Anna was born in Labartoov, Poland, in the late 1970s and lived there until she was 16 years old. It was a small town, established in the 15th century and not particularly well now or famous for anything. It has three churches and “is one of those towns in Poland where everybody knows each other.”
As a child in Poland, Anna played outside a lot, but she thinks kids then grew up faster. Drinking and smoking at a young age was part of the culture. Her first drink of alcohol was at the age of 12.
Anna was a Polish Girl Guide [see the photo above], which she describes as “military-ish.” They had squads, platoons, and ranks, and, like Scouts in America, they learned how to survive in the woods, build shelters and tie knots.
Anna’s dad fled to the United States when she was six. The Iron Curtain was still up, so there was no chance that he would be returning. He received political asylum, and Anna wouldn’t see him again for seven years.
“I remember my first communion, and my dad wasn’t there. It is a big deal since almost everybody is Catholic in Poland. It is a right of passage – you get the dress, a whole ceremony – he wasn’t part of that.” (audio below)
She was used to receiving a lot of positive attention from her dad, so when he left, Anna took it very hard. His departure was even more difficult as her mother, who was an English teacher, was not very loving or patient, and her much older brothers were very hard on Anna.
“I remember the first time we were able to call him; we had to go to a cousin’s house who had a phone. We set up a time to talk, and I couldn’t talk to him because I was so upset that he had left us. I refused to get on the phone.” (audio below)
Before he left, her father had been working in a communist factory, where everybody was getting the same minimal pay. He was a mechanical engineer, and there was no potential for advancement in Poland. Her mother told Anna that her father had left for the United States to find a way to make more money to provide a better life for the family. During this whole time apart, her parents stayed married, which Anna isn’t sure whether or not it was the best idea. Anna didn’t understand all that was going on between her parents.
In Poland, you have to pick a major when you go to high school. All that Anna cared about was getting away from her mom, who was continually telling Anna she wasn’t good enough. She remembers her mom telling her, “become a hairdresser because that’s all you are good for”.
“I always tell people that I didn’t have dreams growing up. My mom always used to put me down. It didn’t matter what I wanted; my mom would bring me down. I never had anybody motivate me or encourage me in any way. I didn’t have any talent; at least I didn’t think I did.” (audio below)
By then, both of her brothers had already moved away to the US, so it was just Anna and her mom. The high school Anna wanted to go to was in a town 20 miles away, so she filled out the paperwork and her mom said she submitted it. She didn’t.
“She didn’t tell me until the day of the entry exams. I was so heartbroken, betrayed, and angry at her, and life in general. I didn’t care and I didn’t want to go to school. All my friends were doing what they wanted to do, and I didn’t have that chance.”
Anna gave her father an ultimatum – he was going to bring her to the United States, or she wasn’t going to high school at all. She knew he was cheating on her mother.
“The reason he didn’t want me and my mom there was because it would interfere with his extracurricular activities.”
Anna’s father submitted the paperwork for her to immigrate and in February 1994, in the middle of her high school sophomore year, Anna and her mom arrived in New York. Her parents were constantly fighting, so it wasn’t long before Anna decided to move out and head to California to live with her brothers.
“It was the best decision I’ve made. It was beautiful. The high school I went to was awesome and diverse and close to the ocean. It was the United States that I imagined.”
She went from taking ESL classes in sophomore year, to being in the English honors class her junior year. Anna was starting to see that she did have talents despite her mother’s misgivings.
“This gave me the confidence I was always lacking. I’m not stupid. I can do it. I proved myself.”
She was happy to finish high school, but she didn’t know what to do next.
Anna went to a junior college in Southern California, thinking more about Malibu Beach and hot guys, than academics. One day she got an unexpected call from a military recruiter: “Have you ever thought about joining the military?”
The recruiter was giving her his best pitch. Anna was sold when he started talking about all the travel she could do as part of the military. Her mom never let her travel when she lived in Poland.
“I only told my two best friends I had joined the army. I thought I would fail and not make it through basic training since I had no faith in myself. You don’t know how much you can do until you have a drill sergeant yelling at you! I excelled and I was also a very good shot.” (audio below)
After completing basic training in South Carolina, she became an administrative specialist – “a secretary basically”. She ended up in Fort Zil, Oklahoma, which was a culture shock.
“Oklahoma – where everybody has accents, wears tight wranglers, cowboy hats, and drives trucks. I cried when I first got there; this is not California!”
The military stationed Anna with a field artillery unit, which was almost all men. During this time, she started taking college classes, which the military paid for, and she became an American citizen. After four years in Oklahoma and at 24 years of age, she still didn’t know what she wanted to do as a career.
Anna decided to extend her contract, and in 2001 she was stationed in Germany where she stayed for almost three years. Germany is where she met her now-former husband, who was also in the military.
In 2003, Anna arrived in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, six months pregnant. Although she was only in Arizona for a year, she loved it.
“I loved Arizona. I didn’t think I would love being in the middle of the desert. It’s beautiful, and the people were super nice. Nobody is as nice as they are in Arizona. Even at the DMV, when you go to register your car, they are nice!”
Anna and her husband decided to settle in Lakeland, Florida, where he grew up.
Anna had been studying business administration while in the military, but she didn’t want to work in that field. She met a Polish woman who was working as a nurse and realized she could do that too. A few months before she finished her college degree, she took the necessary sciences and got into nursing school.
“I didn’t know what kind of nurse I wanted to be. One day I floated to ICU, this guy who was 40 years old and coded. All the nurses started doing CPR, and I just stood there and said, ‘I want to be that when I grow up’! Nurses handle everything and that’s what I do now.” (audio below)
“In the ICU, it is always something. You have to be knocking on death’s door, whether it is your heart or multisystem organ failure. Our eyes are on you all the time – two patients per nurse. That’s why I like the ICU; it is always something, not just an earache.”
It was during nursing school that she realized that her marriage wasn’t going to last. When she and her husband split up, her children were two and four years old, and she was still in nursing school. “It was hell! Harder than basic training!”
“When I was going through everything with my ex-husband, I noticed I would get very frustrated with them, and that was not who I wanted to be. I did not want to be my mom. I’ve got to be better than that.”
Now her children are teenagers, and both are involved in competitive cheerleading. Anna clarifies that cheerleading was their idea, not hers. While it is both time-consuming and money-consuming, her girls really wanted to cheer. (audio below)
“I want to be a parent, but I also want to be a friend. I want to support them in whatever they choose to do.”
Anna describes Lakeland as a city that is very southern, racist, small-minded, with “not a whole lot of anything going on.” At the same time, she thinks it is a good place to raise kids. Still, she wishes her children could be exposed more to other cultures.
“I’ve met a lot of people who haven’t seen snow or been on a plane. You live in the United States, and you haven’t seen snow? A lot of ‘Oh, I’ve got everything I need right here’.”
There aren’t a lot of Polish people around in Lakeland, but she’s never felt excluded by the local community.
“I’ve never had anyone make me feel like I was invading their country. Do I get Polish jokes? All the time. Blonde jokes? All the time. It is what it is.” (audio below)
Republican and pro-Trump is the norm in Lakeland, Florida. Anna is proud that her daughters are developing critical minds and thinking about some of the ideas they are encountering.
“My daughter was the only student in her class that was anti-Trump. First off, you are a girl, and as a woman, you can never support Trump. She was the only one! When we drive together, I use that time to discuss different issues. I try to talk on her level. You can see the wheels turning.” (audio below)
Anna misses the social life in Poland. She thinks the everyday interactions between people in Poland are more genuine.
“When someone asks you ‘how you are doing?’ in Poland, they really mean it – they want to know. Nobody is going to say, ‘I’m fine’ even though their house is on fire!”
Anna finds conversations are not as authentic as she remembers them being in Poland. (audio below)
Anna wants her children to feel connected to Poland and has already taken them to visit the country several times. The last time they were in Poland the girls remembered how delicious the bread was, and they learned a few words.
“They’ve already got the travel bug. I always tell them the world is so much bigger than what you see. You just have to open yourself up to that.”
She can’t wait to take them on a trip to Europe.
“They are going to try some Italian wine! I don’t want them growing up sheltered because then the kids go crazy. By the time they hit college, all the kids go crazy here. Everything is too taboo!”
At Christmas, Anna misses the holiday as she remembers it from Poland.
“Christmas is the happiest holiday in Poland. All the other holidays in Poland are sad. Halloween is sad and the same with Easter. We don’t have egg hunts and the Easter bunny – you fast for 40 days, starve yourself, go to church every day and pray for hours and hours. But Christmas is happy.”
She has tried to keep some of the Polish Christmas traditions going here in Florida because she knew her girls would like it. It involves a red soup called barszcz, not eating meat on the night of the 24th, and only starting dinner (with up to 24 different dishes) once the kids have spotted the first star
“You always set the table with an extra setting for an unknown stranger. If an unknown stranger comes through and knocks on the door you are ready for them.”
After dinner, the family goes to midnight mass. When you return from the mass you can eat sausage, drink, and party. (audio below)
Anna continues to try and be a mother very different from her own, as she encourages her girls to pursue their dreams.
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© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.