We each possess a unique gift which we might give our children and our grandchildren. It is the story of who we are and from whence we have come. The links that we provide from one generation to the next form a foundation for the young. Sometimes to get where they are going they need to know where they have been. They learn this when we tell them about our family history.
I grew up in two different worlds. The first was marked by refinement and a certain level of privilege. Before my father died we lived in homes that were newer and more spacious than those of the other members of our extended family. Our house was always beautifully furnished and filled with books and music. We went on yearly vacations, traveling all over the United States in fancy cars. I mostly took my good fortune for granted. I had little idea how much work it had taken my father to earn his college degree so that he might have a well paying job that supported our lifestyle. I did not then understand that our position in the middle class had been an enormous social leap for both of my parents. I had no idea that our situation was as fragile as it actually was.
Part two of my biography was one of great challenges. My father’s death changed our situation in palatable ways. Our economic status shrunk overnight. My mother had to use her intellect and resources to stretch our budget into almost impossible proportions. Every decision had to be weighed and measured with great care lest we find ourselves without the basics of living. Somehow she always managed to see us through each struggle that we faced, but I still find myself wondering how she performed so many miracles. We had just what we needed to survive and not a bit more. Vacations became a thing of the past other than visiting our grandparents’ farm. Somehow in spite of the rigidity of our budget we never felt deprived. Our mother put food on the table at every meal and kept our few articles of clothing clean and mended.
As children we were entertained by friendships with children in the neighborhood. We built forts out of Christmas trees or by hanging sheets and bedspreads on the clotheslines where our laundry dried on warm sunny days. We held games of Red Rover and Swing the Statue in the front yard and rode our bicycles down to the woods or the park. Someone was always inventing some adventurous way of spending the daylight hours, and everyone ran free in their shorts and bare feet so that we hardly noticed that we may not have had clothes as fine as theirs.
On Friday nights we always went to visit our Slovakian grandmother who welcomed us with mugs of sugary coffee laced with so much milk that we hardly noticed the taste of the brew. She gave us slices of fresh rye bread from Weingarten’s grocery and on very special days fried up slices of round steak in her big iron skillet.
The most English we ever heard from her was her greeting of “Hello, pretty boy/girl.” She made us feel loved and special even though we never once were able to have a conversation with her. Most of the time she sat in her chair and in the corner of her tiny living room smiling at us while we ran around like a bunch of noisy hell cats. My aunts and uncles engaged in games of penny poker or argued as though they were still young children vying for their mother’s attention. We played “hide and find,” our own version of the childhood game that has been around for centuries. Sometimes we created our own family newspaper or watched episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or Friday night wrestling.
We often sat in our bachelor uncle’s bedroom talking and telling jokes within view of his loaded pistol which we would never have dared to touch. Sadly we did use his records as coasters for our drinks, but he didn’t seem to notice our disrespect for his prize collection of music from Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. We knew that he worked for the Post Office and had once been a railroad man until he broke his leg in an accident. He had matchbooks from gambling spots in Galveston and there was a mysterious air about him. He was both a bit scary and a great big teddy bear at one and the same time and he loved us all.
We often wondered about our grandfather who had died before most of us were born. We knew little of him, but heard that he had worked at a meat packing plant all the way up until the time that he had a stroke from which he eventually died. He had built a huge library of books of all sorts that he brought home one at a time each Friday evening after he was paid. He owned a cow that provided milk for his eight children and cherished the goal of one day having a farm of his own. Each Sunday afternoon he gave his family lessons on morality and good citizenship and taught them to be proud of who they were. I would have like to have met him because I think he must have been a very interesting man.
On Sundays we always went to see people from our father’s side of the family. Our mother thought that it was important for us to stay in contact with them. My paternal grandmother was a tiny woman who was famous for her cooking. Going to her house always meant that we would be treated to an extraordinary meal. When she wasn’t busy creating yummy dishes, she was either crocheting or embroidering or making quilts. Her sewing was like delicate works of art and her crooked old hands belied her ability to weave intricate stitches and knots. Her gardens were legendary and she even knew how to talk with birds. I always found it fascinating that her knowledge of the world was encyclopedic given that she was illiterate. I don’t have any recipes or instructions from her because she carried all that she knew inside her head.
My grandfather was a strong man with great big hands that he used to build things. He smoked a pipe and told the most delightful stories. He might have been a wonderful writer but for lack of time. He worked until he was eighty eight years old and only quit because his supervisor thought that his advanced age made him a liability. He read for hours every single day and was able to quote passages well into his nineties. He drove an old black Plymouth whose leather seats smelled of sweet tobacco. Life had always been hard for him, but he was a survivor of the highest order and insisted on maintaining optimism no matter how terrible things became.
I learned that I was from strong stock, people who were determined to live and love and carry on regardless of what befell them. They taught me the value of hard work, education and determination. They helped me to realize that I need not be held back by my circumstances. They encouraged me and my brothers to dream big and to believe in ourselves. They were always there in both the good and bad times. We knew that we were never alone, and still aren’t. This is who we were and what has made us who we are. Our children and grandchildren are part of the unending thread that traces back through the centuries. I hope that they always remember how grand and noble their heritage truly is. The legacy of their family is indeed rich.