My daughter loves hearing me recite her heritage – the many ancestors from many different countries that make up who she is. She talks often of wishing relatives she’s never ever met before (most who died before she was ever born) were at important family functions. And my own mom and her siblings marvel at just how both DM’s looks and her spirit remind them of their own beloved mother (I see the resemblance daily myself…)
My own siblings used to joke that we were ‘mutts’ – how else do you describe a background that includes French Canadian trappers, piously staunch Belgian and German homesteaders, and a dash or two of American Indian, English, and Dutch? Mix that with my father’s own Bulgarian and Polish family tree and you have an, um, ‘rich stew’.
We boasted of our ties to the Lewis and Clark expedition (some say we’re descendants of Sacajawea herself, while others claim the tie is to one of the lesser known travelers.) And we listened in awe to the stories and songs spun by my French-Canadian great grandmother (the one I named my daughter after.)
But when we were growing up, the one piece we wanted to discard was – of course – the Polish part. In fact, my baby sister used to claim that her brother and I had used up all the Polish genes by the time she was born. Polish jokes were all the rage; fitting into mainstream suburban midwestern culture was the order of the day.
Besides, we didn’t know our Polish grandmother – my dad’s mom – very well. Visits dwindled down to holidays and special events only after my parents divorced; even then, it was clear that my dad wasn’t especially close to his family and showed up out of a sense of obligation. So I can’t even tell you the name of the lacy fried cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar that she’d send us home with by the bagload, nor do I know just how she made the gwumpkie that my mother’s entire family raved about (and lamented the loss of same when my parents split up.)
I do remember that she was fiesty as all get-out. Played a mean game of euchre. Loved to crochet (both my kids have granny square afghans she made for them when they were born.) And embraced her Polish heritage, even while she’d wisecrack to her kids (or herself) when they were behaving in what she called an especially ‘polack’ way.
Or so I thought at the time, anyway.
In recent years, I’ve tried to pull in parts of my own family heritage and stories for my kids, even while I weave in tales of their father’s background as well (add a hefty dose of Jewish culture, along with Hungarian and a few other Eastern European genes into the mix, and you have my kids’ own ‘rich stew’.)
So that’s meant trying (and failing, mostly) to remember those French Canadian songs. Sharing the genealogical research my father-in-law painstakingly compiled. And perfecting my own gwumpkie recipe (my daughter adores stuffed cabbage, in fact); belatedly claiming my own Polish heritage as a source of pride, not shame.
I don’t get back to Michigan much, so I haven’t seen my grandmother in years. My dad’s not much for talking via phone, so I end up getting scraps and bits of family news from my sister (who has this way of dragging information out of him when she finally tracks him down, bloodhound-style.) She called a few days ago with the second-hand report: my grandmother’s now in an assisted living facility, and not doing well. She’s no longer as sharp as a tack; her fiestiness is pretty subdued.
My dad’s now her legal guardian; he’s been going through her house to close it down and pack things away. And he stumbled across some papers that undermine every single thing we ever thought we knew about our grandmother.
It seems that she’s not really Polish after all. As a result, neither are we.
Now, I’m apparently one quarter Russian instead.
No one knows just when she decided to perpetuate the Polish myth – unfortunately, we’ll never know why.
So I’m now Russian. Okaaaay – I can work with this. Borscht? Check. Vodka? Oh, yeah. Perhaps a distant kinship with Mikhail Baryshnikov? That’ll work just fine.
But I’m sorry – I’m not giving up the gwumpkies. It’d break my daughter’s heart…