What?! You Never Mentioned Our Family Is Polish, Mom!

I was always aware of my family’s Swedish heritage growing up. My grandma Suzie always had Swedish flags and memorabilia displayed in her house. It was always something that was “there” , but I suppose I wasn’t at an age to take full advantage of asking the right questions of the people that (in hindsight) probably would have been the best people to ask in the first place. Suzie, my world-traveling grandmother, was always interested in where the family came from and helped a close cousin of hers work on a genealogical account of my entire family. I have never seen actual proof of this, but I was told when I was younger that it was because of this published genealogy of my family that we were entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest traced family lineage published in a book. I mean…how cool is that?! I haven’t seen the book since I was around the age of 12, but I have always felt a certain amount of pride due to the fact that my name and date of book was one of the last names to be published in that book. And today, you will find that I am by no means the end of this very, very long line.  (Babies are everywhere in my family now!) After my grandma’s death I became more attached to the idea that we had a strong Swedish heritage. In fact, one of my favorite possessions I inherited from my grandma Suzie is a 2 x 6 tapestry that reads “Uff Da”. For those of who that don’t know what this means, this is all you need to know: it means everything. Any time you are frustrated, you say “uff da!”. Any time you just feel like sighing and wondering what’s going on in this crazy world, you say “uff da”. If you drop an ice cream cone on a hot, summer day, you exclaim “uff da!” and proceed to go buy another one [Note: I only WISH ice cream seemed appetizing to me at the moment--but as it is 12 degrees cold outside and Mother Nature dumped 4-5 inches of snow on Chicago last night, I presently do not have the taste for ice cream.] Wikipedia describes it as a term of “sensory overload”–no matter which senses those may be. The other inherited possession that I treasure is a small, wooden Swedish heart that reads “valkommen” (welcome in Swedish). I have hung it in the doorway leading from my kitchen to the living room in my apartment and think of Grandma Suzie every time I walk under it.

Now, beyond the fact that I know that our family lineage has been traced pretty far back in time and that my both sides of my family have a Swedish heritage, I know next to nothing. I don’t necessarily place blame on myself or others for this lack of family knowledge, but I’ve recently come up against this idea in the past year or two. It makes you wonder, “why don’t I know this information?”. A recent conversation with my mom made me stop and think twice about when (and, in fact, if) I ever asked my mom questions about her side of the family when I was younger. Like most kids, I am sure I was required to ask my mom questions like “where did my great-grandmother live?” or “how many cousins do you have?” as part of a genealogy project in grade school, but I’m fairly certain that information went in one ear and out the other because of the fact that someone was forcing me to ask them. And so, I’m circling back around as people tend to do in life and asking questions I want answers to. But maybe it’s easier to find these things out as they come along instead of quizzing each of my eldest family members ‘where we come from’ (no, I’m not talking about where babies come from). For example, a recent conversation with my mom revealed something new to me about  my heritage without me even asking.

ASIDE: I used to work at an alternative health care clinic in Chicago. I became really close to my co-workers and still consider them family despite the fact that I’m not longer working there. A few weeks ago, we all got together and went to a Salt Cave in a Polish neighborhood on the west side of the city called the Galos Caves. I didn’t know what to expect, but figured it would be something I’d like having worked in a healthy-conscious environment for a few years. The Galos Caves are basically reconstructed to feel like real salt caves in Eastern Europe. The ceilings and walls are packed with salt and your feet are gently massaged as you walk on salt crystals to your seat in the cave. When you walk in, you can tell the air is different. The cave temperature is comfortable and you are told to breathe deeply. After sitting for a few minutes in a reclining chair that lifted my feet above my head, I felt I could already feel the effects. The iodine in the salt has countless benefits according to people that frequent the caves. It helps to cleanse the body even by deeply breathing in the Dead Sea salt. After a few minutes, I realized that I could taste the salt on my lips but could not feel a difference in the air as I breathed. Ten minutes later…I was sleeping deeply like a baby. Thirty minutes later I woke up feeling refreshed, relaxed, and very happy to be in a cocoon-like position for that long. (Note: I was sleepy after a long week of work–but I have a feeling the end result would be the same should I try the salt caves again). Afterwards, my former co-workers and I “zombied” over to the Polish restaurant next door and gobbled up $8.50 worth of a delicious buffet with perogis and other traditional Polish dishes.

After gliding home feeling completely full, happy, and relaxed, I fell fast asleep for an entire night of rest before work the next morning. And, to my surprise, I was shocked to discover that there may have been an inherent reason for me to have enjoyed myself as I did that day after speaking to my mom on the phone. She nonchalantly said, “my grandma came to the United States from Poland”. WAIT WAIT WAIT. “What did you say?!”, I asked. And again, “yeah, your great-grandmother was 100% Polish”. All I could do was ask her why I hadn’t been told this before or how she could have neglected to tell me this until I was twenty-three years old. Here I am, thinking that I am predominantly Swedish  my entire life,going around saying “uff da” like it’s something that non-Swedish people wouldn’t understand, and wondering what I can do to make my Christmas “Swedish-fied”…and I find out I’m just as Polish as I am Swedish!

You can imagine my surprise. I might as swell swap my Swedish Fish for Perogis! So now, after experiencing a Polish salt cave and eating a traditional Polish buffet all during one wintery Chicago night, I have come to terms with another side of my family heritage. And I’m perhaps all the wiser for learning not to ask questions and picking up on this information as it comes along.

Na zdrowie!

- J

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