My Family Photos

Photograph

So next Monday it will be two years since my dad passed away.

A few months ago my brother and I found a huge box of photographs of my dad and grandparents when they immigrated to the States from Poland after World War II.

The photographs are amazing (apparently my grandfather loved photography--I guess I got that from somewhere).

They bring up so many questions for me about war, refugees, resiliency, death, the stories we don't tell about our collective history.

I thought I'd use this week--when many people in the world are thinking about ancestry and death--to share a few questions and a few stories.

My hope is that the sharing will help me to make more sense of how it all lives on in my life, which is the only place I think I'll ever find any answers.

Aunt Agneska

A little more family history...before WWII and before my father was born, my grandparents had a daughter.

I had an aunt.

During the war she died of pneumonia.

I know that my grandfather spent four years in a Russian work camp in Siberia during the war.

I think she died during this time.

I don't fully remember her name (Agneska?) but I remember my dad saying she died on Christmas Eve.

I wish I knew more.

I wish my father and I had been better at listening to each other.

You can see in the tiny b&w photo that my grandfather kept a picture of her by his bed in the army.

I can't imagine what it was like to lose a daughter, to lose a family (he had 11 siblings I think), to let go of a whole country.

I sit with that a lot these days--the loss of it all and the strength it must have taken to keep going.

It motivates me to do my work.

Considering the history, it's a bit of a miracle that I'm even here and I feel like I should make the most of it.

Granddad

This is my grandfather's travel document, which he used when he immigrated through Ellis Island with my grandmother and dad in 1952.

After being released from the Russian war camp, he was reunited with my grandmother in London.

There they lived in a displaced persons camp and he worked for the Royal Air Force.

The story goes that at this point he wanted to die and began smoking a hundred cigarettes a day to make that happen.

Finally my grandmother told him he had to stop because they were going to make a new life together.

From that day on he never smoked another cigarette.

They had my dad and three years later, they arrived in New York.

Great story but is it true?

Did he really never smoke another cigarette?

Stories that are passed down always have that clean anecdotal ending.

Within it all I feel the mess, what that conversation must have meant and the deep grief that had to be swallowed down in order to go on.

I admire it and it scares me and I'm so deeply curious what it was really like...

My Grandmother

The family history continues.

Before I talk about what happened when my dad and grandparents arrived in the United States, I want to say more about my grandmother.

Of everything, I think I know the least about her story.

My dad told me that while my grandfather was imprisoned, she worked for the Polish resistance.

Apparently she smuggled people out of the country to safety at risk to her own life.

The story goes that she won the Victoria's Cross, the highest war honor given to a civilian.

A few months ago I did a search for her name and the award and nothing came up.

Again, I wonder if it's true.

Parts of it must be and does the award matter?

More than that, I wonder who she helped and what electricity it brought to face death so often and if that helped the grief or made it worse.

It makes me wish she had learned to speak English, or I Polish, so we could have had a real conversation.

I know she had things to teach me that I need so much right now.

I just don't know what they are...

Arriving in the US

So my dad and family arrived in the United States in the early 1950's.

It was actually their third choice, after Spain and Argentina didn't work out.

They settled in Greenpoint, NYC and my grandfather worked three jobs and they lived with rats in their apartment and little by little they established themselves.

Or the story goes.

Since my dad had estranged himself from my grandparents for most of my life, I always figured his childhood was dark and turbulent.

I'm sure parts of it were (don't we all have those parts?), but I was surprised to see how many photographs showed them all looking so genuinely happy.

They took trips and played at the beach and had lots of friends.

They showed me that there must have been a joy, the wonder of a new life ahead, that lived alongside the sadness.

It made me happy to see it in their smiles and then almost more confused, because I knew less than I thought I did.

Family Picture

I'm thinking this photograph might be a good next one to continue to story within all these stories.

So after living in Brooklyn for a few years, my father and grandparents moved to Fairfield, Connecticut.

I supposed they moved for safer streets and better schools.

I know there was a sizable Polish Catholic community they could rest in up north.

That summer they built a small house in the middle of a neighborhood that would soon fill with big mansions.

My grandfather would become their gardener.

Also that summer, my dad almost died from an unknown sulfa drug allergy.

He told me the story that his lips would bleed every time he touched them.

When we were younger, my brother's lips once went from chapped to bleeding and sure enough, he was taking medicine with sulfa.

These stories not only live on in our minds but also in our bodies.

Somehow our bodies seem the most trustable here, not prone to pity or exaggeration or other misrememberings.

Sensitive and Smart

As the story continues, my dad and grandparents settled into their new immigrant life.

My grandfather learned English and gardened for his neighbors.

My grandmother never quite learned English and cooked meaty stews and hard brown breads for her family.

My dad grew up, studying in English and eventually losing his Polish accent when he signed up for his high school debate team.

My dad was hyper-intelligent (he got a 1600 the first time he took his SATs) and my grandfather put a lot of pressure on him to make perfect grades so he could grow up and get a great job in their community.

The plan was for him to restore the family back to its glory.

From the beginning, my sensitive dad buckled under the pressure of such heavy expectation.

This is a story but it's also my experience.

My whole life I saw my very smart father struggle with the most basic self-care and the mess that created for everyone.

I suppose this is how his story carries on in my life.

It's interesting, and yet no big surprise, that I would dedicate my life to helping others with their own self-care.

I love my work and yet if i look at it closely, I see I'm still trying to save the ones I will never be able to save.

Saying Goodbye Once Again

This is the last photo, the last story, for a while at least.

Two years ago today, my father died from complications with leukemia.

One week ago, I started telling about his family history so that I could understand both him and myself more.

Now I have even more questions and yet it doesn't matter because the only thing that helps is sharing these stories and knowing that I'm not the only one pondering their lives.

It helps to write because it's where I feel the most and can finally break down (writing through the tears now).

Thank you all for reading and for feeling it all with me a little so I don't have to do it alone.

And there's so much more and there's not enough time and there's perfect timing.

It's all sifting through my fingers this morning and I'm left with only innocence.

We are all so innocent, wearing our pride to cover our hurts which only covers our fear, which is just another whispering voice from the past.

We can work with the past.

We can trust in the future. Love wins. I know this because my dad taught me.

So goodbye again dad.

Today I will light fire for you, touch water for you, and remembering the great meaning of your life as my own every time my feet once again touch the ground.