I loved my maternal grandmother, Maria Bartacovik Ulrich, but never really knew her. She was a sweet presence in my life, but because she spoke little or no English and I had no knowledge of her Slovakian language we communicated mostly with facial expressions. She was a short, round woman filled with the wrinkles of old age. She kept her hair in a long braid that trailed down her back, at least until she became seriously ill and her daughters cut it to make the task of maintaining it easier. She seemed to be of another world, another century and I always longed to be able to ask her questions and learn more about the girl she had once been. Instead we exchanged smiles as she called me “pretty girl,” and while I loved the simplicity of her greeting I wondered if she actually knew my name or those of my many cousins.
Grandma Ulrich padded around her home in her bare feet which were tiny but often appeared swollen. At gatherings she prepared cups of coffee for all of her guests, bringing the watery brew proudly in enamel cups filled with more milk and sugar than java. I loved that gesture which she repeated hundreds of times when the members of her family filled her home with raucous conversation. I saw her as an exceptional hostess who wanted us to feel welcome in her domain, and we always did.
Grandma Ulrich had lovely blue eyes, and as I gazed into them I wondered what thoughts were behind them. It would not be until long after she was dead that I would do enough research and ask enough questions to learn a tiny bit about her. It amazed me to find that this shy and unassuming woman had traveled alone from her hometown in the Slovakian region of Austria Hungary to Bremen, Germany where she boarded a steamship bound for Galveston, Texas. She came to meet my grandfather who had arrived before her to pave the way of their new life together. Somehow it almost seems inconceivable that such an unassuming woman would have the courage to embark on a journey to a world of which she knew very little. She must have been very much in love, and perhaps she was guided by the exuberance of youth as well.
She arrived not too many years before the outbreak of World War II and for all intents forever lost track of her family back home. My eldest aunt says that Grandma worked as a cook for the laborers on a large farm in an area of Houston on the east side of town. Later she tried a variety of jobs including laboring as a cleaning woman in a large downtown building. When her English improved she even found work behind the counter of a small bakery. This was a daring Grandma Ulrich that I had never known, and even now I have a difficult time imagining the woman who was frightened to leave her home as such a courageous person.
My grandmother was a woman of her times without benefit of any form of birth control other than abstinence, and so she had one baby after another. There were nine pregnancies in a row including one in which she carried twins. By the time my mother, the youngest of her children, was born Grandma had buried two of her babies. Her body must have been in a state of hormonal hell as she yo-yoed from conception into post partum depression again and again. Her tiny home and her life was dominated by rowdy children whom she dearly loved, but I can’t fathom that she ever had a moment to herself.
At some point my grandmother showed signs of a mental breakdown and she was taken away by force to the state hospital in Austin. It was a traumatic time for her and for her children who rarely spoke of it, carefully guarding a secret that was too painful to mention. Once Grandma returned home she would never again have enough trust to leave the safety of her house without putting up a fight. She was content to simply create a daily routine and quietly live out the rest of her days.
I am fascinated by the woman who was my grandmother. I suppose that if truth be told we, her grandchildren, took her for granted. She was someone who was just there, an almost invisible presence in our lives. She seemed simple and yet she was so complex. We thought her witless and yet she must surely have had thoughts and dreams. Like so many women her contribution to the world was unseen and under appreciated. We did not think to connect the dots of her existence and the incredible impact it has had on the world. We assumed that she would not have been interested in knowing that from her humble beginnings in America have come engineers, doctors, teachers, accountants, business leaders, athletes, lawyers. Members of her now very extended family are brilliant and beautiful, and genetics tells us that her contribution to such success is present in all of us. Most importantly the lessons that she taught her children have been passed down through the generations. We may not have been able to communicate with her but her children knew and understood her messages of integrity and hard work. She modeled a steadfastness for them that they emulated often without even realizing how deeply her character had imprinted on them.
If by some magic I were able to see my grandmother again and actually speak with her without the restrictions on communication that once defined our relationship I would want to know everything about her. I have grown to understand how amazing she was and how worthy of my attention to her story should be. Like so many many women she was dutiful and in her role she built the foundation of a family and the future. Her contributions are incalculable but her legacy continues to blossom. Now I finally realize through discovery of her remarkable story that this tiny quiet woman was a tower of strength and I feel honored to be part of the world that she helped to build.