The day after my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary on May 3, 2019, my mother was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer. Heartbroken, my 95-year-old father died on June 28, and my mother followed 10 weeks later.
Determined to honor their 68th anniversary with a blog post, I began searching through family albums to find the perfect photo of their 1952 Detroit wedding, a Polish affair at St. Stephen’s Church that included hundreds of people, a big breakfast and a dinner reception with an orchestra.
I found an impressive studio portrait of their wedding, and something else.
Tucked in an old family photo album were pictures of mystery brides, some from the “old neighborhood” in Detroit, and many from what my grandmother would call the “old country.”
Some of the photos were formal shots of big wedding parties, others were portraits taken during the wedding ceremonies, always in front of dour Polish Catholic priests in ornate vestments. No one is left to tell me who these couples were, or why someone in my family bothered to preserve these pictures for decades.
But I have a theory.
My grandmother Rozalia Krzemienski tended bar by day in Detroit at the Rose Café. In her spare time, she was a seamstress who could turn out the perfect First Communion dress or formal gown. She sewed late into the night, and then packed up big cardboard boxes bound for her relatives living in and around Krakow, Poland.
I never asked what was in them. Surely, some of those boxes must have contained her homemade wedding gowns. I imagined grateful relatives sending grandma pictures of the big day and her contribution.
Granted, these gowns were not anything you’d see on “Say Yes to the Dress.” My grandmother’s homespun style did not suit my mother either. For her wedding she ordered a custom-made frothy creation that cost the equivalent of $2,000 today. In comparison, all of grandma’s wedding gowns were white, simple and, above all, modest. Grandma was not Detroit’s equivalent of high-end designers like Monique Lhuillier or Vera Wang.
But the gowns had a certain charm, and, as someone who wore grandma’s homemade creations to prom and high school dances, and shopped with her nearly every weekend at Joann Fabrics, I recognized her style. To me, the album has become a portfolio of grandma’s version of “Project Runway.”
Funerals seemed to be as important as weddings, judging by other photos in that album.
In addition to mystery brides, there were “mystery corpses,” unidentified people laid out in their coffins, surrounded by babushka-wearing women, grieving men, and children, and faithfully sent over the years to family in Detroit.
The pictures have a haunting quality reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s Depression era photos. I wonder if grandma had anything to do with what the people in them were wearing.