Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Immigration Dreams, Part II

(To start from the beginning, see Immigration Dreams, Part I )

My grandmother Mary, the child of divorced Slovenian immigrants, left school after the fourth grade. She was working at a Slovenian boarding house when she met her husband-to-be. It wasn't exactly a romantic story. She later told my mother, by way of explanation, "What could I do? He forced himself on me."

My grandfather, Alois (Louis) Kozlevčar, had emigrated from a Slovenian village called Zatična (now Stična) in 1911. He'd lost his parents in the influenza epidemic and got passed around to a few relatives before he decided to leave for America. Family lore gives his age as twelve at the time of immigration, but his official birthdate makes him seventeen.

He'd been a farm laborer in Slovenia. He worked as a miner for a few years in Pennsylvania before he moved to Cleveland, where he became a factory worker.

My grandparents, Mary and Louis, were married by an Ohio justice of the peace in 1917. She was fifteen, although the marriage license claims eighteen. Their first child, my uncle, was born less than a year later.

They all led such hard lives. Not much freedom, as far as I can tell. My great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my grandfather all turned to alcohol. There is a kind of freedom, even if it's short-lived, in the bottle.

The only thing I know about their dreams is this:

When I was ten, I received a note from my grandma. I'd gone off to Girl Scout Camp for two weeks. My first time away from home. I was only a little bit homesick.

Grandma sent me a card with a dollar bill inside. Her short note ended like this: "Sometimes I wish I had a dog, then I would roam. Don't mind me, I am just being silly."

I remember feeling surprised and very sad, when I read that. At the time, I knew nothing about the harsh circumstances of her life. So why did my grandma, a sweet and loving woman, a baker of homemade bread and strudel and potica, sound so unhappy?

Since then, the truth about my family has come out slowly. Some of it my mother has revealed, in bits and pieces. Much of it I have had to search for. I may not know the whole picture. But I know enough. So now I feel an even deeper sense of melancholy, when I think of my grandmother. When I think about all of them.

But I am also grateful. Because life did get better, but not until the next generation. My mother's generation. My tough Slovenian ancestors pursued a promise of freedom, or at least a hope for something better in America. But the payoff was deferred for years.

No comments:

Post a Comment