Poland is stepping up for the besieged people of Ukraine. Humane people worldwide are grateful to the Polish government and its citizens for their courage and compassion. Reading about the country’s altruism set me to thinking about my own heritage – my Grandmother, Bronislaw (Blanch) Darby, was one of seven children of Polish immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s.
To me, she was “Nana,” the elder woman in our small home (two tiny bedrooms. five people three generations) in Winona, Minnesota – the woman who taught me how to make excellent homemade soup, cared for me when I was sick, fed the railroad hoboes on our backyard stoop, taught me about compassion, passed along her “empathy-gene” and her anxiety about happiness – “Don’t laugh too hard because it means you’re going to cry.” She was devoutly Catholic and surrounded us with religious symbols, including an abundant supply of rosaries. She harbored little vials of ‘Holy Water’, which she sprinkled on the windows of our house when Winona was served with a tornado warning.
I hadn’t ever wondered much about that Polish heritage – though I envied her ability to speak the language whenever she didn’t want the “small pitchers with big ears” (my brother and me) to understand family secrets and gossip. In those days, people didn’t linger on a past that included being an immigrant, poor, and having survived the Great Depression. Also – there was stigma about the Poles who mainly settled in the east side of our little river city and lived in what was then known as basement houses.
So, newly discovering that Poles have a distinguished heritage has been enlightening for me. Catholicism dominated Poland in 966 and became part of the country’s soul. Like Italy and France, Poland experienced its own renaissance from the 15th to 17th century. It was a center for culture and the arts, a leader in the printing trade, a citadel of education. In its “Golden Age,” Poland became one of Europe’s largest kingdoms. At the height of its influence, Poland encompassed Estonia, north to Moldavia and west to Bohemia.
The country went through historic alliances, wars, wins, and losses. Today, with a population of 38 million and a representative government, Poland is aligned with the European Union, NATO, the United Nations, and other international bodies. My Nana’s homeland is also fast becoming a global icon for its heroic response to the human tragedy in neighboring Ukraine.
I confess to you that I’m ashamed it took a catastrophe for me to look more deeply into my Polish heritage. That I took my Nana’s life for granted and never dug deeply into how she was shaped by the events in her life – her parents and siblings, her struggles, and history. Her ability to speak a language other than English. As children, we are self-absorbed. I did occasionally ask questions – particularly about her ability to speak Polish fluently. But she, like so many in our town, seemed ashamed of her heritage and that rare bilingual skill.
Now, in a very personal way, I’m wondering about those Polish ancestors. What did they pass along to me and my brother in those inherited, tough Eastern European genes? What was my Nana like when she grew up in a large immigrant family, farming the land, a child of outsiders in the Midwest? What were her aspirations? I regret I was not mature enough to probe more deeply and solely focused on my adolescent self.
Late in life, here is what I do know and appreciate. Things big and small that are gifts from my Nana: I can make soup – from almost anything edible and with no recipe. I remained fascinated with languages and have a bit of fluency in Spanish and can rattle off phrases in many others - that's thanks to hearing Nana and her sisters gossiping and sharing secrets. I have out-of-control empathy – I'm compelled to help people in need and lost causes. I will rescue nearly any animal, including spiders. I view this as an upside (not everyone around me shares this view). I’m almost always cheering for the underdog. I also cannot watch sad, painful, or moving films without a complete breakdown, so I don’t watch them (this deprives my film-loving husband of some serious viewing). I spent a year of my life sculpting Pope Francis though my Catholicism is well behind me. Also, I can pronounce polish names such as Pryzlbilsky, Wisniewski, Kowalczyk, Bysiewicz.
And then there is the dark side of her bequest to me – I still will not open an umbrella in the house. I’m immediately suspicious when I experience a run of good luck or unrestrained joy. I remain wary of happiness. These things and more are the legacy of Bronislawa, my Polish grandmother.
For those of you young enough to have elders in your life, I urge you to do what I didn’t – ask the questions, seek out the stories. Take some time to discover how your own gifts, foibles, and fears traveled through generations to contribute to the person you are today. It's a journey to understanding and gratitude.
I’ll be digging into my Polish past with new curiosity and interest - with inherited pride in the culture that’s reaching out to rescue beleaguered brethren in Ukraine - the courageous country that’s calling on the power of shared history to defy a tyrannical regime. At the same time, I still won’t be opening an umbrella inside the house – we all know how that can end. But today, I’m mostly thanking my Nana for yet another gift she’s left to me – the pride of Polish heritage.
Thanks for spending time with me and for sharing Down Darby Lane with people in your life. I also love hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org - I read and appreciate every email - they keep me encouraged and creative. And though I've focused on Poland in this week's thoughts let me wish you all a very Happy St. Pat's Day!! I'll be looking for Lepruchans and hoping for a Rainbow. Sure and begorra!
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