"From There" by Cheryl Sadowski
When you drive north on Virginia State Route 15, the first indicator you are anywhere at all is Point of Rocks Bridge. The concrete maze of suburban sprawl is tamed by crooked brooks, wizened oak trees and fieldstone walls. Route 15 turns steeply downhill and the blue steel bridge beckons you into Maryland. To the west, Catoctin Mountain juts out over the Potomac River, its rocky patina blasted through long ago to make room for the Baltimore Railroad.
I have lived in Northern Virginia for more than twenty years. Two or three times a year, I return to Cleveland, where my family has lived for three generations. Growing up, my parents drove my younger brother and me around the United States on all manner of family vacations, so the heritage of the Great American Family Road Trip is in my blood and bones, along with a kind of clairvoyance for scenery. All landscapes harbor stories of the natural forces and the people who shaped them, if you look closely, and listen.
Following the rolling hills of Maryland I am met by the imposing Allegheny Mountains. They are petulant hosts: some days they welcome me with lilac sun rays, other times they spit heavy rain or snow showers. Under the gaze of their unreliable hospitality I approach the Allegheny Tunnel. Each time I enter the belly of the mountain I marvel at how the tunnel has borne for so long the geological forces of rock and water.
Rural Pennsylvania is dotted with white steeples, trailer parks and clapboard houses with front porches that sag under the weight of household detritus. An oversized highway sign announces the split of I-70 to St. Louis and I-76 to Ohio, the demarcation between points west and the Great Lakes. The sign makes an impression on me each time I see it: the stark, singular word, ’west,’ which I choose to read as West!—a cartographic nod to things wild and untamed.
I bear right and northward toward the farms and flat fields of Ohio, toward a city of immigrants at the mouth of the serpentine Cuyahoga River.
* * *
Cleveland was conceived by a group of investors from Connecticut who foresaw the potential of a midwest terminus with access to southern agriculture and northern lakes. From the early 1800s through the 1920s, Irish, German, Italian, and Slavic immigrants arrived en masse to work in the shipyards and railroads. Cleveland evolved from a wilderness outpost into a vibrant commercial center for industrial magnates. John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Mather and their ilk built extravagant mansions with ballrooms, manicured lawns, fountains, and carriage houses along Euclid Avenue, known as “Millionaire’s Row.”
The city reached the height of its industrial boom in 1928. The photographer Margaret Bourke-White considered it an architectural paradise for the camera lens. In one of her sepia-toned collections, she captured Cleveland’s most distinctive landmark, the Terminal Tower, looming over the industrial valley, shrouded in atmospheric clouds. Bourke-White’s photograph emanates elegance, height, toil and grit—fitting for a city with high ambitions fueled by the labor of immigrants.
Both of my great-grandfathers emigrated from Poland through Ellis Island to Cleveland in the early 1900s. One lived in Warzsawa and the other in Poznan, two burgeoning Polish enclaves on the perimeter of Cleveland’s industrial flats. They lived with their large families packed into small, wooden houses where the pungent smell of homemade horseradish and moonshine conjured in basements and backyards wafted into dreams of sleeping children. The neighborhood bakeries sold babka (raisin bread) and kolaczki (lily cookies, pronounced ko-lotch-ki)—buttery petals of dough tucked like loving arms over dollops of jam and dusted with powdered sugar. I imagine my great-grandfathers rising from their warm beds and heading out in the cold, gray pre-dawn hours to follow the labyrinth of railroad tracks to their jobs rolling steel and cutting wire in one of Rockefeller’s anonymous factory buildings.
One great-grandfather remained in Cleveland, the other returned to his family farm in Poland, just outside of Krakow. However, his adolescent daughter (my grandmother, Helen) was less enthusiastic about rural living. The story goes that my great-grandfather found her repeatedly standing with a book at the end of row of wheat or barley. Deciding she would never make a good farmer’s wife, he sent her back to Cleveland at age 15 to live with relatives. In my grandmother’s passport photo, taken the same year as Bourke-White’s photograph, she wears a dark peasant dress of indeterminate color, her face is full with the roundness of youth.
From today’s perspective, it is hard to fathom a young girl traveling alone on a steamer across the Atlantic Ocean. I wonder what my grandmother felt boarding the White Line in Bremen, Germany. Who was there to see her off? Did she receive catcalls from rowdy dock workers? Did she fear the open sea? What were her impressions of Cleveland, the Cuyahoga River, and the Terminal Tower that rose above it all?
* * *
My grandmother settled in Poznan, as her father had before her. In fact, both of my grandmothers lived in the crucible of Cleveland’s Polish-Catholic community during the Depression and World War II years. In photographs, they are lithe young women with pin curls and cupid’s bow lips. Their adherence to the fashion of the times belied their jobs as cooks, maids, shop clerks, and factory workers.
By the 1950s, the bakeries and front porch cordiality of Poznan had become a place my ancestors had moved on from, an industrial valley they had risen above. Cleveland’s immigrant sons and daughters moved into Eisenhower-era suburban housing that sprang up around the city like rings of crocus. Electric refrigerators and washing machines defined a growing Polish middle class that brought their community and food traditions with them into bright, new linoleum kitchens that swirled with smells of garlicky roasted pork, sauerkraut, and potato soup. Families practiced the art of “dropping by” a neighbor’s home for an hour of conversation over coffee and cookies. These visits were typically unannounced yet wholly expected, part of the social customs of the time.
My grandmother corresponded frequently with her family after she emigrated, but she never saw her parents, or Poland, again. During World-War II her younger brother, Jan, was caught in a Nazi round-up and either died of illness or was executed in prison—the details are foggy. Though my grandmother dressed smartly and laughed abundantly, an air of guilt about leaving Poland hung around her like the clouds in Bourke-White’s photograph.
* * *
As a young girl, I sat in the passenger seat and listened as my father wound his way through his own stream-of-consciousness narrative of growing up in Cleveland, memories and scenes from days past shimmering in his mind like a sunlit lake. We drove by Poznan, the old Polish neighborhood, and Saint Casimir’s parish, where my father went to school. We stared at a steep slope known as Guinea Hill, where he recalled sled-riding with friends during cold Cleveland winters. He pointed out abandoned lots that used to be basketball courts, where he joined in pick-up games, and Rockefeller Park Lake, where a fisherman once cast a line into his earlobe. One of my favorite stories took place in a Case Western University fraternity house, where he witnessed a fully cooked pork chop tumble out from the fraternity couch cushions.
My mother grew up in Poznan, too, in a robin’s egg blue clapboard house, her life anchored in Polish-Catholic religious education, food and customs. Pictures of my mother portray a skinny girl with the same fair skin, hooded eyes, and blonde pin curls as my grandmother. Each night my grandmother slathered my mother’s hair in goopy, green styling gel and rolled tight pin-curls against her head—an excruciating process that produced the ringlets so popular in the 1940s and 50s.
My mother remembered to me afternoons spent lying on the kitchen counter, her bobby-socked feet crisscrossed as she talked on the phone with girlfriends while drawing on the underside of the cabinet. I recall seeing these drawings of hers, cartoonish dogs and cats, sunrises, and old phone numbers in girlish, loopy handwriting. To me, they were sacred runes from another time. She described long summer days running in the back yard, beyond the tiered garden edged by rocks and plastic ducks into woods and fields of blackberries.
Of course, I had not yet been born and was not there for any of this. But as a child I found myself drawn into these ancestral stories as if I was watching a play from the front row. Can we remember the memories of another? As children, the veil between imagination and reality is thin—thin enough, perhaps, for some of the past to permeate through. Decades later, the memories of my parents and grandparents feel as clear to me as my own memories.
A friend once told me she is stirred more by the memory of people than places. For me, people and places are inseparable; cities, houses and woods contain shadows of the people who once inhabited them. A sled-riding hill, girlish handwriting on the underside of a cabinet: they are testaments to the lives of my ancestors, the meals they shared, the neighborhoods they lived in, the choices they made.
* * *
My own life took shape without children. I had always gone my own way, moving from city to city, confident in my friendships, sexuality and relationships. Yet for a long time, the subject of children aroused such a potent cocktail of guilt I could barely give voice to it. Ecological arguments about overpopulation were plausible defenses, but they did not ameliorate the complicated emotions over my choice to be childless.
I’d read somewhere that a childless woman silences a hundred generations. Throughout my twenties and thirties, I struggled mightily with this piercing reality, believing I had corrupted a universal bond ordained for mothers and daughters. That I regarded ancestry with such reverence seemed doubly cruel. Our family heritage stood upon layers of the Polish-American experience in Cleveland—neighborhoods, customs, stories, food. To keep that diaspora as my own and not pass it on seemed selfish beyond measure.
I rarely spoke of my guilt, but often wondered if my visits home were a search for absolution and affirmation that my life and choices were acceptable to those I loved, who loved me.
After my grandmother died, my mother and I discovered her first recipe book tucked in the far reaches her kitchen cupboard, The Way to a Man’s Heart Settlement Cookbook. The binding was held together by masking tape, food-stained pages yellow with age and imbued with the musty smell of time. Soft lead pencil notations in the margins served as a Rosetta Stone to grandmother’s early married life in Cleveland. Inside was a recipe for kolaczki—the lily cookies as welcoming as Poznan must have been to a 15-year old girl who had left her family in Poland.
* * *
Leave-taking embeds grooves in the heart that smooth out with time and distance. I am in my mid-fifties now and have long reconciled with my choices. I still feel Cleveland’s magnetic pull whenever I drive back to Virginia, though it lessens with each mile. Northern Virginia is my home now; it has been so for more than twenty years.
But my roots are in Poznan. I am From There.
The Allegheny Mountains and Point of Rocks Bridge soften the ache of melancholy, as good friends do. I watch the trees change between Ohio Valley and the Mid-Atlantic. I swear the light changes, too. In the soft clouds that hover beyond Point of Rocks Bridge I see my grandmother describing the recipe for kolaczki. She folds the dough over sweet jam with a slow twisting motion as if rolling a cigarette. “And then you dust them with powdered sugar. So good.”