My Polish Family

My dad never talked much about his origin family. His mother was, in his words, crazy, and we had little contact with his three brothers. What I knew about my father’s family fit into a 2X2 inch cube.

We know volumes about my mother’s family, the big South Side Chicago Irish clan she spoke of frequently. We sometimes gathered with them as a family for holidays and funerals, my aunt with her four kids and mom with her five, sometimes an uncle who had six kids would come along. I have vague recollections of them, not strong connections like I’ve seen in other families. I knew they were there, they grew up and went their separate ways, our parents died and we stopped having gatherings. Except for our parents’ funerals.

Tim gave me a subscription to Ancestry for our anniversary this year, which coincided neatly with the beginning of our lockdown. I’m like an addict now, scrolling and gathering and connecting and mapping our family back up the family tree and out to vast stretching branches. Because we come from a long line of Good Catholics, families consisted of 11, 16, 9 kids until my mom’s generation, which produced on average a measly 5 kids. So many people to research. It’s my favorite video game.

My paternal grandfather grew up among 14 siblings in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I didn’t know his first name or my paternal grandmother’s until I was almost 40. My maternal family names were talked about so often they ring in my head like the Sunday liturgy. Paternal grandparents didn’t exist in my childhood outside the scoffing, dismissive mentions of Grandma in Milwaukee and her crazy ways.

Researching my dad’s family has given me even more names and faces than I ever imagined. There are great-aunts and uncles, first/second/removed cousins, and big neighborhoods where they all lived close to each other. There were divorces and remarriages, step-siblings and long-distance moves across the country. It looks like a helluva party from here, something I always wished for as a kid.

one of my favorite relatives of my mother’s, the one person who smiled in every photograph when everybody else scowled.

But there aren’t many pictures of this side of the family. Mom’s family is well documented in pictures, with images of people who were born as far back as 1842. But Dad’s side, the Russian/Polish families of Milwaukee, are still invisible, the only photos being pictures of headstones. I have seen one photo of my father’s mother, and I’ve never seen a photo of my father’s father. I don’t know what they looked like.

It makes sense, economically speaking. Mom’s family were landowners in northern Illinois back at the beginning of the 19th century, and built a small body of wealth among the family members. They established economic footing well before photography was invented, and could afford to have pictures taken in the early days. My father’s family arrived in the U.S. later, and were struggling to survive when photography was becoming widely available.

In my mother’s family, I know about the deep dimples, the blue eyes, the stubborn vein of red hair that ended with my mother, occasionally appears as natural summer highlights in my half-Asian daughter’s nearly black hair. (I’m happy to say that my kids and my sister’s have increased diversity in the family in one fell swoop; finally, not everybody is white!) But my father’s family traits are still a mystery to me.

Late in his life, my father made cryptic comments to my sister that I had traits similar to his mother’s. He inadvertently piqued my curiosity about this family he closed the door on all those years ago. I’d like to see something of her, or of my grandfather, just a photo that might give a hint about where I came from. I recently learned that my grandfather was an accomplished pianist. I want to know more!

I’ve had strangers stop me to say I have “Irish eyes”, but what of my Polish and Russian genes? I don’t know what I’m missing.

I like a good mystery, and finding clues every night fuels my ambition to learn more. I am determined that future generations will be able to find information about me and my family, and see photos of what we all look like now, and how we stayed connected. So I take pictures, and leave notes, and will bind together materials for the kids to use when they get to be my age and curious about the family they never knew. Then they can discover where that streak of red hair comes from, or the dimple in the chin, or the strawberry-shaped birthmark on the nape of everybody’s neck.

Maybe by then I’ll know more about my Polish and Russian family. They seem like good people, and I want to know them.