“I did not expect to be spellbound by vacated farms and weedy fields as our tour guide told us about the history of tenant farmers in Poland during late 1890s. Phrases like “potato famine” and “mind-numbing drudgery” brought to my mind my mother’s stories of my maternal grandmother.
The two hour drive from Krakow south to Zakopane on what is now Poland’s southern border went quickly. We were headed south toward the Tatra Mountains. My grandmother’s emigration took her north to Hamburg and from there to the North Sea. But I was so far from my own home in Minneapolis that the direction didn’t matter. The subdued voices of my 15 travel companions lulled me into a half-awake reverie in which Rosalia’s life and Rosalia herself came alive for me.
It was easy for me, the daughter of a great story teller, to put myself in my grandmother’s place. My mother’s stories (some of which she probably embellished for dramatic effect) still hold credibility as I research peasant life in Poland prior to WWI.
This, then, is the emigration story—part fact, part conjecture, all directed by researched accounts—of Rosalia Lukas Koziol.”
That’s the opening paragraph of my story of my maternal grandmother’s emigration from Poland. At 3000 words, I’ve a long way to go.
I’m finishing a four-week, on-line workshop with journalist Marty Levine through Creative Nonfiction Magazine. I’ve learned much about how to write this particular genre — not only what to include, but what not to include (i.e., my imagined “fill-ins” for what I don’t know; this is not fiction, after all).
But most of all, I’ve learned how little I know about my grandmother.
She died well before I was born…before my mother was even married. But Mom was a great story teller. I have many fond, clear memories of the stories she told about her mother. The challenge is that they are disjointed and incomplete.
So I’m immersed in research in an attempt to create a cohesive narrative. And while I’m having a ball with the research, everything I learn raises even more questions.
For example, vast numbers of eastern Europeans left for America in the first decade of the 20th century. But my grandmother lived in a small farming village several miles outside of Krakow. How did she get the news of impending war, of the Poles’ role in it? Mail, when it came, was slow. Newspapers were close to nonexistent. Government officials (and priests) were not trusted. I’m still hunting for the answers.
How did she learn to sew? I have photos of the wedding gown she made for herself two years after she arrived in Minneapolis; this is no new-to-the-skill seamstress. She sewed while growing up in Poland, but on what?
Family mythology taught me that she prepared for the journey and never told her mother she was leaving until the day of departure. Where is my grandfather in this scenario? More importantly, I find that solo departure story difficult to believe, given all I’ve learned about the challenges of emigration in 1913. Too much had to happen before she left and in a small, gossipy village, I can’t imagine that her plans would have remained a secret.
But my biggest question is this: Why, instead of rolling my eyes with boredom over stories I’d hears dozens of time, did I not dig deeper and find potential answers?
Don’t let your own history go. Find aunts, uncles, neighbors before they’re gone and ask, ask, ask. And once you’re done that, write down what you’ve discovered. You’ll be glad you did.