When I was seven or eight years old, I noticed a signet ring my mother kept on her dresser. The ring stood out in heavy contrast to the delicate necklaces and earrings that she stored in the same wooden jewelry box. The ring was made of gold, and the initials “KP” were intricately engraved into it. The diameter of the ring indicated it belonged to a large man.
“Mom, whose ring is this?” I asked.
“That is your grandfather’s ring,” she responded.
“And the KP? What does it mean?”
“His name was Kasimir Petrowski,” my mother told me. I sensed in her answer that the mention of the name Kasimir touched a wound in her psyche.
I never met Kasimir. I’d learn later from cousins and friends that he was loved by many, and known in the bars of the neighborhood as a bit of an ass-kicker. He was wounded heavily in the Second World War. His destroyer was sunk during the Japan campaign and he was stranded for 12 hours in the open water of the South Pacific. It’s likely he returned home to Philadelphia with PTSD. He died when my mother was 10, leaving her and my grandmother virtually penniless.
When I asked my mother about the ring, I wasn’t aware of this greater emotional and historical context that the ring brought to mind for her. But I did know the ring possessed some sort of numinous quality. The ring and the name of my grandfather who I never met and whose absence would loom large in the life of my grandmother and mother, became a point of fascination for me.
Holding the ring in my small hands and hearing my mother say the name Kasimir Petrowski created an intense curiosity within me. The object seemed a sigil to me, one that hinted into a profound past and an alternative experience of the world, one that I knew I would not find in Port Richmond. The ring was also shrouded in mystery. It held questions about our family and our origins, questions that throughout my youth and teenage years remained unanswered.
Despite the effect the encounter with my grandfather’s ring had, for many years I forgot about it. As a teenager I was concerned with what most other teenagers naturally spent their time doing. But in 1998 my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away in our home on Belgrade street, just after my 18th birthday. She had promised to see me graduate from High School, and it was a promise she kept.
There are many terrible things about losing a grandparent when you are young. There are even more when you lose a parent. Among them is a connection to the past. Our parents and our grandparents, all our relatives really, are entire encyclopaedias, dictionaries, novels and history books all wrapped up into one. When we lose them so early, we are too young to know how to ask the right questions to uncover their stories and knowledge of the past and properly become stewards of it.
Why do we want to understand our origins? Any interest in our consciously experienced as well as the past beyond our memory, is often initiated by a traumatic experience or loss. The death of my mother sparked a desire to understand more about where I came from. To know more about my past, and the story of my family. To answer the bigger historical and emotional questions that I couldn’t grasp as a child. It was a way for me to recover lost time, to put pieces of my mother and the past that she departed with back into place.
In this process I would learn that I was also rediscovering myself. An attempt to reclaim my “thrownness” into the world and into the trauma of my mothers death. Instead of just being trapped where and when I was, I wanted to understand the past as best I could, and to take hold of the possibilities it presented and best face it’s concomitant challenges. This had to be done while being conscious of the fact that the past itself is not frozen solid, and that my present day understanding of the past affects it.
Investigations into deeper questions about our existence often begin with pilgrimages. Devout followers will travel to the birthplace of the Buddha, Christians in the middle ages sojourned to the Holy Land, Muslims undertake the mandatory Hajj. My first pilgrimage was far more modest. I headed to South Philadelphia, to the corner of 3rd and Christian streets.
I knew that I had to look back into time, at least the past century, and potentially further. My grandparents and great grandparents from both my mothers and fathers side had immigrated from Poland during the 1920s. I didn’t know much about my mother’s side. My grandfather had passed when my mother was still young, and had no contact with any of the nine brothers of grandmother. I had to start with what I knew, which was my fathers side.
My great grandfather Karol Smyrski opened a bar on that corner in South Philadelphia the day that Prohibition ended in 1933. He named the bar after himself, only in anglicized form. Carl’s Taproom became the life blood of the Smyrski family, employing my father, grandfather, and all of my uncles, aunts and cousins at different points in their lives. They owned and operated the bar for close to 40 years, most of the family living on the 2nd and 3rd floor above the barroom itself. By the 1970s, drugs and poverty had changed the landscape of the neighborhood, and they were forced to close the bar after a series of break-ins and hold ups. They sold the bar and the liquor license to a young couple, and moved to Port Richmond, the other primarily Polish area of the city. We heard a few years later that the man who took over the bar was killed in a hold up.
In 2005 I noticed that the bar had been unoccupied and for sale for some years. This was in 2005 and the real estate boom and gentrification had not fully taken hold of Philadelphia yet. Posing as a potential buyer, I called the real estate agent whose number was listed on a plywood sign bolted to the side of the building. I asked if I could have a look at the condition of the bar.
The marble had been removed from the facade of the bar itself, although the silhouette was familiar to me from one particular photo of my Great Grandfather and Aunt standing behind the bar. The Service Flag hung behind them, a blue star embroidered onto it for each of their sons that were currently in Europe and the Pacific fighting, one for my Grandfather and one for my uncle. I walked into the back room, where my Grandmother served roast beef sandwiches and beer out of a barrel to stevedores who walked to the bar from the docks at the Delaware river just a few blocks away.
While it was important for me to physically set foot inside of Carl’s Taproom, the place itself felt cold, like an archaeological dig of a city where only the barest traces of the former inhabitants could be found. The ring however was more like Pompeii. I could feel the form of the person that used to be there. While the bar had been stripped of the relics of my family’s presence, the ring retained Kasimir’s spirit.
This would be only the first stop on an ongoing pilgrimage. I would start at home in Port Richmond, hesitantly asking my father, uncles and cousins questions. I wanted to tie the story of the Petrowski and Smyrski families together. Two families that both immigrated from small villages in Subcarpathian Poland, to one day decades later have their children (my mother and father) meet at a newsstand at Bridge and Pratt.
I wanted to know more about the man who came from a family of farmers yet who wore a gold ring with his initials inscribed on it. To understand some of the experience of my Great Grandmother who spoke five languages and grew vegetables in her garden on Cumberland street. To understand the drive that took Karol Smyrski across the Atlantic twice, and to go from son of rolnicy, to a stained glass maker, to inventor and bar owner. Only in this way could I reconstitute the memory of my mother permanently, and simultaneously begin to understand myself.