The Grandmother Effect
Nearly a year ago, when I was feeling stuck in certain areas of my life, a woman advised me to plant a tree.
“Something’s amiss in your roots,” she said. Maybe so. But I live in an apartment in the middle of a capital city, so planting a tree is not as easy as it sounds. When I met her again some months later and hadn’t done the deed, she was insistent. “Don’t wait,” she said. “Find a friend, a good person, who will let you plant a tree on their land.” I weighed my options; I dragged my heels. Against all odds, a plum tree sprouted in the windowbox on my balcony. I told myself this was The Tree. But it didn’t feel right, hanging over the edge of a noisy courtyard nine stories up. Suspended roots were not the prescription, and I knew it.
While trying to decide what to do about the tree, I wrote a blog about the experience. A few days after I posted it on social media, I received a message out of the blue from a woman named Judith Mills, asking if I was related to Frances Konopka. “I am her granddaughter,” I replied. I might as well have said “Open, sesame” – such was the treasure revealed to me with those four words.
An author and journalist, Judith had been doggedly researching her family tree – swabbing DNA, poring over ship manifests, contacting potential relations. She was rewarded for her efforts with the discovery of her grandfather’s family, whose descendants were still living in their native village of Mrzygłód, Poland. Judith’s grandfather, Ignacy Żyglewicz, and my grandmother, Frańciszka (Frances) Żyglewicz, were brother and sister, and had immigrated (separately) to the United States around the turn of the century. The day after my contact with Judith, I received a message from Poland, from a young woman named Aneta, who asked if she could call me cioci, or aunt. Aneta said: “Mrzygłód is waiting for you.”
I remember precious little about my grandmother. I was barely 11 when she died. Most of my memories are like fragments of old home movies taken with the camera held low to the ground – the vantage point of my young eyes. I remember the stairs and red shingles of her house on Isabella Avenue, the old-fashioned black shoes that covered her ankles, the hem of her apron, the runners on her rocking chair. Hershey bars and 7-Up from green bottles in her living room on Sundays. Thick eyeglasses and a broad smile turning to me from the front seat of my father’s blue Ford Galaxie, her hand waving a dollar bill, her scratchy voice: “Take, take! Ice cream!” (“Mom, put your money away,” my father would chide her, to no avail.)
Language was a barrier. My parents spoke Polish sometimes to each other, but rarely to us kids. My father never volunteered much about his mother’s story, and frankly, I never thought to ask. She was Babci, a fact of life. She was my only real experience of a grandparent. She was the first person I saw laid out in a coffin.
Our relatives in Mrzygłód were as astounded to discover us as we were to find them. Correspondence with Frańciszka had tapered off in the early 1970s; Ignacy had been given up for dead – the family was convinced that his ship had never arrived in America. Yet here we all were. The family tree regained limbs it seemed to have lost, and we, the leaves and fruit, were recovered and rejoined to something greater than ourselves.
Last month I went to Mrzygłód to be with that greater thing. More than 70 people from the U.S. and Poland attended a family reunion organized by my cousin Beata Liszka and the other Żyglewicz descendants in the village, which sits along the San River in the southeastern tip of the country, not far from the Ukrainian and Slovakian borders. It is a quiet, green place of hills and trees that has reportedly not changed much in the past 100 years.
To begin the reunion, Beata spoke to us about our lineage. “This family has flourished by staying true to its values,” she said: “knowledge of our history, an open mind, and faith in God.” Her talk was followed by a special Mass in the village church, just a short walk away. The church was white stone with bright gold icons and vivid paintings of angels. It was cold inside. The rite was in Polish, of course, with a final litany that went on for what seemed like an eternity. I couldn’t understand the words, but some part of me recognized the prayer, trance-like in its repetition, the soft sung Polish syllables rising and falling. It was a memory that did not exist in my mind; I couldn’t grasp it like a normal memory. I could only feel it and be filled by it, flooded with sadness and strength and bodily knowing. The improbability and power of it made me weep. The surroundings blurred and only the sound remained, the people of Mrzygłód singing. A wave rose up through my feet, a sensation I have felt once before, when my mother died – the feeling of a change in current, unplugged or re-plugged, I cannot say which, like a huge wave breaking.
Luckily the chant was so long that this rapture had time to wind itself down, and I emerged into the early evening sun a bit stunned, but ready for the party. We feasted at two long banquet tables in the town hall: clear soup, kielbasa in many forms, chicken, various salads, a layer cake with colors like jewels. The vodka flowed. A group of local musicians played the night away in full traditional dress. The welcome was unstinting and open-hearted. What we lacked in common language was made up for with tears and embraces, dances, toasts, and songs.
At one point Aneta asked the grandchildren of each of the Żyglewicz siblings to stand up in turn: now Ignacy’s descendants, now Józefa’s, now Stanisław’s, now Frańciszka’s. My sister and I stood proudly when it was our turn. We all looked upon each other and clapped with joy and cried: all from the same blood, all from this village. Look at what our ancestors brought into the world. Look at us all here together. The plain delight of being who we are.
Questions and answers
Thanks to Judith and my family in Mrzygłód, my grandmother emerged from the shadows where she had been since I was ten, and took on fuller form. I now not only know where she came from, but have been there myself to walk the earth she walked and breathe the air, to witness the light and colors, to see how the moon might have looked to her, hanging in that corner of the sky. I have, if not a complete picture, at least a few clues about what she was like.
She was loved by her family.
She was generous. According to letters from her brother and sister-in-law, she often sent money and clothing back to Poland from the States. Once she sent fur coats, but the family would have had to have sold two cows to cover the duties, so they shipped them back.
She was brave. She was 19 when she arrived in Perth Amboy, New Jersey in 1907 with 10 dollars in her pocket. She returned to Mrzygłód, then made the westward crossing again in 1913, this time for good. She married my grandfather, opened her arms to his four children from a previous marriage and bore two of her own, and settled in Bayonne, New Jersey, a stone’s throw from Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, until her death at the age of 87.
Sometimes answers bring more questions. Why did Frańciszka leave Poland? How did she manage the journeys? How did she cope with the new land and language, with her name being clipped for American ears? Was it exile? Freedom? Survival?
I also wonder what I’ve inherited from my grandmother. At the reunion in Mrzygłód we all searched each other’s faces for resemblances (Yes, you have the same nose! There, around the eyes!). I found no doppelganger, and don’t think I much resemble Frańciszka, though in theory, a paternal grandmother shares 27% of her genes with her granddaughter, along with her X chromosome. There is also the Grandmother Effect, or Grandmother Hypothesis, which posits that a grandmother’s presence can positively affect the survival of her grandchildren, which may explain the existence of menopause, why women live beyond it, and why that’s important for the evolution of our species. My grandmother was present at the beginning of my life, but I wouldn’t qualify her as a caregiver – though care comes in many forms, and she may well have been of help to my parents in ways that were invisible to me. Perhaps my inheritance is not so easily quantified. But I can’t help peering at this figure, turning her this way and that to see where she fits in my life, where some piece of her appears in me.
I would like to think I got Frańciszka’s courage. Decades after she left Poland and headed west to the United States, I crossed the same ocean heading east back to Europe. The circumstances were certainly different; nevertheless I’ve had to learn a language, a culture, a way of life. People struggle to pronounce my name. Being in Poland, with its surreal, bone-gripping familiarity, I realized how much, in spite of my years in France, in spite of all the learning and adapting, I am still and will perhaps always be a stranger in a strange land, my survival antennae never quite able to fold into easy repose, always poised to decipher, translate, comprehend. Now I can summon the image of my grandmother arriving in Perth Amboy with ten dollars in her pocket. It gives me strength. Exile. Freedom. Survival. Some part of me has done this before.
On my last day in Mrzygłód, I planted a tree.
It was raining. Beata’s husband Andrzej put his shovel and big rubber boots in the car, and drove us to a plot of family land in the village. We waded through the wet undergrowth into a clearing, where he asked me to pick a spot. I pointed. I held the thin trunk – a pear tree – in its plastic pot while I watched him break ground and begin to dig. “It’s good soil,” I said, as though I knew something about soil. In that moment, I did. I knew, just as I had known in the church. “Yes, it is,” said Andrzej. “And just there you have another pear tree.” He nodded towards the edge of the plot, where a bigger version of what I was holding swayed slightly in the rain. “Great,” I said, “then this one will have a good example to follow.” When the hole was deep enough, I pushed the roots free of the pot, lowered the tree into the ground, and got my hands nice and dirty in that good earth.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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