Saturday, July 25, 2009

finding family: in Michigan

The drive through the Upper Penninsula is always a calm treat. Much of the Lake Michigan coastline is forested (the Hiawatha National Forest) and the peeks at the lake waters are enchanting. Even when the weather is iffy (alternating between rain, fog and a stuffy haze).



Two hours later, we are at the Mackinac Bridge, connecting the UP with the Michigan mit.



And now, it’s only an hour’s trip along a narrow country road to Cross Village.




Cross Village. High up on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. It was once a lumber town. But, a fire destroyed most of it back in 1918. I’m told that only the American Indians stayed.

My grandfather (“Dziadek” in Polish) was born in 1885 in a wee village in southwest Poland (not really Poland then: there was no Poland as such in 1885). My grandmother (“Babcia”) was younger and her family home was further east—in a part of Poland that is now the Ukraine. Following a convoluted history of travels back and forth between Poland and America, his short career in car manufacture and a long career in labor organizing (and hers in cleaning and baking), Dziadek and Babcia came to Cross Village.

An old friend, Stas, had opened up a tavern here (the Legs Inn). I know this about my grandfather: he wasn’t a fan of excessive drinking, card playing or organized religion (all three habits dominated village life and were as Polish as apple szarlotka). What he did love was the world of nature. He and my grandmother practiced organic farming before it had a name attached to it. Cross Village was, in his eyes, serenely beautiful. He chose it for his (first) retirement. [He would go back to labor work and construction work, but in 1945, he thought that this was it: the place to hang it up, while picking up some cash from the Polonia Guest House that he built on the bluff, overlooking Lake Michigan.]

Okay, enough family history. The point is that Cross Village is barely a dot on the Google map. With a population of not even 300, it lacks, well, pretty much everything. It has a post office where you can pick up your mail. On and off it has had a store.

Oh, but now it also has a “destination place.” So tells me the grandnephew of Stas. (I ask Ed -- what’s a destination place? He tells me – oh, you know, like Disneyland.)

But we didn’t start off at the tavern. First on my list of Cross Village places to find is my grandparents’ old Guest House. I have a photo of it – taken when my grandfather finished working on it in 1945. I show it to the first person we run into – a guy who is pushing a mower as his pals sit in the yard cheering him on.

Oh, that must be the bluff house. Sure, I know it. We come up here for vacations, but yeah, it’s down the road there.

Only later do I find out that I have just been speaking to my second cousin (by marriage).

We drive down to the “bluff house.” Yes, it’s the one.


I knock on the door. An older woman answers. Excuse me… my grandfather, he built this place. Can I look around? And maybe take a photo or two?

Mrs. Jessick has lived here since she married Louis the Polish post master, back in 1961. They bought the house shortly after their wedding. Probably from the cook that my grandfather sold it to when he decided to return to Poland in 1951.

Ed and I go inside. We exchange stories and photos and I listen to a more detailed history of Cross Village. She has a binder of information and I have one too (my mother put it all down on paper not too long ago).

As I sit in her living room, I have this infinitely sad sense of the presence of my grandparents. Because I see them here – the knotty pine, favored by my grandfather in all his construction projects; the trim above the doorway, the stairwell – so similar to the one he later built in his subsequent home in Poland, in the village where I was raised by him and my grandmother (for the first few years of my life).


And I see the land where my grandmother grew vegetables and I look out the kitchen window where she surely must have looked out repeatedly as she cooked meals for the guests who came up here from Chicago and Detroit.

There is a skeleton of the outhouse here still and I’m thrown back to the years where in Poland we used an outhouse as well. (And well water. And kerosene for light. And coal for cooking. Sounds basic, I know. Indeed, Cross Village had more amenities when they left than their subsequent house in Poland did, until the electricity was brought to that village.)

Mrs. Jessick may have wanted a longer visit, but I am on a mission. She asks me if I met the person who shares my grandfather’s name. Surprised, I tell her I didn’t know I had relatives here. Oh, but I do. The man with the mower is married to a woman whose father was the son of my grandfather’s brother. I get it – they’re my second cousins! I go back and reintroduce myself. Here he is – Paul, in the house that my grandfather’s brother began building before suddenly, he just gave up.


The day is turning rainy and wet. Ed and I go over to the Legs Inn. What can I say – it is indeed a destination place. Absolutely packed, for those looking for something that’s a cross between Indian folk and Polish memorabilia, with a few cougar and deer heads thrown in.


Ed and I order lunch – bigos and pierogi for me (hunter’s stew with cabbage, mushrooms and sausage, and dumplings filled with cabbage and mushrooms, and with potatoes and cheese).


I’ll admit it: when my grandmother cooked these, I remember being enthralled. I swear hers were fantastic: lighter, healthier too. But I also have to say that hers is the only Polish kitchen that I have ever loved. It could be that my experience with Polish cooking is miserably deficient. My mother never liked to cook and I don’t think she ever even looked at a szarlotka recipe.

Ed and I struggle to finish the heavy foods (he orders smoked whitefish as a nod to our Lake Michigan circuit and vegetable golabki – cabbage stuffed with rice and veggies; normally it also has meat, but hey, the Legs proudly has a vegetarian offering. It aims to please.

So this is it. Cross Village. Logging town, then a nothing place, except not really, because it’s the place of stories so closely tied to Dziadek and Babcia. In the absurdly long winters of Poland, with the help of a kerosene lamp, he told me fables and taught me to read before I ever saw the inside of a nursery school. She fed me zurek and pierogi and salads from her organic garden. I picked through blueberries with her and I watched a bee crawl up his arm as he closed his eyes to the sun and breathed deeply.

Dziadku, you have a bee on your arm.
Yes, I do.
Swat it away! It will bite you!
Why? Don’t you like to watch bees?

When I left for America (for the first time, as a kid), he gave me a book of Polish folk songs. Sing them occasionally – he told me.

I do, but it makes me cry each time.
So emotional, Ed would tell you.

P.S.: We're spending the next two days on an island off the coast of Lake Michigan. I'll resume posting late Monday.