“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family who live in another city.”
George Burns was being funny as well as kind of serious when he said that.
No joke here, but my own large, loving, caring, close-knit family were completely unknown to me until three years ago.
It began with an email from a Michal Maleszka, in Krakow, asking if I was the son of the late Stefan Brzezicki. He explained that as a young boy he had met this man back in the ‘80s, when this Stefan came to visit from Canada. Michal remembered him as a mainly serious person who talked a lot about politics and impressed his hosts with his ability to float completely motionless on their cottage lake.
Michal took pains to sketch his family tree all the way back to his great-grandmother Julia Maleszka, whom he claimed to be Stefan’s elder sister. He included photographs, one of which shocked me—I realized I had taken it myself many years earlier.
But the floating story had already clinched it. My father took little obvious delight in anything, but as a child I remember him displaying his uncommon buoyancy whenever we were at a lake and the water was calm. It wouldn’t be of much use in a swimming heat or a typhoon, but it was remarkable all the same. He looked like he was lying in bed, sound asleep.
Anyway, Michal’s account clearly showed that his great-grandmother Julia was the aunt I never knew I had. Neither did my mother, who was understandably suspicious when I read out Michal’s email.
“I don’t know these people,” she said. “What do you think they’re after?”
“I think they just want to connect. They’re family, Mum. I’m excited.”
“Your father never mentioned having two older sisters. Only Sabina, and she moved to America before the war.”
Mum looked perplexed.
“I don’t believe any of this. Steve would have told me.”
I thought for a moment before pursuing it further.
“Remember when he visited Poland that one time and stopped over in England to see me and meet his brand new granddaughter?”
“Yes. Catherine was, what, eight months then. What’s that got to do with this?”
“Well, Michal included some photographs in his email. Look.”
I showed her the photo I had taken of my father and our daughter when he visited my wife and me in England. I gave him copies of the photo to take to the “friends” he was going on to visit in Poland.
Mum stared at the photo and went quiet. There was suddenly a lot for her to think about. I wrote back to Michal and said I was thrilled that he’d got in touch.
A few weeks later I heard from his younger brother, Mateusz, born about ten years after my father’s visit. Matt and his father, Krystof, were staying with family friends in Boston, and wanted to come up to Niagara to visit us on their way to watch the Raptors in Toronto (Matt was a big NBA fan).
I was excited. Mum was still hesitant, but curious. “Yes, we’ll invite them,” she said.
For me it was like finding the other half of my life after 70 years
When they arrived she immediately noticed the physical resemblance between me and Krystof. I could even see the similarity in this nephew of mine—son of Sabina and grandson of Julia—now in his late 60s. It turned out to be a magical evening. Mum shed her reserve as we shared photos and stories from long ago. For me it was like finding the other half of my life after 70 years.
A couple of months later I arranged to meet Michal and his wife, Kazia, at Pearson International. They had a stopover on their way to a vacation in Havana. More stories and photos over lunch made me feel like I’d always known them too.
The following year we made plans to holiday with the Maleszkas in Scotland, where my father and mother met during WWII and where I was born. Mum looked forward to showing her late husband’s family around the old haunts in her beloved homeland. That we would be sharing a house for two weeks with people we’d just met didn’t deter her at all. Or me.
And so, the summer before COVID, we gathered at a beautiful country home just outside Aberfeldy on the River Tay. We were eight now, with Krystof’s delightful wife, Maria, and Mateusz’s lovely fiancée, Maya, along with Michal, his wife, Kazia, my mother and me.
It was everything we hoped for.
Our accommodation was spacious and modern and well-equipped, with its gardens in bloom and the River Tay at the end of the driveway. Along with the rainbow.
The Highlands are different kinds of beautiful in all weathers, though we were mostly blessed with bright sun and warm breezes. We drove to a different location almost every day. To Oban, and Inverness, and Dalwhinnie (where my father once worked in the famous distillery), Fort William, and Glencoe. Our Polish family couldn’t get enough of Scotland, the scenery and the castles and the connection they now felt with the country.
The stories over dinner in the evenings were endless, the wine and the laughter flowed, and the younger generation were kept busy translating the conversations, as Krystof and Maria understood English as much as Mum and I did Polish. Another highlight for Mateusz the Raptors fan was watching Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating four-bounce basket that put them into the final.
There is some context here. For all his flotation skills, my father wasn’t an easy man, but I’ll leave it there. I know he didn’t find me an easy son. Our relationship was tense at the best of times. We spent many years apart, and not just after I left home. I suppose we both mellowed a little as we got older but then he kind of disappeared into himself.
And so to spend those two weeks with his “other” family and share love and laughter, and to watch them treat my mother as the grand matriarch, were experiences I’ll never forget.
Mateusz and Maya are to be married next September and so, COVID-permitting, I’ll be making my first trip to Poland. I look forward to meeting sister Anya, her husband, Pyotr, and their young daughters Lydia and Helena, and to celebrating the joyous occasion with them all. Mum can’t make the journey but will be there in spirit, and we’ll share my photos when I return.
Mary Karr once wrote, “A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” I used to suspect that was true. Not so much now. ◆