“The psyche is not isolated from history, and psychology takes place not only in a small room between two people in two chairs walled off from the historical scene. History is in the room. And just as the psyche is situated in an historical present that trails behind it the roots of a thousand ancestral trees, so too does history have psychological existence. imperfect."―James Hillman
I knew that my Great Grandmother Katarzyna on my mother’s side spoke five languages (Polish, German, English, Ukrainian and Russian). She came to America alone at age 16, and lived in Fishtown. She grew vegetables in her yard on Cumberland street. I have a photo of her sitting in a horse-pulled wagon from when she visited Adamówka with my Aunt Munia in the 1970’s. She had many children, one of them my grandfather Kasimir, whose ring I’ve written about.
Besides my Grandmother and Aunt, the majority of relatives that were involved in my life were from my Father’s side. I’ll have more to say about them in another edition. For now I want to look at my Mother’s side of the family. We did not have much contact with them. My grandfather Kasimir died young. It seemed all of my Uncles, Cousins and other family had moved out of Philadelphia. Luckily, when I was in my 30’s, and thanks to social media, my sister eventually found a cousin of our’s, Łukas, who lives in the town that my photograph of my Prababcia was taken in.
It was a strange time in my life. I felt like I was falling apart in many ways. I kept up outward appearances, but looking back on this time, it was clear that I did not know what I was doing. I was going out too often for a man in his mid-thirties. Drinking a bit too much. I had lost inspiration for my work and didn’t have a vision for the future. I was still working through a rough break up, and I had no prospects for a serious relationship on the horizon. Mid-life crisis come early? It’s hard to say. I’d never done things quite in order anyway, so why not experience this universal trial a bit early.
“You have to know the past to understand the present.”—Carl Sagan
I still cannot explain where the drive to reconnect with my family and family history that I experienced at this crucial point in my life came from. It was clear to me that I needed to go to Poland. I first flew to Berlin, where I would stay with Roman and Trang for a few days. Next I took a train from Berlin to Krakow, switching trains in Warsaw.
I spent the night in a hotel in Rzeszów, and in the morning I took a small bus into the countryside. The bus drove for about 30 minutes through the potato, beat and grain fields of Podkarpackie. Ahead of us, I could see a young man waiting next to a makeshift bus station along the side of the road. I asked the driver to stop there. The name of the town, Adamówka, was printed in thick black letters on a plastic sign that hung on a bus shelter. The man who was waiting for me was Łukas, and we were about 30 miles from the Ukrainian border.
He had generously offered to show me the village and surrounding area, so that I could know the land and place where my mothers side of the family originated. We visited a number of homes and farms. The villagers worked the fields and many were barefoot. Wood stoves warmed the homes and provided heat to cook with. We visited the home where my great grandmother was born. In the adjacent field a man of 90 years chopped wood in the summer heat. He had a sleeveless shirt on, and wore heavy black leather gloves that seemed too heavy for his sinewy arms. He swung the axe with the vigor of a man half his age.
We called out to him and he paused. Lukas explained who I was. He invited us inside. Vodka and coffee were offered. I sat in the kitchen at a small hand made table. He put a kettle of water on a burner of the large ceramic stove that occupied more than half of the space in the kitchen. I showed him the picture of my Prababcia from when she visited Adamówka in the 1970s. He pointed himself out as the driver of the small horse driven cart they were in.
The next encounter I had with family from my mothers side was straight out of a 1920’s constructivist poster. Łukas and I rode bikes down the long roads along wheat fields. We see a man and a woman in their early 60’s working in a field of grain. The woman drove the tractor, while the man plodded behind throwing pitchforks full of grain into the wagon. She wore a long skirt and a handkerchief was tied around her forehead.
Łukasz called out, telling her that a long lost relative was here to visit. They stopped the tractor. They tell us that they know the name of Great Grandmother. They bring us to their home. We drank Vodka and ate kanapki on the porch in the still summer heat. Their mother, also in her later 90’s, remembers the day my great grandmother left the village.
Before I departed from Adamowka, Łukas took me to the cemetery to visit the graves of my great and great great grandfathers. I thought about Lukas, and how his experience was so closely knit with this land, these farmers and these graves. He seemed somehow rooted in it. I felt disconnected, roaming from country to country, unsure of what he was looking for.
Why did I undertake this pilgrimage? In the same way I wanted to see the inside of grandfather Karol’s bar in South Philadelphia, I wanted to see the land where my great grandparents and grandparents came from. I wanted to understand what made me different from them. I wanted to touch a piece of the sacrifices that they made for me, that allowed me to be in a position to take the time and effort to make a trip around the world. A trip that for them would happen only once, and would come at great expense and was filled with uncertainty. For me, I simply went onto the American Express travel site and booked a ticket. I brought my laptop with me, and was able to work as I travelled. These concepts were not intelligible to my relatives that left this village 100 years ago.
“It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to answer questions which fate posed to my forefathers and which had not yet been answered, or as if I had to complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished."—Carl Jung
The work is to uncover our pasts through that of our ancestors. To recognize history – both mine that I have directly experienced in the past 40 years as well as that of my relatives from the Subcarpathians which stretches back centuries. By intertwining these I create something new. I understand how to begin to reconcile the difficulties I had been through in relationships, how to better interact with my work, and how to become me at age 40, and not hold onto part of me that is from a time that is now past. By better understanding my family history, the roles and sacrifices of my ancestors, I can better understand my habits, opinions, morals and place in the world. I was able to confidently make decisions about what I wanted for the future and how I wanted my life to look. Perhaps I am finishing what my relatives in the past had left incomplete.
It’s not that we should be bound by tradition. Let us not be afraid to embrace new ways of thinking and envisioning the world, but as we do so let us not forget the past completely. Valuable information, however imperfect, has been stored there. We can decide what works, and what doesn’t. Our lives are an ongoing process, and we can create new trajectories, new pathways for our brain. It’s like reworking a painting or putting a new electrical system in an old, well-lived turn of the century row home. The marks and traces of the original remain, yet the structure of the building or painting is upgraded. We make the past our own.