I hated that drive. It took me 12 or 13 hours and by the time I landed in Lodz I felt beaten up and thrown out to dry. Speaking of Lodz, I had been there for the first time in October 2011 when I first met Alicija Janikowska Karpinska, my father’s oldest cousin, and her loving family. Up until then, I didn’t realize I had such kind relatives in Poland, and it made me feel less alone in the world to have met them. I had hoped to get back sooner, but was thwarted by a serious car accident in May 2013 that shattered my right ankle and broke my tibia and fibia in multiple places. It took me more than a year to recover from that, and then I had the misfortune of breaking my left shoulder in 4 places in 2014. Sadly, Alicja died last year (September 2014) and I cried and cried, knowing that I would never again be able to see her kind face. She had prepared a lovely traditional meal for me that fall, with pierogi, carp, beet salad, borscht, and other Polish delicacies. So seeing her son Tomek was a kind of healing for me. I told him of my regret at not seeing his mom a second time. He said he regretted not spending more time with her, though he did live with her and spent her last night with her all night. I wonder if everyone feels regret when someone they love dies. I thought it was only me, but I think most people don’t want to talk about it because it hurts too much. I didn’t know until the day I arrived whether or not Tomek would be able to receive me. He almost never checks his email (or perhaps answers it), and hadn’t answered any of the queries I’d sent. It was a last minute stroke of brilliance that inspired me to email his step brother Janusz, who just so happened to be visiting Tomek at the time. Janusz’ response rate is about 50 percent, but that was enough. He answered and said that he was visiting Tomek that day and about to fly home to Zurich. So it was meant to happen.
I only had a week to divide between Tomek’s extended family in Lodz and Lukasz and Danuta, my father’s second cousin in Wadowice. I wish I’d had more, but it was toward the end and I was limited by plane departures to Munich and then home. So I made the best of it. Tomek works for the transportation agency and is responsible for making sure pedestrians are safe. A big job. He is very responsible and worked till 7 or 8 the 3 days I stayed. One night we went to the Fabrica with his nephew Tomasz (his sister Hania’s son) and had a nice meal. The next night I had dinner with Hania, her husband Marek, daughter Agnieszka, son Tomasz, and brother Tomek. I had met this family once before and was very glad to see them. I felt like a guest of honor and was glad I had made the effort to come. I didn’t visit Danuta, Alicja’s only remaining sister (her youngest sister Grazyna died the same year as my dad in 2007). Danuta has serious alzheimers and didn’t know me the last time I visited, so it seemed a waste to try to see her. Apparently she is remarkably positive, a big change from her previous dourness. I spent one day looking at photos of Alicja and family and crying, remembering her kindness and wishing I’d known her much better. While looking through papers in one of her desks, I found some important documents and showed them to Tomek when he returned. One was a diary of his dad’s from childhood, and another were his mother’s reflections on her life. I also found an amber necklace that I had seen her wear in a number of old photos, and I put it on. I immediately felt that she was with me and it made it easier for me to cry even harder, as if she had me in her arms in a warm embrace. I cried till it hurt. It was cathartic and important that I do so, especially because I had so much regret about so many people who have died. Regret for not having spent more time with them, for not knowing them better. Some day I hope that I feel some measure of forgiveness toward myself about that.
Tomek was very kind. While he had little time, we did look at photos together one evening, and he made copies of ones that I wished to take back. I asked him and his sister about the amber necklace, saying that I wished to have something to remember their mother by. They concurred and I took it with me, wearing it while driving to Wadowice and back to Vilnius as well. I felt Alicja close at hand. Visiting Lukasz and his wife Danuta was another seat of the pants operation. Not that I hadn’t started early (I’d emailed them 6 months before, and every month since), but I hadn’t heard back from Lukasz either. Apparently Poles are too busy to respond to emails. I finally got a hold of Lukasz a few days before my stay, and drove down knowing that they were expecting me. I stopped in Czestachowa, the beautiful medieval town where the black Madonna had supposedly appeared in the sky during an invasion by the Swedes in 1630 ?? and kept the Poles safe from occupation, at least during that era. I visited the church and saw the mosaic responsible for the miracle (a priest was doing mass for a group of British tourists in front of the madonna), and I took communion in that moment for my own ailments and those of others: Margaret’s and Nick’s cancer, and my mom’s depression. It was a stately and impressive monastery, and I walked about the place in a kind of awe at the beauty and age of the art as well as its power. Later I walked down the main path into the town through a park with an observatory and old stone building ??, exploring the downtown before continuing on to Wadowice.
I had never met Lukasz or Danuta before. Lukasz used to visit the US in the 1970s, and my aunt Lucy (related to Lukasz by marriage, not blood) was very fond of him and had visited them 4 or 5 times. Lucy has since died, and I had always wanted to meet them. Also, their daughter Magda had married my cousin Paul, and I met her several times during their union. I had made up a story that they weren’t very interested in seeing me, as I was only the daughter of Lukasz’ second cousin. But I was pleasantly surprised. Upon my arrival they greeted me warmly and made sure I was comfortable in their spare bedroom, plying me with cold cuts and cheese and bread. I was thrilled at eating comfort foods and at their kind reception. Over the next few days, Lukasz and I talked about family history in the evening when he got home from work (he designs CAD drawings for an engineering firm) while Danuta tried to chime in (she knows very little English). I learned some Polish in the 3 days I was there, and the last day of my stay (a Saturday) they asked me whether I wanted to go to Zakopane or Krakow.
I voted for Zakopane, as I have such keen memories of my only other visit to Poland and the beauty of the place. We didn’t walk as much as I would have liked, but had a traditional meal at a ??? (traditional inn that barbeques pork) and walked up and down the main street. Danuta had a painful neck spasm and had been given muscle relaxants causing a bad stomach ache. I recommended probiotics and yogurt, but she preferred western medicine. We went with Anna, Lukasz’ niece (daughter of his brother Paul). I met Paul and his wife and Anna one night and we looked at the ancestry website together. Zbgniew, Lukasz and Paul’s dad, been instrumental in making copies of family members and giving them to Alicja to distribute to the American relatives. Paul had spent time making a family tree and giving it to some of the relatives years ago. I was glad to finally meet these people that had put so much effort into figuring out our ancestral relations. After our visit with Paul, Lukasz showed me their property and trailer on the edge of town where they had thought of building a house – it was a tranquil lovely place looking to the west in the direction of Bielsko Biala. I drove to Bielsko Biala one afternoon, the birthplace of my father. What a lovely town! Though Lukasz couldn’t remember the location of the house where my father was born (there is a photo of Bob and Zbigniew standing in front of the house), I enjoyed walking around the old walled city and imagining what it had been like in 1932 when my father was born. It had a large German population at that time, and apparently locals called it little Berlin. I think that may be why the old buildings still stand – very few places remain in Europe that were not bombed to smithereens by one side or another. I loved the fine architecture and stately bulidings, and imagined my father’s family on outings this lovely town. Driving back was very pretty, and I was distinctly aware of the rural lives of the guraly (“mountain people”). I got a bit lost and ended up driving through a very pretty ravine that was practically unpopulated.
Back at the house, we had tea and dinner and I told them about my day. Another weekday I went to downtown Wadowice in search of a good kremowka (a special Napolean-like puff pastry that Pope John Paul had reportedly adored). I walked around the lovely square and decided to tour the pope’s childhood home. In the past, people were allowed to enter on their own, but now they have to go with a tour and stay with the group. No photos are allowed. There were no more English tours for the day, so I went on a Spanish one. The group was Brazilian, and I did my best to read as many of the information placards as possible in English. I was deeply impressed by statements made by the pope’s high school classmates and others who knew him from Wadowice. My dad’s second cousin Witold was one such colleague and faithfully corresponded with the pope throughout his life until 2011 when he died. Apparently the pope’s mother died when he was young, and he often awoke in the middle of the night as a young boy to his father praying silently while kneeling at his bedside. They shared a room and the pope recounted that it was like living in a seminary. I guess he got an early start. I had been conflicted about the future pope because I disagree with many of the stands of the church on abortion, women clergy, etc. However, I appreciated his strong support and encouragement of the independence struggles waged by Poland and other countries behind the iron curtain. His strong support and physical presence in so many countries helped to topple dictators the likes of Pinochet. I took a sneak photo of his walking stick, more like a mountain climber’s ice axe. Apparently as a youth and young man he would walk untiringly in the mountains with very light clothing and little food. His ascetism started as a youth and never waivered. I was very moved by the things I learned of his life.
I didn’t want to return to Vilnius but had no choice as I had to return the car and fly to Munich the following day. Reluctantly I bid Lukasz and Danuta goodbye and drove back to Vilnius. I left at 8:30am on a Sunday, and didn’t encounter much traffic to speak of. I arrived back in Vilnius, celebrated by buying a cup of my favorite dark hot chocolate, and proceeded to the Rimi Hypermaret where I was to meet Silvestras, the conscientious guy who had rented me the Audi for 12 Euros/day. I hadn’t realized that I would be charged for going over mileage, and resented his vigilance about getting the speed camera tickets mailed to me. But we worked it out and left on good terms, and Skirmante picked me up so I could stay one more day with her. I spent the next day sorting through my things, and took a bus to the airport the next day. I never made it to ??, one of the oldest universities in Europe. I had hoped to go on tour but didn’t have time. I bid Skirmante thanks and farewell and flew to Munich. To save my friend the headache of driving 40 minutes, I took a train to Kaufering. It took 2 hours and cost 20 USD. Seemed expensive after the cheap transportation in Georgia where a 4 hour taxi cost 20 USD. I left my large pack and extra bag in the train station and walked to the grocery store. My friend Anne met me when I got back to the station, and I was grateful to finally arrive at a house. I settled in, put my things upstairs, and went for a walk in the forest nearby. The last time I was here it was a very quiet walk, but since then a road was built next door, much to my chagrine.