Matryoshkas & Matriarchs

Matryoshka dolls–more commonly known as Russian nesting dolls–are sets of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. Matryoshka means “little maiden” or “mother,” and the dolls have become a symbol of the babushka, a strong female matriarch and central figure in the family. My grandparents are Polish–not Russian–but my grandmother always had Russian nesting dolls on display throughout the house when we’d stop by for a visit. When I stumbled on the #RussianDollChallenge on Kindred Connections--a challenge to see how far back you can trace your matrilineal line–it seemed like the perfect way to highlight the stories of the Matryoshkas in my family tree; after all, I have a New Year’s Resolution to uphold.

Matryoshka Dolls

My earliest known matrilineal ancestor is my great-great-great-grandmother, Marcella Mintkiewicz. She was born on January 2, 1855 in the Kujawsko-Pomorskie province of Poland, and she married Mikołaj Witkowski, the son of Adam and Catharine (Lakomy) Witkowski, on May 16, 1880 at the age of 25. Marcella and Mikołaj had at least four children–Casimir, Mary, Joseph and Agnes–and they lived in and around Jaksice, Poland for their entire lives. I know very little about Marcella’s life, and what little information I do have comes from a letter dated October 1, 1938. Marcella wrote the letter to her eldest daughter’s children; in it, she shared that she does not wear eyeglasses, that she attends mass and that she will turn 83 years old at the start of the new year. She signed off poetically:

In the end thank you all for your goodness and for remembering me.

Marcella’s eldest daughter, Maryanna Witkowski, was born on July 26, 1884 in Julianowo, Poland. I’ve shared my great-great-grandmother’s story on the blog before: at the age of 22–believing that there were no marriage prospects left in her village–Maryanna left Poland for the Fourth Ward of Dunkirk, New York to marry a man she had never met and to become the stepmother of his six young children. Although she eventually taught herself English, found work as a seamstress and had eight children of her own, her first few years in Dunkirk were isolating and overwhelming. My grandmother remembers Maryanna for her strength and kindness, though, and she did make it in her new world. The only thing I haven’t shared about Maryanna? She used to sing opera; maybe that’s where I get my singing voice.

Maryanna’s third daughter, Hedwig “Hattie” Marczynski, was born on either the ninth, tenth or eleventh of July 1913 in the city of Dunkirk, and she married my great-grandfather, Stanley Zielinski, on July 12, 1934 in St. Hedwig’s Church (her namesake was St. Hedwig of Silesia, the patron saint of Poland). Grandma Hattie was one of the two great-grandparents that I have been lucky enough to meet: I remember visiting her little yellow house in Hamburg growing up and picking apples and pears from the fruit trees in her backyard with my sister. She was independent and witty and just plain cool, and of all of the women on my matrilineal line, Hattie was without-a-doubt the central figure in the family.

And then there’s my grandmother, who is fearless and hilarious and who tells the best stories about all of the mischief she’d make growing up. My favorite summer memories are from family trips to visit my grandparents in Buffalo: my sister and I would make cut-out cookies with my grandmother, and she’d teach us how to win on slot machines or play badminton in the backyard. We’d go to the park, scratch lottery tickets until we’d win and eat dozens of cookies from our favorite Swedish bakery. Like Grandma Hattie, my grandmother is independent and witty and just plain cool, and we’re all very lucky to be her granddaughters. And those are the four Matryoshkas in my family tree; sure, I can’t trace my matrilineal line as far back as most–but I’m fortunate to have an abundance of stories and memories to share.


Check out Matryoshkas & My Matrilineal Matriarch on KTC’s blog, Kindred Connections. She’s able to trace back to her 7th great-grandmother, Mary (Wright) Soper, a Quaker from Staten Island, New York. There’s a connection to Captain John Bacon and the Pine Robbers as well as to my own ancestors’ hometown in Monmouth County, New Jersey–it’s a great story that you don’t want to miss.

15 thoughts on “Matryoshkas & Matriarchs

  1. As the oldest daughter of the oldest daughter of the oldest daughter of the oldest daughter, I too am fascinated by my motherline. I’ve had a small set of the Russian nesting dolls and love the way you used them to introduce us to your delightful motherline.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! I was lucky enough to be the first grandchild in the family (and my parents were young when they got married and had me). I knew my great-grandmother, and I remember a lot of the family stories. The photos really do make it, though–I agree!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That is wonderful! I only knew one set of grandparents, as my paternal ones both died before I was born, so I am very jealous you have memories of the generation above! Its always great to learn about your ancestors.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I have never thought of the name before, but it seems the origin lies in the name Matriona. Matrioshka is a nickname for Matriona. Love your blog and all the tales related to your ancestors.

    Liked by 2 people

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