I’m writing Christmas cards while rewatching the film, Carol, on Netflix. It’s not a Christmas movie, but takes place around Christmas. (I’m actually not a fan of Christmas movies but do enjoy movies with that holiday as a backdrop.) While the film is a beautiful depiction of a forbidden love affair between two women in the 1950s, it speaks to me for another reason. The film has a strong sense of time and place. The younger woman works in a department store, the kind my grandmother shopped in when I was a child. In the film, the women take a trip together and stay in roadside motels along the way and in a luxury hotel in Chicago. The older woman’s white suitcases even remind me of those my mother owned, which were probably a wedding gift.
During one scene in the film, the Christmas song ‘Silver Bells’ plays on the radio. The first time I watched this scene, in the movie theater, I felt an overwhelming sense of longing for the Christmases of my childhood and missed my mother so much it hurt. Mom made Christmas so special. I remember sitting in our living room one night just before Christmas … the room was decorated to perfection, as always. The lights were low. Candles were lit and had a pine scent (or maybe that was the tree). A Christmas album was playing. It felt so cozy and warm. I just sat there alone on the sofa and absorbed it all — the twinkling lights and the Christmas smell and the music — and I wanted time to stop. In fact, it felt like time had stopped for me. It was an idyllic moment. I felt happy.
For many years, I didn’t really celebrate Christmas. I didn’t decorate my various apartments or mail cards or enjoy carols. The holiday just wasn’t the same without my mother. But for the past eight years, I’ve been decorating, listening to my favorite Celtic Christmas music, and sending holiday cards to friends and family. This year, my husband and I got a bigger Christmas tree, and I came up with a color scheme that’s whimsical yet stylish. Our apartment is cozy and warm and inviting, just like the home of our family Christmases all those years. And even though we can’t visit family this Christmas, just looking at the tree fills me with joy and reminds me of holidays when we were all together.
I am continuing my online genealogy research sporadically. I recently discovered a new branch of our family tree. My 2nd great-grandfather on my mother’s German side of the family, Paul Schneidenwind, married a woman of Hungarian descent, Julia Straubhauer, whose Hungarian ancestors (Straubhaar) came from Bács-Bodrog County in Hungary. They hailed from the villages of Futog/Futak and Prigrevica, which are now part of Serbia thanks to those many border changes over the centuries.
So, I have more ancestors from the Austro-Hungarian Empire than I knew just a few weeks ago, as my Polish great-grandparents (also on my mother’s side) lived in the Austrian Partition of Poland until the 1890s. Before Austria-Hungary existed, my 4th great-grandfather lived through the Revolutions of 1848. Now I’m even more curious about European history of the 18th and 19th centuries.
One of my favorite films is Gosford Park by the late director Robert Altman. The film is set in England in 1932, between the wars. In that film, actor Jeremy Northam plays the real-life Ivor Novello, and Novello’s 1922 song, The Land of Might-Have-Been, beautifully performed by Northam, perfectly captured the nostalgia and longing that I often feel but cannot always place (“love grows never old nor tired”). That song may refer to the collective loss of so many during World War I, but it feels timeless.
It may be obvious that one of my favorite time periods is the 1920s and 1930s. So it’s not surprising that one of my favorite novels is Atonement by Ian McEwan — the first part of the book, which is also set in England, takes place in 1935. [Spoiler alert] I loved the ending of the book, when the protagonist, Briony, returns to her childhood home, which is now a hotel, for a family reunion. I loved that ending because of my own desire to connect with my past, my family’s past (including my grandmother’s youth in the 20s and 30s), and my hometown. It was emotionally satisfying to read.
The longing for home, my longing for the past (not just the personal or familial but the larger historical past) and a certain idealized way of life, are common themes in my life, and my memoir may focus more on the idea of home — what home means to me and what it meant to my late mother and grandmother. My grandmother’s home was one of the most significant places of my childhood, and I’ve already started delving into its history.
In October 2018, Manavendra and I were married in Reading, Pennsylvania. Our ceremony was held at the Reading Public Museum, and the reception followed at Stirling Guest Hotel. The museum was a meaningful location for me, as my parents had their wedding photos taken in the gardens outside the museum in April 1967. Unfortunately, it rained on my wedding day, so we could not recreate their romantic stroll in Trudy’s Garden 50+ years later, and of course I was saddened that my late mother could not be present on my wedding day. Nevertheless, it was a joyful and memorable occasion. Having the wedding in my hometown was the right decision!
My parents in 1967, strolling through the gardens of the Museum:
I remember my maternal grandmother telling me about growing up in a Polish neighborhood in her hometown of Reading, PA. I recall hearing about a Polish festival and participants (including my mother?) dancing the polka. What was it like to be part of such a community?
I read a bit about the Polish immigrant population in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, so I knew about their existence in Pennsylvania (aside from my own family of course). However, I wanted to learn all I could about Reading’s Polish-American community, but until now, I hadn’t found any information …
A reference in an annotated bibliography (The Peoples of Pennsylvania) finally provided some historical evidence of a Polish-American community in Reading in the early 20th century, although I do not know its size. A newspaper was published for that community, starting in 1909, named Gazeta Readingska:
Both the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the State Library of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg have this newspaper, so research trips to access their collections are planned for sometime in 2019 (and who knows what else I’d find?). The newspaper may be in Polish, but I still want to see it!
In 2017, I hit a brick wall when trying to trace the Polish ancestry of my maternal great-grandmother (Agata Kolanko). I have her parents’ names and birthplace, but not much else. However, thanks to FamilySearch, I found passenger tickets for ships bound for America for a Kolansko and a Kolano in the early 20th century. Both were from Austrian Poland, as was my great-grandmother, and since the names are similar, they may have been related.
The ticket from 1903 belonging to Josef Kolansko:
The ticket from 1912 belonging to Stanislaw Kolano (Kalano?):
A great find! Both arrived in the port of Philadelphia, as my great-grandmother had in 1899. (I enjoy the Philly connection, as I lived there after college and through grad school, and I still feel some emotional ties to that city.)
After my wedding this past October, I finally resumed my genealogy research, albeit not with the same energy at first. I’ve hit some brick walls with the Polish genealogy research, but my aunt mentioned something interesting, that our Polish family surname Menet was actually French in origin. She wanted to know why our Polish ancestors possessed a French surname (and as I learned a bit about the importance of focusing with a research question, this is my first one). I decided to just throw the surname into a Google search and see what came up. I can’t even recall the trail that I followed on the Web, but it led me to a small village in France called Menet, and I wonder if our Polish ancestors came from that village, which dates to at least the 12th century:
Owing to my Polish brick wall (in that I could only trace the Menet line back to the late 18th century in Poland), I have no idea of their French connection. My aunt also had a DNA test, which indicated that she has *possible* French ancestry. (More preliminary research revealed that Menet is a Huguenot surname, but I know nothing about that history.)
When I hit that brick wall, I had turned to my father’s side of the family, which I was told was mostly English and Welsh (with some French Canadian added into the mix). My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Disney, and I also discovered the French origins of that name! (So I may have French ancestry on both sides.) My Dad’s family tree has been easier to trace, and I discovered what I consider a fascinating history: Continue reading “French ancestry?!”
In my 20s, or even earlier, I disowned parts of my life, particularly my Polish and German ancestry and the town where I grew up. I was ashamed, or I was disillusioned, or I wanted something better. And eventually, after college and the disappointment of having chosen the wrong profession, I moved away from that city. My mother had died before I even thought of college, and in some ways, I wanted to be far from all of it, all the family messiness and unexpressed grief and all the things I chose by default. Not knowing what I wanted or who I was.
Years passed and as I worked, pursued graduate studies, and embarked on relationships, I started discovering “myself” and my interests and goals, hopes and dreams. I made friends in Philly (which felt like my true hometown during the years I lived there) and more recently in DC, and I felt like I belonged. At times, I wanted nothing to do with where I came from; at other times I missed what I had identified with or had been attached to during my younger years — home and family — a sense of place that only Pennsylvania could provide.
Now I feel a shifting … back to beginnings … wanting to reconnect with family and know more about where we came from. Feeling proud of my immigrant ancestors for realizing their ambition of a better life in America, in spite of hardships during their long journeys, negative stereotyping in the U.S., or poor working conditions in factories in Pennsylvania. No longer embarrassed to say that I’m part Polish, which was a grade school concern, and no longer hesitant to say I have German blood too, since Germany had a rich culture that was there long before the word Nazi was ever uttered (although I am still learning about German intellectual and cultural history).
As I mentioned in my very first blog post, my grandmother worked at the Berkshire Knitting Mills (called the Berky) when she was young (probably in her 20s, sometime in the 1930s). According to the Reading Eagle, Vanity Fair Corporation acquired Berkshire in 1969. Years later, in the late 1980s/early 90s, both my sister and I (around the same age as our grandmother had been) worked at the VF Outlet as cashiers, on the site that had been the mill. Large pictures of women who worked in the mill were displayed in the large buildings housing the outlet goods (the Red Building and the Blue Building), although, disappointingly, I never saw my grandmother’s face in any of those.
Today, I read that part of the former mill and current outlet are to be demolished:
Earlier this year, the VF Outlet buildings and land were acquired by a new owner. There are currently development plans in the works to turn much of the area into a campus for UGI and home to new restaurants and shops. Most of the “Blue” building and the entire “Red” building are set to be demolished late 2017.