Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Call from the Ancestors: Roots, Family, the Land

My family's cottage in Korczyna, Poland

I'm working on a series of writings I am calling, A CALL FROM THE ANCESTORS.
With it I'll be addressing why I am inspired by the folk and peasant arts and traditions of Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Hungary. Why am I pulled to learn and experience more in relationship to my roots? Why does a place and a way of life inspire me so?

The following words came in a brainstorm as I think about this and begin writing.

- resonance
- longing
- roots
- family
- the land
- identity
- authenticity
- passion
- connection

RESONANCE: richness or significance especially in evoking an association or strong emotion

You know that feeling when something strikes you deep to the core? A feeling of recognition, attraction, intuition and knowing? There are moments in life when I've recognized this feeling.  I know when it happens and it is important for me to stop and pay attention. I do not know how this works exactly but I do have my thoughts on why it happens. Sometimes things add up and line up. Clear signs point you in a certain direction. I believe my ancestors have a hand in this, like they are beckoning to me, calling to me and I am following their lead.

LONGING: a yearning desire

My ancestor's blood runs through my veins. In my body there is genetic and a kind of energetic memory linking me back to the places where my people lived, loved, toiled and died. I am learning, teaching myself about the places and ways because so much was lost to me when my family became "American". It's a very common phenomenon isn't it? Immigrants come to the new world and and settle into new ways. They melt into the melting pot in order to work, raise families - survive. Yet our roots are left raw and exposed.  Some families work hard to stay connected to the old country, the heartland. And some families slowly assimilate to become more American. I long for a deeper connection with and understanding of the old ways.

My grandmother Stella left Poland for America in her early teens. She wrote letters to her family in Poland and even went back for a visit in the mid-80s. She spoke Polish but did not teach it to her children or grandchildren. She was always making and sharing Polish foods with the family: pierogi, golumbki, kielbasa, poppyseed roll. She tended her small garden and loved watching the flowers bloom.
My grandmom, Stella
My Hungarian great-grandfather George and my great-grandmom Angel were connected to their family in Hungary. George was born in America but went back to his ancestor's village to find his wife, Elizabeth. Much later he returned to visit his family a year or two before his death. When George and Elizabeth passed on there was no longer a strong connection between the families across the land and ocean.

No one is to blame. Times and circumstances change. I'm sure the politics of the time, WWII and then the cold war between capitalist America and communist Poland and Hungary, did not help to keep the ties strong for the next generations. However, one needs a place to grow, a place to settle and go deep, a place of understanding and connection with what came before. One needs to feel a connection with community, family, traditions, history, stories of their place and of their ancestors.

The writer, Wendell Berry writes about being a placed person. Perhaps the following words I found by Wallace Stegner can partly explain this feeling of longing I have. (This excerpt is taken from "The Sense of Place" by Wallace Stegner. Copyright 1992 by Wallace Stegner.)

"If you don’t know where you are, says Wendell Berry, you don’t know who you are. Berry is a writer, one of our best, who after some circling has settled on the bank of the Kentucky River, where he grew up and where his family has lived for many generations. He conducts his literary explorations inward, toward the core of what supports him physically and spiritually. He belongs to an honorable tradition, one that even in America includes some great names: Thoreau, Burroughs, Frost, Faulkner, Steinbeck – lovers of known earth, known weathers, and known neighbors both human and nonhuman. He calls himself a “placed” person."

"... if every American is several people, and one of them is or would like to be a placed person, another is the opposite, the displaced person, cousin not to Thoreau but to Daniel Boone, dreamer not of Walden Ponds but of far horizons, traveler not in Concord but in wild unsettled places, explorer not inward but outward. Adventurous, restless, seeking, asocial or antisocial, the displaced American persists by the million long after the frontier has vanished. He exists to some extent in all of us, the inevitable by-product of our history: the New World transient. "

"Back to Wendell Berry, and his belief that if you don’t know where you are you don’t know who you are. He is not talking about the kind of location that can be determined by looking at a map or a street sign. He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe. He is talking about the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons, valuing it for the profound investment of labor and feeling that you, your parents and grandparents, your all-but-unknown ancestors have put into it. He is talking about the knowing that poets specialize in."

I long for this knowing and by following a path of longing and resonance I have begun to make connections to a deeper understanding of who I am and where I come from. My ancestors call to me on this journey. The quest simultaneously connects me to the heartlands of Poland and Hungary and roots me to my home in the hills of New England. As I move ahead and dig deep many things appear, unfold, resonate and become recognized. Connections are made. A path continues to unfold with every step I take.

My father's ancestors were Polish and Hungarian people of the land. They were from the small villages of Korczyna, Poland and Harskut Hungary. My great-grandfather Jan was born in the thatched roof, white washed cottage in Korczyna, Poland pictured above. My great-great grandmother and Cocia, Aniela and Aniela, are photographed wearing kierchiefs and aprons on their land in Korczyna.

My great-great grandmother Aniela surrounded by her daughters, my great grandmother and aunts in Poland
Ciocia Aniela, Korczyna, Poland
My dad can remembers his Babci Helena's gardens in Philadelphia, where she and Jan landed with their children, one of them being my grandmom Stella, after emigrating to America in the 1930s from Poland. Jan knew that true wealth was having land. So when he bought his small row home he bought the undeveloped lot next door. This lot became their orchard and garden. My dad helped with the garden chores and fondly remembers his grandmother's raspberry jam.

My great-grandfather Jan
My dad with Grandmom Angel Repas and Babci Helena
My dad went on to college then the Air Force to become an airline pilot. His work was in the sky. My parents are not avid gardeners. Some pretty flower beds are tended to and the lawn is always mowed. We did not raise or preserve our own food. The pulse of my heart moved me to pursue learning about and practicing gardening for the sake of beauty and food. I woke up to this fact in my early 20's after university when I spent a couple years working on a large fruit orchard in Solebury, PA. The desire to connect to the land and work it is running strong in my blood.

I used to wonder about my obsession with gardening? Where did it come from? One of the most satisfying things to me is working in the dirt with the plants, flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables. A quiet day spent alone outside with the sounds of the wind and songbirds as my company is heaven. The making of beds, planting of seeds and removal of weeds marks the time passing. My feet connect to the earth, I breathe fresh air, feel the warm sun or the cool mists. While sitting in on a sociology class in Poland the professor lectured that peasants love the land more than anything. They have a very strong sense of territory. How can we not love that which sustains us? The peasants were completely and utterly tied to working the land and the land itself. Their work, traditions, symbols, stories, rituals, costume reflect this in a profound way. They were not separate. Life was not easy. There is a fundamental truth to living in balance with the seasons, the crops, the weather, the dirt.

Nowadays so much can get in the way of this truth. I like how the Polish author Wieslaw Mysliwski writes about our fundamental tie to the land in his book, "Stone Upon Stone":

"When death is staring you in the face even a college graduate becomes a person again, so does an engineer. At those times everything falls off life like leaves dropping from a tree in the fall, and you're left like a bare trunk.  At those times you're not drawn to the outside world but back to the land where you were born and grew up, because that's your only place on this earth. In that land, even a tomb is like a home for you."

Certain places resonate strongly with an individual. Do we remember things on a cellular level? Are ties and memories passed on from generation to generation through blood, DNA, spirit?  It's interesting to me that there is such a similarity in climate and landscape between Korczyna, Poland and Harskut, Hungary, the rural landscape around the Philadelphia area and even in Cummington, MA where I make my home. Rolling hills, green hay fields, wooded forests, distinct seasonal changes. I feel so at home in these places. They are familiar.

Outside of Harskut, Hungary

Village home and land in Harskut, Hungary

On the road between Krakow and Korczyna, Poland
Korczyna, Poland
I fell in love with the landscape around Krakow, Korczyna, and Harskut. The orchards there were full of plums, apples, cherries, walnuts, peaches, pears, elderberry. Most homes seemed to have a large garden with cabbage, potatoes, dill, currants, raspberries, blueberries, carrots, beets. At long last I met family and connected with them in such a meaningful way. They were wonderful hosts, so caring and hospitable, and happy to share with me their lives and lifestyles. My cousins Anna and Karol had their own large gardens at their homes in and outside of Korczyna.  They proudly showed me their garden plots and fed us the goodies growing there.

Anna in her garden harvesting potatoes for dinner

Karol with his garden outside of his parish house
Times have changed for my relatives in Poland and Hungary yet I can still see how their deep ties to the land manifest. Cousin Paulina gave me honey from her mother's hives. Her grandfather Roman shared homemade fruit wine with me in his home during an afternoon visit. In Hungary, my cousin Anci and her husband Laszlo have a large parcel of land a short drive from their home in another village near Harskut. Their parcel is full of wine grapes and fruit trees. Hungary is wine country. We spent a memorable evening on this land under a grape arbor with Laszlo playing the accordian and all of us singing and sharing songs. Tears were shed that night. The moment was so meaningful.

Me, Laszlo and Bencsi under the grape arbor

Hungarian wine grapes

Laszlo's vineyard and orchard
Roots, family and the land take on a deeply meaningful role. There is nothing like sitting around with one's family on a beautiful day, outdoors, enjoying company and literally the fruits of big gardens and hard work. Since connecting with my living family overseas and the land of Poland and Hungary, I begin to understand my family and myself more. My questions about who I am and where I come from are slowly answered. Still, I have so many questions and such yearning for further connection. This longing pushes me ahead and my ancestors pull me forward on a journey. I'm taking steps on a path where resonance unlocks the answers to many a mystery. 

I will explore these themes more in future posts where I'll write about identity, authenticity, passion and connection and how these ideas play out in my art practice on A Call from the Ancestors.

My Grandmom with my Grandmom Angel holding me as a baby in her arms


  1. Look forward to seeing the drawings, Kim! (and you next week, I hope)

    Ha, my robot words were Cave and Exterra. Interesing :)

    1. Hi Valerianna!
      Well, more writing will be coming but you'll have to wait awhile to see new drawings. I haven't been in visual art creation mode in long time. For now, the baby, the gardens and my studies are in the forefront.

      I do hope to see you nest week! I like the synchronicity that happened for you and the earthy robot words:-)!

  2. this is deep, Kim!
    I can't wait for the next posts.
    Even our present act of emigration doesn't mean anything near like what emigration meant long ago (in any way you look - courage, pioneering, runaway, don't look back feeling, alienation and despair, impossible communication with the ones left back home, etc. - all those things are way, way softer on us, (and I'm talking as a fresh 7 years emigrant, one who has the opportunity and freedom to return to his roots country whenever and for how long he wants and who has the chance to communicate daily and at zero virtual costs thanks to the internet with his family) so even in this circumstance and still I can tell that most of us feel the distance as a pretty heavy burden (distance in space and time).

    I have few words (poetically speaking, but some truth still reside in them) of my own about all this things: first of all, leaving the family's nest is natural, and that's why God gave us feet.
    second: people are like threes: some of them can resist to be moved in a different spot, a different garden, a different soil (they'll even grow bigger and they'll make flowers and fruits). but some will just dry and die.
    so everyone has to determine what type of three is he :)

    I could say more, but I'll limit my comment here.
    Anyway, I would like to hear my son one day that he's interested that much in his roots. It is a touching and enriching (if nothing else) endeavor.



    1. Hi Razvan! Hope you and your family are well! Thanks for reading this post and for sharing your thoughts and personal experience. You are right, ways of communication and travel have gotten a lot easier over the years but I imagine the experience of immigrating is still very tough, to be living away from the family, land and culture in which you were born. I like your poetic words (I always love hearing your thoughtful words and point of view)about how God gave us feet to leave the nest and metaphor about trees. It's so true sometimes a tree or plant will do better and thrive if you lift it out of the soil and plant it somewhere else. I'll especially like writing more posts on this subject knowing you'll be there to read them. I bet Dari will have much interest and regard for his roots as you and Elena are such wonderful parents and live a good life and example for him. You also keep your Romanian traditions alive even though you now live in Canada. By the way, I'm making Ciorba de Perisoare for dinner this Friday with the lovage that is growing in my garden. We'll be thinking of you! xo

  3. such a beautiful and interesting post Kimberley, how your journey continues itself, how you followed your heart(or whatever one may call it) and found valuable answers and more.
    i come from a family of gardeners, also mainly woman and i do believe and feel it runs in my blood, and long before science found out about DNA people felt things running in their blood and knew already.
    my grandmother, great aunts, aunts, mother and sister all loved and love to be in their garden, growing fruit, vegetables and flowers.
    i clearly remember playing and walking in those gardens,the sense of well-being, the beauty.
    in fact it runs in the blood of us all, i believe that's why a parc,a flower stall or veggies market in the middle of town has that attraction on people.
    but for some of us it's a way of living, a deep need, a matter of course to grow things and be out there and feel the seasons, the earth,life.
    you write so beautifully about the peasants loving their land more than anything and a life that wasn't far from easy, things have changed in many ways.
    at least in the places where you and i live, we do not depend economically on what we grow but mentally it has a great impact.

    your beautiful photos touch me, your words touch me,
    thanks xx

    1. Hi Renilde! Thank you for your thoughtful words.I'm glad my photos and words meant something to you.

      I can see from your blog posts how tied you are to your beautiful gardens. I always love seeing the photos you post of your garden in the different seasons. It's nice you think of the women in your family and share that connection with them through the generations.

      You are right, I think the connection to the land runs in all our blood. The land sustains life. In this day and age we can choose to be more removed from the land yet some us have a deeper need than others to get out there and plant gardens.

      Happy spring to you! It's a great time to be out enjoying the flowers!

  4. brava, Kim!

    I want to share with you an article about my Slovak immigrant mother. It talks about how she went from being a "placed" person, as you put it, to being deracinated


    1. Thank you Danusha.

      Your article about your Slovak immigrant mother totally floored me, brought tears to my eyes. A lot of what you reflect upon makes me wonder about the unspoken stories and realities experienced by my great-grandparents, grandparents and parents. I've sensed that the reason I do not know many stories about their lives both personally and culturally is because being an immigrant in America at that time, perhaps for Eastern Europeans especially, was so hard and they felt so marginalized.

  5. Oh Kim, what a wonderful treat to read! If you ever publish this I will be in line to buy your book. All your hard work to bring our history forward in such a lovely way and with wonderful pictures is priceless and precious! Job well done!

    1. Hi Linda!
      Thank you for your words.

      You'll be the first to know if I ever write a book :-)! It's personally meaningful for me to write here about my interests. Just to get the thoughts and words out that are in my head as I try to do work based on my inspirations and our heritage is reason enough for me to write here. But you sharing that it means something to you, that's really meaningful to me! Thank you! At some point I'd love to sit around in the garden with you and all our family and cousins and share stories and piece together the patchwork of our lives and stories. Now that would be interesting. Love to you...

  6. Great post--have you read Reymont's series of novels about Polish peasants? It's called Cholpi in Polish, Peasants in English. The way you talk about the land here and what it gives us reminds me of Reymont. By the way, he was the second Pole to win a Nobel Prize for literature.

    1. Thank you John for reading the post. I'm glad that you enjoyed it. I did read Reymont's Cholpi last year. I had my public library hunt it down and they found a copy in English that I borrowed. I think I'll try and find an English version to add to my library one of these days. I really loved reading his book. I did not know he was the 2nd Pole to win the Nobel Prize for literature. I'm reading Mysliwski's "Stone Upon Stone" right now and it has a similar flavor. The story is told by the main character, a peasant, who is living in post WWII Polish village but often looks back during his narrative at the times before the war. Have you read this book?