Scenes from a Polish American Catholic Childhood

Growing up on a farm in Michigan, the only Polish thing in my life was my grandmother, my babcia. I called her Busia and lived with her from the time I was 3 almost until she died, when I was 21. She came to America in 1913, to Hamtramck, a town encircled by Detroit and, at that time, over 90% Polish. She married Antoni Brodacki after her first husband, Bolesław Misiuk, died. She was a widow with a son. Their first child was my mother, Łucja as she was baptized. My grandfather decided that he wanted to be a farmer, and they moved north to Center Line, leaving the Polish Catholic community behind.

My grandfather died when I was three. I have memories of him, but most of what I know about him came through my mother. His oldest daughter, she suffered more than her brothers and sisters from his radical version of Catholicism, which included throwing her friends out of the house if they were not Catholic. No doubt worried that she would disgrace him, he married my rebellious mother off at 17 to a 35-year-old sheriff. After her father died, she left her husband but they never divorced; divorce was out of the question.

By the time I came along, we were living in a WASP world. My Uncle Hank, Busia’s youngest son was a founding member of St. Mary Mystical Rose, when our town finally got a Catholic church in 1950. I attended public school and visiting nuns from a nearby church taught Catechism to a small group of us Catholic kids attending Armada Area School. I thought those nuns were saints–or on their way to sainthood. They taught me that “God is everywhere.”

St. Mary Mystical Rose, Armada, Michigan, 1956

St. Mary Mystical Rose, Armada, Michigan, 1956

Uncle Hank took us to church every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, and my grandmother spent most of her time in church praying her rosary and afterwards making sure everyone got enough to eat. We ate pierogi and gołąki and kapusta and pączki and babka, and I pretty much thought that was what it meant to be Polish. When Busia spoke to me in Polish, I answered in English. Her children told her, “Ma, you’re in America. Speak English.” She tried. Her children all spoke broken Polish and never learned to read or write it.

In my memoir, A Polish Son in the Motherland, I wrote: My grandmother never truly left Poland. The tree-lined roads to Sugajno, the tilled fields, the lake, the chickens pecking in the yard–these are scenes straight from her life in Michigan. She brought Poland with her to America, as if a farm in Michigan were merely a distant Polish province, but a place so far away that there was no possibility of leaving.

I made my First Holy Communion and was confirmed, but all of that was outside what I understood to be my main objective: to be an ordinary American guy. The trouble was–my mother’s troubled marriage. After it broke up, she went to work in a Polish bakery back in Hamtramck. I was sent to live on the farm with Grandma. Until I was old enough to go to school, I had a personal 40-acre playground with a loving Babcia looking after me, teaching me how to grow food and preserve it for the winter, showing me how to love doing laundry in our old wringer washing machine. That was a time before we had telephones and television, but it was not before radio, and I remember Busia being mesmerized by “Ojciec Justin’s Rosary Hour.” For her it was a lifeline to Poland, to the parents and brothers and sisters she left behind at the age of 18 and would never see again. Her prayers and her faith were private, and she never taught me a single prayer in Polish.

It wasn’t until I was 40 years old that I moved to Chicago, which had always seemed like the Emerald City to me, the capital of the Midwest. Here, I discovered that being of Polish descent was hardly unique. I thought investigating Polish Chicago meant finding the best deli for kielbasa. I had never gone to Polish school, never learned the language, and knew next to nothing about Polish history.

After my mother died in 1996, I thought, “You have no parents, no grandparents, no brothers or sisters, no wife and no children. Your future is behind you.” That shock of recognition is what sent me back to Poland and back to the Catholic Church, back to the people and places and institutions that made me who I am. It has been and continues to be the journey of my life, and I am dedicated to writing about it.

In 2000, as a way to celebrate the arrival of a new millennium, I took a sabbatical leave from my job at the American Library Association and moved from Chicago to Poland, where I lived for seven months. I arrived unannounced in Nowe Miasto Lubawskie, a town in the central part of the country, and began looking for my family. I found them. A Polish Son in the Motherland is the story of that journey; it was the beginning of a journey of discovery that continues today and will, I hope, continue for the rest of my life.

Early in my Polish life, I wrote this, remembering the shadow box we kept in our home for extreme unction: By the time my grandmother died, our rituals of candles and holy water had been abandoned, and the idea of taking them to the hospital where she lay comatose seemed somehow superstitious. Dying had already become more the consequence of an unhealthy “lifestyle” than the logical outcome of life. She was, after all, only 77. Twenty-four years later my mother, at 77, lay waiting for death to take her, with no holy water, no cross, not even a rosary.

In 2003, my grandfather’s family in Poland asked me to be Godfather to their newborn son, whom they named Antoni after my grandfather. I had already started regularly visiting Polish Catholic churches in Chicago and decided that St. Stanislaus Kostka was the one for me. My family’s church in Poland needed a letter from a priest here in America, attesting to the fact that I was a good Catholic. Father Anthony Buś wrote that letter for me, making me out to be the best Catholic who ever lived. I asked Father Buś to tell me what it means to be a good Catholic. “Come to mass and obey the 10 Commandments,” he said. “The rest is a mystery.”

Catholicism is a mystical religion, Father Buś told me, and I remembered that the church of my childhood was called St. Mary Mystical Rose. As I stood in the church in Poland with baby Antoni Brodacki in my arms, his childhood to be lived in the same house where my grandfather was born, it seemed to me that my life had come full circle.

Originally a speech delivered November 14 at Loyola University Chicago.

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