by Linda C. Wisniewski

The line was long and moving at the pace of a dead snail, which is to say not at all. I was hungry and tired, and the cafeteria was noisy and hot. From behind me came a loud exasperated sigh. I turned to see a chunky old woman in a pink sleeveless shift peering around me to see what was holding us up. We were halfway through a weeklong women writer’s conference, and the lines had long since destroyed my patience, too, but I kept quiet, hoping to discourage her from voicing the complaint I expected. Her darting eyes fixed on the English muffin on my plate.

“You have to toast that! ” She said with a heavy German accent, spitting her T’s at me like pellets. “You can’t eat it like that!”

Oh, brother. Or in this case, sister. I was tired of eating and sleeping and living with four hundred women, each with her own issues. I wanted their feedback on my writing, especially those whose work I admired. But did they have to share their opinions about everything? World affairs, the weather, the dorm rooms, and now, my breakfast? Did this woman not know she had crossed a line?

I took a deep, centering breath, leaned toward her and answered in my calmest tone. “I’ll eat it any way I want.”

She smiled, surprising me. “My husband always says, ‘why do you stick your nose in where it doesn’t belong?’ But when I see something wrong, I have to say it!” Her final “t” sprayed the air an inch from my face before she chuckled and moved to another, shorter line. Over-controlling, I thought. What was her story? The question occupied my mind until I found a seat at a nearby table, forgetting her as I caught up with friends.

When she turned up later that afternoon in the same writing workshop as I, my shoulders tightened. I watched her find a seat and waited for her to see me, to remark on another “something wrong.” She didn’t. And as we listened to the instructor, wrote and shared our brief exercises, I learned some of her story. She was a Holocaust survivor. As a young girl, she had lived for years in a concentration camp. And today, in class, she couldn’t concentrate because her daughter might lose her child in a custody hearing that very day.

This explained everything to me. Who wouldn’t want to over-control after being held prisoner for years, her life in someone else’s hands? How many times had the possibility of loss been forced upon her? And here it was again, her life as a grandmother potentially destroyed by a judge in another city. Why not try to change the things she could, if only a stranger’s untoasted muffin? But later in the day, I met more women like her. And I began to run out of sympathy. There were so many of them, complaining about the heat, the air conditioning, the stairs… I didn’t want to put up with crotchety old ladies, whatever their stories. I longed to be with happy, healthy people.

And yet, every day for the rest of that week, the old woman magically appeared before me: in class, on the sidewalk, in the dorm. She walked with a shuffle, like she was still in line in the cafeteria or maybe those camps long ago. I couldn’t look away.

Concentration camps stand empty in the Poland of my ancestors. In my grandfather’s village, people killed their neighbors in a frenzy of mob hysteria, while others hid Jews in their basements. When I visited Poland a few years ago, a tour guide said “we feel a phantom pain,” like the ache of an amputated limb, after the loss of so many Polish Jews. Amputated, I thought, like the Native Americans whose gifts we will never know. It’s hard for me to look away when I see injustice. Maybe it’s in my bones, my DNA. To truly accept my country, like the young man in Poland, I must accept the whole of who we are — the shadow side, the ugly, the times we have forgotten to be good.

Long ago, my New York neighborhood of Polish immigrants was rooted in fear of those who were different. I could easily hide there, camouflaged by my light skin and rounded face. Recently, the town council voted to sell an abandoned school building to a Buddhist group which planned to open a health and spirituality center. Many people opposed the sale, and put up signs urging a vote against it, afraid the Buddhists would bring in people they might not like. Happily, hope won out over fear, or maybe the town just needed the money more than they needed to feel comfortable. More than they needed control.

It’s different near Philadelphia, where I live today. We have plenty of “others,” some of them friendly and some as rude and obnoxious as people have always been. I can’t blame their ethnicity for that, any more than I blame my grandfather for the sins of the villagers he left behind. I feel safe here, creating my own happiness.

I’m willing to bet that some of the Buddhists in my old hometown will be lovely people and others, like the old woman at the writing conference and a few of my relatives, will be quite annoying. It can be hard to stay calm when the world is so diverse and noisy. I do understand. Sometimes I feel like I’m standing inside an ever-changing kaleidoscope.

I don’t know what happened to the “toast your muffin” lady or her grandchild that day, but I believe she was in my life for a reason. Maybe that reason was to share her story – and mine – with you.

May there always be room in this world for cranky old ladies. Just in case I ever need it.