My grandmother was born in Iwanowice, a small town outside of Krakow, exactly 88 years ago. I wished I could have told her about my visit, but in a way I believe that she had something to do with sending Halina as my guide to her hometown.
It is early in September and the muted morning sky mirrors the same soft gray of the cobblestones of the Main Square. Halina is already waiting under the towering presence of Adam Mickiewicz, just as I remembered her a year earlier at my grandmother’s funeral where we first met. Her face breaks into an easy smile when she sees me.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t like village food,” Halina say with a wink as she ushers me to the nearly deserted food court in the Galeria Krakowska. Soon after we catch a well-kept local bus conveniently located right behind the mall. I board clutching the oil stained paper plates that contain my backup dinner.
An immaculate mint green sign with white lettering announces our arrival a quick 19 kilometers outside of Krakow. The bus drops us off in the main area of town that consists of a general store and a hostel with an adjacent restaurant promising pizza.
Seeing her hometown almost a century later, I doubt my Babcia would have recognized it, with all the new housing developments that leave the older, worn down properties in the shadows.
As we wander along the outskirts of the town, the landscape begins to spread out, dressed up in various shades of green. We come to the edge of a field with trees that are draped with ivy around their trunks. “This is it,” Halina pauses at a large white two-story house with brown trim. A handful of chickens silently huddle in a small gated yard nearby. “We’ll visit when we come back,” she says as we continue through an open field filled with grass that brushes the top of my bare knees, “but first I have a few places to show you.”
We trace our way along the moss-colored stream that had carved itself into the moist earth along the periphery of the property. I imagine this stream almost a century before, the source of endless entertainment for my grandmother and her siblings in the warm, summer days before the war broke out in Poland.
Perched on the hill, a small wooden church is being renovated, with a patchwork of blue tarps on its exterior. Inside is the sacred space that my grandmother and her family had found solace in every Sunday, beneath the piercing greens, reds, blue and yellows of the stain glass windows and dark wooden paneling.
Beyond the church, high on yet another hill is the town cemetery, where row of names ending in -ski and -ska appear. We finally came to a small cluster of plots, with the names Kitlinski and Kitlinska carved in stone. Slowing moving through each grave in disbelief, I carefully try to piece together a map of my Polish heritage of those that came before me.
We retrace our path back to the property. My great-step aunt answers the door of the white house and the resemblance to my grandmother is immediately apparent in her pale blue eyes. She embraces me as if we had known each other our whole lives.
As the hushed twilight settles around us, we head back to Halina’s home. She prepares steaming bowls of chicken soup and a salad fresh from the garden. The meal is delicious in its simplicity and the best I have had so far on this trip. Her brother and cousin joined us around the dining room table and the four of us not all sharing a common language eat mostly in silence.
Listening to the sounds of slurping and spoons clinking, I smile silently to myself, thinking this scene was reminiscent of what my grandmother was familiar with growing up in Iwanowice a lifetime ago.
I had inherited a bit of her life stories in the best way possible.
Have you ever explored your heritage? How did you do it?