|Auntie Helen wearing the opal ring in 1920|
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]
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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