The elderhostel folks say we can take side trips to the hometowns of our ancestors. My friend Grace, who is from Poland, says we can take a busik (little bus) to most villages. Even if Regina’s house, #49 in Wojtowa, is gone, I will walk in her footsteps near the Ropa River.
We will stay a few days each in Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznan (my maternal grandma’s hometown), Wroclaw and Krakow. We will eat at a small farm and attend a Chopin concert. We will visit bookstores and sidewalk cafes. Two weeks in Europe with my love heart, walking the land of our foremothers (and fathers too!)
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.
This afternoon, I printed out the manuscript of my novel about my ancestor, Regina Culisz. She lived in the 18th century in the Austrian Empire, in what is now Poland. I’m a memoir writer, but I know very little about this woman, so I’m going to have to tell her story as fiction. In other words, I’m making it all up. Mostly.
I read James Michener’s Poland and James Conroyd Martin’s Against a Crimson Sky, which takes place about the time when she was alive. I have books on Polish customs and folklore. Now I need to go there, to stand in Wojtowa, where Regina was born in 1778.
Steve and I loved our Georgia elderhostel last year, and so we signed up for a weeklong trip to Warsaw and Krakow with the same group, now called Exploritas. We planned a side trip to Wojtowa, which we heard is not far from Krakow, but we were the only people who registered, and the trip has been cancelled.
We’re now looking into a two-week tour of the entire country in July. Today, we discovered that it will cost ten thousand dollars! Do we spend the money, knowing we’ll see and learn a great deal with this organization? Or do we put it off (again) and look for a cheaper way to go?