Finding Strength in Our Roots

I’m lazy, a blue ribbon procrastinator. I should be writing everyday, I have the time. My writing process is strange. I get an idea, I feel its voice inside me, first hesitant and weak. Its like the old fashion coffee stove top coffee percolator my mom gave me years ago. It is a treasured object because it reminds me of her and an earlier time before Kuerigs and Starbucks cappuccinos. I take it camping for my favorite thing to do; build a campfire, have coffee and read. There is a process, put in the water to the mark that is just a faint discoloration in the metal, measure in the ground coffee into the metal basket, and finally place on the lid with its tiny glass globe. I then put it on the gas stove and wait. The water heats, travels up a tube to the coffee waiting for it in the basket. They mingle and play and soon the pale spirit of their union shows itself in the glass top. The coffee jumps as it get darker and darker, stronger and strong. Soon I smell its lovely aroma. It has evolved, it has become something wonderful and I smile.

That’s my writing process. I start unconfident, wondering if my ideas are stupid and how many people will make fun of them. But then things happen, little things that build on other things and they make chains like the green and red loops on a Christmas tree. I move toward my computer and I find I have to write, I have no choice, the need to release the words is too strong.

This post started weeks ago when I met up with my friend, Tammy. I had not seen her since she retired. Tammy who loves The Adirondacks, beautiful prose, art ,and deep thoughts. Tammy who is a fierce Mama Bear who fights for underdogs and scapegoats. She was the last friend I saw before my “social distancing.” There was an intensity in our chat as we sat in the all white newness of the little coffee shop half way between our two houses. Things were shared that we never shared before. With a pandemic slowly inching toward our backyards, there seemed to be a strong need to listen, really listen. I remember things once mentioned and not acknowledged at the school we both taught at. She had said something about relatives from Russia but I only nodded and rushed on. As I finally heard her story I was fascinated. She allowed me to borrow her faded green folder with an old fashioned spring clasp, a collection of newspaper clippings and a careful recording of her family tree and history.

Tammy’s great grandfather, Frank Leon Ronas was born in Minsk in 1878. He fled Russia by way of England and eventually made it to America where he worked in a Pennsylvania coal mine at age eleven. He headed north to Canada but settled in Northern New York, a place known for its soft cheese making and dairy farms. Frank worked on the farm of Eber Steik in Philadelphia, New York while going to school to perfect his English and assimilate into American culture. He quit school after the eighth grade to work full time on the John McNeil farm. He fell in love with Mary Etta Holkins who lived across the road. The couple married and bought their own farm. Later they inherited the Holkins farm.

The Holkins Road that I know so well , the beginning of all my journeys and the path that always welcomes me home, now has an added significance. It holds lessons of character and perseverance and a chapter in a love story. And today, in my fifth week of “social distancing” I find great comfort and feel the incredible but real strength of people who came before me.

My grandparents came to America from Poland in the early 1900’s. The men did the jobs that no one else would take in the chemical factories along the Niagara River. The women cleaned rich people’s houses.

A long time ago at my school where I taught someone asked me why I said I was Polish-American and told me I shouldn’t do it. Her comment was hurtful but I forgave her because she will never understand. Her maiden and married names are Anglo Saxon Protestant. She will never be able to image the richness of my heritage and the bravery of immigrants who left everything familiar to go out into the unknown with only faith and resilience. Facing struggles and overcoming obstacles, they created paths and inspiration for future generations.

So, right before my “social distancing”, I met Tammy at the little coffee shop with the white walls and she told me a story. Because of her, I’m hopeful. I know our ancestors are with us and they will help us get through the coming months.

Thank you so much, Tam, and I’m so sorry it took me so long to listen.