I was looking for inspiration for my “I” post and coming up blank. I knew I wanted to talk about Identity—specifically, American identity, and even more specifically, my Polish-American identity.

I don’t come by it very honestly, really. I’ve never been to Poland. I don’t speak any Polish. I have in me, of course, several other nationalities and ethnicities, as most Americans do; and of course I am very interested in and proud of the stories and accomplishments of my English and Swiss ancestors.  But my Polish immigrant ancestry is the most recent, and thus the most immediate, and it’s also the most . . . well, the most. Fully fifty percent.

In my search for inspiration, I googled Polish American Identity, and one of the hits gave me this article by Caroline Puckowski, in which the author, a young woman whose parents came from Poland, recognizes and then laments the loss of the Polish part of her identity as her family becomes more and more Americanized.

She opens her article with the following lines:

I stood on a gravel path between two perfectly straight rows of gravestones, hands shoved into my pockets as I tried to hide from the blustering wind. Despite the unseasonably cold weather, a number of visitors strolled about the cemetery. Flowers and candles adorned the majority of graves, testaments to friends and family who had recently come to pay their respects. I, too, had come to do the same.

The cemetery she’s referring to is in Poland, and she’s there to leave flowers on the grave of her grandfather. The article is dated May 31, 2012.

It got me.

It got me because in the last days of May 2012, I too was trying to get my bearings in a cemetery far from home, though not as far as Puckowski had ventured.

st john's cemetery jackson mi 5-20-12

This cemetery is in Jackson, Michigan, where my grandparents settled when my grandfather, a boilermaker for the New York Central Railroad, was transferred there from New Jersey in 1913. I was in Jackson on a research trip (much of my novel is set there), though my first stop was to visit the graves of my grandparents and nine aunts and uncles buried there.

But it took me three days to find them all.  It’s a big cemetery, and I didn’t have a map.

I found my grandparents’ headstone last; it was clear on the other side of the cemetery from the others. The names on this stone, in addition to those of my grandparents (Joseph and Apolonia), belong to my much-beloved Uncle Eddie, who never married; my grandfather’s brother Alex; and Josephine, a child who died in infancy, though I like to think of her as my Aunt Josie.

urenowicz headstone 5-22-12

That my other aunts and uncles are in the same cemetery but so far removed from this site, as well as from each other—and two other aunts and uncles are interred in California, while my mom is here in Wisconsin—strikes me as symbolic: the scattering of a family across time, across so much time.

In my mind, though, they are all still together. Laughing. Making jokes. Cooking and eating the most marvelous meals. Celebrating life.

I spent quite some time at each grave, remembering their smiles, their laughter, and their sparkling eyes, and marveling that the last time I’d seen most of them, I was fourteen years old.

I shed many tears.

This, I thought—this is my Polish-American identity: my enduring love for beloved relatives who, though I haven’t seen them in forty years, still and will forever shape my worldview, how I think, and who I am.

I speak no Polish. I’ve never been to Poland. But Poland and its people, its customs and traditions, are in me. In my heart of hearts, I know these Polish-American souls have shaped who I am.

But I brought no flowers.

I wish I had.

And when I go back again, I will.