Dear Nana Family Travel

Greenpoint – exploring my Polish roots, May 4, 2023

A letter to my grandmother about the day I learned some of her secrets.

Dear Nana,

I saw your childhood home last month and have been dying to tell you. Not the home you lived in when I was young—the one you lived in when you were young.

But as you know, life gets in the way and I am only now finding time to write this letter. I meant to sit down and write after we got back from New York, but there was an impromptu road trip to Colorado, and then Dad’s funeral which I know you attended in spirit.

Anyhow, thanks to a day-trip to Greenpoint with our cousin, I have a much better sense of what your life might have been like fifty years before I was born.

The Brooklyn ingenue. You were so lovely then—just look at you!

Long before you were my Nana, you were a rising star on the vaudeville scene, and before that you were a little Polish girl who came to America to join her family in Brooklyn. Just saying those words makes me puff up with pride. My Nana, the beautiful ingenue!

When I was a child, I assumed that you had always been a grown up. It never occurred to me to try picturing you as a little girl. But after walking through your old neighborhood—in your footsteps—I began to envision you as a young girl with her whole, magical life ahead.

I know, I know. I can hear you laughing. I always could make you laugh. I know your life was just as much struggle as glamor.

The ferry that runs between Highlands and New York City

Anyway, to go on with my story, Bob and I met my brother, Joe, and our cousin at the East River Ferry on East 34th Street.

Our Guide

Our cousin has long been interested in the Polish side of the family, and has been to your childhood home in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood several times. He would serve as our guide.

Joe, Camille, and our cousin in front of the old Greenpoint pier pilings

The ferry deposited us onto the pier on the Brooklyn side of the river. To our left, we could see the pilings from the old pier you would have used to walk into Greenpoint after arriving at Ellis Island from Poland.

Under construction

You’d probably be appalled at the construction going on in your old stomping grounds. Greenpoint is now the third most expensive Brooklyn neighborhood! And I can see why, with all the lovely shade trees and cute little shops.

156 India Street

It was a short walk from the pier to the house you and your family lived in more than 100 years ago at 156 India Street.

Your family lived here

It was a chilly morning and I was glad I’d packed a hat and gloves, but the trees were all leafed out and despite an occasional sprinkle, we didn’t get too wet.

Cookie on Nana’s doorstep

We learned about how your aunt brought you to the States to join your parents and older siblings.

Bob found this 1940 photo of 156 India Street. You would have been long gone by then. Didn’t you leave home when you were fifteen to work for an Irish family? And then, unhappy with the way they treated you, get your start in the theatre?

Jamie, Bob, and our cousin

James and Kathryn met us on India Street—they had driven their car to New York—and James got out and walked over to Green Street with us.

Green Street

One of the houses on this block was where your aunt’s family lived.

Karczma Polish Restaurant

After our little walking tour, we went over to Karczma, arriving before they opened for lunch, and so a few of us made some important phone calls. These days you can call anyone from anywhere and so, if you have a demanding job like, say, pastor of a church, you are always in demand.

Father/brother Joseph prays The Angelus with James and Kathryn

When Father/Brother Joe heard the noon bells from nearby St. Anthony’s church, he took a moment to pray with James and Kathryn.

Happy beers at Karczma

Once inside, we ordered lunch and some of us celebrated with a beer.

Good, Polish food

The food was delicious! Fried pierogi, potato pancakes with mushroom sauce, white borscht in bread bowls, mashed potatoes, grilled salmon with dill sauce, fried buckwheat kasha, and green salad with freshly chopped peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

We had stopped at a bakery and bought a long, poppyseed bread roll which we shared outside the restaurant after we ate. It was very good, Nana, but I like yours better.

Borden Avenue Bridge

A few of us walked the one and a half miles from the restaurant to Calvary Cemetery in Queens across Newtown Creek. Our guide pointed out the locations of some of the factories that your brothers and cousins would have worked at. Lucky for you, you made it onto a chorus line at one of the nearby Vaudeville houses and didn’t have to work in a factory.

Calvary Cemetery

Calvary Cemetery is the largest cemetery I’ve ever been to. Three hundred and sixty-five acres! Jamie and Kathryn met us at the main entrance.

Familiar territory

We dove in, searching for the first grave which happened to be your daughter’s, the little girl who would have been my father’s older sister.

Rita’s grave

I am so sorry you lost little Rita when she was only five months old. No wonder you told me, “Cookie, Cookie, don’t have kids. They’ll break your heart.” Then, come to find out, your little sister Sophie also lost a baby, little Virginia, twelve years later and had her buried with Rita, something our cousin learned when he took over care of the grave.

I can only imagine your pain. And I think I understand why you did not tell me anything of these two deaths. Too hard to put into words that a young girl could understand.

Naturally, we took pictures, but mostly we stood quietly, trying to come to terms with the losses you and your sister suffered and shared.

Your parents’ and sister’s grave

Finally, we came to your parent’s grave, where another one of your aunts—the mother of the Wallace (Wolosz) orphans that you and Grandpa helped raise—is buried.

Don’t-mess-with-me Bob

And then we dispersed. Bob had already taken a subway back to our hotel near Times Square, making himself look as little like a tourist as possible. James and Kathryn began their long drive home, and Joe and I took the ferry back across the river where he got into his car.

I chose to walk the thirty minutes uptown. It felt good to be a pedestrian among so many others, many of them caught up in their private thoughts like I was. Rather than feeling small and alone, I felt connected to the sidewalk sea of humanity, big and safe, and part of the great protoplasmic flow. I am a New Yorker at heart. It’s in my blood. I know you will understand.

Love, Cookie

By Camille Armantrout

Camille lives with her soul mate Bob in the back woods of central North Carolina where she hikes, gardens, cooks, and writes.

4 replies on “Greenpoint – exploring my Polish roots, May 4, 2023”

I love that you still talk to Nana and I’m sure she hears you. xoxo

I’d love to think she hears me, Steph. Some people stay with us throughout our entire life. Nana is one of those.

What a wonderful letter to Nana. She would be happy for her Cookie!

Thank you, James. If you had been born first, she’d have spoiled you rotten like she spoiled me.

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