So many times we only study history in books, or maybe the occasional show on TV.  We often fail to realize that history is all around us.  The stories that our parents and grandparents hold carry with it so much more than we can glean from a book.  We can see how certain events affected their lives and in turn shaped us into who we are.  But not every bit of history has to be a world changing event for it to be memorable.  Over my Christmas vacation I managed to snag a few moments alone with my grandmother (Bubba – the one on the right) to get a few tidbits of my own history.  I was amazed at what I could learn in short amount of time.

A colorless sky, typical of Pennsylvania in late December, stretched out before me as I traveled the salt and cinder covered roads to visit my grandmother on Christmas day.  On my way there I pondered how to breach the subject of my grandmothers past.  There was so much I wanted to know but didn’t want to alienate the 75 matriarch known as “Bubba.”  Had I heard stories in the past and not paid much attention?  Was there a past she didn’t want to talk about?  Did she maybe just not remember at all any more and asking her would be painful?  All of these questions crossed my head as I tried to script out the conversation in my head.

After a relatively quick hour and a half drive, I pulled up the gravel road and into the driveway like I’ve done as a driver and passenger countless times before.  I grabbed the gift from the backseat and walked down the sidewalk to the back door.  The same as I did 30 years ago as a kid.  As my mind quickly flashed back I can’t help but to think about how little has changed in all of my years of coming to this house. At the door I was greeted with a hug from a small frail woman with a bandage on her right hand as a result recent carpal tunnel surgery.  I followed her slow, limped walk back through the kitchen/dining room into the immaculately kept living room where we took up seats opposite each other.  Her on the reclining rocker, that was the easiest for her to get out of, and me lounging on the sofa across the room.

We got down to the typical light chit-chat.  Questions about my job and my life.  Gossip about people around her neighborhood I never heard of, but listened politely and even asked questions to show interest.  After all, just because I didn’t know them, didn’t mean i didn’t want to know the gossip.

Then it happened.  A moment that you cant script.  A conversation so organic that I can’t even remember how it came about.  I guess what I’m saying is “it just happened.”  Next thing I know we are talking about the house that we are sitting in.  The house that she has lived in for over 50 years.  The same house that my mom and her brother and sister were raised in.  The first,, and only, house that my grandparents bought in their nearly 50 years together.  The first house that either of them lived in with indoor plumbing.  That fact blew my mind.

From there the conversation flowed.  I tried to show my genuine and absolute interest in everything she was saying so that she would know i was enjoying the talk.  I attempted to find the right questions to ask that would be open enough to allow her to just talk.  I didn’t want to strain the talks, or steer her down any particular path.  I just wanted to take it all in.  I gained so much out of that hour with my grandma that I wish I would have recorded it so that I could write it all down.  Below are a few notes that really stuck out to me put into no particular order:

  • Her father and grandfather were the first generation to come to the US from Poland.  At some point his father (her grandfather) went back to take care of family business and somehow got murdered (she used the word murdered – not killed).  She didn’t know much more about that
  • Having arrived in the new world with little to no money they stopped at a diner to eat and noticed a sign that read “crackers free.”  With limited knowledge of customs, or the English language, they sat down and ordered stack after stack of crackers
  • My Grandma was the youngest of 12 (I believe) children.  The oldest was over 20 years older than her.  She was the first and only in her immediate family to graduate high school, which made her, still mostly Polish speaking, father beam with pride.
  • Her mother was 16 when she got married to her 20 year old husband who worked in the coal mines.
  • My grandmother met my grandfather outside of a dance that she was too young to get into
  • My grandparents removed the second story from their house with the help of my grandfathers brothers.  During the removal process the brothers teased my grandma that if they found any of her “underpants” they were going to hang them from the roof.  She made sure to keep them well hidden during the deconstruction.
  • People from all over the small town parked along the street to watch the construction/deconstruction process since they ended up building the new roof inside of the second story before being torn down.  Yeah I don’t quite get it, but I can see why people would line up to watch
  • She played a lot of cards.  Random- I know

There was a lot to take in.  So much so that I honestly can’t wait to do it again.  The look on her face as she remembered brothers and sisters that have passed was that of nostalgia and a wish that some things never changed.  She would rub her hand (to ease the pain from the surgery, not like an evil genius) as she struggled to get details that were important to her, but not to the story.  Maybe I should say that there were important to HER version of the story but added little to my understanding of it.

As I left there that day and strolled up the same sidewalk that I walked down earlier I seemed to flash back.  There used to be a big apple tree in the left of the yard that I’d climb.   A grape arbor on the right used to shade me on those hot days when I needed a break.  The hedges that once traced the perimeter of the property have been replaced by 6 foot high privacy fence.  I got in the car, rolled down the window, and waved a good bye to the little lady standing on the patio.  I couldn’t place my finger on it but something I was looking at was very familiar. Yet, some part of it had changed too.