Lessons from my Polish Grandparents

Grandpa and Grandma, circa 1948

reUtica the film opened with a dedication to our grandfather, John Ossowski. As a figure in my life, Grandpa was a bit like the sky – ethereal, somewhat distant but always present. He was born in a different time, a different place, a truly foreign set of circumstances I was fortunate enough to have been spared. Grandpa turned 16 in the Nazi-occupied Poland of 1940. He came of age just in time to be conscripted into slave labor. From what little was shared to me about his life during that period, I came to understand that he (and many men like him) were separated from their families, forced to dig trenches at gun point, and barely ate enough food to survive. I am truly humbled when I consider my own problems at age 16. I just wanted to fit in with the boys at school who had nice cars.

My grandfather died about a year after I moved to Portland, OR. During the week leading up to his death, it became very clear that the end was near. On the morning of the day he died, my father left me a cryptic voicemail and said he was heading to the hospital. Unable to reach my father, I called my brother. He got the word, too, and was heading to the hospital. I sat and cried for a moment in my downtown Portland office. There was simply nothing I could do but wait. I started looking for flights home. The day passed by with no news and I decided to go for a run after work. I thought it would help me gather my thoughts and strength for what was most certainly bad news to come. I remember the end of that run in particular.

My mind often wanders when I’m doing something repetitive, like running. Sometimes I have delusions of grandeur – like running with the elite runners at the Boilermaker. Sometimes I imagine that I’m on a horse, blazing through the forest. This day was no different, my run was full of grandeur and horses, just until the very end. As I cooled down to a moderate walking pace, turned off my music and removed my ear buds, I remember a sense of peace coming over me. In my mind’s eye, I saw my grandfather smiling at me. He then gave me a small velvet satchel that clinked a little as I cupped it in my hand. I wondered what it could be. Grandpa was a man of very modest means, and never handed over velvet satchels of anything. Still, it was comforting at that time to believe that I had been gifted by his presence, even being 3,000 miles from home.

When I returned to my desk, another voicemail was waiting for me. While I was on my run, Grandpa died.

My mind has returned to that last imagined moment time and time again. I’ve come to understand that the precious metal in the satchel is really the wisdom Grandpa imparted to me through witnessing his lived experience. He knew about what was really important in life. He survived the collapse of the Western world of his time. Moreover, he knew how to survive with his humanity intact. His efforts sustained the lives of 4 generations of my family – from my great-grandmother who lived with us when I was a child, to me, his son’s son. The nuggets of wisdom inside the satchel were lessons about living within your means, growing food at home, collecting rainwater, making your own wine, reusing things until they are really worn out, being creative with what you have, being kind to your family…and these are just a few of the lessons from my Polish grandparents. Our family is still fortunate enough to have grandma with us, so the lessons still have a living teacher.

When I look to the future, with all the dire reports on political, social, economic and ecological fronts, at best I can say that things are uncertain. The lessons from my Polish grandparents were forged during a time of great upheaval and proven themselves to be useful in maintaining a basic, humane and healthful existence. They transcended the aftermath of World War II in Europe, remained stable through the ramping up of the consumer era in America during the 1950’s, rode through the tumultuous 1960’s and 1970’s, stayed calm during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and provided a modest sanctuary during the first decade of the 21st century. Now more than ever we need to relearn and live these lessons. Making reUtica put me back in touch with this legacy. After all, the strategies espoused by the sustainability movement align remarkably well with the practices of generations past. Moving forward, I’d like to use this blog to reflect on these lessons and welcome readers to share your stories – the wealth of wisdom gleaned from your own families and people. And let’s make these stories come alive again by exploring ways to move forward with them.

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One Response to Lessons from my Polish Grandparents

  1. Ray Bepko says:

    Great post. My Slovak grandmother would reuse everything – aluminum foil, tea bags, old clothes, even coffee grounds! She wasn’t cheap, just very thrifty and used to hardship. She was also a ground of love and stability in my childhood. Thanks for stimulating my memories of her.

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