On Sunday, my husband was working so my two daughters and I decided to dress up and go to church.
A woman from a mission spoke to the congregation about her recent trip to Mexico. I tried to pay attention, but also keep my older daughter focused on the proper etiquette of church and my younger daughter from hurting herself somehow, someway (toddlers have a natural talent for somehow trying to seriously damage themselves as soon as you turn your head to say one word to someone else, namely, their older sibling).
The main thing I learned was that the woman in front of us had a gigantic mole that she enjoyed picking at constantly (it was extremely difficult to ignore, the clicking of her fingernail against the scab echoed in the quiet church made me cautious and my older daughter even said something, "Mommy, why is she scratching her mole all the time?" but the woman still didn't stop), and that the missionary had lived for a time in a very violent city counseling poor women who were victims of domestic violence. "What did they do? They worked at it, it's all they could do. They couldn't afford to leave their husbands like we could if we were in the same situation." Thank god I'm not in such a situation but I have to wonder, what could those women do to "work on it"? What can that even mean?
After Mass, we stepped outside. I had by then already spotted several people in the pews who were Polish in our not-Polish town.
My suspicions were confirmed with two women. They stood in the shade of a tree, the older woman smoking a cigarette, both dressed fabulously. As we walked by to our car, I nodded to them and said "Dzien dobre."
They smiled and said the same, with a look and a smile. I knew the look. How could you tell?
In Polish, I told them I could tell because they were dressed so nicely.
They brought me into their conversation effortlessly, introducing themselves, one of the ladies telling me about her daughter, who coincidentally lives a block away from me.
The older woman wore a beautiful turquoise beaded necklace with a gold Polish eagle charm on it and rose earrings with the same materials. She was dressed the way I hoped I would know how to dress one day. I thought she was about 60 years old. It turned out, in talking to her, that she had lived through WWII. I hope to look that healthy at that age.
I had mentioned I was born in Poland and eventually, she shared that she remembered that because of the bombing in her city, Warsaw if I recall correctly, there were many large holes throughout the city where roads and buildings had stood before. Because the people were trying to clean up after all the devastation, the holes were used to hold trash and rubble people sorted through to try and find survivors and belongings.
She remembered a family she lived next to coming back to find their entire building leveled and a hole filled with rubble. They went digging through the hole, hoping, praying to find something anything of their life but found nothing.
These few sentences reminded me something I sometimes need to hear to be reminded of who I am, where I come from, where my family comes from. I am Polish. Polish American. We have overcome unimaginable trials and tribulations and come out stronger. That is what it is to be Polish American. When my daughters get older, I am going to remember this woman and this little story she shared with me and I am going to tell them this. I promise.
The conversation went on to teaching the children Polish and how difficult it is. That they will definitely learn English in school and with friends, that it is the parents duty to teach them Polish from the beginning, when it is easiest for them and able to be taken in by them as something naturally a part of them. Another lesson I knew but needed reminding.
The conversation felt so natural. And I know a large part of it was because the women felt proud to be Polish, Polish American, and that they knew it was natural for another Polish American woman to want to connect with them.
We all left for our separate destinations, having introduced ourselves and stating that we would all see each other next week for Mass and that perhaps we could all get together since we were all so close to each other.
This is the potential strength that Polonia could have. If we all realized and accepted that Poles should connect with other Poles, on the principle that we do have something in common, being Polish no matter how many generations back or the linguistic skills of one Pole versus another, we could do wonderful things.
I remember at my old job visiting a conference for Jewish people who were moving back to Israel. Being in awe that they were so organized, so supportive of one another. Entire buildings built and dedicated to their use, affordable classes for teaching the children their language, religion, culture, history. Classes for recent immigrants to learn English and find work and have a successful transition into American living. Information on various political candidates, both American and in Israel, so that the community can make well informed voting decisions. Classes for those wanting to move back to Israel, complete with resources for moving companies, what the legal details would involve, so much information that it was amazing right there for someone to just ask. Support for those in the local Jewish community who all lived around this area.
I remember the Greek community in our area also had this. Affordable Greek classes, information about living in Greece, support for the local Greek community. The same as the Jewish community has for themselves.
There were as many, if not more, Polish Americans in my old state. This was feasible. Some tried for this. But not enough.
I remember looking at the strong Jewish and Greek communities around me. And thinking, The Polonia could do this. But many, too many, don't. This is what my father has always told me, that if Polonia could tap into it's own resources, acknowledge that it is Polish, Polish American, what we could do as well.
If people in the media spotlight who are Polish American would embrace and publicly acknowledge that they are and publicly support the Polonia, this could be a turning point.
If Poles weren't like this.
If, as Classy Chaos reminded me (thank you), more of us were like the Polish Americans of Chicago, the Polonia of Chicago who embrace it. But here in the "sticks" as I call it, the Polonia seems silent. In my old state, out of over 7 Polish churches, 2 barely stand. There, the Polonia is silent, spread out, moved.
You are no less American if you acknowledge your Polish roots. You are no less Polish if you acknowledge that you are also American. You can be both. And you can do amazing things.
If you embrace both.