The Opal Ring

Auntie Helen wearing the opal ring in 1920
(Digital Image. Privately Held by Cynthia Shenette; Text Copyright (c) 2012 Cynthia Shenette)

Sometimes it's hard to think of our ancestors in terms of being people, or at least people different in any way from the way that we knew them. My great-aunt Helen Bulak was one of those people.  Aunt Helen always seemed like a fussy old lady to me, or as my mom said, "Sometimes Auntie can be a real noodge..."  It's hard to think that she might have ever been different.

My grandmother said when they were little, my Aunt Helen was the "pretty one." Helen was prettier and chubbier which was high praise back in the day when chubbiness was indicative of a healthy constitution. Helen was also popular.  According to my grandmother Helen was "...a bridesmaid for all the weddings."  I have dozens photos of Aunt Helen dressed as a bridesmaid.  Sometimes she's pictured with a young man (always a different young man) and sometimes as part of a larger wedding party.  As they saying goes, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride."

While Aunt Helen never married she did become an astute business woman, operating what began as a millinery and dry goods shop, for decades on Millbury St. in Worcester.  She was never rich but definitely was well-to-do, traveling to Poland in 1937 when most people, my grandparents included, were struggling through the Great Depression.  Helen became a leader in the Worcester Polish business community and later worked to assist Polish DPs in coming to the States after the war.  When Auntie Helen retired in 1973 she had been in business for 55 years.

Besides being a fussy, old lady (at least in my young eyes) the other thing I remember about Auntie Helen was that she always wore a large opal ring on one hand.  Always.  Opal was her birthstone.  It is a pretty gold ring with a large opal in the center and two tiny diamonds on either side.  My mom told me that a young man gave the ring to her when she was young.  Apparently she fell in love with this young man when she was fifteen.  Unfortunately for her he was twenty-five.  The young man asked her to marry him, but her mother was against it.  He was ten years older, and he wanted her to go back to Poland with him after they were married.  The relationship ended. He returned to Poland, and Helen never saw him again.  Before he left he gave her the opal ring.  When I asked my mother what happened to the young man she told me, "He died in one of the wars."  My mom told me Helen never forgave her mother for ending the relationship.

Over the last two years I've been working through a box of some 70 or 80 letters and postcards sent from family in Poland.  I scan the letters or postcards and send them to my cousin Marek who translates them from Polish into English and returns the translation to me via e-mail.  Last year I scanned and sent a postcard.  Imagine my surprise when I received the following translation:

[Date stamped 1913]

Dear Helenko,

I wonder very presently how much is your health miss, myself even though everything is good here I continue to think about you and my future [?]

The business I'm currently working at [?] came back to [?] because

I'm not happy here, yours Wacek.

Farewell and please answer me at least a few words.

Please greet the parents.

A poem was also written on the card:

Yes, there are names that are not forgotten
still above the tearful heart will circulate

still continue to open healed wound
until the crystal tears sit in it.

I also have another postcard from Wacek with similar sentiments which was sent in 1912.  The postal stamp indicates the postcard was sent from Lublin, so I know Wacek left America at least by the end of 1912.  Helen would have been eighteen in October of 1912.

How would both of their lives been different if they had married?  Would they have been happy?  Would they both have been killed in a war?  

It's so easy to forget our ancestors were living, breathing people with hopes and dreams for the future.  What were Helen and Wacek's  dreams? When I look at Helen's bridesmaid photos and see a young man standing with Helen I wonder, was he the one?  Is that Wacek?  Would Helen have turned out a different person if she had taken a different path in life?  I'll never know.  One thing I do know.  She wore the opal ring for the rest of her life...

Special Thanks: To my cousin Marek for his translation of the postcard.

Submitted for the 116th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy.

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Barbara Poole said...

I so love that people saved old letters and postcards. Naturally, I have to ask about the ring, is that it in the photo? I have a feeling your aunt was unhappy through much of her life, but would be delighted to know you wrote this post.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Barbara - Thank you for your comment! That is the ring in the photo! The funny thing is I thought it was lost, but I found it back in January when we were cleaning out the basement. I was going through the last of the stuff from my mom's house, opened a Tupperware container, and there it was! I think you are right about my aunt being unhappy. I suspect the end of relationship weighed on her for the rest of her life. I hope Aunt Helen would have enjoyed this post, too. :)

Linda Gartz said...

Isn't it just great to have these missives, saved in our ancestors' own handwriting. It's a window into another world -- and often explains so much; answers questions we can't ask anymore. But then, sometimes creates new questions. I wish my grandparents had told me they had saved so much, but maybe I wouldn't have understood its importance when I was so young.

Kristin said...

She does look lovely in the photo. My favorite thing about my family research is turning names into real people. I wish your aunts future...guess it's not her future, her life could have been happier. Maybe if he hadn't gone back, waited 3 years until she was 18. sigh.

Joan said...

Cynthia, Danged ole Blogger -- the picture dinna come thru --- but the story was so lovely I'm not sure I could have handled much more poignancy. Brought a lump to my throat. Bravo for a great job.

Nancy said...

How heartbreaking! Poor Helen. Poor Wacek, too. Parents always think they know best. Sometimes they're right and sometimes not. As an adult she could have gone to him in Poland if he hadn't died. Just heartbreaking.

You did a fine job telling Helen's story, Cynthia.

Heather Kuhn Roelker said...

I'm curious, have you done any searching for Wacek in military files? It's possible he had to fight in WWI. Thank you for sharing this story. I always love to read about maiden aunts...because it gives their story a chance to live on, even though they didn't have a family of their own.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Linda - Such a good point about not understanding the importance when you were young. It was the same with me. I was busy doing other things. I wish I had taken the time back then, but I didn't. Better late than never, but I wish I could talk to my aunt today and ask the questions I'd like to ask.

Kristin - Also a good point. At 15 the age difference was huge, but it wouldn't have been such an issue if they had taken the time to wait. Another "what if" moment.

Joan - Thank you so much! I've figured out that is what my writing is all about--touching the emotions. I love to make it feel real so your comment meant a lot to me.

Nancy - Your comment made me think of something. I'm starting to wonder if he died in WWI because my aunt visited Poland in 1937 and there is no mention of him at that point in time. Definitely something to consider...

Heather - Unfortunately, I don't know Wacek's last name. I still have a few more postcards so maybe I'll learn more. If he went back to Poland he may have ended up in the Russian army. Not a good place to be at the time. I LOVE your point about maiden aunts, BTW. I'm glad I could tell at least a part of Helen's story.

Thank you all again!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your wonderful article. I love to hear about those who lived and did not leave descendents, and know that their lives made a difference too.

Anonymous said...

This was a lovely post and I enjoyed it immensely. I hope you find some more snippets of information in the postcards and letters!