At this time of year, I like to reminisce about my ancestors, especially the ones I never met. I enjoy wondering about those sturdy peasants from a partitioned Poland, brave people whose blood flows through my veins. Imagine what guts it took to get on that boat with no money, no certainty, without knowing a word of English, but filled with the hope of a better life. Incredible.
Not that they were all saints, however; family lore describes their departures as somewhat hurried, with the exact details now delicately shrouded. I’m just eternally grateful they left; I wouldn’t have looked good in a Russian hat, or under the heel of a Nazi boot.
But this is not to say that Poland itself was altogether abandoned during my ancestors’ passage to America. Not at all. Once here, there were solid attempts to have it flourish in the safety of the New World. For example, at my old parish, St. Valentine’s, the Felician nuns tried to teach us the rudiments of Polish vocabulary and grammar.
The sisters told us it was an attempt to sustain Polish culture, but the older kids at school insisted they were teaching us kindergartners Polish so that the U.S. government could use us as spies in case war broke out with Russia, (a real possibility back then in the late ’50s).
I was ready to do my part behind the lines in Eastern Europe if the call came; luckily however, my older brothers stepped in and advised me to “smarten up.” Always good advice.
Whatever the reason, by second grade the entire effort at Polish was abandoned, and assimilation came into vogue. So my studies came to an abrupt end, and to this day my vocabulary is limited to a very few non-essential words and phrases, such as dzien dobry (good morning), piezina (comforter), and pierogi (pierogi).
But our complete lack of understanding never deterred the good sisters from carrying on another tradition through us: that of the Kolendy (The Polish Christmas Carol). Our aforementioned language training left us kids with at least a working knowledge of how the Polish alphabet sounded. Problem was, even though we could pronounce the words (sort of), no one ever bothered to tell us what the words meant. So we mostly just sang phonetically, making up in enthusiasm what we lacked in understanding.
It’s not as if we were totally in the dark, since we knew a few words and could use context clues to figure out the rest. If Boze meant God, then Syna Bozega was probably Son of God, a phrase that showed up a lot in Christmas songs. Marya was obviously Mary, and Bethlehem sounded the same in both languages. If you had a good enough imagination, the songs came together in your head, if not exactly as written.
Somehow the proper feeling took hold, and for about three weeks each year I felt a special kinship with all the family members that lived many generations before.
So when I’d sit back and belt out a few of these standards during midnight Mass, I’d imagine my grandparents singing these same songs back in Poland more than a century earlier.
I’d wonder what they dreamt about on those poor, snowy Christmases in what would become known as the Old Country. Did they dream about America and what they would accomplish once they came here? Did they dare to imagine the blessings their children’s children would find? Did they ever think they would have a grandson they would never meet who would keep the memory of their dreams alive? I like to think they did.