whole family to line up outside the door to greet me. Perhaps I was thinking of The Sound of Music, of orderly governesses and well-groomed children marching around in sailors' uniforms. One part of me wanted some of that Old World charm and discipline, and another the kind of relaxed freedom I was accustomed to in the States. I don't know what I really expected at Raj but it was not at all what I had imagined. If Stan was an Old World type, his wives most certainly were not, which at times I could see was not at all to his liking. Though Stan did not rule his family with a whip, he made his displeasure keenly known when the family did not measure up to his standards. He seemed to be a curious contradiction in this respect, expecting one standard of behaviour and yet letting his wives have considerable freedom in the way things were conducted. He learned through hard experience that moulding a family with souls from different cultures and age groups was no simple matter, that you couldn't please everyone, and that above all else time and diplomacy were needed.
In spite of the very different ideas which I learned his wives had about the way they thought things should be done, I soon discerned that all were moving along an invisible track to a set of goals which only Stan seemed to clearly understand, and which they in the end assented to primarily because of their love for him. In spite of what I sometimes thought was chaos, I could see that there was a master plan at work and that above all Stan wanted his family to move forward of their own free will and not out of compulsion or a sense of obligation. It was quite unlike any of the other polygamous families I had come across where the husband rules with an iron hand and his wives must simply bite their bullets and get on with their master's wishes. Yet Stan was no liberal and brooked no nonsense either. Whilst he allowed time for souls to adjust, the "doctrine" of the family was sharply defined and nobody was in any doubt as to where they were all headed. Here there was little room for manoeuvre: the Bible was quite simply the final word in all disputes.
The Królowiec home was spacious and comfortable. Each wife had what amounted to a self-contained apartment on the second floor with a small bathroom and kitchenette and bedrooms proportionate to the number of children she had. But the bulk of the rooms were of a communal nature and downstairs - two spacious living rooms, one kept neat and orderly which clearly belonged to the adults, and another one a large children's playroom or nursery. The adult living room was full of Old World charm, with beautiful furniture and luxurious silk drapes. Paintings of the countryside, the life of Christ, and family members hung on the wall. A large oil painting of a mediaeval castle had pride of place over the fireplace which I subsequently learned was the old Gothic baronial family mansion destroyed by the Soviets in the last World War. In years to come I would often find Stan standing in front of it lost in deep thought with a misty sadness in his eyes, as though he yearned to meet an absent mother.
There was no doubt that this large room was the heart of the house and that here order was expected at all times. It was here that visitors were brought and entertained. No sign of children's toys anywhere - they were strictly forbidden. They had their own living room which resembled a depôt or toy shop.
The children's nursery was functional above all else. They seemed to lack nothing. Two walls were covered with cupboards and draws from floor to ceiling and were filled with every imaginable children's toy. Stan had designed this room and starterd collecting toys for it even before his first marriage. He was always like that, looking far ahead into the future. Only a certain amount of toys were ever allowed out at any one time. The children weren't allowed to get new ones until the old ones had been put away in their proper places. In that respect he seemed more German than Polish and was, in many other ways too, quite unlike his countrymen.
It wasn't until a good year later that I learned he was descended from an aristocratic Prussian family consisting of Germanised Masurians, a Slavic people like the Poles but having more in common with German culture than Polish. The Masurians were forced to renounce their Germanic ways at the end of the war and most were Polonised. Not Stan or his parents, who disappeared into the countryside around Allenstein - today called Olsztyn - and quietly kept family and Prussian traditions alive. In that respect Stan was a misfit in both the communism which engulfed Poland in 1947 and the new but alien Polish world all around him. Communism was now gone but Stan was still a cultural curiosity, appropriately called by the few close Polish friends he had, "The Last Masurian".
It was no doubt this sense of isolation which so well prepared him for his subsequent rôle as a polygamist: the Last Masurian had come of age and was now the First Patriarch. Here in the heart of Old Poland a new type of man was being created, who was neither a Pole nor a European, he would insist to me: here God was making the first of His Millennial Men whose national allegiance was to a nation not yet born but whose future citizens he was already molding. The late Prussian was an early New Jerusalemite, a man before his time.
I pause only to describe some of the rooms in Raj for orientation purposes. Across the main hall was a large but dark dining room which each evening was lit with swathes of candles. Its atmosphere was both romantic and mystical, cosy and formal. Stan was the master of creating atmospheres and with relish tried to create spiritual settings which he knew would both neither be forgotten nor repeated. He wanted his family to acquire a taste of the new world which he longed for but which he knew he would never see in his life time - a world which would inspire reverence in the young and forge between them an identity that was uniquely Królewiec - an identity that was both very old and very young. And in that, I must confess, he succeeded magnificently. So thoroughly did he work that within two years you would never have guessed that I had been, or was, an American. I became a Królewiec as thoroughly as anyone might change their surname by marriage licence. And I became it joyfully. The dining room will forever remind me of that astonishing transformation, for there I first caught a glimpse of what I was to become: Hélène Holtz Królewieca, a firstborn daughter of Christ.
Next to the dining room on one side lay a workroom, subsequently converted into an apartment when the family outgrew the second floor, which started life as a sewing room and women's parlour before it evolved into a place from where Stan and his wives ran their home businesses. Here we ran a small mail order firm in the latter years. It saw the light of many projects, some successful and others not so. It was always regarded by us as the "girls' room" though such an exclusive mandate was never official. Still, Stan trod carefully there as we did in his office!
The nursery lay to the south of the dining room, and together with the work room connected to the classroom. This was a regular school classroom, fully equipped and used almost continually for home schooling and occasionally for adult lectures given by Stan. The elder boys called it "the lab" and was one of their favourite haunts out of school hours because in it were computers and the only TV in the house. There was no regular TV, mind you, for he wanted none of the world's perversions in his home. Apart from four educational, news, sport and Christian satellite channels, respectively (all of them in English), there was an enormous video library of several hundred titles, likewise amassed before he was married and carefully vetted by him, and which was continually added to. Occasional videos would slip by the censor but Stan and his other wives always weeded them out. Only wholesome family materials were allowed, with a special reserved section under constant lock-and-key containing stronger items for sober educational purposes only. Occasionally he would shock some of the older kids so they would know what the big, bad outside world was really like and would never be tempted.
There were three doors into the large living room. One led into a spacious library which became something of a home to me in later years. Stan and his wives were evidently bibliophiles and I heartily approved. An office, which I have already mentioned, adjoined Stan's private room in the west wing. Children were not allowed there or into the office, and only into the library under adult supervision. I was given the main guest room for my first stay, practically a self-contained tastily furnished apartment but without cooking facilities, at the opposite end of the corridor to Stan's room. It had a beautiful view of part of the garden with fields and forest in the distance. I often gazed out of the window in the mornings looking dreamily at the mist rising from the ground.
The upstairs consisted of five apartments or "flatlets", as Stan called them, all of which were in use by his then six wives. Wives with no children or only one were expeceted to share one apartment between them. Those with larger families had an apartment to themselves. Later on the guestroom on the ground floor became an apartment for a new wife and guests were assigned vaccant bedrooms in the flatlets upstairs. We had to learn to be flexible as the family grew in size. Today, with eight wives and thirteen children, other changes have been made, with two new apartments downstairs.
Kasia took me into the Main Living Room and we sat down. A bell rang summonsing the family together. Stan appeared first, emerging from the library with a large grin on his face. Like a deer darting across a field, Kasia was up and over to her husband, throwing her arms around him and kissing him deeply on the mouth. Such spontaneity and passion surprised me but I was soon to learn that this was the way Stan and most of his wives were. There was no stuffy formality here.
I got up, not sure what to do, but Kasia was not long in her husband's arms and was soon eagerly introducing me to him. "Why was she so enthusiastic?" I thought to myself. "Surely I represent a threat to her...maybe she's trying to impress him in order to curry favour." Such were my first childishly immature thoughts. What an ass I was! I still had such worldly notions, basing my thoughts and feelings on carnal assumptions. Two years later and I blush at my infantile jealosy for a man who I wasn't even in love with! Even then I was playing the "possession game", wanting to manipulate and control.
Stan's reaction to Kasia's introduction surprised me - caught me off my guard. Would he shake my hand or give me a bear-hug like Kasia's at Lublin Station? I paused, not sure what to do. The response might have been out of some 1930's movie about the Victorian era - as he proffered his right hand I relaxed, thinking he would be formal and not too intimate - I did'nt want to give the impression that I was romantically interested, at least, not yet. I wanted to be in control. As he took my hand in his, he bowed slightly, clicked his heels, and pressed it to his lips as the gentlemen of olden times were accustomed to do. I was taken aback, shocked at the unexpected courtesy he showed me but at the same time thrilled to be suddenly thrust into the seeming theatre of old world charm.
From that moment I realised that I was going to be treated with respect, like a princess, and my heart began to glow . I suddenly felt mild and soft, as though suddenly caught in a dream. Was this a Prince Charming story, a fairy tale about to come true? Then I suddenly remembered my shabby state - I'd had no time to freshen up and I felt a wreck. The bubble popped and I was down to reality again - a shabby Missourian girl in jeans. I was embarrassed. I supposed that Stan was formally dressed in an evening suit and hadn't noticed his informal attire because all my attention had been given to his face. But now I saw the comedy of it all - we were as scruffy as each other! How silly of me!
Stan released my hand immediately and looked me in the eyes. The comical moment left the stage as quickly as it had entered. Most men I had met would by now have sized me up by looking me up and down like a piece of meat. Others would have looked away in order not to embarrass or be embarrassed. But Stan held his gaze. I wanted to turn aside, not sure whether I would be invaded and repulsed, or not - so many men are aggressive, and peer at you with harpoons in their eyes, ready to reel you in.
Not Stan. Though his eyes didn't leave mine for a moment, there was nothing aggressive in them - there was none of the cobra trying to emotionally and mentally paralyse its victim before making its catch. Rather, in those deep brown eyes I saw a man intensely curious and respectful, but also one who had litle time to waste in useless ritual. He was trying to penetrate into my very being, not to stun me with his maleness, but to find out whethet I was genuine. He seemed to be saying: "Are you the real article? Are you serious about meeting me or are you just a curiosity seeker?" And I, in my turn, was turning over similar questions: "Why are interested in me? Do you want me for my body to add to your harem or for my soul, for the very core of my being?" And I knew. I knew at once that this was no Cassanova. The agenda of this man was crystal clear to me - he wanted to know in that first eye-to-eye contact whether I had personality and commitment or not.
It was only then that I noticed the rest of the family and once more I found myself rapidly shifting gear away from Stan and to other women - his other wives - whom I had not got to know as I had Kasia - and to a whole hand-full of children. The introductions were brief and friendly - there would be time to get to know the others later as they had to return to schooling, cooking, business or other activities.
A lightening tour of the house and grounds followed and only then was I allowed to go to my room and freshen up. I looked in the mirror at myself.
"I'm here. I'm really here!"
I couldn't hold my thoughts still as they raced around to over a dozen different faces, young and old, and back to Kasia, and then .... Stan. I saw those ideas in the mirror as I drifted for a moment deep into my fantasy world. Oh, those eyes! I imagined I was about to kiss...and then I stopped myself short.
"Good gracious, gal, you've only known him half an hour, and you're not thinking chaste thoughts."
But girls wonder, don't they? They wonder what "it" would be like. They don't want to marry someone who has a yukky kiss. But what am I thinking? Spirit first, spirit first. Get your mind under control! Remember Jesus - you're a Christian. Must get your values in the right order.
Thoughts like this darted around for about five minutes. I lay down on my bed, tired, and dozed off. The first part of my journey had been accomplished.
This page was first created in 2002
Last updated on 5 March 2009
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