Independence Day Meant Something More To My Grandparents


Independence Day! It’s so much more than hot dogs on the grill and fireworks overhead, parades down the street and toddlers waving flags. To my Polish grandparents, it meant freedom from the constant invasion of their homeland by various neighboring countries, and tempting new opportunities in a country where it was rumored that the streets were paved with gold.

My grandfather, Lawrence, then a teenager, accompanied his uncle on the month-long voyage across the Atlantic to join his brothers, who were already farming and mining in northern Michigan. Believe it or not, when he stepped off the boat, the first thing he did was pick up a gold coin that was lying in the street. “So the rumors are true!” he exulted.

His real treasure, however, was finding my grandmother, Anna. Also a plucky teenager, she set out alone to cross the ocean during World War I, leaving her worried mother behind. When the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank on May 7, 1915, her mother started grieving. Imagine her surprise to receive a letter from Anna several weeks later. She’d been on a different ship!

Lawrence met Anna in Crystal Falls, Michigan, at the Crystal Inn, where she was working in the restaurant. They married in 1916 and had 11 children, nine of whom survived. From these nine, Lawrence and Anna slowly learned English, as the kids picked it up at school.

“Even though everyone for miles around spoke Polish, they were eager to learn the language of their chosen land,” my mother remembered. “But it took time.” One day, when Anna went to the store to buy a colander, she didn’t know the word and instead managed to ask for a “water-go-through, spaghetti-stop.” No one minded. They were all learning together. “What I remember about my parents the most was that they were so in love,” my mother recalled.

And that might be something we overlook on Independence Day — the love. Because not only did our ancestors leave their mark on the land, they also left their mark through their families. After hewing down trees, picking rocks from the dirt, tilling and planting and harvesting the fields, milking the cows and making sure everyone was fed, Lawrence and Anna and their nine children did have a little time left over. And, just like today, that time was filled with lots of laughter, occasional tears and the shaping of nine more legacies going forth into the nation.

Whether your grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers, miners, industrialists, teachers, nurses, shopkeepers, whatever, their personalities shaped our country as surely as their work did, probably more.

In my case, I am fortunate enough to know what an “adventurous spirit” feels like, and I’m pretty sure it feels the same for me as it did for Anna when as she stepped onto that ship. It’s a “Goodbye, Known. Hello, Unknown!” kind of feeling. It served Lawrence and Anna well, and it has served me well my entire life.

So that’s what I’ll be thinking about when “twilight’s last gleaming” is filled with the excitement of fireworks — the excitement of love and life itself.