A Call from the Ancestors: Roots, Family, the Land

My family's cottage in Korczyna, Poland

I'm working on a series of writings I am calling, A CALL FROM THE ANCESTORS.
With it I'll be addressing why I am inspired by the folk and peasant arts and traditions of Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Hungary. Why am I pulled to learn and experience more in relationship to my roots? Why does a place and a way of life inspire me so?

The following words came in a brainstorm as I think about this and begin writing.

- resonance
- longing
- roots
- family
- the land
- identity
- authenticity
- passion
- connection

RESONANCE: richness or significance especially in evoking an association or strong emotion

You know that feeling when something strikes you deep to the core? A feeling of recognition, attraction, intuition and knowing? There are moments in life when I've recognized this feeling.  I know when it happens and it is important for me to stop and pay attention. I do not know how this works exactly but I do have my thoughts on why it happens. Sometimes things add up and line up. Clear signs point you in a certain direction. I believe my ancestors have a hand in this, like they are beckoning to me, calling to me and I am following their lead.

LONGING: a yearning desire

My ancestor's blood runs through my veins. In my body there is genetic and a kind of energetic memory linking me back to the places where my people lived, loved, toiled and died. I am learning, teaching myself about the places and ways because so much was lost to me when my family became "American". It's a very common phenomenon isn't it? Immigrants come to the new world and and settle into new ways. They melt into the melting pot in order to work, raise families - survive. Yet our roots are left raw and exposed.  Some families work hard to stay connected to the old country, the heartland. And some families slowly assimilate to become more American. I long for a deeper connection with and understanding of the old ways.

My grandmother Stella left Poland for America in her early teens. She wrote letters to her family in Poland and even went back for a visit in the mid-80s. She spoke Polish but did not teach it to her children or grandchildren. She was always making and sharing Polish foods with the family: pierogi, golumbki, kielbasa, poppyseed roll. She tended her small garden and loved watching the flowers bloom.
My grandmom, Stella
My Hungarian great-grandfather George and my great-grandmom Angel were connected to their family in Hungary. George was born in America but went back to his ancestor's village to find his wife, Elizabeth. Much later he returned to visit his family a year or two before his death. When George and Elizabeth passed on there was no longer a strong connection between the families across the land and ocean.

No one is to blame. Times and circumstances change. I'm sure the politics of the time, WWII and then the cold war between capitalist America and communist Poland and Hungary, did not help to keep the ties strong for the next generations. However, one needs a place to grow, a place to settle and go deep, a place of understanding and connection with what came before. One needs to feel a connection with community, family, traditions, history, stories of their place and of their ancestors.

The writer, Wendell Berry writes about being a placed person. Perhaps the following words I found by Wallace Stegner can partly explain this feeling of longing I have. (This excerpt is taken from "The Sense of Place" by Wallace Stegner. Copyright 1992 by Wallace Stegner.)

"If you don’t know where you are, says Wendell Berry, you don’t know who you are. Berry is a writer, one of our best, who after some circling has settled on the bank of the Kentucky River, where he grew up and where his family has lived for many generations. He conducts his literary explorations inward, toward the core of what supports him physically and spiritually. He belongs to an honorable tradition, one that even in America includes some great names: Thoreau, Burroughs, Frost, Faulkner, Steinbeck – lovers of known earth, known weathers, and known neighbors both human and nonhuman. He calls himself a “placed” person."

"... if every American is several people, and one of them is or would like to be a placed person, another is the opposite, the displaced person, cousin not to Thoreau but to Daniel Boone, dreamer not of Walden Ponds but of far horizons, traveler not in Concord but in wild unsettled places, explorer not inward but outward. Adventurous, restless, seeking, asocial or antisocial, the displaced American persists by the million long after the frontier has vanished. He exists to some extent in all of us, the inevitable by-product of our history: the New World transient. "

"Back to Wendell Berry, and his belief that if you don’t know where you are you don’t know who you are. He is not talking about the kind of location that can be determined by looking at a map or a street sign. He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe. He is talking about the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons, valuing it for the profound investment of labor and feeling that you, your parents and grandparents, your all-but-unknown ancestors have put into it. He is talking about the knowing that poets specialize in."

I long for this knowing and by following a path of longing and resonance I have begun to make connections to a deeper understanding of who I am and where I come from. My ancestors call to me on this journey. The quest simultaneously connects me to the heartlands of Poland and Hungary and roots me to my home in the hills of New England. As I move ahead and dig deep many things appear, unfold, resonate and become recognized. Connections are made. A path continues to unfold with every step I take.

My father's ancestors were Polish and Hungarian people of the land. They were from the small villages of Korczyna, Poland and Harskut Hungary. My great-grandfather Jan was born in the thatched roof, white washed cottage in Korczyna, Poland pictured above. My great-great grandmother and Cocia, Aniela and Aniela, are photographed wearing kierchiefs and aprons on their land in Korczyna.

My great-great grandmother Aniela surrounded by her daughters, my great grandmother and aunts in Poland
Ciocia Aniela, Korczyna, Poland
My dad can remembers his Babci Helena's gardens in Philadelphia, where she and Jan landed with their children, one of them being my grandmom Stella, after emigrating to America in the 1930s from Poland. Jan knew that true wealth was having land. So when he bought his small row home he bought the undeveloped lot next door. This lot became their orchard and garden. My dad helped with the garden chores and fondly remembers his grandmother's raspberry jam.

My great-grandfather Jan
My dad with Grandmom Angel Repas and Babci Helena
My dad went on to college then the Air Force to become an airline pilot. His work was in the sky. My parents are not avid gardeners. Some pretty flower beds are tended to and the lawn is always mowed. We did not raise or preserve our own food. The pulse of my heart moved me to pursue learning about and practicing gardening for the sake of beauty and food. I woke up to this fact in my early 20's after university when I spent a couple years working on a large fruit orchard in Solebury, PA. The desire to connect to the land and work it is running strong in my blood.

I used to wonder about my obsession with gardening? Where did it come from? One of the most satisfying things to me is working in the dirt with the plants, flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables. A quiet day spent alone outside with the sounds of the wind and songbirds as my company is heaven. The making of beds, planting of seeds and removal of weeds marks the time passing. My feet connect to the earth, I breathe fresh air, feel the warm sun or the cool mists. While sitting in on a sociology class in Poland the professor lectured that peasants love the land more than anything. They have a very strong sense of territory. How can we not love that which sustains us? The peasants were completely and utterly tied to working the land and the land itself. Their work, traditions, symbols, stories, rituals, costume reflect this in a profound way. They were not separate. Life was not easy. There is a fundamental truth to living in balance with the seasons, the crops, the weather, the dirt.

Nowadays so much can get in the way of this truth. I like how the Polish author Wieslaw Mysliwski writes about our fundamental tie to the land in his book, "Stone Upon Stone":

"When death is staring you in the face even a college graduate becomes a person again, so does an engineer. At those times everything falls off life like leaves dropping from a tree in the fall, and you're left like a bare trunk.  At those times you're not drawn to the outside world but back to the land where you were born and grew up, because that's your only place on this earth. In that land, even a tomb is like a home for you."

Certain places resonate strongly with an individual. Do we remember things on a cellular level? Are ties and memories passed on from generation to generation through blood, DNA, spirit?  It's interesting to me that there is such a similarity in climate and landscape between Korczyna, Poland and Harskut, Hungary, the rural landscape around the Philadelphia area and even in Cummington, MA where I make my home. Rolling hills, green hay fields, wooded forests, distinct seasonal changes. I feel so at home in these places. They are familiar.

Outside of Harskut, Hungary

Village home and land in Harskut, Hungary

On the road between Krakow and Korczyna, Poland
Korczyna, Poland
I fell in love with the landscape around Krakow, Korczyna, and Harskut. The orchards there were full of plums, apples, cherries, walnuts, peaches, pears, elderberry. Most homes seemed to have a large garden with cabbage, potatoes, dill, currants, raspberries, blueberries, carrots, beets. At long last I met family and connected with them in such a meaningful way. They were wonderful hosts, so caring and hospitable, and happy to share with me their lives and lifestyles. My cousins Anna and Karol had their own large gardens at their homes in and outside of Korczyna.  They proudly showed me their garden plots and fed us the goodies growing there.

Anna in her garden harvesting potatoes for dinner

Karol with his garden outside of his parish house
Times have changed for my relatives in Poland and Hungary yet I can still see how their deep ties to the land manifest. Cousin Paulina gave me honey from her mother's hives. Her grandfather Roman shared homemade fruit wine with me in his home during an afternoon visit. In Hungary, my cousin Anci and her husband Laszlo have a large parcel of land a short drive from their home in another village near Harskut. Their parcel is full of wine grapes and fruit trees. Hungary is wine country. We spent a memorable evening on this land under a grape arbor with Laszlo playing the accordian and all of us singing and sharing songs. Tears were shed that night. The moment was so meaningful.

Me, Laszlo and Bencsi under the grape arbor

Hungarian wine grapes

Laszlo's vineyard and orchard
Roots, family and the land take on a deeply meaningful role. There is nothing like sitting around with one's family on a beautiful day, outdoors, enjoying company and literally the fruits of big gardens and hard work. Since connecting with my living family overseas and the land of Poland and Hungary, I begin to understand my family and myself more. My questions about who I am and where I come from are slowly answered. Still, I have so many questions and such yearning for further connection. This longing pushes me ahead and my ancestors pull me forward on a journey. I'm taking steps on a path where resonance unlocks the answers to many a mystery. 

I will explore these themes more in future posts where I'll write about identity, authenticity, passion and connection and how these ideas play out in my art practice on A Call from the Ancestors.

My Grandmom with my Grandmom Angel holding me as a baby in her arms