Where Are You From?

We are all from somewhere.  The sum of our birthplace, past residences, current home, even non-physical emotional “places” combine to inform our senses of self.

I am “from” Baltimore, more specifically Fell’s Point, more specifically what was once Baltimore’s most heavily Polish immigrant neighborhood.  Baltimore was second only to Ellis Island as a point of entry for the immigrant waves of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  After a typically arduous ocean crossing, many Baltimore-bound immigrants settled near where the ships docked at Locust Point or stopped after the short ride across the harbor to Fell’s Point.    

But even more precisely, I am from Ann Street, from the house my maternal grandparents built, a unique double row house that they constructed in 1930-31, first demolishing the two homes there and building upon the original 1855 foundations.   For grandfather Nikodem, or “Tata”, this was the culmination of his American dream, the reward for surviving the Russians, making the journey, learning a new trade.  In those adjoining spaces, he carved out his photography business, his family residence, a commercial rental, and a tiny residential rental.  With two additions, it maxed out at 5000 contiguous square feet of living space in all senses, with personality, breadth, and breath.

The studio closed in 1955, before I was born, so my siblings and I knew the house directly only as a family home.  We six and our parents occupied about half the total area in what had been the public space of the business and the residence of Tata’s (my mother’s) family.  Our maternal aunt and her husband lived in “the apartment” upstairs which was an amalgamation of the old reception room for customers waiting for their photography appointments, the former tiny rental apartment on the second floor of the second row house, and the “galleria” (gallery) –  the huge room that spanned the front part of the second floor of both row houses, with its two large skylights, street-facing double French windows fronted with ironwork, massive scenery backdrops, industrial lighting, and props for staging the formal portraits of the time.  

The first floor of the second row house had been rented as a tailor shop, then used for storage before my aunt and uncle fixed it up for entertaining.  There they put the “nice” furniture, including the brocade sofas and chairs that were worthy of placement in any local funeral parlor.  My sister, Claire, and I, who as very small girls were expressly forbidden from that space when it was storage, once got locked in the enclosed display window there until a woman knocked at my mother’s door telling her that there were two little girls in the window next door, crying, and did she know who they were?  Our adorable tear-stained faces gave us little leverage for having disobeyed Mom.

In the basement was Tata’s darkroom, its eeriness unrelieved by its tiny window, filled with the mysterious chemicals, tools, and accoutrements used to develop film.  The remainder of the basement – a cellar, really, partly concreted but with stretches of dirt crawlspaces and the clear aura of past energies randomly pulsing through it – was a work area for hanging photos to dry and storing negatives and equipment, plus the physical plant: boilers, water heater, pipes and such.  My father later used it as a place to write, having been forced from his study by the increasing number of his offspring.  How he managed to produce anything readable down there in the always slightly damp, always slightly uneasy environs remains a wonder to me. 

A concrete yard, a small garden, and two walk out porches were our outdoor space, small to any suburbanite yet expansive compared to that of the typical Baltimore row house.   There was room to hang laundry, to play our favorite games like “Heidi” or “Polish Refugees” (What? You didn’t play “Polish Refugees”?), to dig mud holes and build towns from appliance boxes and sheets, and to bury dead birds and goldfish.

My grandmother, Jadwiga, had died in 1947 and when Tata died in 1964, his four children inherited the house.  My parents and resident aunt and uncle bought out their siblings’ shares so the home remained in the family.  Through another generation of inheritance, it has passed to Tata and Jadwiga’s grandchildren – my generation. 

We have been renovating the house for some years now as money allows, recovering it from years of benign neglect.  We’ve made a big dent in the infrastructure repairs and refits and we’ve made headway on some cosmetic fixes, but it progresses slowly as none of us live there full time.  

But our true inheritance, and the Ann Street upshot is this: no one who has lived in this house has ever fully left it.  They did not need to.  Purchase overtures have been made and rebuffed, therefore no new family, and certainly no drooling developer in the now “gentrified” formerly working class, immigrant waterfront neighborhood, have been welcome.  Whether family, friend, or passersby, Ann Street is steward of something from every resident.  Some exited Ann Street on foot and others feet first; but not a soul took it all when they departed.  Some, in fact, left it all.  

Once the home was built, my grandparents and aunt never lived elsewhere. My mother was born in the house and while she nearly escaped its orbit after nursing school, she returned after a scant few years, husband in tow, to bear us, raise us, and take care of Tata as he declined.  The aunt and uncle who moved out, left behind clothing, scrapbooks, letters, and furniture.  Only Jadwiga, realizing her imminent premature death, had taken pains to dispose of personal letters and belongings, yet even she didn’t get to everything.  And having been laid out at home, her casket flanked by the living room wall sconces where the sofa now sits, Jadwiga left much more than tangibles.   Even my mother’s friend, Harry, who roomed at the house for a few years, breathed his heart attack-induced last breath before the front stoop, leaving behind all of his earthly chattels.

We six continued the contributions, starting our adult lives unfettered by our childhood paraphernalia.  The house was large and accommodated the volume, if not stylishly, completely.

As our labor of love advances, we have found ourselves the unwitting archivists of extremes: Along with literally thousands of photographs by Tata and others including many of community historical significance, family letters from Poland, personal notes and cards, precious pre-WWII Polish folk art tchotchkes from Jadwiga’s little Polonia Gift Shop, and wonderful genealogical finds, we have sorted through years’ worth of National Enquirers and Cosmopolitans, hundreds of newspaper-clipped articles and recipes, and a boxes upon boxes of flotsam of no significance. 

Why not just chuck it all?  Because among the Enquirers and within the deteriorating leaves of acid-papered hardback books, we will inevitably find a few sheets of a family personal journal; a baptismal certificate in Polish; an irreplaceable notebook of Jadwiga’s efforts to learn English; Tata’s naturalization certificate.  We assume nothing.  We leaf through everything.  We are often rewarded and we dread to miss something.  Of money, we found just one $20 bill and dispatched it by ordering pizza.  No hidden millions in this house!

Now we are five sisters and we like each other’s company very well, especially when telling family lore and laughing until we cannot breathe (we lost our dear brother, our “muscle” and humorist, in 2014).  A box of letters and papers that some could sift through in a trice is a full evening’s entertainment for us.  Faced with generations of treasures mixed with oddments mixed with castoffs, from a large family that loved and loves to read, and that is rife with unorganized artists and packrat writers, we despair that we will finish in our lifetimes.  Yet as each person is remembered, discussed, laughed over, sometimes lamented, they join us, they light up the room, they fill the house until it is bursting with their semblance.  It can be done no other way.

I am of this house, this family, this history.  I am “from” it and it holds me willingly, loosely, yet tenaciously.    Still, we are not its completely original inhabitants, and those keep their place here as well, typically secreted in the confines of the foundations, drifting up from time to time to remind us we aren’t alone, we aren’t first. I have traced prior ownership of the two properties back to 1876 and with a bit more sleuthing, I’m sure I’ll get to when they were just lots being developed in the burgeoning Baltimore waterfront of the period.   I hope I can ferret out details to supplement our sensibilities and guesses since while we don’t know many of the prior residents by actual name, we do know some by the names we’ve given their shades.  

But that story is for another time.

 

 

 

 

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