I do not know exactly how my Polish and Irish ancestors finagled their way into this country. Having been personally motivated by desperation too many times to count, I imagine it was indeed desperation that caused them to leave behind the comforts—close-knit communities, sprawling families, and common language, to scratch the surface—and come to a place that they believed, that they hoped was better. I too feel this drive in my blood, this drive to fight like hell for anything worth having. However, maybe I am attributing this to a genetic disposition when it is, in fact, the human desire to survive.
I know that some of my mother’s Irish ancestors first lived in Canada before moving to Somerville, Massachusetts, an area that, at the turn of the century, was more of an ethnic enclave than the hipster bohemia it is now. My Polish great-grandparents, whom I know only from stories, learned varying degrees of English after immigrating to Ware and Palmer, Massachusetts. They had little use for the English language. They could buy groceries, go to the bank, and get their cars repaired using their native tongue.
All eight of my great-grandparents were deceased before I was born. I know for certain all eight were wild characters, simply from knowing their off-spring and because, more to the point, that I am one of their off-spring. I only wish I could have sat down with them at their kitchen tables, and, over a home-cooked meal, heard how they arrived in this country. I remember my Polish grandmother telling me about an ancestor who, rather than returning home after a summer job was complete, she hopped a boat to Ellis Island and never saw her family again. I do not know if this decision was impulsive or well-thought. Either way, I am convinced that someone related to me could have pulled that kind of stunt.
These impressively strong-willed, hard-working, loving great-grandparents went onto raise large families of children of the same hardy stock. When I look at the pictures of these large families, roughly ten children a piece, I am surprised that my grandparents remember every single one of their siblings’ names.
Sure enough, all four of my grandparents are still alive well into their late eighties, a true testament to a strong gene pool, impressive self-care, and luck. All four can still remember all their siblings’ names, as well as cook extravagant meals, grow abundant crops of grapefruit, walk around the block, dance late into a Saturday night, and otherwise lead far more active interesting lives than a lot of twentysomethings I know.
In these pictures, everyone is sitting on the stoop of a fastidiously cared-for house, wearing shirts that would be wonderfully crisp to the touch, every hair in place. Funny, I would have guessed I came from more disheveled stock! I fixate on everyone’s healthy complexion and feel like my skin is literally pale in comparison, on death’s doorstep compared to these relatives (when exactly do ancestors become relatives? For some reason, my great-grandparents feel like ancestors and my grandparents feel like relatives). I gawk at their muscles and think that even though I have been working out at a gym for over a decade, my physique is a joke compared to theirs. The matriarchs are always in the center. I can not recall any of these pictures with the patriarchs in them, in part because two of my great-grandfathers died early, work-related deaths.
I know some of what was happening behind the scenes in these well-composed photographs, but not very much. I have pieced together my family history from listening to personal anecdotes and knowing the course of the twentieth century. Once these large families were established, the daring, perhaps desperate parents of my grandparents planned to do everything in their power to feed, clothe, and nurture the brilliance of the next generation.
Then the Great Depression hit. My strong-willed great grandparents, devout Catholics, understood this as a sign from God that they needed to work harder to care for those they love. Was it a risky proposition for my father’s father to cut a tree for a priest? Yes. Did he need the money to feed his family? Uh-huh. Was that tree the death of him? Yep. Did my great-uncle step up to the plate and become the primary breadwinner for his mother and siblings, earning money to buy a farm house outside of town? Yes, yes, he did.
The Great Depression may have forced my hard-working immigrant relatives into overdrive and may or may not be indirectly related to the deaths of several of them. That being said, World War Two, being fought in the old world, may have been the single greatest event in world history that allows me to lead the life of luxury I currently enjoy. In all four of my grandparents’ families, the sons almost all enlisted. All four families experienced the tragedy that can come with the inherent risk of a better life through serving this country. After all, when my grandparents speak of the war, speak of the pride that they feel in the relatives who served, they also speak of those who never came back. These siblings will always be young in their memory, just as they are in the photographs on the wall, even as my grandparents themselves struggle with arthritis and heart conditions and knee and hip replacements. They look at those sprawling families and point out those who died either from the war or some childhood disease that has never been on my radar screen because I was vaccinated a long time ago.
Yet some of the men who are pictured in uniform did return, including both my grandfathers. I do not know exactly how my grandfathers, both very rational brilliant men even under the age of twenty, calculated that the risk of not coming back was worth it. However, they are both such honorable men, such devoted husbands and loving fathers and, I have to imagine, doting sons, loyal patriots from all the opportunities that this country had given their parents, that they could have very well made that decision because it was the right thing to do.
My grandmothers posing at the beach are next to the pictures of my grandfathers’ in uniform. I look at my grandmothers, and, though I am slightly biased, I think their beauty rivals any of movie stars from the same time period in which they were married, but I suppose that is only because I know their inner beauty as well.
From the black and white photographs, you cannot tell that my grandmother is a redhead. You can however tell that she is confident by the way she holds up her chin and leans back and smiles for whoever is taking the photo, maybe a boyfriend whose name is long forgotten now, maybe my grandfather. She would tell you she was not always confident. Growing up, she always felt self-conscious because she was shorter than all the other girls (I never understood this when I was little, she appeared to be the universal grown-up size). Then she started going to dances and learned that boys LOVED to dance with someone shorter than them, and she decided if it meant she was more attractive to future dance partners, she did not care how tall she was. Of course, I must imagine my grandmother was attractive to future dance partners simply because she was, is, and will always be one of the most dynamic conversationalists that I have ever met. Whether she is shopping in her hometown grocery store or watching a grandchild’s soccer game, she manages to find something in common with someone and strike up a conversation (once again, definitely my relative). At one fateful dance that was part of many chance events that brought me into this world, she ran into a tall (this is one of her chief deciding factor in whether or not a man is handsome) classmate from Somerville High in a navy uniform, and I am sure she did not have to try very hard to finagle an invitation to dance from him. My grandfather may have been a little more reserved than my grandmother, but every skilled talker needs a strong listener.
Rather, from my grandparents’ 50-plus year relationships, I have learned that it is not enough that people’s chemistry complements each other, it is not enough that there is a spark. I look at these two successful marriages, and not only do I see how well my grandparents complement each other in their marriages, I see that they have “space in their togetherness”, as I hear quoted at nearly every wedding.
My father’s parents’ romance started when they met through mutual friends in the Polish community of central Massachusetts. The attraction was strong enough, the interest was strong enough, the intrigue was strong enough that the relationship continued even once my grandfather, my “dzadziu” as he will forever be called, headed to Missouri for graduate school. They continued their correspondence in love letters. Perhaps of all the ways to date, I think a courtship via the US Postal Service, in which each side must have the patience to engage in the process of writing, sending, and receiving letters, can be the most telling of whether a relationship can truly last.
I have not decided about one photograph in my possession, about whether its place on the mantle would be more helpful or harmful. It is my parents’ wedding picture, and I cannot imagine the mantle without it. It would be like cutting the front page, or perhaps the editorial section out of a newspaper, and saying, “Here you go, this is the whole story.” Because I still believe my parents’ romance, which ultimately ended in heart ache and was not meant to be, is the greatest love story of the twentieth century, simply because it brought, well, me into this world.
I have heard it so many times that you could wake me up in the middle of the night and I could tell it to you as it was always told to me. It may not be audible, but I could tell it to you, as it was told me not hundreds, but thousands of times in my childhood. I loved the story so much, sometimes I would ask, and other times my mother and father would freely share how they met, fell in love, and decided to make the commitment to spend the rest of their lives together. Here is how I tell it.
My father and mother were both students at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. They were both the third child in families of six children, and they both so enjoyed caring for their younger siblings that they both decided to become nurses at a young age (yes, this was unorthodoxed for a man in the seventies, but my father has been a little unorthodoxed his entire life).
My father’s father prudently decided that rather than pay room and board while all six of his children attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he would build a house there (this also reflects the kind of man he is). Here was my father, living at home with his parents.
His Uncle Joe, after whom he was named, gave him a business proposition. Pick as many apples as you want off my trees, and you can sell them at the Amherst farmers’ market.
My father, who works hard and plays hard, could not turn this opportunity down. He picked those apples, and he drove down to the Amherst Farmers’ Market, not nearly as organized as it is now, and he sold them.
He even convinced a red-headed University of Massachusetts student to buy some by “giving her an offer she couldn’t refuse”. (At this point in the story, if we were all there sitting around the dinner table, my mom would say, “Joe, stop it.”) He found my mother’s weakness for produce, and ran with it.
They dated on and off throughout their college careers, until finally they broke up for the last time. My father lived in Cambridge and worked at Boston City Hospital in the year after he graduated, saving money for graduate school. Eventually he chose the University of California-San Francisco graduate program. He was prepared to drive cross-country when that red-head called him up and said she heard he was going to California and wanted to talk. They rendezvoused on the pedestrian bridge near the MGH T stop and the esplanade, and made plans to drive cross-country together.
They loved San Francisco. Their voices always became warm and all-knowing when they spoke of living near Golden Gate Park, and even as a little girl, I vowed I would go to this city, to San Francisco, to California some day.
Yet my mother especially ached for her family, ached for New England, did not want to spend her whole life so far from those she loved the most, and once my father finished graduate school, they drove back east, engaged, and my father was offered a job at Redington Fairview Hospital in Skowhegan, Maine. At the job interview, they warned him that unless he planned to raise a family, he may be bored in central Maine. He assured them that that was the plan for himself and his wife.
I am so happy that was his plan, and that that was also my mother’s plan.
That plan, and all the perhaps overambitious, wild, driven plans of my relatives and ancestors, is the reason that I exist.