Thursday, May 1, 2014

Holding on to Family

My grandma when she was young

On Saturday, April 19, my grandmother Genevieve (Jean) passed away, almost two weeks after her 95th birthday. Last Friday, I said goodbye to my last living grandparent.

Grandma Jean married my Grandpa Walter in 1937 when she was only 18 years old, and they remained married until Walter’s death in 2002. Jean lived her life for Walter, her four children, and her eleven grandchildren, but during her last few years she suffered from Alzheimer’s and forgot who most of us were.

I was heartbroken the last time I saw her when she had no idea who I was or that my daughters were her great-grandchildren. I was happy that my two young girls seemed to bring her some joy….my grandma always loved small children. I am sure that if she was in her old home, she would have insisted on cooking something for my girls to eat. After all, Grandma Jean was Polish, and ensuring that her grandchildren are well loved and well fed are a Polish grandma’s two favorite tasks. I could never visit her house without her feeding me and repeatedly asking me to eat more.

Grandma Jean felt like my last connection to my ancestors from Poland. All four of my grandparents were children of recent Polish immigrants to the United States. They grew up speaking English, but they also knew enough Polish to carry on a conversation. I remember Walter and Jean speaking Polish with each other, usually in the kitchen.

My grandparents in 1957

Although my parents went to Catholic schools and churches in Polish neighborhoods, they were more Americanized than my grandparents. My siblings and I grew up in suburbs with few neighbors and friends who were Polish, and our knowledge of the Polish language was pretty much limited to food and a few curse words.

I am proud of my Polish heritage, but I felt ignorant about it as I reached adulthood. To compensate, I have read several books on Poland’s history and have even done some basic genealogy work and found several of my great-grandparents’ hometowns in Poland as well as the names of some of my great-great-grandparents. I even go out of my way to find Polish food sometimes. Despite these efforts to rediscover my heritage, I never feel as Polish as when I sat in either of my grandmothers’ kitchens while they cooked homemade pierogi, golabki or fresh kielbasa.

Part of why I want to hold onto my ancestors' heritage is so that I can hold onto my grandparents’ memories just a little longer. I want my children to know where they came from and to know what struggles and joys their ancestors experienced.  Alzheimer’s may have taken away Grandma Jean’s memory, but those of us who loved her will not forget her.

My grandparents have left this earth, but I will hold on tight to their stories. When we eat Polish food, I can turn to my children and say, “These pierogi are good, but not as good as the ones your great-grandma used to make.” Then I will smile and remember sitting in my grandma’s kitchen, listening to her and Grandpa speaking their beautiful language until she walks over and implores me to eat just a little more.