I am the descendent of a 14 year old girl who came to America by herself seeking a better life filled with promise.
I feel that I, like many of us, have gotten caught up in the politically-charged present, and, in an effort to seek solace and inspiration, have found myself looking into the past from whence I came.
Part of this motivation to reflect on my family is due, in large part, to my pending graduation from the University of Notre Dame with an MBA in nonprofit management. I referenced on Facebook this morning that I was raised with a reverence for Notre Dame – not because it is an elite institution of higher learning, or because I come from generations of “Domers,” but because my poor, Catholic, Polish ancestors looked to Notre Dame for inspiration at the early part of the 20th Century. You see, there were not many places that poor, Catholic, Polish (or Irish) immigrants were welcomed or encouraged at the turn of the last Century – let alone places where they succeeded. However, at a small school in South Bend, IN, my ancestors saw the Polish succeeding, and the news spread all the way to Manhattan. My ancestors revered Notre Dame because it held promise for them – it encouraged them that they, too, COULD make a life for themselves in America. Now, none of my relatives ever went to Notre Dame, and, while I really wanted to earn the degree with which I will graduate this weekend, a large part of the reason I wanted to go to Notre Dame was to fulfill the dreams of those who came before me.
I don’t know about you, but reflecting on my past really helps me to put things into perspective. Campaigning, I have found, is an exercise in finding your perspective, your center, your humbling inner-self. For me, all three of those phenomena are found in family.
As I said, my 14 year old great grandmother came here from Poland to find a better life for herself. She, like many, found her home in New York City. She met a man from Poland, the two were married, and, like any good Polish Catholic couple, had many children. They ultimately made their way to Ohio.
Both of my grandparents are descendents of Polish immigrants. They had one son, Dan (my father). Actually, they had one other boy, John, but he sadly passed away in infancy.
My grandfather worked on the Nickel Plate railroad (he is pictured above on the far right). He was a union man and ran for Democratic office in Conneaut, Ohio. My grandmother had to drop out of school in the 8th grade to help take care of the family. She always lamented her “lack” of education, telling me how much smarter I was than her. “Yeah right,” I would say – that woman had WAY more knowledge AND wisdom that I will EVER have. My grandmother worked in a diner. Her favorite story to tell me was when she waited on the Harlem Globetrotters as they made their way through Ohio. She was so proud of that story, and told, in great detail, of how the Globetrotters came back into the kitchen and flipped burgers with the same finesse that they played ball. My grandfather died when I was six years old, but I will always fondly remember his calm demeanor, kind mannerisms, and great sense of humor. He enjoyed lovingly teasing his wife and listening to records (I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). My grandfather was also an occasional boxer, and did numerous other odd jobs around town so that he could provide for his family in his small northeastern Ohio town. My grandfather and my father both played in a Polka band as well – granddad on bass, pops on accordion. Man, what I would give to be able to travel back in time and see THAT! My father enjoyed school, but he REALLY enjoyed cowboy movies, fishing, baseball, and Jack Benny. Being from the “wrong side of the tracks” left my father with an iron will to achieve more in life and show all those bullies in school what he was capable of. And he accomplished that task.
My mother was born in Norwalk, Ohio to an eclectic lineage of musicians, artists, poets, Masons, Protestants, and military. Her father, my grandfather, served in World War II. Before my grandmother passed, she gave me all of the letters that my grandfather, Al, wrote to her when he was overseas. They are difficult to read, and are a constant reminder to me of the suffering our military personnel endure to make our country so great. Al was also a painter and poet. Jean, my grandmother, was a world traveler and always welcomed new experiences. I have an ashtray that is cast from a tiger print that she brought back from Africa. This is just one of many treasured artifacts I have from my grandmother’s collection. My mother was an all star in high school – an excellent student, a fantastic cheerleader, a terrific lifeguard, and very, VERY involved. My mother lettered in cheer leading for six years, was a member of the National Honor Society, won the Elks Youth Leadership Award, was Student of the Year in 1959, was a member of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, the Girls Athletic Association, Pep club, Girl Scouts, and Order of Rainbow Girls (Daughters of Masons). To say my mother and father had different high school experiences would be an understatement.
Did you see “Grease?” Think of mom & dad as the “real life” Sandy & Danny.
So my dad, tired of being “low man on the totem pole,” decided to drive himself to Gannon University in Erie, PA, so that he could get an education. My mom went to Miami University in Oxford, OH. The two met in Cleveland when they were both working at Leaseway Transportation. At first, my mom blew my dad off, but, as was stated earlier, my dad is a persistent guy and wouldn’t give up. Now, it should be noted that my mom was forbade from dating Catholics when she was growing up – let alone POLISH Catholics. However, it is difficult to tell my mother what to do – if she believes in something, she will DO it. And she will do it better than anyone.
So, date, they did. And marry, they did. And procreate. . .yup, they did that too. Two sons, Steve & Mike.
Steve was an awesome athlete in high school – still is. His wife, Debra, is also an awesome athlete. They, too, have two boys (my nephews), Zach & Joey. Zach & Joey, it should be noted, rock pretty hard. My brother is a sales and computer genius and the best dad I know. When I was younger, my brother taught me all about good music, records, and awesome movies. Since he is ten years older than me, I am sure that many of the movies he showed me growing up, like “Rambo,” were not “ok’d” by my mother. Still, he showed them to me and would take me to the record store to buy me records and tapes. He is a good older brother, and to this day I proudly display the very first tape I ever received from Steve, a copy of “The Wall” by Pink Floyd. I was five years old when he gave it to me. I am still trying to figure out what that album is about.
And then there’s me.
If you read this site you probably already know more about me than you want to, but now you have some context. I felt inspired to pen this post because, as I said, family is a centering phenomena in my life. I come from a long line of people who wouldn’t quit, people who didn’t let society dictate who they were or who they WANTED to be, people who FOUGHT for a better future for themselves and those in their communities, people who never let anyone tell them that something was impossible. I am proud to say that my relatives who still live in Poland were members of the Solidarnosc movement and fought for their freedom from the Communists. I am proud to say that those on my mother’s side of the family, although dealt numerous difficult cards and many family struggles, prevailed and forged a new kind of open-minded reality in which my cousins and I could flourish.
I do not have the courage of my 14 year old great grandmother.
I do not have the resilience of my grandfathers & grandmothers.
I do not have the experience or the fortitude of my mother & father.
I will never have any of these things.
But, as those who came before me taught me to always do, I will try my hardest to achieve my goals, I will never let anyone tell me that my dreams are impossible, I will never stop fighting to make my community a better place, and maybe, just maybe, as I do all of these things, I will get a glimpse of the passion & strength it took for my ancestors to make my ability to run for political office in a country of promise a reality.