I’ve been researching my family history since I was a teenager, and – due to poor record keeping – it’s not been easy-going. While my Scots ancestors arrived before the US became a sovereign nation, have a common name and are therefore challenging to discover – some of the more recent immigrants have been easier to find and learn about.
Pictured here is the grave of my Great-Great Grandmother, Stanislawa ‘Stella’ Kaczmarek-Wilk, at Saint Stanislaus Church Cemetery. The headstone is missing a cross, and her name was spelled incorrectly (this mistake literally set her surname in stone as ‘Welk.’ A new headstone to correct the name would have been too costly for a poor immigrant coal miner like my great-great grandfather – Stella’s husband Andrew).
Stella he died a year after the birth of her daughter, Louise Marie (my great-grandmother, or ‘Gram’).
In my youth, I did have the foresight to talk with my Gram Louise about her own parents and grandparents before she passed away in 1997 (exactly one year and ten days after her husband, Michael ‘Mike’ Stanley, my great-grandfater). As she was just a year old when Stella died, standing at her grave brings me nearly as close to my great-great grandmother as her own daughter ever was.
Genealogy is 1 part math, 1 part history, and whole a lot of mystery…
I consider myself fortunate to have known my great-grandparents so well, they were truly from another time. I have nothing but the fondest memories of these older family members and their quirks. Mike (Pap) loved to paint, but he didn’t restrict himself to canvas. Instead, he painted the boulders in the yard in white and red house paint – owls, flowers and – of course – polka dots. Every block of the foundation of their house was adorned with five red polka dots; inside too.
My great grandparents collected calendars – or rather, never removed the old calendars when they put they put up the new. I remembered marveling at them as a kid – ‘ a calendar from 1936!!?! WOW! That’s so old!’ Pap and Gram lived very simply, adopted few modern conviniences and the orchard they planted on their property still bears fruit.
Pap played the harmonica and accordian and Gram….well, she played the lottery.
Pap was a second-generation coal-miner, born in Poland who married a first-generation American, who also happened to be a coal miner’s daughter. Life was very homogeneous in those patch towns, where the coal companies owned the houses, the stores and paid in scrip instead of cash. Despite these conditions, life in America was a great hope for those who wanted to preserve their Polish heritage. My Polish ancestors came to the States to avoid subjugation by the Russian Empire that sought to eradicate all traces of Polish culture and irreverently abolished the churches of my Catholic ancestors.
Though they had very little by today’s standards, my ancestors – like many that had come before them – had the freedom to be themselves in America. Their immigrant status did not go unnoticed by earlier settlers, who much like today – saw the influx of cheap labor as a threat to their livelihood. Like every wave of immigration before and after – ethnic Polish families banded together and founded churches and populated small towns sponsored by the companies they labored their entire lives for. Raised in such an environment (not to mention – surrounded by all of that Polish food) – my great grandparents were the happiest two people I’ve ever known – and were married for nearly 70 years. Even when he had lost all of his teeth, suffered problems of black lung and could only shuffle rather than walk, Pap still mustered smiles that went from ear-to-ear and laughed heartily. Gram was bubbly and cute and always maintained a kind of playful innocence that seems to have vanished from existence.
Each time I visited, Pap gave me a single dollar bill and Louise gave me a Tootsie roll pop. They served orange juice with the pulp and listened to the Polkas on WCNS every Sunday. They also drank Gennessee and Yuengling beers. Pap chewed Levi Garrett tobacco and Gram smoked Kool cigarettes, which she always kept in a leatherette snap case with a lighter holster.
Pap was 94 when he died, and Gram passed away at age 84.
Pictured below is the slate dump just across the road and in the valley near the church and cemetery, a reminder that my ancestors truly lived and died for their work.