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.

Immigration Dreams, Part I

I've been living in the past lately. My family's immigrant past. Passenger manifests. Naturalization cards. Census records. Marriage licenses. Following their paper trail. You can learn almost everything. Except for this one thing: What hopes carried them along? Were they pursuing some lofty ideal of freedom?

I wish I knew.

My Scottish father died eighteen years ago, so I can't ask him. Besides, he was just a little boy when his family settled in the United States in the 1920s, so he might not have known. The Kilpatricks were, as far as I can tell, a respectable working class family in Glasgow. Not oppressed, but looking for something better.

For my mother's Slovenian family, I have to go back farther. The facts seem starker. Especially for the women.

My great-grandfather, Alois Adamič, a 30-year old farmer, left Ponikve, a village in Slovenia, in 1898. He passed through Ellis Island and ended up working as a miner in Ely, a small but booming town in Minnesota's Iron Range, where he had a sister.

In 1899, a 19-year-old Slovenian girl named Jožefa Strukelj left a little village called Maćki. According to the Ellis Island ship manifest, her destination was also Ely, Minnesota, where she had a brother named Janez. In America, he was known as John Strukel. He was also a miner.

Six weeks after Jožefa arrived in Ely, she was married to my great-grandfather. A local Catholic priest performed the ceremony, two days after they got the license.

"It must have been an arranged marriage." That's what my mother said, when I presented her with this surprising fact about her grandparents.

In 1902 Alois and Jožefa (now Louis and Josephine) had their first child: Mary, my grandmother, who was baptised Maria.  She was the first of my family--on either side-- to be born in the United States.

Mary and her parents soon left Ely for another mining town, in eastern Pennsylvania, where her brother Joseph was born. Eventually, they settled for good in Cleveland, Ohio. It was the largest Slovenian community outside of Slovenia itself.

Louis and Josephine got divorced when their children were young. After that, my grandmother and her brother were "treated like bastards" in their community. At least that's what my mother was told.

The story continues here.