The somberly dressed family stares out of a formal portrait taken in the early part of the last century, Michael and Appolonia surrounded by their eleven children. Their children in turn had eighty-one offspring. From there the line extends to the present day, expanding well beyond the original eleven.
Families were bigger then, wealth measured differently; your children your riches. Life was hard. Poland was a doormat for invading armies from the east and west. It has no natural barriers to conquest. People lived under a succession of kings and princes who made them work for nothing. Many felt that if they were to work this hard, they might as well do it for themselves. They left.
Appolonia was seventeen when Michael asked her father for her hand. He was twenty seven, their marriage arranged. The young couple heard about a more hopeful life in a far off country, got enough money together and left for America. For awhile they settled in Pennsylvania and then moved to Benton County in central Minnesota.
The story of these Polish immigrants in many ways is not a whole lot different from the stories of many other people who came to this country seeking a better life. History is full of the migrations of others trying to escape desperate situations. In the process others are displaced, other cultures and ways of life lost, a sad fact of history.
I am haunted by the image of Appolonia, my great grandmother, staring out of the picture I saw at a family reunion. The choices she and Grandpa Mike had are certainly different from the ones I have. To get up and go took courage, to bear and raise eleven children a demonstration of persistence, dedication and hope. This country was settled by their like.
The Greatest Generation passing was fired in the forge of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Those of us raised since that time have enjoyed relative ease and comfort. The sense of desperation and living on the edge now, circles back in our times for many who seek freedom from oppression and poverty.
We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Looking at the old pictures brought to a recent birthday party and speaking of the sometimes forgotten history of that immigrant generation casts a whole new light on the responsibility that is passed to us.
Education then and now is the ticket to a better future. To make it to eighth grade then was unusual, graduating from high school an accomplishment, and going to college for many out of the question.
Less then a hundred years later much has changed. Access to learning in a variety of settings is readily available to most. The responsibility to learn, to make a better life for our children remains, as it did for Michael and Appolonia.