I was sorting through family archives a few days ago and came across a large, time-worn envelope. I didn’t recognize it, probably because in the moves we’d made in the last 12 years it had been stored away and forgotten. There was no reason to open bins in the garage until recently, when searching for photos to include in an album for our granddaughters.
The envelope held a trove of photographs of my Polish forebears. All long dead, they came alive as I marveled at a family photo -- still sharp black-and-white images of grandparents, aunts and uncles -- and my infant father -- stoic and stiff in the formal pose that characterized studio photos of that time. The time? By my calculation, the picture was made in about 1920, some 28 years after my teen-age grandparents had landed at Ellis Island in New York City.
My grandfather has always intrigued me. Family lore is that he was a laborer on my maternal great grandfather’s estate near Warsaw. The lowly worker and my grandmother fell in love. They ran off to America because her father disapproved of his educated daughter’s relationship with a peasant farmhand. They were kids, ages 17 and 16. They were married during the crossing by the Polish ship captain, and then married again in a Catholic church in New York. Their firstborn, my Uncle Alexander, was conceived on the high seas, or so the whispered family story goes.
There are five children in the picture. The sixth hadn’t been born yet (Uncle Chester came in 1931); two sets of twins died in infancy in 1917 and 1918. By that time they had moved to Connecticut, where my grandfather went to work in one of the factories in my hometown, New Britain.
It’s difficult to get a read on what he was thinking when the picture was made. He’d become a father at 18 after leaving his home to travel to an unknown promised land with a young wife. Neither of them spoke English. He never mastered the language. She did. But there he is in the picture, father to five surviving children, another one to come, four deceased. There in the right corner of the photo is my father, who would come of age in the Great Depression and World War II, marry the daughter of Italian immigrants, and together they would give life to my sister and me. I would become a father of two, and my son would one day have his own beautiful boy.
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Father’s Day represents a continuum. The meaning of the day reaches back across generations of fatherhood. Father’s Day connects us to fathers and grandfathers who took extraordinary risks to attain a better life. To men who endured hardships we modern dads can’t imagine: leaving home and crossing an ocean to a new land; working hard and long in factories and farms; struggling to survive the collapsed economy and drought of the 1930s; going to war in the 1940s. And for my post-World War II generation, providing us with the means and opportunity to prosper, to raise families, to be fathers.
They weren’t perfect, those dads and granddads who came before us. They were not saints. But when I look at that 100-year-old photograph, I see courage, commitment and love. I see history and heritage. I see the real message of Father’s Day.
Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He is the author of a new history of Forum Communications Company. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-241-5521 or 701-566-3576.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.