Going Back To Mrągowo

For years we’d dreamed of taking Casey to Europe to show her the sights. The high point – revisiting Poland, where she was born and where Erika’s family is from; a number of Erika’s cousins still live there. Unfortunately Casey had zero interest in her birth mother, her birthplace or Poland in general (unless of course Casey had found that she was descended from King Casimir himself.) So Erika and I made that journey without her.

Though writing a book helped enormously in learning about the attachment issues that could’ve led to Casey’s demise, it didn’t dispel our obsession with learning everything we could about the first year of her life that predated us, including her daily care in the orphanage, the community she was born into and her biological family. Unfortunately, like so many adoption records, these are under lock and key, virtually impossible to access, but we had to try. I’d obsessed over her mother, “Katarina”, her siblings, family and the town they lived in, imagining an impoverished, backward village (see photo below.)

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Actually a photo I took in Yugoslavia ca. 1976

I was fixated on where Casey slept in the orphanage. For lack of any reference, I pictured her in something like a sterile hospital ward (see photo below.)

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Source: sjog.org.au

We made email contact with the director of the orphanage in Mrągowo, in Poland’s Lake District, and were stunned to learn that the director, Jolanta, actually remembered Casey from years before!

Landing at Warsaw Chopin International Airport on May 3rd – Casey’s birthday – we drove north to Mrągowo, marveling at how much Poland had transformed from 50 years of Communism, and how much stayed the same. Town centers had been spruced up, the lakes and yellow rapeseed fields were inviting, and Polish drivers were as impatient and aggressive as always (Photos below L-R Mragowo, rapeseed; below center, Warsaw traffic.)

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Driving through Sulimy, where Casey’s birth mother and family lived, we discovered a place quite different from my images of poverty. It was a pleasant hamlet of small farms and Alpine style houses with well-tended gardens and nice cars parked outside. We might’ve driven right past Katarina’s home.

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We met Jolanta at the orphanage, since re-purposed and renovated as a home for the disabled. (Photos below L-R orphanage in 1991 and 2018.)

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She took us on a short tour, showing us the room where Casey slept with the other babies. Unlike my Dickensian image, it was a warm, cozy room. A large window opened to a courtyard outside. Erika and I just stood and drank in the surroundings, imagining Casey sleeping there peacefully with several other babies. IMG_1073

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We followed Jolanta back to her office where she showed us a photo on her phone that she had downloaded from our remembrance website. It was a picture of her, as a young aide, holding Casey in 1991, just months before we arrived to receive her. That was mind blowing. The photo of them together was our first image of Casey!

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She still had the handwritten notes of Casey’s intake from years before. There were a couple of big reveals even in the limited data that was provided by the state. In 1991 we understood that Katarina had 2 other children before Casey, when in fact she had 3. What happened to the other children and had Jadwiga had other pregnancies afterwards? Jolanta read another notation that described Katarina as an “invalid of the second group.” She apparently had a mental disability that made it impossible for her to live alone or hold a job. This was mind blowing because we thought that Jadwiga was just a simple country girl. There was much more to the story. Knowing this, Jolanta said that she was amazed that Casey had advanced as far as she had because she likely inherited at least some of Katarina’s ailments. If she did they never showed.

So we left the orphanage with more fragments of Casey’s infancy, but even more questions and regrets. If we’d known years ago what was now revealed, would we have followed a different course of action that could’ve saved her? Was there any way to pierce that veil of secrecy in the Polish family services system to learn more about Katarina and her other children? Did we even want to know? And if we ever made contact with them, what would we say?

3 thoughts on “Going Back To Mrągowo

  1. I have a sister with a mental illness. She is now 62 years-old and has lived a tough life, but she received services and has had loved ones try to guide her while respecting her need for independence. Today my sister is missing. For almost a year she has been gone. She never did anything like this before. Believe me, many families spend their energies and resources trying to help their loved ones with a mental illness, but in the end it is heartbreaking. You and your wife gave Casey the best shot at normalcy. Know that some of us see you as an angel. God bless you both.

  2. It’s possible that (depending what the mother’s diagnosis was) it could have skipped a generation or she might not have inherited everything that her mother had (like if the father didn’t have any disabilities). Though if one of the parents has a mental illness/disorder it can increase the risk of them inheriting things like depression, etc. For example, my mother had an anxiety/panic attack disorder (my dad had no diagnosis) and I ended up inheriting depression, though neither of my siblings ended up with any mental illnesses. Interesting post though, I had imagined the orphanage differently as well.

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