Growing up, I always knew Dad’s side of the family was Polish. I knew we had a special affinity for sausages and cabbage, that we called my grandma Busha and that we had thrown a party bigger than any Arrowhead Road had ever seen when I made my First Communion.
But I never knew much more than that until we lost her.
Memories from the day of Busha’s funeral resound so powerfully in my memory. Images of my towering dad and four uncles, some of the toughest men I know, sitting in wooden pews with clasped hands, bent heads, and red-rimmed eyes flash through my mind. A Polish priest crossing the air above her body, sounds of a Polish prayer that none of us but Busha could understand.
I felt something in our family change that day. Gone was not only my grandma but also the living link to our family’s past. I suddenly cared so much, felt so deeply the heavy weight of unanswered questions and untold stories.
I wanted to know why Busha’s mom had come to the United States from Poland. I wondered what it was like knowing that half of the family was trapped in a war-torn country; the other half doing their best just to scrape by in the new world. My heritage suddenly mattered like it never had before.
My freshman year at Stanford I lived in an African-American ethnic theme dorm where it seemed like everyone but me had such a tight grip on their ethnic identity. I remember feeling left out, caged into an ambiguous ethnic category of “White” where I felt I didn’t belong.
I wasn’t just White, I remember thinking defensively. I come from a strong family, from a land of proud people. Realizing that at one of the top academic institutions in the country random interests were mine for the studying, later that day I signed up for Polish language classes.
I’ll never forget that first day of Polish class. Hopelessly lost in a Stanford basement and unable to even pronounce my instructor’s name, I was woefully in over my head. But as badly as I wanted to give up when I couldn’t even say hi after 20 tries, something told me to stick with it. And as the weeks went by, impossible consonant pronunciations got easier, I became addicted to apple pierniczki, and two of my classmates grew into two of my best friends.
The more I rediscovered Poland the stronger I found myself rooted in my Catholicism, too. I learned that in the depths of Communist censorship, when the Russians only taught their language in schools and the only permissible religion was that of political ideology, Polish churches kept language and culture alive. Back when he was Karol Wojtyla, Blessed Pope John Paul II led underground education and religious movements in the heat of World War II terror.
I realized the incredible power that a united Church could have on a country. Knowing that my religion was intrinsically tied to the culture I come from made it all the more powerful.
My Polish friends and I often had cooking parties together as we sorted through impossibly long words and our long-lost heritages. Over vodka and pierogi we talked about when we’d all finally make our way to Poland, how great it would be. Junior year I finally had my chance. It really could not have come at a better time. Six months deep into a study abroad stint in Berlin, I was developing big holes in my heart where my family and friends from home were supposed to be. I ached for California sunshine, quality Mexican food, and familiarity.
After being near traumatized by the world’s smallest plane, the first thing I remember about being in Poland (besides my strong desire to kiss the ground in happiness that my fellow passengers and I were still alive) was how everyone looked like they could be distantly related to me.
Standing in the Polish baggage claim, scattered across the crowd I saw my round face, my dad’s full lips, Busha’s big blue eyes. I instinctively started playing with my small gold cross, and then suddenly realized how many crosses I spotted on the necks of people around me. After months of feeling like an out-of-place Catholic in Berlin, I had come home.
That powerful moment of belonging turned out to be the first of many.
I remember sitting in the pews of Kosciol Mariacki, Krakow’s biggest cathedral, for hours that first afternoon. The medieval church sprang out of worn cobblestones, hundreds of feet high in its Gothic splendor. I ducked through the heavy wooden doors into a sensory overload of smoking candles, sweet incense, and hundreds of people praying. I lit a white candle for Busha, watching the fire falter and then spark into a full-grown flame, nestling between all of the other lost loved ones. I collapsed into a wooden pew and rested my forehead on clasped hands; part praying, part sinking into thoughts I hadn’t made time to deal with in a long while.
And at some point in between pierogi and prayer, between coming to terms with a horrific family past at Auschwitz, and seeing the splendid glory of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa, I realized that I had found everything I was looking for. I always knew that learning more about my heritage would make me feel more rooted in being Polish, but I never realized how much more rooted in my faith it would make me feel.