The name on the paper was Regina Wrozkowna. She was the earliest ancestor in my family tree, researched by my cousin’s daughter who lives in Switzerland. That summer afternoon at a family reunion in upstate New York, the kitchen smelled of baked ziti, kielbasa, strong coffee and sugary cake frosting.
I’d been out of touch with my father’s family for years. He was a difficult man who feuded with his brothers, but now I was in my fifties and wanted to reconnect with his side of the family, to be part of a clan of cousins most of whom were older than I. And though I didn’t know it yet, I longed for someone to look up to, someone who would watch over me.
Regina’s name stayed with me on the long drive home, a name that tied me back two hundred years to eastern Europe. A woman’s name.
She had twelve children. I know her dates of birth, marriage and death and the name of her husband, but I feel compelled to know more. Writing her story will be a process of discovery and creativity.
My Unitarian Universalist church introduced me to feminist spirituality. I learned there that the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland, whose picture hung in my classroom, is only one of hundreds of dark goddess-like figures worldwide. My mother and I were not close. Today, I’m wondering if I want to write about Regina to claim her for myself, my own personal Madonna.
I began writing my novel about Regina two years ago. I’ve workshopped it twice. The other day, I printed out the whole manuscript, over fifty thousand words. It contains loose ends, awkward transitions, undeveloped characters and situations that make no sense.
Revision is next, and it feels overwhelming. Each time I pick a place to start, I can’t make it work. I wonder if I should put the novel aside and go back to writing memoirs and personal essays. Maybe it’s too late, at sixty-three, to learn to write fiction.
But this story feels like something I must do. Not for my family and Regina’s, but for me. It sticks to me like stinging nettle, demanding attention. And promising my life will never be the same.