The Persistence of the Polish Memory
by James D. Summers
Despite a thorough assimiliation of my family into American society after more than a hundred years, I still feel the tug of my Polish roots from time to time, especially when I recollect family stories and customs. Here is a subjective sampling of fragmentary reminders of Poland that hauntingly resonate with my genealogical findings; or perhaps I attach a greater significance to them than they deserve.
This is my primary legacy from Poland. In a nation that tolerates all religions, the Catholic faith of my ancestors escaped America's melting pot. Some Suchomski descendants continued to be practicing Catholics, and this has made genealogical research on them in the U. S. and Poland much easier because it is one constant historical link. Of course, some of my mother's ancestors were Catholics, too, and she was not of Polish background.
My grandfather and father both favored foods with a sweet-sour taste (and I do, too). Is this a Polish predilection? Maybe. I once witnessed my father enjoying a stew of pork shanks and prunes prepared by my paternal aunt. She said this was a favorite dish of his that my paternal grandmother used to make (my grandmother was born in Tuchola, near Bydgoszcz, in present-day Kujawy-Pomorze province, but grew up in the U.S.). Some acquaintances in Poland from the vicinity of Tuchola said that this is indeed Polish cuisine. Another Polish aquaintance said it sounded more like a German delicacy.
A memory of my paternal grandmother in the kitchen, from my sister: before my grandmother would cut a loaf of bread, she would incise a cross in it. Is this a Polish custom? It might also generally have been a Catholic custom. One Polish acquaintance said it is definitely a Polish habit.
The Suchomskis came from a densely forested area of Poland in present-day Kujawy-Pomorze province. The Tucholski forest is slightly north of the ancestral villages. My paternal grandfather, Edmund Suchomski (Summers), was buried in River Grove, IL, facing a view of the Cook County forest preserves. My father belonged to a Catholic fraternal, Modern Woodmen, and I belong to Catholic Foresters. My parents had a painting of a forest prominently displayed over the living room sofa. Was our family cherishing the ancestral forest or are these merely coincidences?
My mother told me several times a story that my paternal grandfather had been severely scalded when a bowl of hot soup (in another telling it was coffee) tipped onto his lap. The story always had an urgent quality to it, that is, out of all the possible stories she could have related about my grandfather, she felt compelled to tell this one; and he was not even her kin.
In my genealogical research, I came across a death record of one of my paternal great-great-aunts in Poland. She died in 1851 at the age of three and a half years, from scalding. Had my grandfather been actually scalded, or was the Polish ancestor's tragedy merely being recounted again and again by proxy?
The Place of the Plum
My sister married a Slovak. When our two families met for the first time shortly before the wedding, my father toasted my future brother-in-law's parents with s'liwowica [plum brandy], which he purchased especially because he thought it would please his Slavic guests. Some early Suchomskis came from Zdroje, which used to be in S'liwice parish, near Bydgoszcz, Kujawy-Pomorze province. S'liwice means "Plum Place." Was my father unwittingly offering his "plum" (his daughter, indeed, his whole heritage) to this Slovak family?
A Tailor's Eye
My father had a fetish about the length and cut of men's trousers. He would critically assess his sons' pants length; and that of the man-on-the-street. His paternal grandfather (John Suchomski), his great-grandfather and one of his great-uncles were tailors. Did he get all of this from them?