In 1907, my Polish grandfather sailed across the ocean to America, with his twelve-year old sister, Catharine- who was still terribly young to have been in charge of such an arduous journey. Their parents were both dead, most likely from some severe illness. His three eldest siblings were already in America, sponsored by a generous aunt. They were all born in a log cabin in a rural village called Wesola in southwest Poland. Little Joe and Catharine would have died had it not been for this generous aunt in Philadelphia.
I too am an orphan, for the past thirty some years. My father died at the same age as his father died, 57, both bearing the same first names. Although I have had the great fortune, unlike my grandfather, to have been raised by loving parents, they are not here today to share with my own children.
Therefore, when my daughter Sierra graduated from Temple University, I asked her where she would like to go for an adventure and she chose Poland- for this reason…in an attempt to find our relatives and discover the homeland where her grandparents were from.
If you have ever traveled across the ocean to a foreign country with the idea of meeting distant relatives for the first time, who don’t speak English, nor ever talked on the phone with, and only had scant e-mail conversation with, and THAT was grossly distorted thanks to Google Translate screwing up, and you’re going to be living with them for days, it COULD be unsettling, or just terribly exciting as it was for Sierra and I.
I connected to my Polish cousins in Krosno, only days before we flew.Some of my second cousins living in New Jersey had a Poland connection, which they shared. We received an address and a welcome e-mail and an attached photo so we could recognize one another. We were going to spend four days in the lovely city of Krakow and on excursions to Auschwitz; then 4 days hiking in the High Tatra Mountains and staying in historic stone huts, and 4 days getting to know my family. That last section of our trip was what we were most excited about.
What would the visit hold? Their 38-year old son, Wojtek lived in Warsaw but was traveling to Krakow when Sierra and I were staying there. He e-mailed me at our hotel and asked if we could meet for dinner as he would not be able to join his family in Krosno. We hugged and kissed as soon as we met and immediately fell in love with him- he was our kin. His very own grandmother led our grandfather by the hand to his new home in a new country. She returned to Poland with a husband and raised her family here. My grandfather remained in America and built his family there. And now, for the first time, their ancestors meet. All through dinner, we laughed and talked and told stories as Woytech paved the way for our visit with his family in Krosno.
One of my big tasks while in Poland was trying to locate the actual log home that my grandfather was born in. My husband and I live in a log home that we built by hand and I think the connection remarkable. If we could find it, if it indeed still existed, after over 100 years after they left, it would be nothing short of a miracle.
I always felt akin to this grandparent. His wife, my grandmom, who lived until 102, said that Pop Pop loved to travel, for indeed it began when he was only four. He had been a bit of a renegade, knew what he wanted in life and wasn’t afraid to take chances to get it. I hoped I inherited some of his spirit.
Our taxi driver left us off outside the large brick building in Krosno that I recognized from the photo. I had seen a photo of my “Uncle” Tadek and “Aunt” Bogusha so when they unlocked the gate and flung open their arms to embrace us and we laid eyes on one another for the first time, it was magical. They talked entirely in Polish and of course, we understood not a word. But their 36-year-old son, Andrzej was there to translate. We were presented with a key to Woytech’s apartment in the huge family house and we immediately felt like family.
The table was set for dinner- pirogues, kielbasa, red beet soup, rye bread etc etc. Course after course arrived while we looked at old photos and Andrzej listened, then thought of how to translate, then repeated it back in another language. Back and forth, back and forth, his head hurt he said already! First night! We weren’t sure if he embraced his job wholeheartedly or rather reluctantly. Sierra was scared of him. I was fascinated.
I sat on every word that came out of his mouth. His use of language was very unusual to me- his word choice etc. I studied his expression to learn more. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him and I got myself in trouble. “Why do you stare at me?” he asked. He did not know about American writers who thirst for information. But he was my link to the past. I could learn nothing without him.
I sat next to my Uncle Tadek as he talked to me in Polish, telling me what he knew of his mother and my grandfather. I suddenly became startled as I realized that there were things about his face that looked so much like my own father’s. The shape of his lips, his eyes and his nose. I started to blink back tears, for I have so missed my wonderful father, whom I was so close to and this was the closest to him coming back to life for me in over 30 years. Wow. Just this was enough. If I had to go home now, it would have been worth it.
But there was so much more in the four days we were in their home sharing their lives. There were evening walks with the dog, pirogue cooking lessons, concerts to attend, ancient churches to celebrate Mass in and bouldery ridges to explore. There was meal after meal of fantastic Polish food to enjoy together, but the real gift was the day we traveled 40 kilometers in search of my grandfather’s log home.
There was no road sign announcing the turn to Wesola, for the village was so small. Unimportant to others but vastly important to me. Sierra and Uncle Tadek examined the map in the back seat while I braced my head in the front, Andrzej loving to drive like a race car driver, or a sky diving airplane pilot, which is what his occupation is.
We had the house number- 636 to go by and the fact, from an old photo, that it was a low, one story blue-painted log home. We searched for numbers on the cottages and homes that we passed but it skipped a ton of them. Tadek and Andrzej stopped four different times for directions asking where this home could be, if it indeed still existed. We were looking for along, rectangular log home painted a light blue. Perhaps it was framed over, renovated or even demolished.
After a long search, we found 635 and traveled across the grass drive to the house. One more time, we went to knock on the door to ask directions. We looked at the neighbor’s homes- none looked anything remotely like a log cabin. As we rounded the back and were getting ready to knock on the door, there only a few yards from the brick home was another building, low to the ground, completely hidden from view. My mind said, “storage building,” and I didn’t even see what it was at first. Suddenly my mind translated and I exclaimed,” There it is! There’s my grandfather’s home!” We were completely taken by surprise. It was as if it suddenly materialized out of thin air, willed into existence by our longing.
We ducked under the tin roof and there was the rusty numbers, “636” like in the old photo. The door was open so Sierra began to go inside. Suddenly, the owner came out and told my uncle that we could not go inside. Uncle Tadek explained who we were and why we had come so far, but he put a padlock on the door. “It was messy inside,” Andrzej translated, like we cared! We would only be allowed to encircle the outside.
And so we did, taking photos and looking at the surrounding land, trying to imagine my great-grandparents coming to this place, drawn to the far-reaching views of rolling hills on each side of the ridge. I too, built a log home on a ridge, with views of the valley when the leaves are off. My ancestors had to have been in touch with the seasons, growing their own food like we still do. I tried to imagine my grandfather’s mother giving birth five times in there and then his parents dying in there and what that must have felt like for those five very alone children. I stand in front of the blue log home of my ancestors, with my arms around my cousins and I feel bountiful and boundless.
The next day we traveled to an outdoor ethnographic museum with my cousin, Anna, Andrzej and Wojtek’s older sister and her two children, Michal and Ola. Although she could not speak very good English, it mattered little- we laughed and used charades to communicate and felt immediately close to them too.
There were many old log cabins were moved to the village, and our docent showed Sierra and I what my grandfather’s log home probably looked like 100 years ago. I was told they were poor with a dirt floor but many homes had the entrance of packed clay, then boarded floors to the left where the kitchen and bedrooms were. To the right was the stable in the same house, where the cow slept and the chickens. The docent could decipher from the photo in my camera, how the rooms were arranged by the size and location of the windows. It looked like a beautiful home here in the museum and I felt better about their so-called “poverty.” We too are considered poor in our society and it always makes me chuckle for we live such a rich and full life and have everything that we could want, despite a lower income.
Andrzej became our fast friend as we learned to tease and joke and his sarcastic wit shone through spectacularly and we enjoyed him immensely. My own father had been an expert at sarcasm, teaching me and all my siblings how to poke fun at the world and its people. It has gotten us into trouble more than a few times with those lacking an appreciation for this type of humor. Andrzej says it is a highly intelligent form of humor and it is our “family’s way. It is in our DNA.”
I liked that. Once again, I felt very connected to this man, this family, who were complete strangers a few days ago. He said, “I am 36, but I feel 21.” I get that. “I am 57 but I feel 31.” There are relatives back home who get this too- relatives who ignore their age, like my Aunt Dot, Tadek’s first cousin, who honored the need to sky dive and zip line in her late 70’s-early 80’s. As Andrzej says, “It’ s in our DNA.”
Our wonderful visit with our relatives culminated on our last day when Andrzej planned a special outing for Sierra and I. He borrowed and jammed three bikes into his car, purchased a loop of kielbasa and a loaf of rye bread, and sped off on a biking adventure.
The sky looked ominous. It was chilly and damp and felt like it could rain. Sierra did not fully trust him but I did, from way back when I was studying him on day 1. As we cycled through the forest and meadows, he admitted to me how much he loved riding bike and I just smiled. Me too. It is in the DNA. We stooped to comb the forest duff for edible orange mushrooms and slit their necks and popped them into a cloth bag for supper, that swung from my backpack as I rode.
For a snack, we stopped at a camp and gathered dry dead fir sticks and Andrzje started a fire and sharpened sticks to skewer kielbasa lengths in the sizzling fire. “Does everyone do this when they go for a bike ride?’ we asked. “Only the crazy one” and we felt certain why we adored him. The skin popped and slit as the delicious juices ran and we thought, only in Poland.
Come evening, we sped back to our car as the sun painted the hills with liquid gold. “Look at that,” Andrvej shouted to me. Yes, I saw the beauty. Suddenly we saw by the road, a massive hay bale pile with children playing on the top and the setting set filling the sky with back-lit color. I threw down my bike, grabbed my camera and ran to them.
Without thinking, I shouted directions in English, never pausing to think they wouldn’t understand me. “Hold hands! Jump! Jump higher!” and so they did. They had recognized my language and as the sun set and they jumped into the heavenly light, I felt as if I would burst.
But we should not be so shocked. As I sit on the bus ride back to Krakow and the airport, I continually tear up and think of my Polish relatives. “Whatever did I expect? It’s in the DNA” Andrzej said. Of course. The love is in the DNA. They took a chance, unlocked the gate, let us in and gave us the key.
Once again, in my life, I have been given proof, that we should hold hands and jump into the sky- take chances together and with any luck, be met with the gift of recognition.
One last note- Andrzej later told me that Wesola, the village of my grandfather, means “Happy” in Polish. No wonder my life has been blessed by abundance. Look at where I have come from.