November 2, 2014
All Saints Day. All Souls’ Day. Wszystkich Świętych. El Día de los Muertos. This is the moment when in so many cultures the line between living and dead grows thin, when one world touches another. In Poland the cemeteries are currently thronging with people; crowds are gathering at the graves of their beloved dead, lighting candles in reverence and prayer. In Mexico, the celebration of Day of the Dead combines solemnity with comedy; people make beautiful altars in honour of the dead and dance dressed as skeletons during wild festivities. In my current city of Toronto, red poppies are beginning to appear lapels in preparation for Remembrance Day. Though focused on honouring those soldiers who lost their lives in the two world wars of the twentieth century, many Canadians treat the eleventh of November as a time to honour all of those who have come before us.
As a Catholic born and raised in the United States of America, I am fascinated by the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. I come from a culture where death is a taboo topic, where the elderly and dying are hidden away in hospitals and nursing homes. In American culture, youth is usually seen as the best part of life; most people live in denial of ageing and death. Our Memorial Day in May holds none of the solemnity of Wszystkich Świętych in Poland or Remembrance Day in Canada – most of us treat it as simply the unofficial beginning of summer, a good chance to go to the park and enjoy a nice picnic. I am more than sympathetic to this attitude toward death; indeed, despite my religious faith I live in as much fear and denial of it as anyone. But, this time of year causes me to step back and reflect on my own impending mortality and the memory of my ancestors – not only distant ones, but my own grandparents (both of my grandfathers died before I was born, and I lost my grandmothers during my teenage years), aunts, uncles and cousins. Despite their absence, they live in my memories, and perhaps they still exist in another realm that briefly touches ours during these late-autumn days. Tonight, on this freezing November evening, I am thinking of my father’s mother, Emille, a stoic yet tender Polish-American woman whom I lovingly called Bacci.
If I search for Emille on the Internet, the only results I get are links to ancestry websites that mention her birth and death dates. This is hardly surprising, given that she was born in the era of horse drawn carriages and died when computers and the Internet were only beginning to really transform the world. Nevertheless, there is no Wikipedia page to describe her accomplishments; no biography has been written about her. And yet, for me, she is nothing less than remarkable. In addition to witnessing all of the major events of the twentieth century – from two world wars to the advent of space travel – my Bacci dared to live boldly and passionately, refusing to bend to societal expectations. Born into an upper middle class family with an aristocratic mentality, she studied pharmacy in the 1920’s – a time when few women dared to even imagine pursuing higher education. I must admit I chuckle whenever I pick up her old university yearbook and read the all-male editorial board’s commentary on their female colleague: “Watch out for that frigid stare if she doesn’t like you.” While I used to imagine my grandmother – who indeed had a stern, imperious demeanour – as being somewhat disagreeable, I now suspect that this posture was a survival technique, a means of commanding respect as one of three women daring to enter a male male-dominated class studying for a male-dominated profession.
Upon graduating, Emille didn’t go to work as a pharmacist – not at first. For some years she followed the path that was expected of her (though I suspect it was also the path that she wanted). She married my grandfather, had her children, and devoted herself to living as creatively as she could in the context she was given. She cooked, baked, canned, knitted and crocheted items that received prizes each year at the county fair; she painted, did calligraphy, read in four languages, built gingerbread houses at Christmas, wrote, collected antiques, and maintained a garden that bloomed from February through November. I am always amazed at the range of her abilities (after subsisting on my mother’s meals for the first eighteen years of my life and takeout for the next ten, I have only now begun to experience the joys of cooking; handicrafts and artistic ability are lost on me). However, what amazes me even more is that in the late 1950’s, thirty years after completing her Bachelor of Science degree, my Bacci went to work for the first time. As a pharmacist. Economic need drove her to it – her husband was dying of cancer and could no longer work himself; the family was in deep debt. And so, without making any fuss, she brushed up on what she had learned decades earlier, researched the latest developments in her field, and got to work.
Naturally I wish I could ask her how she did it. Was there no fear, no self-doubt behind that firm expression she always wore? How did she relearn everything, and how did she become informed of all the ways her field had changed in those thirty years? How did she keep her resilience in the face of so much adversity? During my Bacci’s long life, she had the misfortune of losing not only her husband, but three of her five children (one died in infancy, two in the prime of life) as well as her daughter-in-law; she coped with her husband’s alcoholism, endured economic hardships and the challenges of caring for him when his health failed in middle age, and eventually had to face her own ageing and death. And yet, with a fortitude as unassuming as it was strong, she moved through the phases of her life as deftly and gracefully as a trained dancer, always landing on her feet. She worked as a pharmacist for three decades, only retiring in her mid eighties when no longer physically capable of meeting the job’s demands. She continued pursuing her hobbies throughout her life, crocheting the beautiful tablecloth that now adorns my parents’ dining room table. During the second half of her life she travelled to over thirty countries on five continents, hiking in New Zealand, dealing with black market money changers in communist Poland and joining one of the first groups of foreign tourists to visit China after its revolution. She never tired of learning and experiencing as much as life would allow her – which, as she delightfully found out, was quite a lot.
However, what impresses me most about my grandmother is the strength she showed in the face of life’s challenges. Compared to her, I have led an easy life. As of this writing, I have yet to deal with serious financial hardship; I have yet to care for the dying; I have no children and certainly cannot imagine what it would be like to lose them. And yet, I feel like I’m always on the edge of some crisis, always about to stumble into an emotional abyss of loneliness, discouragement or fear. How did she keep her chin up like that? When she died in 1995 I had just turned twelve years old; I was much too young to appreciate the richness of her life and the strength of her character. Sometimes, I wish I could have her back, just for an afternoon or evening meal. I wish I could clasp her hand in mine, look into her big blue eyes, and ask her how she did it. She is one of the ones who made me; one quarter of my genetic material is hers, so surely there must be some of her in me. But at the present moment, as I stand at a crossroads and face a future filled with uncertainty, I don’t know where to find her.
A few years after my Bacci’s death, I attended a charismatic religious retreat intended specifically for youth. I remember it as an impactful and somewhat unnerving event, filled with music and song that put all of us participants into a trance-like state. Suddenly, her face flashed before me; I felt her gnarled hand on my shoulder, reaching out with tenderness and love. It wasn’t a hallucination, and I don’t believe it was her ghost. It was only a memory. But, it still startled me. I hadn’t really thought of her much during my teenage years, and then, all of a sudden, she appeared. “She’s watching over you,” my father said gently when I later told him about my experience. And, while I’m not sure if that is true that the dead watch over the living, I can’t help but imagine that somewhere, in some way she is aware of my life, just as I have become aware of hers.
“Do you think Bacci would approve of how I’ve lived during these years?” I recently asked my father, referring to my twenties, which were filled with travel and educational pursuits. “She’d love it,” he affirmed, and all I can say is that I hope that he’s right. And, now that I can sense challenges on the horizon, I also hope that I can draw strength from this connection that, though tenuous, somehow feels stronger as we celebrate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. One of the things I most love about my Catholic faith is the idea that the living and the dead form a community – we call it the communion of saints. Despite our individuality, despite the inevitable isolation that each of us must endure, we can trust that we are all on this human journey together, and we can also rely on one another for strength – not only our living friends and companions, but also the beloved ancestors who have walked this road before us.