I’ve been through a lot in my time on this planet so far. Sometimes I feel like I have had more than my fair share of struggles and burdens and challenges. And then I think about how many have it so much worse than me, in this country and around the world, and I struggle with my old friends Guilt and Shame. Except for a few bouts of homelessness, I usually manage to keep a roof over my head, somehow, even if it’s with the help of a friend and their spare room. I may not always have enough food, or transportation, or money for >all< the bills, or enough to pay off the myriad of debts that is the American Way. I am privileged and blessed in many ways. But, not without a lot of struggle.
One thing I always seem to have, though, is resilience, and tenacity. I don’t give up. I have come close a few times, but I always talk myself out of giving up. And my friends are there to help talk me out of giving up as well. Good friends will remind you that you are a Queen, and an Amazon, and Powerful, in those times when you have forgotten. This too is one of my blessings.
It’s hard to say if I was born with resilience or tenacity, or if I developed it because of the struggles and challenges I have faced. Maybe it’s a chicken or the egg type of situation. Rising and surviving through struggles and challenges develops resilience and tenacity, if you let it. Or, you are born with a certain personality type that comes with the basic emotional and mental capacity for resilience, and the challenges of life strengthens that muscle. Or maybe, it is in the DNA, passed down from your ancestors who survived struggles, and so coded into your genetics somehow is the ability to survive.
When I think about who represents a model of resilience and tenacity in my life, I always think of my paternal grandmother, Antonina I only knew her for the first eighteen months of my life or so. She died at the age of 56 of a stroke. She was the last connection to the Homeland, Poland. She spoke Polish, and I never had the opportunity to learn it unfortunately, because Daddy had that New World Resistance to teaching his children the language of the Old World. I was the only one of my siblings who had any time with her, being the oldest, and we got cut off from our Polish heritage and culture when she died. But when I think of her life, the only sense I can make out of it, is that she was resilient and tenacious.
The story has changed some over the years, as family history stories do. It’s hard to know exactly what went down. And when Daddy died many years ago, we were still too young to really ask and inquire about his early childhood life fully, and get a clearer picture of what happened. And we lost the link to any of his relatives in Poland that could bridge the gaps of family history for us.
War does terrible things to families.
So, the story is: Grandma Antonina, who was a devout Polish Catholic, was forced into some sort of ‘work camp’ at the end of World War II. The family comes from the southeastern part of Poland, and towards the end of the War, the Nazis did grand sweeps through that area, imprisoning Jews and anyone suspected to be a supporter of Jews. Many people were killed, as we know. What Grandma Antonina’s offense was, I do no know. What we do know, is that while she was in that camp, she became pregnant with my father. And what we think we know, is that the man who impregnated her, was a Nazi Guard of the camp. Daddy was born on May 28, 1945, which is right when the War ended. He would have been conceived sometime in September of 1944. Putting all of that together, I can only assume that Grandma Antonina was a prisoner who was raped by a Nazi Guard, and Daddy is the child of rape. We don’t know any of that for sure, and we don’t know who Daddy’s father was. We do know that our last name is the maiden name of Grandma Antonina, as she never married.
Now, when the War ended, she was released from the camp, as the story goes. And with newborn son, she awaited passage to America on a ship. It took five years, and they came through Ellis Island in 1950. Daddy was 5 years old. Grandma Antonina was 38 or so. What they did, or where they lived, those 5 years is a mystery. Apparently there were some relatives in Chicago who helped her get here, and set her up with the job managing a tenement house in the Iron Bound section of Newark, NJ, the Polish neighborhood. Poles were frowned upon, and mocked for being stupid. You don’t here much of that kind of ethnic prejudice these days, but I grew up with the idea that being Blonde and Polish were two strikes against me as far as intelligence goes. Well, I sure did prove that assumption wrong, hah!
So Grandma Antonina raised Daddy as a single mom, new-to-the-county, foreign-language speaking, immigrant. I don’t believe she ever learned English very well. And she worked full-time, managing this apartment building. Daddy was a ‘latch-key kid’ at a very young age. He went to good Catholic elementary and high schools. He was smart and did well in school, and he was resourceful and had a job as a paper boy from a young age.
When I try to imagine what Grandma Antonina went though, and how she survived all that, and the harassment and severe challenges of her life, the only words I can think of to describe it are Resilience and Tenacity. She made it through some sort of internment which included likely rape, relocated >countries<, raised a child on her own in a new country and with a language barrier, held down a full time job, and made it through. It’s no wonder she died at a young age. Nevertheless, she persisted until that point. And raised a caring, loving son in the “Land of Opportunities”.
There’s a sweet old black and white snapshot in which I am a baby in a stroller, surrounded by my young mother on one side, who is pregnant with my sister, and Grandma Antonina is on the other. We are on the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral. I love that photo: Mom with her bob flip and cat-eye glasses and round, pregnant belly. Grandma with her sensible shoes and thick calves, her printed dress cinched in at her think waste. I think of her stern Polish face with its closed-mouth grin, and I long to hear her stories. I long to know what her answer would be to the question, ”Grandma, how did you do it?” When I call out to her across the veil and ask her, the response is that you have to be Resilient. Be like the tree that bends in the wind. Be like the stream that flows around the rock. Don’t give up. Hold on. Hold on to hope. Be tenacious. Tenaciously pursue your life, one obstacle after another.
And so, I do.