I was never able to talk with my grandmother, Mary Ulrich. She spoke only Slovak and I spoke only English. She called everyone either “pretty girl” or” pretty boy.” The rest of the time she simply padded around her home in her bare feet offering weak coffee loaded with sugar and milk to any visitors who came. Sometimes she set a loaf of dark rye bread on her dining room table as a snack to go with the coffee. Mostly she sat in her chair in the corner of the living room surveying her good fortune in having a huge family that loved her as much as she loved them.
Mary Ulrich came to America from the Slovakian region of Austria Hungary around 1913. She traveled alone on a small steamboat and stepped onto American soil in Galveston, Texas where her husband, Paul, was waiting to meet her. They would both work a number of jobs until they had saved enough to purchase a plot of land near downtown Houston, Texas where they would build a tiny house, room by room.
My Aunt Valeria who was Mary’s third child has told her children that my grandmother first worked as a cook on a farm where my grandfather labored. Later she found work as a cleaning lady in one of the downtown Houston buildings. Her boss sexually harassed her and when she told my grandfather he insisted that she quit. Later she worked in a bakery located near her home on North Adams Street in east Houston.
The children kept coming for Mary. She birthed ten of them by 1926. Two of them died in infancy. Caring for the family became Mary’s full time job and if she had ever spoken any English she lost that ability as she became more and more isolated in her house. Her focus turned to caring for her family and that meant a daily routine of cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and tending her garden. It must have been quite a chore with four boys and four girls squeezed into a tiny house no bigger than about nine hundred square feet.
My grandfather worked at a meat packing plant doing hard labor. He never once missed a day of work and he frugally managed to feed his family on a very low salary. His dream was to one day own a farm and by scrimping and saving he hoped to eventually achieve that goal but just shy of his sixty fifth birthday he died leaving my grandmother widowed and without the skills or resume to work to support herself. Luckily her children shouldered that responsibility without complaint and by then President Franklin Roosevelt had introduced the Social Security program.
Mary lived in her home repeating her daily routines until she died in her eighties. I was married with young children of my own by then. I so wanted to talk with her but language was a barrier that neither of us were able to overcome. I only knew of her and I sensed the essence of her character. I do not know if she was able to read or write. I know nothing about her family back in Slovakia. I wonder to this very day what kind of thoughts she had. I only know how much I loved her gentleness and the simplicity of her unconditional love.
I often see memes from people insisting that everyone in America should learn and use English or go back to the places from which they came. There is a commonly held belief that a person is not really a good citizen unless he or she adopts a particular American culture. I’m sometimes asked if I am willing to agree to forcing people who come here to adopt a certain standardized way of doing things. I think of my grandmother Mary whenever I hear such ridiculous ideas. I realize that if we had indeed insisted on compelling every person who ever came to our shores to become just like the so called majority of us in thought, customs and language my grandmother would have been considered destructive when she was just a sweet lady who never had the time or the inclination to learn English or assimilate into a national culture.
Over time my grandmother’s children, grandchildren and great great grandchildren became indistinguishable from the rest of Americans. Our English is impeccable and most of us are highly educated. The women work as nurses, teachers, doctors, public health administrators, accountants and such. We have adapted rather nicely to American life just as the descendants of most immigrants do. That process begins from the moment that a citizen from a foreign land first steps into our country. It is an inevitable transformation but it need not be forced and it should not include erasing the culture of the past. We may not call ourselves Italian Americans or German Americans but we value the contributions and customs of our ancestors in making us who we are today. Why would we deny that to our newest immigrants who, like my grandmother, do their best to adapt to a whole new world? It is ridiculous for us to fear or disdain individuals or groups attempting to adjust to a way of life unlike the ones from which they have come.
Our nation is built on the stories of millions of Marys who came here from all over the world to create new lives. Even the Puritans who arrived on the Mayflower were immigrants seeking refuge from religious persecution and laws that forced them to conform to a particular way of life or be exiled or even jailed. How ironic that today there are those among us who insist on imposing their wills on others.
America has not always welcomed immigrants of any sort. We have often been especially suspicious of those who look different from ourselves. If history has taught us anything it should be that we grow stronger and more vibrant from the mix of cultures that make up our population. We should celebrate our differences, not attempt to eliminate them.
Perhaps Mary’s life would have been easier if her neighbors had sought to welcome and help her rather than shunning her and whispering about how she and her children had somehow devalued the neighborhood. I much prefer the environment of my own cul-de-sac where whites, Vietnamese, Blacks and even lesbian families live in harmony and cooperation. Everyone should try it. It is a beautiful thing.