From the village of Krypy in a poor farming region about 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, she traveled north to the seaport of Gdansk the year she turned 19 because, "I didn't want to marry in the village." As the second oldest of nine children, she yearned for "an independent life."
That was 1968, the year student protests erupted in Poland and the year Lech Walesa start- ed building a reputation as a labor activist by urging a boycott of a workers' meeting orchestrated by Communist officials to condemn the university students.
She met Walesa by chance that autumn, something clicked and a year later they married. Today, while mothering seven children and serving as a constant reminder to her now-famous husband that there's more to life than opposition politics, Danuta Walesa is herself being drawn into the firing line.
Over Lech's raging objections that police should not drag his wife into their interrogations, authorities summoned her Thursday for a round of questioning about her husband's secret meeting last weekend with underground Solidarity union leaders. It was the second official summons she received this year. Last month the two Walesas were called to the local finance office to answer allegations about evading taxes on western gifts.
In public, she takes such encounters with flair. Appearing almost jaunty after 2 1/2 hours of interrogation, she emerged from provincial police headquarters in Gdansk Thursday with the quip: "We just had ourselves a little chat."
But the day before, when the police had come for her husband, more of her deep anger toward the authorities flared in the presence of her family, her husband's aides and this reporter. Berating the officers who led Walesa away without a warrant, she shouted after them from the doorstep: "You are not even human. You are just red worms."
Later that afternoon, on the phone trying to find out what had happened to her husband, she played a defiant cat-and-mouse game with Gdansk police chief Gen. Jerzy Andrzejewski. He tried to entice and cajole her down to the station for questioning. She refused to go without a warrant or some idea of what the interrogation would be about, and countered with suggestions to the general that he come visit her in the Walesas' second-floor, six-room apartment in the city's high-rise bedroom community of Zaspa.
Amid all the commotion that day, she managed to prepare a large lunch--with the help of a visiting grandmother and aunt--for the dozen or so people in a household that tends to have the feel of a kindergarten, strategic command center and train station all rolled into one.
She kept an eye on the children, aged 1 to 12, who wandered about the place and away from their homework. The older sons got into scraps; the younger daughters flirted with visitors.
Asked during a spare moment how she could keep her mind on housework while her husband was being questioned, Danuta said: "What other way is there? Should I sit down and cry? I'm choosing the most reasonable way."
Her answers, during an interview conducted in bits and pieces on that tense Wednesday, tended to be short and to the point. Often, as she replied, she would seem to be studying the questioner as closely as he was trying to examine her.
"She has a strong sense of people," an aide to Walesa said. "Sometimes people come to the door, and it's difficult to know whether it's someone with a kind of knife behind his back or someone really in need. She can feel the difference." Another family friend said it is Danuta who has the most to say about who is welcomed and who is not.
In relaxed moments, her brown eyes twinkle good-humoredly. Her short dark hair frames a clear complexion, and her dimples lend a certain puckishness to her her face.
As an aide to Walesa was being interviewed in the apartment about her, she drifted into the room, asking not to be noticed, wanting to play a human fly on the wall.
"Others are listening," she explained, rolling her eyes around at the walls, presumably bugged. "So why not me, too?"
Lech's aides say Danuta does the same when business is being discussed around the home, wandering into the central living room which has been converted into an office area and perching on an armrest.
Occasionally she will add her view, sometimes affectionately chiding her husband with such comments as, "They sure made a horse out of you," or, "Don't be a fool," according to one frequent visitor.
For the most part, though, she stays out of strategy conferences. Such meetings are normally held away from the apartment, and in political matters Danuta defers completely to her husband.
"I try not to know too many things that are not necessary for me," she said. "I have to mind the children. So I don't have the time."
Nevertheless, a friend of the family, an older man who has been trying to persuade Lech to take a tougher public stand toward the authorities, regards his wife as a main restraining influence on the former union chief. Her fear of being left alone again, as she was for 11 months last year during his internment, and her insistence that he spend more time being father to the children, are said to weigh significantly on the one-time union chairman.
Danuta has, in fact, extracted a promise from her husband to conduct political business only until 2 p.m. each day and reserve the rest of the time for the children.
But the politicking has tended to run longer. Other pledges painstakingly drawn from her husband--such as limiting himself to one pack of cigarettes a day and walking after lunch rather than taking a nap--also have met with varying degrees of adherence.
Friends of the family say she tends to win most of the arguments that come up. Her language is richer even than the canny Lech's, and she sometimes uses a secret weapon. When Lech is particularly stubborn, Danuta has her bidding done by his favorite child, the 5-year-old Magda, nicknamed "princess" and a wily charmer indeed.
On the big decisions, though, relating to Walesa's opposition strategy and public stands, there is no argument, according to aides and friends.
"She doesn't interfere," said someone who is close to both. "Her acceptance perhaps encourages him to do what he does. She shows a tremendous tolerance. This results, I think, from her political intuition. She has a strong awareness of her husband as a political person."
It was not always so. When they met on Oct. 14, 1968, Danuta, then studying in Gdansk to be a florist, was not much struck by the intense Lech.
He happened to stop to change money at the kiosk where she worked, and they exchanged a few words. He returned a few days later, and they started dating.
"Every day for the first month we went to the movies," she recalled. "I was renting a room with a family, and he was, too, and so we had no place to go."
Joked Lech when asked about those early days: "At first I wasn't thinking much about her. When I started to, it was too late."
They were married on Nov. 7, 1969.
Did she have any idea what sort of life she was getting into with Lech?
"No, I was not thinking about what or how things would happen. But I could see then that he was a different man than anyone. He had something in him. He was well-liked by others."
The first son, Bogdan, was barely 2 months old when police detained Lech for his protest activities. Scores of other detentions would follow through the 1970s, leaving Danuta alone with a growing family each time.
Walesa lost his electrician's job in the Lenin Shipyard in 1976 for agitating. His campaign for workers' rights led to other dismissals as well, and the family had to make do with cramped quarters and little money.
The Solidarity period of 1980 and 1981 brought fame to the Walesas, a bigger apartment, gifts from the West--including a white Volkswagen van for transporting the children--and a great new sense of excitement. It also took a toll--Danuta suffered a miscarriage in March 1981, a time of fierce confrontation between the Solidarity leadership and Poland's Communist authorities triggered by a police beating of union activists in Bydgoszcz.
Some very difficult moments came last year. Separated from her huband for 11 months during his internment, Danuta was thrust forward as a public spokesman for the crushed Solidarity movement. She performed with wit and a calculated judgment that amazed even her closest friends, who said she matured enormously through the experience.
Lech was released from internment in November, but the fear of losing him again is strong in her. "I'm scared of that a lot, of course," Danuta remarked. "I'm afraid of what would follow, how I'd manage."
A sense of tension hangs over the Walesa family. A friend said the Walesas tell their children fairy tales that have only happy endings. "This is characteristic of children who are afraid," the friend observed.
"I'd describe her as a brave woman, mentally strong," said a close associate of Lech and Danuta.
"I think the source of her strength is what she went through before 1980, when they lived in horrible conditions, when they had little money, and Lech's union activities led to many detentions."
Danuta makes a similar judgment about herself.
"All those years put together made me able to manage things," she explained.
"After some time, I've come to understand certain things--like, for instance, that my husband is not only for the home but is necessary for other purposes. I know I'm going to have to be more self-sufficient.
"I tell him now to be careful not to get arrested, but I never tell him to stop what he's doing. If I had the possibilities, that is, if I didn't have the children, I'd be doing the same as he is."