Friday 10 September 2021

A Piece of the Land I Came From


by Ann Christine Tabaka

Leroux Jezynowka Polish blackberry brandy

Most of her life, Anna grew up not knowing any family, except her immediate one. Her father was a stern and angry man, he was very private about his life. Teodor was born in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania, but grew up in war-torn Poland during from 1910 to 1925. His mother Anna (her namesake) took him back to her family village to show him off, which was the tradition among the Polish settlers that came to America. Shortly after arriving in Poland, his brother Wawrzyniec was born in the small rural village outside of the town of Sokołów Podlaski, in 1911. When they were finally able to return to America in 1925, they did not know any English, and had very little schooling because of the war. They were put in second grade since they knew so little. All the other children made fun of them, because they were so much older. Teodor left school in 7th grade because he was so embarrassed. He never did continue his education, and did menial labor his entire  life.


Anna had two older brothers. They were much older than she was, and left the house as soon as they were old enough to do so. Teodor was a harsh father and would be violent much of the time. The only other family Anna knew was her paternal grandmother, Anna, whom she always called Babci. Her paternal grandfather (Dziadek in Polish), Adam died when she was two years old. Her “Uncle Larry” died at his own hands before she was born. Her mother Marion was given away at birth, so she never knew anything about her maternal family, not even her adoptive one. Teodor did not want any contact with anyone from his heritage. He was an American now, and none of his children would even be allowed to learn the Polish language. This made things very hard since they were close to their Babci, and she spoke very little English. Of course, Marion and Teodor would speak Polish whenever they did not want the children to understand what they were saying.


Years passed, and everyone in the immediate family left, so they grew apart. Teodor died early from his disease, and Anna worked hard to improve her life and become a career woman. She thought very little about family or heritage, since she never knew anything about hers. Anna had her own family now. She was always a little envious of how close her husband’s family was, and how much they knew about their history, but there was no use being too-upset about something she never had in the first place. She remained very close with her mother, and her middle brother, but her oldest brother and his family had distanced himself from everyone when their father was still alive, and they never became close again. That is, until Teodor, Jr. passed away in his late 40s, and one of his daughters contacted Anna to ask her a favor.


One of Anna’s nieces, Carolyn, asked if I knew anything about her father, Teodor Jr.’s side of the family. Carolyn’s son was doing a school genealogy project, and they found information on her mother’s family back several hundred years, but had nothing for her father. Anna knew nothing about the family history, but said that she would see what she could do.


Anna’s mother, Marion, had been suffering from stroke induced dementia for several years, and it was getting worse. Anna and her husband had to place Marion someplace where she would be safe and get the medical care she needed. They had to sell her old ruin of a house and move her to an assisted living situation. It was a long painful battle to go through all the clutter Marion had accumulated over the years. Dementia has a way of making its victim collect things: newspapers, charity mail requests, old grocery receipts, etc. It took Anna many hours of many weeks, into many months, to go through as much of her mother’s precious collections as she had the energy to manage. She now knows that she threw out many things that she regrets today. It came down to survival once again, as she hauled out huge trash bags full of papers that she didn’t even give a second glance to. She was in emotional pain because of my mother’s situation, and physically exhausted from the labor of clearing out the house. But still somehow, she managed to mindlessly throw a number of items into several boxes to take to her house. She didn’t even remember what she took or why she took them. She still thinks her Babcia was watching over her shoulder, whispering in her ear to “save that photograph and keep those pieces of paper.” 


Anna was later surprised when looking through the boxes to find out that she had actually saved some important items that she was eternally grateful for. Because of those few precious documents and pictures, she was able to start searching for who her ancestors were. She was going to help Teodor Jr.’s kids find their father’s family after all.


Over the next three years Anna wrote to every Hall of Records, and church she could contact from the information that she had on birth, marriage, and death certificates that she had found at her mother’s house. It was an arduous task researching addresses, typing letters, and paying all the fees. Fifteen dollars, here, twenty dollars there, twenty-five dollars, and so on, and many times with no results at all. But, in those times when she did have a certified document sent back to her, she felt as if she hit a gold mine. Anna was elated – she had FAMILY! Family all over the USA, in Poland, and many other countries as well. 


Writing to Poland was the hardest part. She had the names of villages and relatives from some of the documents that she obtained in America, but so many of the Polish villages had changed names during the many wars it underwent. Not to mention Anna could not read or write Polish. Thank goodness that Anna lived in the late twentieth century, and thank goodness for computers.  She found Polish Genealogy websites on the Internet. They were extremely helpful, and even had form letters she could print out and start sending to Poland. Little did Ann know that that was just the beginning of her troubles. Now, she had to find someone to translate the replies, and to convert US dollars into Polish money. Because of the Polish Genealogy sites, Anna found Christina, who lived in Warsaw. Christina was born in the USA, but her parents were from Slavic countries, so Christina decided to get her degrees in languages, Polish, and five other foreign languages. Christina moved to Warsaw and did translations for the University there. Christina was a language whiz, and very knowledgeable about Polish customs and history.


The Polish genealogy mailing list discussed many different subjects that pertain to all things Polish. Someone on the list was asking about the origin of a piece of amber jewelry that an ancestor had. They wanted to know what part of Poland most amber came from. Until that particular post, Anna was not aware that most amber was from Poland and the area around the Baltic Sea. She was never interested in amber before. She was more interested in rubies and precious gemstones. Anna’s Babcia always treasured her strand of amber beads, but Anna never thought much of that “brown” necklace. All of a sudden, Anna was curious to know more about amber. She began to think it would be nice to have a piece of jewelry that came from the land of her ancestors, a “piece of the land she came from.” 


Amber is the fossilized resin of ancient trees, which formed through a natural polymerization of the original organic compounds. Most of the world's amber is in the range of 30-90 million years old. Jewelry made from amber comes in several colors, including butterscotch, cognac, cherry, and green. It can be transparent or opaque, polished or rough, faceted or free form.  Many amber pieces have been carved and inlaid to make cameos. Sometimes, it even has a fossilized ancient insect or piece of vegetation encased inside it. Best of all, amber jewelry is relatively inexpensive.


Now Anna wanted some amber jewelry for herself.  She also thought it would be nice to purchase some amber earrings as a thank you gift for her Polish coworker who had been translating all those letters for her before she found Christina. She decided to ask her new found friend in Poland if she could recommend a place to buy some authentic Polish amber jewelry.  


Christina seemed delighted. In fact, she informed Anna that the very day she asked her, she had just gone out and purchased her very first piece of amber jewelry for herself. It was a green amber stone in silver pendant. She thought it was extraordinary that Anna had asked her on that exact day. She mentioned that she does not usually buy jewelry for herself, so it was a special treat. 


Christina lives in Warsaw’s Old Town. She told Anna there are many shops there that sell amber.  She offered to pick something out for Anna in one of the shops and send it to her. She mentioned that the amber and silver jewelry in Poland was less expensive than what could be found in the USA. Anna could pay her for it afterwards. Anna wasn’t sure if she wanted a more traditional necklace of beads, the type that her Babci wore, or something more modern. She started to look around the Internet, and found so many styles of necklaces and pendants, that she decided she might eventually have to have several. Anna sent pictures of a few styles that she liked to Christina, and told her to choose something she would like herself. She figured that anyone named Christina from Slavic background had to have good taste. After all, Anna’s middle name was Christine also.


Christina decided that the green amber pendant that she had bought for herself must have been meant for Anna. She said it was fate, since Anna had asked her about amber on the very same day that she purchased it. So now Anna had a “piece of the land she came from” actually purchased in Poland. What made it even more special is that Christina had worn it once already.  So, when Anna wore the amber, she felt as if she was actually touching her dear friend Christina.


And so began another chapter for Anna. So much had happened in the past three years. Finally, at the age of fifty, Anna had family, and she held a tiny piece of Poland in her hand. As she lovingly touched to precious pendant on her silver chain, Anna wondered what new and exciting things awaited her around the next corner.


About the author

Ann Christine Tabaka was nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize in Poetry. Winner of Spillwords Press 2020 Publication of the Year. Her bio is featured in the “Who’s Who of Emerging Writers 2020 and 2021,” published by Sweetycat Press. She is the author of 14 poetry books. 

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