What the Son Wishes to Forget the Grandson Wishes to Remember: Why Our Ancestors Didn’t Talk About Their Past (Me Too)

As genealogists and family historians, we often ponder why our ancestors didn’t tell us much about their past or the old country. Our lament as grandchildren is we neglected to ask our grandparents and parents questions about which we now care so deeply.

In my senior years, I now have a laundry list of questions that should have been asked. What were the reasons you came to America, what was life like in your village, how much schooling did you have, what did your house look like? etc. Oh, if we could only have them in our lives for just a week so that we could uncover all the mysteries and stories that died with them.

I “get it” now. If there is blame to be placed, it likely is on my shoulders. It wasn’t until I became an empty nester that I began to genuinely care about my heritage. My interests centered on me during my younger years, a common theme of those interested in family history. We probably sat on the couch in our grandparents’ living rooms just waiting to go home.

My two sets of grandparents were as different as could be. My paternal grandparents were kind and loving immigrants from Poland. The language barrier was intense, and almost all the words I heard were Polish. I would occasionally hear my name spliced in the conversation followed by a chuckle. But, I knew these two people loved me, and I remember my Babcia’s loving embrace. I could have asked questions about all the things about which I now care. I’m sure someone would have given an answer. These grandparents would likely have felt honored if I had cared to ask about their earlier years, but I didn’t.

My maternal grandparents are remembered as indifferent and cold to my siblings and me. The Reformation was still being fought in the 1950’s as my mother married a Roman Catholic and converted to that faith. It didn’t help that my father made little effort to be pleasant with them.

So, visits were sparse and uncomfortable, and I felt unwelcome. Friends are shocked when I tell them I never ate a meal at my grandparents, although all of my other cousins did. I recall seeing two cherry pies fresh out of the oven and commenting to my grandmother that they looked good. She snapped at me, “Those are for your Phillips cousins. They are coming to dinner later.” Even in my most generous moments, I can’t think of any excuse for such unkindness towards an innocent child.

I admit to being somewhat envious that my cousins can share affectionate stories about these grandparents, but mostly I remain indifferent. It would have been nice to have enjoyed a loving relationship with my Chapman grandparents, but that wasn’t my destiny. The end result is that I now have little motivation to write about them as their grandchild. Their facts and stories are still hidden away in my computer’s files waiting for me to make them my priority as an author. Their indifference about me gave way to my feeling the same about them. As my widowed grandmother aged, I had no desire to visit her. She will remain a cold memory.

I know enough about both grandparents’ histories to understand that they all must have suffered a great deal, but it is my immigrant grandparents whose stories I most lament not knowing. I had an intense desire to learn more and spent a year pouring over the microfilms of their parish to learn about their ancestors. A trip to their ancestral villages and the exceptional experience of getting to meet my Polish cousins followed this extensive research. That is how I discovered the stories that no one in America had known.

The most profound revelation from my trip to the ancestral village was about my grandparents’ motivation to immigrate. I had always assumed they came to America to make their lives better, but I was wrong. They came mostly for the benefit of the family they left behind rather than themselves. Both were the eldest in the family, and Galicia was the poorest region in Europe. My grandmother’s family in Poland still tells the story of how young Marya cried for weeks when she left the village in 1907 and was so miserable. As a fourteen-year-old girl who reported on her immigration documents that she was sixteen, my grandmother traveled as what could be accurately called an indentured servant. There may have been no formal contract of the indenture, but her parents found a wealthy Jewish family who brought her to America as their maid, cook, and nanny. She worked for them for several years.

My grandfather worked for Lord Hupka, the owner of the village manor in his village of Niwiska, as a gardener and he tended horses before immigrating as a teenager. While in Poland, I learned stories of his family’s heroism and persecution as slave laborers during the Nazi occupation of their village during WWII. The family in Poland was able to tell me much more about my ancestors than any cousin back in Ohio. We all just didn’t know the family’s history.

The Polish family who had been lost to me for about sixty years treasured the stories of these two immigrants. My grandparents never forgot their family’s hardships during both world wars and the Soviet occupation and sent money, clothing, and medicine to Poland from the time they immigrated until the day they died.

What if I, like some of my cousins, spoke some Polish and could then communicate with my grandparents? It doesn’t seem as though my lack of language skills much mattered. My cousins who could speak Polish know little more than I do about our grandparents even though several of them lived close to them during their childhood.

What if I was a “wise beyond my year’s child” who inherently sensed the importance of probing questions to ascertain their history? What would be a typical ancestor’s response? If our ancestors had led a pleasant life of relative privilege, they might be eager to share the stories of their lovely childhood, funny uncles and doting aunts, and memories of trips to the family farm in the country. But, the wealthy and privileged were not the typical immigrant, and most of us don’t descend from royalty. Europeans often left because of extreme poverty or persecution. The Europe of the early 1900’s was torn apart by war, and the lower class was most often the one motivated to leave.

Rare are the family historians who had grandparents willing to talk about their lives. Most genealogists report that their ancestors were hesitant to share much of anything of their past, especially those who were immigrants.

Marcus Lee Hansen was one of the first historians to explore “third generation immigrants” a group to which many of us belong. According to Hansen’s thesis, the first generation, as foreign born, maintained the language and customs of their Old World identity. Their children assimilated into the new culture and tended to reject the foreign ways of their parents. They wanted to join the American mainstream and deliberately distanced themselves from the customs and language of the Old World. It is the grandchildren who seek to recover the original ethnic identity. As I consider Hansen’s hypothesis, it is obvious that this pattern is a natural one as the second generation seeks to be accepted by the culture and country in which they were born. “What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember” is Hansen’s message.

Upon reflection, I wonder what my grandparents could have told me that wasn’t horribly depressing. I think of my grandmother as a fourteen-year-old girl who received no education and who was the oldest child with twelve other siblings all living in severe poverty in Galicia. She had been employed to work in wealthier homes as a cook and a servant before she came to America. It is likely she had few pleasant memories as her family’s circumstances prevented her from experiencing a real childhood. Her life was filled with caring for younger siblings and working on the small farm while observing death, poverty, and oppression in her small village.

Even with this depressing background, my grandmother didn’t want to leave her village or family in Galicia. The burden of the family’s future was placed on her shoulders at such a young age. It was expected that those privileged to go to America would provide for those left behind. It wasn’t long after she left that the doors to immigrate to the USA were closed to many immigrants. My grandparents’ younger siblings were “trapped” in Poland after WWI and likely envied their older and more prosperous American relatives.

I imagine my grandmother’s most vivid memories were the faces of her loved ones as she left on that cold day in November 1907. The tears and fears must have been on everyone’s face as she kissed them goodbye, knowing she would never see most of them again. Only one sister, the second oldest child, also made it to America. The hole in my grandmother’s heart likely never healed as she thought about her family’s safety and health during two world wars, the worldwide depression, and the Soviet occupation in 1945. The Germans and the Soviets made any communication sparse and somewhat general as all letters were read by these occupiers. Only one letter survives, and I was struck how little of importance was communicated, beyond general statements and the weather. It is likely that recent immigrants from the region or people who had visited were the best source of family news.

I now try to understand better why my grandparents didn’t relate much of their history. They likely reminisced and spoke with their siblings and other first generation immigrant friends who shared their past struggles. The second generation who lived during the Great Depression and WWII didn’t share their parents’ dedication in caring for the family in Poland. I can understand why my father may have possibly resented his parents’ insistence that he hand over his earning selling papers on the street when he knew that some of that money was going overseas to “relative strangers.” The second generation lived and worked outside the ethnic neighborhoods and didn’t want to be perceived as backward immigrants. Their ethnic pride was reserved for those who shared their heritage. Ethnic and religious tensions were probably much more intense in those days amongst groups who had more in common than they had differences.

Although it was never my intention, my grandparents were likely embarrassed about their limited English skills and education. Their grandchildren were one of the few groups that presented a challenge in communication. Their world was one where they never had to leave their neighborhood as the priest and nuns, doctors, store owners and neighbors spoke Polish.

I was the first grandchild to graduate from college, and I hope they felt only pride that it took only six decades for their family to see that their grandchildren achieved this American dream. Still, I can relate to their hesitancy to communicate with a more educated person as I still quiver in front of the elite and erudite.

I also consider that these wiser people knew that I didn’t have the maturity or capacity to appreciate what they could share about the past. What would their granddaughter think if told of real starvation, poverty, persecution, and beatings? They knew I had no experiences with oppression and these topics are often too brutal to share with children. So, they smiled, hugged and fed me.

Now I have a great desire to know more, but my only sources are the random memories and learning of other’s life stories. I can only extrapolate bits and pieces to frame the few facts I have into a coherent story. Much of the information is fictionalized and told from a point of view that is not valid for my grandparents. They likely had little in common with a Polish person who lived in Warsaw, the wealthy Polish landowners, or a Jew from the next village. These are the people we read about in popular historical novels or observe in movies. Books are not written about a little Polish girl in a remote village of 2,000 who never accomplished some great and noble feat.

There have been others who provide insight into why ancestors don’t share much about the old country. John Guzlowski, a poet and author of numerous books, shares his parents’ wartime experiences in gripping and eloquent narratives. I read his book “Echoes of Tattered Tongues” from cover to cover in just two days and came away with a fresh understanding of why victims of atrocities often need to wrap their past in a protective cover. For decades, John had been writing poems about his parents’ wartime experiences in Nazi slave labor camps, and it wasn’t until his mother was in her late seventies that she reflected on his previous writings and said to him, “That’s not how is was.” John’s mother then began to share the truth, and John often didn’t want to hear the stories his mother was now determined to impart. I’m glad he did as it opened my mind to the realities others might be ashamed to share. Too real. Too intimate. Too raw.

I then ask myself if history always repeats itself. I haven’t told my children or grandchildren much at all about my childhood, schooling, dreams or life experiences, probably because I think I’m not exceptional in any way or all that interesting. Maybe that is the heart of this whole issue. Maybe that is exactly the reason my grandparents didn’t share their stories.

I have reflected on this omission. If my children had to write a chapter about my life, I am certain they would not be able to communicate the essence of who I was before they were born or details beyond those written on Ancestry.com. The reasons are the same as they were for my grandparents. We only tend to know people during the period they are in our lives. The younger ones are busy with school, and their parents are busy with their careers and family obligations. Our precious time with family doesn’t include a trip down memory lane but is instead filled with discussions about current problems, the grandchildren’s sports and accomplishments, parenting issues, and events pertinent to our current lives. These are all very nice topics that I care deeply about.

Thus, I have made a resolution to periodically write small chapters of my memoir, likely never to be published. My children and grandchildren and their descendants may someday treasure an insight into my life experiences and feelings. I have the privilege of telling my own story, and my descendants won’t have to rely on others’ less accurate and impersonal memories. Hopefully, one of my descendants will read it and consider that they share some of my traits and can relate to my feelings. Perhaps one of them will be grateful that I took the time to write about my life. Better yet, wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of my descendants made an effort to write their own story?

4 thoughts on “What the Son Wishes to Forget the Grandson Wishes to Remember: Why Our Ancestors Didn’t Talk About Their Past (Me Too)

  1. Very interesting read and timely for me. I am 50 and lost my mom 2 years ago. Last night I was thinking of my early childhood in Oklahoma. I have an extremely large family. I had this sudden radom thought–How did my mom keep us all from the heat and sunburn? I am sure we didn’t have air conditioning and I don’t think sunscreen was common. I do remember playing outside with my siblings regularly . It made me sad–the simplicity of how my extremely fair complexion was protected. I mention this to point out that the mundane events of daily life can feel like important treasures of nostalgia 50 years later.

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    • GracieMae, you nailed it when you said: ” the mundane events of daily life can feel like important treasures of nostalgia 50 years later.”

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  2. Wow. Your post has left me with so much to think about, and yet—so much is what I find myself going through. Here I am, grandparents long dead and gone, and I am ashamed that I never thought to ask questions about their lives. They never wanted to talk about the past, and I never felt curious enough (or when I was, not comfortable enough) to simply ask. And now those stories are gone forever.
    I like it and admire it that you have made the decision to be proactive and start penning your own history for your family.

    Like

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