Psychosávvaton, ‘the Saturday of the Souls’ of the feast of Pentecost is coming up this week, and so I am thinking of my ancestors…
love (n.), pleasant (adj.), mercy (n.), merciful (adj.), gracious (adj.)
My family is one hundred per cent Polish by nationality. My father’s father, Kazimierz Górny, immigrated to America from his birth place on a royal estate in the Grand Duchy of Poznań, a province of the Kingdom of Prussia, sojourning a while in Hanover, and then departing from the Free City of Hamburg, via ocean liner to New York City, in 1902. My father’s mother, Zofia Pokrzywa, immigrated in the same era from a country estate of a landed gentry family in the Kingdom of Galicia, a crown land of the Austrian Empire. We don’t know (yet, but I’m working on it) the exact year of her immigration, or her point of departure, only an apocryphal legend that she and her sister were spirited away by their uncle, after their parents were killed and their estate plundered by angry peasants.
Two things stand out to me about these parents of my father. They were merciful and gracious. Yes, they were other things too. They were both educated, speaking English fluently before they ever arrived in the New World. Casimir (the easier-to-pronounce German version of his name) was an entrepreneur and a man of many talents. Trained in ‘Kolonialwaren’ (import of consumables, retail and wholesale), he had a keen business sense, transferable to other fields. One of his first jobs in America was real estate development in the Florida panhandle. His unwillingness to pay his black employees less than his white caused him to be blacklisted by other bosses, who forced him out. He went north to Chicago and started a building and loan association. Zofia, my grandmother, did volunteer work helping other newly arrived immigrants who couldn’t speak English make the adjustment to living in America. Merciful and gracious, my paternal grandparents were quiet about their philanthropy, but they were the model for their children and grandchildren.
Though I spoke Polish as a young child, I only read it now. Growing up in America where one is free to choose absolutely everything about oneself, even religious and ethnic affiliations, I found myself on an eastward course, migrating to Orthodox Christianity and Hellenism as a young adult, and raising my own family within that environment. Now, with everyone ‘grown up,’ even me, I find that returning to my roots gives a finished touch to my life. I appreciate my ancestors, and their virtues and example, much more. I had to make ‘the journey out and in’ to arrive on my own at the same place that they perhaps arrived on their own. Due to an unusually wide generational gap between us (my grandfather Casimir was seventy-two when I was born) I didn’t have the benefit of watching and learning from him and my grandmother. Nevertheless, there was something that was passed down through my parents’ generation to mine, and I hope it continues to pass down, however it happens, whether it’s part of a temperament rooted in genetics, upbringing, or faith.
The Polish words I wrote at the beginning of this essay are a meditation of mine, something that came to me as I did my chores today, thinking of my ancestors. My mother’s family name was Milewski. It is spelled with a different ‘L’ than the words above, but I like to think it is still somehow related to these words in meaning, and that’s how my meditation started. I was thinking of my other grandfather, Paweł Milewski. He had perhaps more humble beginnings than Casimir and, coming from the Russian dominated heart of Poland, had a more gentle, resigned spirit, quiet, sensitive, yet artistic and innovative. He was a craftsman in wood as Casimir was, and they often visited together in his home workshop in the basement. Down there he also had a little sleeping cot, where he would retreat when the hustle and bustle of daily life got too much for him. Both physically and spiritually, I resemble him most, even though I never had a chance to know him either. When I think of him, all those Polish words come to mind, the ‘M’ words, all meaning love in manifestation.
One more memory. My other grandmother, Maria Kozińska, who made her house part museum, part menagerie, a collector of the latest inventions, the rarest tropical birds and exotic dogs, proud of her (possibly imagined) upper class Warsaw background, yet humble enough to labor obsessively in her garden and raise her own chickens and geese so she could prepare the family meals according to her own illustrious tastes.
One night, my older sister and I stayed overnight at her house. Grandfather was asleep in his tiny bedroom (or perhaps in his workshop below). Busia (our affection name for our grandmother) tucked us both in a small bed hidden behind the wall of the kitchen, in the back porch actually, though it was enclosed and had a glazed window. Everyone had been in bed asleep for some hours. In the pitch black darkness, I felt myself suddenly nudged and awakened by my sister. Busia was there, leading us by the hand back through the kitchen and into her tiny bedroom. The room was so small, there was nothing in it but her bed. She tucked us in carefully, kissed us good night, and disappeared. The night was so cold, she was afraid for us, and traded places. We didn’t see her sleeping in the back porch, because she was up long before us preparing breakfast, but we knew that’s where she had slept. Matter-of-factly and firmly, but still mercifully, she too delivered the message of love to us.
Love, mercy, gentleness, affirmation demonstrated by a kiss lightly laid on a sleepy head, by a quiet prayer reverently recited, unafraid to love unconditionally, providentially, even passionately, but pleasantly, how little energy this takes, how easily it flows out of our hearts and souls when we let it, how naturally it saves us and welcomes us into the Kingdom of Heaven, yes, how effortless is the way of Him who says, ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:29).