When my mother died a number of years ago, I was the recipient of a large box of old family photos and record-keeping papers that I had never seen. There had been a lot of tragedy in my mother’s side of the family, both her mother and father immigrants to New York City from Poland in the early 1900′s. I never knew my grandfather, he dying when my mother was one years old, leaving my grandmother to raise my mother and seven older siblings on her own through tumultuous years and through the remnants of the Great Depression.
My grandmother came to live with us when I was ten, moving from a small tenement apartment in NYC where she lived with a lone surviving son, my Uncle Eddie, and his family. We ourselves had moved upstate from a city apartment to my parents first real home..the pride of home ownership that included a bedroom for Nana and a new life living with her daughter (my mother) and our family.
Nana was quite strict and yet loving, but she could often be heard through the door of her room in the quiet afternoons, crying and saying the rosary. She was sometimes a trial for my brother and me, at times threatening harsh discipline for our honestly small misbehaviours, yet she had her place of honor and respect at the dinner table and we were family.
She was “old” (so I thought then) when she came to join us, and that is the way I experienced her although she was beautiful for her elder years and always elegantly stylish in her dress, taking walks around the back yard, steadying herself with a fine shiny black cane for balance. She was dignified and she was proud and capable of laughter.
But being young myself, growing up in the youthful self-focused way of youngsters and teenagers, altho she was with us every day I never really knew her, except as “Nana”, yet always hearing the stories that accompanied her and my mother, of family tragedies that haunted them both until their deaths.
One of the pictures in my mother’s record keeping box was an old photo…badly damaged by time and travels..of Nana’s wedding. Coming here from Poland at the age of seventeen to “look for her brother” who had earlier emigrated to NYC, she came alone on a steamship and passed through Ellis Island to somehow search the city for him.
There are huge gaps in the chapters of our family history and what happened when she got here is hidden in the mists of time. But she did meet a man, a Polish man I think, and married. He was not the best of the lot and died violently in shabby circumstances after fathering eight children, leaving Nana to the fates of being a widow and single mother of a multitude of children during the worst of times.
When I saw this picture, I was intrigued to see a grandfather whom I had never known, and more intrigued to see the picture of the woman who would later become my grandmother, who I would see as “Nana” as I grew up, but whom I truly did not know. What intrigued me most about this picture however, was the fact that in particular, it was her face that was most damaged in the old worn photograph and I was distressed that I could not see her the way I would have liked. Who WAS she?
And so, with the editing program on my computer, I started to slowly and carefully, as best as I can, try to restore my grandmother’s face so that I might know her in a new way..the young woman who came alone to this country from far way, who had a fertile if not disastrous marriage, bearing eight children, becoming a widow left to raise them on her own in the big city, working as a seamstress when possible to bring in money, and facing repeated tragedies… in time burying three young handsome adult sons six months apart, one taken away by accident in the military (lightning hitting an air traffic control tower where he was on duty) and two by separate unfortunate acts of violence as innocent bystanders…later losing a beautiful daughter to cancer and a daughter who went mad.
As I work to restore what I can of Nana’s hidden-ness in the damaged photo, I uncover a woman who like her children had the gift of physical beauty, one eye the prototype of the family “beautiful” eyes…perhaps green or hazel… full passionate lips, a strong jaw for fortitude and inner strength yet smoothly rounded for the soft tenderness of motherhood for it was said that she was a wonderful mother through it all.
I am connecting with a part of my family history through the restoration of this photograph and coming to a new understanding of the tumultuous and often difficult emotional scenarios I grew up with in our home, usually generated by my mother’s grief and dramatic explosive tendencies, mixed with a gift of laugher in between. We have few stories from that side of the family except either “the tragedies” or the glorification of family members.
I have read that often survivors of the Holocaust who started new lives elsewhere after devastation frequently go silent in the storytelling of their past experience, and I do believe that the sufferings of times like war, the disastrous loss of one or more children through accident or violence way before their time, or the terrors of those who survived the Great Depression and its aftermath years later often go silent as well, though one can hear solitary crying behind closed doors during the dark hours of night or on an afternoon behind the closed door of a personal bedroom…there are secrets in every family and blank pages in every story but the truth of experience never does go away inside…
I am glad for this opportunity to restore my Nana, my Grandmother Marie and to intuit finally knowing her. A survivor.
***memories of bits and pieces of the family story have slowly surfaced as I wrote this essay. The tiny bit of information that my grandfather, Nana’s husband, had been secretary to a Count in Poland and fled to this country after breakdown of the nobility there. My grandmother met him while he was working as a laborer in a pocketbook factory in NYC to earn money. She herself was the daughter of a gentleman farmer. Her mother held a reading circle in their farmhouse teaching others to read. When the soldiers of the Czar (Prussians) rode in on horses, they quickly hid the books and took out their sewing and embroidery needles and hoops.
From Christine, the Greening Spirit