Courtesy photograph
Genevieve Kacmarczyk donated her personal journals to the Shirley Historical Society.
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

SHIRLEY — Letters, journals, memoirs, vintage family albums offer glimpses into bygone eras that public records alone can’t provide.

Which is why biographers and historians treasure them as valuable source material, gathering facts from the latter, color and texture from the former.

Like the journal that former longtime Shirley resident Genevieve Kacmarczyk donated to the Shirley Historical Society and which SHS President Marie Elwyn is currently transcribing and hopes to have published.

For now, plans call for printed copies of the transcribed journal to be sold at the Historical Society Museum, according to a recent notice sent to members.

Written to share family history with family members, Kacmarczyk still has the original journal that Elwyn’s copied material came from. It’s a small, hardcover volume, lined pages on both sides crammed with careful penmanship, the kind that was once taught in grade school as “cursive” writing.

Sometimes, two lines of handwriting occupy a single space. The writer apparently had more to say that there was room for, so she doubled up. The journal was written when she was 95.

Currently residing in a small apartment at Nashoba Park Assisted Living in Ayer, Kacmarczyk is 103 years old.

Elwyn has for some time been poring over and typing into a computer document every word of the 100-plus page book. About midway through, the scope of her task is clear. But it’s a labor of love.

In a recent interview, she talked about the journal, shared excerpts and explained how it came into her hands.

As a private home health care provider, Elwyn had gone to the assisted living facility to visit a client, who, like Kacmarzyk, comes from Shirley and who introduced her. They met in the parlor. “We’d chat, she was always so welcoming,” Elwyn said.

Some time later, someone “put a bug in my ear” about the journal. So Elwyn and Vicky Landry, also of Shirley, whose mother was a friend of Kacmarczyk’s, went there to see her. “She pulled out the journal,” Elwyn said. Kacmarczyk said: “It’s all here, you can take it,” and turned it over.

Elwyn copied the pages, 68 in all, filled on both sides. “It’s a long story,” she said.

The journal cracks a window on life in the small town of Shirley 100 years ago, when modern inventions and innovations now woven into the tapestry of everyday life were as new as the century.

Horses and buggies likely rumbled through the streets of Shirley when Kacmarczyk was growing up there. Model-T Fords rolled off America’s first assembly line in 1913.

In 1903, the Wright brothers’ first piloted airplane flight had ushered in an era of air travel that took off with the jet engine, which came into its own during World War II.

Born in 1917, Kacmarczyk was an eyewitness to history, from the industrial era to the space age and beyond. Her lifetime has spanned two centuries, two world wars, political strife, social upheavals; musical movements. Women’s suffrage. Women in the work force. Women’s lib. Gender issues aside, female fashions evolved from long dresses with bustles to mini-skirts. And so on.

But the lens Kacmaczyk used to tell her story is neither political nor historical. It’s personal, and the picture she paints is all the more intriguing as a result.

Her father, Wajcieka Wesolowski, came to America in 1907, arriving on the S.S. Lucania. There’s a picture of the ship on a wall in her small efficiency apartment. The tidy space is filled with memorabilia: family photos, greeting cards, children’s artwork and a citation from the Massachusetts legislature presented to her when she turned 100.

Settling in the small town of Shirley, Kaczmarczyk’s father was one of many Polish immigrants who came to work at the former Sampson Cordage. Today, it’s Phoenix Park, where offices and small businesses now occupy some of the old brick mill buildings, restored for the purpose.

At the turn of the 20th century, a close-knit Polish community that grew up around the factory welcomed the Wesolowski family. Genevieve and her late brother, Sigmund, called “Ziggy,” were successful in business and were both active parishioners at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. They also maintained family ties in Poland.

As the owner with her husband Joseph of the former Shirley Funeral Home, Kacmarczyk was known for her kindness and generosity. A cash-strapped widow, for example, could cover funeral costs without worry thanks to time payment plans the director would offer to set up for those in need.

Knowing she has a gem in hand, Elwyn handles Kacmarczyk’s journal with care. She pinpoints a passage, reads aloud. The author’s voice comes through, honest, simple, savoring childhood vignettes.

This one, for example. Young Genevieve and other neighborhood children had “gone up Catacunemaug” Road to pick blueberries. She and her family lived at the time in company row-housing at Sampson Cordage.

Described elsewhere in the journal as a kind of “league of nations” where Polish immigrants like her father lived and worked alongside newcomers of different nationalities and origins, Italian, French Canadian, Jewish…mill workers and their families lived in comfortable apartments, with yards. Her family kept chickens, a cow, pigeons. Neighbors got along, helped one another, kids were “well behaved” and everybody pitched in.

On this particular day, Genevieve’s uncle was supposed to join the berry-picking expedition but by the time he arrived, exhausted, on his bicycle, which he “insisted” on taking, their buckets were full. They shared their berries with him and headed home. “When we got home…uncle was all washed up,” she wrote, and he didn’t want the story to get out. “He’d be the laughing clown of the whole town” if it did.

Another story is sad,with a happy ending. It’s about “Aunt Anna” whose husband died, leaving her with six kids. She turned to her brother — Genevieve’s father — for help. They had moved to Clinton but came back to Shirley and moved in with the Wesolowski family, bringing the total kid count to 12.

“He said we’d manage,” Kacmarczyk wrote. They did, managing to send their four children to college on mill workers’ wages. She went to the University of Vermont.

Kacmarczyk’s narrative shows she often turned to prayer and believed in divine providence, but although religious faith echoes through the journal, a phrase used more than once reveals a philosophy laced with practical optimism. “With faith, stamina and perseverance, things will turn out just fine.”

These days, her schedule isn’t as busy as it once was, but Kacmarczyk’s days are still purposeful. While others tend to housekeeping, meals, etc., she has time to draw and paint. She proudly showed a sample of her work to visitors recently, en route to the spacious parlor where Elwyn first met her.

Several other residents sat by a gas fireplace. Sun streamed through glass doors leading to an inviting courtyard, where Kacmarczyk sits on fine days, she said, pointing to her favorite spot.

She also pointed out a picture she had drawn, exhibited in a glass display window in the corridor. It features colorful flowers and a message: “Never forget.”

Inspired by a famous wartime poem, “In Flanders Fields,” she noted that it was an apt choice for Memorial Day and began to recite. The words still have deep meaning, she said. “Never forget!”

Ever the gracious hostess, Kaczmarczyk invited her guests to come back and see her again soon.