Emigrants & Immigrants: My Paternal Grandparents



Paweł Banas and his father watched from behind a tree. It wasn’t his family’s land, it wasn’t his family’s lake but they were his family’s ducks, if ducks could belong to anyone. And when he and his father saw the Russian soldiers shooting them he knew it was time to leave for America.

There wasn’t an eligible bachelor left in Sandomierz that Mary Szata had not refused. As punishment for her recalcitrant ways her landed family sent her abroad to the newish world of America. There she lived the rest of her days, missing Poland terribly.

How they came to be man and wife I don’t know.  Perhaps, there are documents, fading as I type this, that detail their union. Their last surviving child, my aunt Mary, is 95 years old, at an age when, as my cousin said, “memories become more a source for comfort than facts.”

I wonder why I am so interested in people I never met. Yet, I’ve always been like that. Am I looking for comfort in facts and memories or to elide them in stories?

What is a memory, but an emigrant, an immigrant traveling from somewhere or another to somewhere else or another in the great, domestic, international, dialectic clash of thesis and antithesis, the here and the there to form the now which, sooner, or later, if its lucky, lives forever, or as long as well can tell, in memory?  What did the soldiers do with the dead ducks? Did my great-grandparents regret exiling their daughter?

I don’t know. I could make up a story from those two sentences and argue fiction is greater than truth, but it might be best to let them wander like the Truth. Sooner or later, Truth finds a home.

Family Figments 1

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My grandma had a stroke was I was 8. After that she slept in a hospital bed downstairs in the converted dining room. We never went upstate that much and didn’t stay too long when we did. Something always happened that shortened our stay. A fight. An argument. Not that we we’re just in and out but we never stayed long as we intended, or my brother and I had hoped and always left when we had to “get our stuff together”. A few months after the stroke Nanny moved in with my grandparents for good to help her sister and my grandpa. Nanny was my aunt. Technically my great aunt, and she knew how to time things, so she could have a big bag of food, poppy seed rolls, fried chicken, cinnamon bread, candy, and cookies just waiting by the door ready to go. Her timing was impeccable. She was my grandma’s oldest living sister. And she wasn’t one of those people you want to meet in heaven, she was one of those people you want to bring back to earth. Her life was a like a light left on in the kitchen late at night, over the stove, the one you see when you’re walking up the hill at 3 in the morning and the snow’s falling and the temperature feels colder than it is because you don’t feel as drunk as you really are and you just have to get home. Things come to your memory at times unexpectedly, apropos of nothing. Things like that light and the smell of the kitchen and her shuffling around as she got older and my grandma died, and my grandpa died, and she lived alone in the house. By then my old man died and we could visit Nanny whenever we wanted. I still walked timidly through the dining room into the living room and would looked over hesitantly to where the bed was, feel guilty about feeling scared of my grandma when she was sick. But Nanny had outlived them all, all her generation, her sisters, her cousins, her friends. She still gave us food for the ride home, though not so much as before, and once on the road we’d ask each other if we could remember all those other return trips when we couldn’t wait to dig into the goodies and then we’d dig in. Now I live where it’s mostly warm, and hardly snows, and people mock each other when it does. And I never even drink anymore. But I keep a light on in the kitchen.