Babcia died over twenty years ago, shortly before I returned from my doctoral fieldwork in Poland. The last time I saw her was a few months before she passed, when she was already on her way. She did not recognize me, or my brother Chris, and didn’t even acknowledge our presence. Except, she grabbed my hand—at first, I thought it was because she knew who I was, but in fact she just used my finger to scratch her ear. It was an intimate and disturbing final contact between us.
The last time we spoke was a year and a half earlier, right before I left for Poland. Babcia was already 97, in assisted living, but still sharp. She became agitated about my trip, cajoling me, “Don’t fall in love with a Polish man.” She warned me against life in Poland, she said a Polish man would not treat me well; she was afraid I would not return. She insisted there was nothing for me there, that she and the rest of the family decided to leave Poland to seek a better life in the US.
Babcia was a mystic. She believed she could see the future, and even though I did not fall in love with a Polish man and I did come back, often it seemed like her premonitions were right. Mama also had an uncanny ability to sense things, but with her it was more psychological. Mama was deeply empathetic and could intuit the emotional states of others.
There was very little fanfare when Babcia died. I missed the funeral because I wasn’t told about it. Mama didn’t want me to cut my trip short to attend. Babcia was cremated, in accordance with her wishes. She also wanted to be buried in Poland with her husband Zygmunt who died nearly fifty years earlier in 1945, but no one seemed to have the will to make it happen. Instead, my cousin Alexandra brought the ashes home and placed them on an altar in her home, where they stayed for many years.
In 2015, when I returned from my year in Poland, we had a family reunion. I took it as an opportunity to offer to take Babcia back home to Poland. It’s something I have thought about doing for a long time, and I finally I got up the nerve to make it happen. I’m the one who can do it. I speak the language and know my way around.
At first, it seemed my cousin would be reluctant to give Babcia up. But when I visited her mother a short time after the family reunion, the ashes were there waiting for me in their metal box.
So I brought her to my home in Alabama, where she has rested in my pottery studio awaiting this trip to Poland.
I knew I would not be able to bring a metal box through airport security, but still was reluctant to remove Babcia from her resting place. I waited until the night before my departure. I apprehensively removed the screws from the lid, and found a metal tin like a paint can inside labeled with Babcia’s name and the date she died. I have been told that surprisingly little is left after cremation, but I still was taken aback that even the tin, quite a bit smaller and lighter than the box, was filled halfway with paper. A whole body reduced to little more than a quart of ashes. I transferred them to the plastic bag nestled in the bottom of the box (no doubt for this purpose), and put that into a zippered bag I got at the Black Sea in Israel. She will be buried in a ceramic urn I made.
I had read that it’s not a problem bringing cremated remains on airplanes, so I set them in the bottom of my carry-on luggage. It was detected in the x-ray screening at the Birmingham Airport. I apprehensively explained what it was as the bag was being searched. The screener was very kind. She did some sort of test for explosives but let me through without otherwise disturbing the ashes.
So Babcia is on her way back to Poland. We’ll see what happens at the cemetery. When I called several months ago to inquire about the procedure, the person I spoke with was initially very confused. However, once he understood that Babcia was cremated, she died over twenty years ago, and there is already a family plot, he told me to just call once I get to Poland and we’ll make arrangements then. I hope it’s really that easy.
Kelli Harris said:
Marysia, I wish you success with your honorable endeavor. I’m sure Babcia would appreciate your efforts.
Marysia Galbraith said:
Thank you! We’ll need to share family stories when I get back.