Growing up I was acutely aware that I was the granddaughter of immigrants from Eastern Europe. My mother was quite proud of her background and upbringing. She taught me and my brothers to be aspirational just as her father had once instructed her. Mama and her siblings loved the United States of America with all of their hearts. Her brothers eagerly enlisted in the military at the outbreak of World War II. Mama got tears in her eyes recalling Pearl Harbor and the time that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled down Navigation Street near her childhood home. Being an American citizen was a source of great pride to her. She felt that only in this country would she have been able to accomplish as much as she eventually did. She instilled in me a feeling that I would have the power to accomplish anything if only I worked hard. In only one generation removed from my grandparents my cousins and I have achieved the American dream that first brought my grandparents across the ocean.
The other day I watched the movie Brooklyn which was billed as a love story but ended up being so much more for me. The heroine was a young girl who decided to leave the suffocating environment of her home in Ireland in search of a better life in the USA. I don’t want to post any spoilers for the movie but suffice it to say that the film beautifully depicted the struggles that immigrants to our country so often endure. I found myself constantly thinking about my grandparents in ways that had rarely occurred to me before. I was particularly conscious of just how incredible my grandmother’s journey had been.
She came from a lovely town in what is now Slovakia, a place with a famous castle and mountainous views. She spoke very little English and was unfamiliar with virtually every aspect of American life. It must have required a genuine leap of faith and a profound love for my grandfather to compel her to leave everything and everybody that she knew behind. That journey across a sometimes treacherous sea in cramped quarters could not have been particularly pleasant. If she suffered from sea sickness like I do it would have been horrific.
I wonder what she was thinking as she disembarked in Galveston and had to stand in long lines being poked and prodded and questions before being allowed to step onto the land. Was she afraid that she had made a terrible mistake? Did she want to turn and run back to her homeland? I’ll never know because I was not able to ask her such questions. She spoke so little English that our communication always took place through facial expressions and body language. I do have proof that she had people who loved her back home. I have a copy of a letter sent to her from a relative attempting to find out how she had been. It seems almost unreal that she may have gone for years without contact from her relations. I’ve heard stories that she and my grandfather communicated for a time but eventually too much time had passed and complications arose from the fact that her native nation was under the control of an authoritarian and secretive government.
The young Irish lass featured in the movie Brooklyn fluctuated between missing the familiarity of the town that she had left and understanding that in America she might become more than would be possible if she had stayed in Ireland. Like my grandparents she eventually adapted to her new environment and changed. She was someone with feet planted in two different worlds. She was different from her fellow Americans but also from her family and friends back home. She would never again be quite the same as she had been.
I have learned through doing some research that my grandparents worked quite hard when they came here. No job was beneath them as long as it paid. They were frugal, saving every penny and then investing what they had in slowly building a home for themselves and their children. By the time that the Great Depression hit they owned every inch of the tiny house where they cared for their eight children. My grandfather worked at a backbreaking and dirty job but it kept the family fed and he never complained. Instead he constantly told his children that they were more fortunate than most of the people in the world. He insisted that they become educated and hold their heads high. He always reminded them that they were as good or better than anyone that they might meet as long as they were honest and hard working.
Mama often told us of their Sunday afternoon lessons from her father. Mostly he instilled in them the importance of always aspiring to the highest goals. He would not accept excuses or complaints from them. If they noted that other children hurled insults at them because they were the children of immigrants he insisted that they should simply ignore the taunts and always remember that they were fortunate. When they grumbled because they had to walk the family cow to pasture he reminded them that owning livestock was a sign of great wealth and that they should rejoice in their abundance.
My immigrant family has gone quite far in only a few generations. My grandparents’ children learned well from their parents. They all held good and worthy jobs and inspired their children to reach even higher than they had. We are all so comfortable that we sometimes forget the struggles that faced our ancestors not that long ago. Watching Brooklyn made me cry at times as I thought about them and the tremendous sacrifices that they endured. It could not have been easy raising eight children in a tiny house with no relatives to help.
My mother was always a fountain of hope and optimism. She told us that she had learned such characteristics from the wisdom of her father and the unwavering love of her mother. She passed those qualities down to us and we in turn have done our best to do the same for our own children and grandchildren. We tend to be incredibly patriotic folk. My mother used to cry whenever she heard the national anthem. It sometimes embarrassed me to see those tears running down her face. As I have grown older and more attuned to the knowledge of what life was like for my grandparents I too feel that sense of wonder and appreciation that I live in such a glorious place. It’s pretty amazing to think that I received this great gift because a man named Pavel and a woman named Maria were willing to take a take a chance on the unknown. Now I can see what heroes they were.