Tag Archives: immigrant experience

For My Mom, The Best of Them All

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My Mother has just turned 87 years old, and in honour of that special occasion, I am posting this poem that I read at our family celebration, here on my blog. She is the best German, Hungarian, Schwabian, Austrian, American, Canadian you could ever have the pleasure of meeting. Yes, She’s all that! The verses describe the time both before and after she was born:

To Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the land of the USA,
Where the Ohio, the Allegheny, and Monongahela wend their way
Through a place once known as “Iron Town”, for the strength of the people there,
And the industry that drew them, they came with a hope and a prayer.
They came for the chance to “make it”, to pull their own weight and more;
In the year of our Lord, 1906, they knocked on America’s door.
The parents of a daughter (as yet, unborn) Gisella and Louis came,
With their feather ticks, and their pots and pans, and barely a cent to their name.*
Their’s was a people in need of a home, in a country filled with strife;
Like all Schwabians* living in Hungary, they hoped for a better life.
These German speaking Marath’s, were Austrians* in their hearts,
But the borders had changed, and fortunes had changed;
What they needed most was new starts.
New countries, it’s said, are built by those hewing wood and hauling water.
Louis hauled that water as blocks of ice, for the sake of his sons and daughters,
Who all were born, with the passing years, as he tried to put money away,
To return again to his shoe-making trade, before his hair turned grey.
Silver dollars could buy his freedom from ice blocks, and cart and horse,
But the best laid plans of mice and men oft come to naught, of course.
A thief broke in, one fateful night, and stole their nest-egg away.
The shoemaker, bent by the weight of his load, must wait for another day.
Then finally it came, that longed for time, when dollars exceeded their need;
So leather was bought, and shoe-making lasts, and in his hand was a deed.
When Gisella was forty-two years old and Louis was forty-five,
And ten other siblings were already born, the eleventh one did arrive!
Her oldest sister had children by then, who came right over to meet her
And hold their aunt, and kiss her, and whoop round the house, just to greet her!
Her parents called her Regina; in Latin her name means Queen.
She was Queen of their hearts from her very first cry, but most people called her Jean.
Which very soon became Jeannie, of course, to those who loved her best;
That was all that she would answer to; she chose to ignore the rest ―
Be it the priest on Holy Communion day, or the nuns at Catholic School,
So her parents enrolled her in public school, breaking a family rule.
All that whacking of pointers on their desks, and other nun-approved habits,
Had been too much for this sensitive child, friend of pink Easter chicks and rabbits.
So the doctor made her eat brewers’ yeast to clear up her itching skin,
(Which was most likely caused by the nervousness of helping do Easter chicks in,
When they had grown tall and gangly− like the one sister Mary had caught.)
She had tried to kill it with a very dull knife, which proved to be all for naught,
For it still had plenty of stamina to chase Jeannie round their yard,
Wings down, and severed head flapping, with total disregard!)
After fleeing from zombie chickens, she was under adrenaline’s spell;
She would spend her leisurely Saturdays jumping over an open well!
She and her girlfriend would bet one another, about who could make “The Leap”.
If nobody fell in the well, to their death, their allowance they got to keep.
Jeannie also rode tandem down “Suicide Hill”, ’til her cousin knocked out her teeth,
And stole ribbons from the graveyard next door, from every funeral wreath!
The gold foiled “Daughter” plaque, over her bed, sure gave her mother a start!
But the one thing that Jeannie never did, she never broke a heart,
Unless there was a secret admirer on that day that Jeannie left
For a brand new home in Canada, where she arrived, completely bereft,
On the day of her sixteenth birthday, at a house near the township dump,
Where the horse was huge, the cow was crazy, and the rats were well-fed and plump.
The winter they spent there they nearly froze, as the house had no insulation.
They had no car, so she rode her bike to the store by the reservation.
When spring arrived they got to move when the farm-buying terms were complete.
Then Jeannie started going out a bit, with neighbour friends she would meet.
One special night, at a town hall dance, she met a man named Bill.
The stars shone bright on that fateful night; and their very first kiss was a thrill!
Soon wedding bells were ringing, as he took her for his bride,
And she lived happily ever after, with William Peter at her side.
They had a lot of children; she was such a wonderful mother,
That as soon as the crib was empty they filled it with another.
(Well, sometimes not exactly the crib, sometimes the bassinet!)
When Marsha was not quite one years old, she needed her’s longer yet,
So they got themselves a second crib, and later two little beds,
For Vonnie’s, and little Keithie’s, and little Jeannie’s sleepy heads.
And soon enough, they bought bigger beds, as the bigger kids grew and grew,
Then there was one for Kathy, one for Janice, and for Jimmy and Donny too.
(Well, sometimes kids got to share a bed— whatever the room size allowed.)
And they all grew up on a farm so neat that it made every one of them proud.
Mom and Dad worked hard to give us all that any family needed.
They both tried hard to teach us right, and Mom, I’d say you succeeded.
We’ve not leapt over any open wells, or caused any missing teeth;
Nor have we ignored any nuns before, or ripped ribbons from funeral wreaths.
We have tried to make you proud of us, and followed your example,
Except for us having lots of kids. (One or two seemed more than ample.)
But we’re glad that you thought differently, and that you took a gamble.
We’re glad that we’re all here because you and Dad chose to take a leap,
And your parents did too, or they wouldn’t have had you,
And moved near that garbage heap,
Where no one else great would have taken you out, for fear of lurking vermin.
And then you met Dad who would love you so much, Hungarian, Austrian, or German,
Or Schwabian, or American. Well, who could ever determine?
In the end, only one thing matters; this one thing I know is true.
You are a part of the people we loved. And we are a part of you.

 

*The Schwabians are the German people who settled in Hungary, at the urging of the Habsburgh monarchy of Austria, during the eighteenth century, after it was wrested from Turkish occupation.  Although these peasant settlers were from places such as Baden, Bavaria, Alsace, Lorraine, and Schwabia, eventually all of them were being referred to as Schwabians. There were two million of  them in Hungary by 1900, a few years before Louis and Gisella emigrated to the USA. in 1906, seeking, as did many of their countrymen, a place of greater opportunity.

*Louis Marath identified himself as Austrian on his draft registration for the U.S. Army in 1917.

*Our grandmother, Gisella, was a member of a poor peasant family in the early 1900’s. She worked in service as part of the kitchen staff at Apponyi Castle in Lengyel, Hungary, which belonged to  Count Apponyi of the Hungarian royal family. The roof of the castle was destroyed by fire in 1905. This likely led to her loss of employment and subsequent emigration in 1906. The castle roof was  later reconstructed, and the site is a tourist attraction today.

My Man’s Man Wore A Nightie. It Was All Grandma’s Fault!

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DocImage000000479A person had to be crazy to offer a free Bed and Breakfast to American tourists for two of her busiest months in the year, July and August, when she already had eight kids and a husband to care for, but that’s exactly what my mother did. No money actually changed hands as the tourists were always our relatives, and to their credit they did their best to not overlap visits too much. Nevertheless, the novelty of being able to visit the baby in the family, who had married a Canadian farmer, was just too inviting to resist. So for quite a few summers in a row our house was full to overflowing. Mom had a whole slew of relatives in Pittsburgh who were more than willing to put up with cramped accommodations for sleeping and eating, just to be able to enjoy the nice wide open spaces we could provide in every other way.

In the first hour after someone arrived, if it was still daylight, they would say to Mom or Dad, or both if they were available “Hey are you’uns ready for a walk?” If they had arrived in the middle of the night and slept late, then the first thing they said as they entered the kitchen was “Jeet jet?” If we said no, none of us has eaten yet, then they would go get the German Walnut rolls one of them had invariably made and begin to slice one up nice and thin. Right about then someone would ask if they could brew up a pot of Chock Full O’ Nuts Coffee from the stash that they had brought along with them, because they hadn’t been able to find it in any of our grocery stores last time. Mom would volunteer to cook eggs for everybody and somebody would always say “I’ll take mine dippy” or soft enough to dip toast into.“Let’s redd up and go for a ride.” someone would say right after breakfast and we would hurry to “redd up” the table, and pile the dishes in the sink for when we came back. This postponement was only allowed for special reasons, like an impromptu driving tour past the old haunts some of them remembered, from their years of Canadian residency. Otherwise, we girls took turns washing, drying, and putting away in daily rotation, immediately after meals.

How did we end up having American relatives at all? As an immigrant family my mother’s parents had encouraged any of the adult children who wished to remain with them under one roof, to pool their incomes under my grandmother’s careful monitoring. Eventually there was an opportunity to buy a farm economically, near where a cousin lived in Canada. So my mom’s parents came with her and some of her siblings, bought a farm, failed at farming, and returned home to be American residents again, all within a few short years. Meantime, Mom met Dad, married Dad, had Canadian babies, and put down Canadian roots, also all within a few short years. Because her home was now here, and not there, the only option for her to remain close to her family was for them to come and be with us as often as they liked. And, Man! You couldn’t  feel much closer than on those hot July or  August mornings when as many people as possible tried to cram into one car and go for a ride!

Seat belts were still almost nonexistent in those years, and in some families doubling up one smaller kid on the lap of another was quite typical. I never ever saw the adults being forced into doing such a thing, even though some of them certainly could have. My Aunt Mary was likely not more than four foot ten and 90 lbs. She could have easily fit on her brother, my Uncle Larry’s lap, and then she could even have held on to my baby brother Donny. Instead it was always us who ended up squashed and sticky,with pink impressions from our zippers down the fronts of our bellies when we changed into our swimsuits after coming back.

Then we would put the sprinkler head on the hose and loop it over the clothes line, and run around under it for a while. Otherwise we could go out and stand under the water tank by the green house until it overflowed. It usually did this when Dad was distracted at  busy times, like when we had company.It was freezing cold ground water, straight from the well, being pumped up to the elevated tank. There it would warm up enough so as not to injure the plants that would be watered from it later. Of course we would never fall over and lay flat on the ground from its incredibly frigid temperature like a tender seedling might, but it sure could make our lips turn blue! I think those kids’ water parks where the bucket tips and dumps a flood of water onto excited kids’ heads were first designed by people with water tank experiences like ours. It was terrific!

Why we didn’t use two cars, to achieve all that family closeness in some other way, had a lot to do with the kind of cars that were parked in our driveway, bearing Pennsylvania license plates, each summer. If it was one of  the relatives who had done well for themselves by then, the car would always be bigger, better and shinier than any that we ’d ever seen before. In their owner’s mind, it was just a bit too shiny to drive it around for an hour on a dusty gravel road. The roads were graded so infrequently in our neighbourhood that whenever any of us saw a road grader approaching, or Heaven forbid! already passing by, it was our moral imperative to grab up Jimmy or Donny, and run out to the roadside with them for their entertainment. Then they would stand their pointing, as it as it rumbled on, or wave at the driver as he passed, as excited as if it was a whole parade going by. (I will qualify the preceding statement here, for the sake of their dignity.) Never did any of us have to run Jimmy or Donny out to the road on our hip, or on our shoulders, or on our back when they were past seven or eight. By then they were just too heavy! (Sorry boys! I just couldn’t help myself!)

That brings to mind a strange thing my Aunt Betty, my Aunt Mary, or my Aunt Wilma would say in a distinctive  dialect, sometimes called Pittsburghese —“Will you ride me down to the store please?” “Huh?” we older ones would think to ourselves, smirking at the strange look on our father’s face. “Cuz I want to pick us up some chipped ham, and some jimmies to sprinkle on the cake. I’ll just go get my pocket-book.” My mother only used a few  odd names for things, like gum bands, instead of elastics, and nighties for all night-wear, including her boys’ pajamas.  Mom loved us, and so we trusted her not to lead us astray when it came to what things were called. Unless someone points out to you that you are using quirky nomenclature or pompous linguistics you will remain blissfully oblivious that others don’t call things that too.

From the day that Rolly met me, everyone in my family always called all night-wear, including guy’s pajamas, nighties. Unfortunately it rubbed off on him, and one night when sitting around with some male friends he said something like“ Vonnie and I still had on our nighties when someone knocked at the door.” The guys he was with nearly fell off their chairs at what he had said, and he didn’t quite get the joke. I explained later that most people only call ladies’ nightgowns “nighties” except in strange families like mine, and being such a man’s man he was mortified. But it passed. (Maybe like a kidney stone) But you forget all about the pain when it’s over with. Right? (Or is that childbirth?)

It was all my German grandma, Mum’s fault anyway. When they were raising my mother my grandparents tried to use as much English with her as they could manage to learn, and as little German as necessary. So except for a few German songs and those rude emphatic phrases that kids pick up very quickly, my Mom speaks no German. Her family were all proud Americans and determined to prove it when she was growing up. Just imagine if my mother had been heard saying to her 13 year-old girlfriends “You are invited to come and join the Schlafanzug party at my house on Friday night!” In 1942, when the Americans had just declared war on Germany, someone being invited to join any party but the Democrats or Republicans would have sounded mighty suspicious to English- only ears!

In my mind’s eye I can just see my grandmother going on the trolley down to Kaufmann’s department store, on a mission to buy some new night-wear for herself and my grandfather— a nightgown, and a pair of pajamas. She comes out beaming at her accomplishments. “This day I have learned that I am not afraid to take the trolley, I have money left over still, and I have learned now a new word. Louis must not be asking now where I have put his schlafanzug , he must say instead— in English—How did she say? Aah yes ‘his nightie’!”

The Taste Of Love

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DocImage000000449The relationship between my mother Jeannie and her future mother-in-law  Myrtle was strained from the very day that my dad Bill brought her home to meet his family in their big yellow brick farm house near Melbourne, Ontario. It was just after the Second World War, and she had the grave misfortune to be of German descent. Little did it matter that her own brother had fought against the Germans or that she and her family had suffered as much as they had during the war. Mumbled behind red paisley handkerchiefs, her family were “immigrants…dirty Germans” and discussed at Ladies Aid meetings— “Catholics too!” and that was all that mattered to many of the smug long- settled  Scottish Presbyterians in the farming community they had chosen to settle in. It was my mother Jean’s 16th birthday when she arrived in Canada, a day she remembers vividly as a very sad and tearful one.

It was of no consequence to the intolerant ones that she had actually been born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where her mother, father and three oldest siblings had settled decades before and where six more of her older siblings had been born. Ethnically, she was on the wrong side of the tracks and  they seemed to set their faces in rigid masks of disinterest whenever she spoke of sitting on the front stoops of girlfriends during the war, and how they all wept  bitterly together when the dreaded telegrams came to their own or their neighbours  homes. Perhaps her natural American tendency to be so open in discussing her feelings put up another wall between her and these stoic descendents of kilt- wearing warriors who headed off to snowy highland battlegrounds, carrying cold haggis along as a treat.

My grandfather, James Levi Stephenson, however, was fond of Jean, this bubbly young American woman who loved his son. After the wedding, his approval was a much needed encouragement to this eighteen year-old city girl, so unfamiliar with the day to day routines of farm life and struggling to adjust. Whether it was feeding the chickens, cleaning the eggs or stoking the fire in the kitchen’s big old cook range, she never seemed to be able to do things to the satisfaction of her mother-in-law. No doubt it was an extremely steep learning curve.

When baby Marsha was born, fourteen months into the marriage, despite the tensions between Myrtle and Jean she became immediately the apple of her grandmother’s eye, rocked, crooned to, and enjoyed as every little one ought to be. It was on my grandma’s floors and at my grandma’s  feet that she first learned to crawl and she may in all liklihood  have  taken her first steps towards her as readily as towards her parents and so it was, I am told, that I became lost in the potato fields. I suppose you could say  that this is jumping ahead a bit when last you heard about me was the day of my birth.

Actually, the way the story goes from here is partly gleaned from having been told it and partly from memory.   Nevertheless, it wasn’t her or anyone else’s deliberate meanness that drove me to run off to the potato fields for solace, but simply someone’s callous disregard. I still remember the reason I was upset. It was all about the gravy! I loved chicken, and I loved turkey too, but mostly because of the gravy. My mother was a wonderful cook, having learned some pretty amazing culinary skills from her own mother. My maternal grandmother, a wonderful warm and loving woman we all called Mum, had been born into an poverty-stricken peasant family. Perhaps they didn’t call them peasants in the early 1900’s anymore, but in any case due to the dire financial  state of her family she was sent away to be part of the kitchen staff in a castle belonging to a member of the Hungarian aristocracy— a bit like a Downton Abby character, but in this case true.  In that environment the skills required of everyone from cook to scullery maid were exceedingly demanding. Consequently she became a gifted cook who in later years taught  my mother, the youngest of 10 children, all that she knew, especially how to make awesome gravy!

So, it was goose-killing time on my Aunt Irene’s farm, and to celebrate the completion of this arduous task she, my father’s oldest sister, had brought a dead goose to her mother  and father’s house. I don’t blame her one bit for celebrating the slaughter. Her geese were  notoriously vicious, chasing my sister and me around her yard until one of them caught us by the back of the arm or the back of the leg, with its horrible honking beak. It always left behind a big red painful welt which then turned purple, later green, and last of all yellow.This particular goose had caused more pain than snapping a mousetrap on your middle finger or getting  your toe caught under the screen door.     He had been in the oven all afternoon and Marsha and I could smell him in our yard next door as he roasted away in all his goosey, gravy-smelling glory. We wondered how he would taste and Marsha said she didn’t really care; it would just be fun to eat him because he had hurt us both so much.

That was when the big wooden wall phone in the kitchen rang out loudly through the  window. Then my mother called my sister Marsha inside. She told her to go put on her fancy clothes and her Sunday shoes. She was invited to go and sit at the big dining room table at my grandmother’s house for dinner. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t allowedto go to my grandmother’s house and eat the goose. For sure and certain there just wasn’tany way that Marsha was going to be able to sneak  out some gravy for me in her pocket either! In fact her little red kilt and her fancy flounced blouse didn’t even have any pockets. Not even any hope of getting a scrap of crispy golden skin, lint covered or not!

DocImage000000370But, back to the reason I got lost in the potato field. My father was a wonderful potato farmer. He seemed to know everything a man should know in order to make a sandy Caradoc township field yield more bushels of potatoes per acre than any farm for miles around .He even had the Potato Club certificates and prizes to prove it. On the day of the forbidden goose feast my dad was out cultivating in the most distant field on our 100 acre farm, the furthest back corner from our house. I decided in my weepy- eyed state to go seek him out for solace. My mother had tried to petition on my behalf that I might also be permitted to join my grandmother and my grandfather, my two aunts and their husbands, my two cousins and my sister at their feasting. Didn’t my grandmother know that her chairs were big enough and that my sister and I were small enough that we could even share one if we had to─ we were already used to sharing?

Off to the field I trudged, hands in overalls pockets, in pursuit of the person I knew was never too busy to dole out a little sympathy− my daddy. It was a warm day and the bees were buzzing and the butterflies were fluttering by, but never-the-less I wasn’t about to get slowed down by distractions on my mission to reach my beloved father. Just then I spotted them- the cutest little green marbles I had ever seen! Somehow I had never even seen them before, growing on the potato plants amidst the dark green leaves. They were waiting there just for me to collect them and to surprise everyone! One by one, I began carefully choosing only those that were all the same size, here and there, plant by plant, row by row, gathering some for me and some for Marsha, and some for little brother Butchy and some for Baby who got to keep the name Baby, even though we already had another baby then, and for Kathy whom we had to call The Baby so that we could tell her and Baby apart. When both my pockets were full, one for Marsha and one for me I made three little piles, one for each of the rest of my siblings. By then the sun was starting to beat down hotter and hotter and my tear-swollen eyelids were starting to get heavier and heavier. I would just rest there for a minute or two in the cool shade at the base of the plants and then I would go on to find my dad. Would Daddy ever be surprised at what I had found!

The bees were buzzing, and the butterflies were fluttering by, those pretty little yellow ones that lived in our cabbage patch, fluttering by… fluttering by… fluttering…… Suddenly a sharp upwards tug brought me immediately to my feet. A whack, then a hug, and then another whack on my behind; fierce hugging and then tears, both mine  and hers streamed down our faces and mixed all together as she hugged and kissed me  again and again.  The taste of my mother’s tears and my own all mingled together. I tried to think just what they tasted like. And then I figured it out …It was love!