There’s something to be said for self discovery, but how far back in heritage can a person claim? At what point do we sons and daughters of immigrant’s past become American only? Even if we actively pursue our heritage, is it accurate to hold the identity?
A Polish-American in Poland: Warsaw Old Town
A few years back outside a bar on Stanton street in NYC’s lower east side, a fully accented Polish person we dubbed Underage Kevin due to his age-related rejection from said bar, laughed with condescension when I told him that I am Polish too. “You’re American” he said, seeming offended but in retrospect- nonverbal “offense” to an American is simply Polish indifference. Cultural intricacies that I, as an American, are not privy to. Pierogies and a love for dill on everything can’t make a person fully Polish, not even a Polish mom and doting a Polish babcha grandmother who taught me to tie a babushka when I was eight.
My babcha, Anna Barbaryka Maceyko
“Let’s have a Polish lunch” Grandma'd say from her small and colourfully decorated Pennsylvania kitchen, beckoning to my brother and I. Sourdough bread, various hard cheeses and cold lunchmeat (primarily pork-based) were placed around the polished oakwood table. We’d say a short grace the Catholic way and dig in. On Sundays, pierogies at the church after mass. At Christmas dinner, our then-massive extended family ate ham with potatoes then passed around the oplatki with honey. Walnuts were cracked for the new year’s good fortune and baskets were blessed every year for Easter. We grew up pretty Polish for an American family in Pittsburgh.
It wasn’t enough for mom though. She’s 2nd generation and afraid her heritage might fall victim to the alluring “americana”- the same fate suffered by our father’s Euro-Slavic roots. He claims they’ve been here since the Mayflower, and related to John Adams on his mother’s side. Is this true, who can be sure? We don’t know much about the immigration origins of our paternal lineage.
Desperate to keep our heritage alive my mother took me, aged 9 at the time to the Old Country. We visited our family’s potato and bee farm three hours from the capital city Warsaw close to the Belarus border. We took trains around the country, seeing museums and mountains and salt mines and little streets with little colourful houses. We ate potato pancakes with forest mushrooms and cabbage pierogies with cheese. We learned some Polish, although my mother’s Spanish fluency proved helpful on multiple occasions throughout our journey. We flew LOT Polish airways because the prices were reasonable then. Our family was sweet and kind and I'll always remember our time there as some sort of magical alternative reality.
20 years later still full of love for Poland and my childhood experience there, I’ve returned on my own as rather American adult. I'm tagging along with our cousin Ursula who grew up on that farm outside of Warsaw, and has lived in USA with my parents for years. She’s been such an important link to our culture and was especially patient while watching us kids as we were growing up. Now I've come along as an adult for the journey home.
Family bee farm, three hours from Warsaw near the Belarus border