My grandmother arrived in the U.S. by way of steamship, owned by the infamous Starline Fleet, in 1936. An immigrant child from Czechoslovakia, she traveled with her mother, Zuzana, after a seven year separation from her father. The ship docked in New York Harbor, as they were quickly ushered off to Ellis Island, where her name was changed from Mária to Mary .
At the tender age of 7, she began her journey in this country with a million other ethnic children, all speaking different languages, learning proper English in American schoolrooms. She picked it up quickly and her love of books began. She frequented public libraries and read a book a day, mostly fiction. She consumed books, lots of them.
Not always having a place to live, she and her mother spent time in alleyways, eating day-old-donuts and drinking black coffee for breakfast. Her mother sewed rags into usable pieces, such as blankets, selling them for pennies and nickels on the streets of New York City.
Eventually her mother was able to save enough money to buy a home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Over time, she bought a row of fourplexes on Main Street, renting them out while remaining to live in one of the upper apartments.
Mary didn't have it easy. She ran away from home when she was 16 years old, and lived in an abandoned building in New York City with a bunch of other runaways. She worked in a factory during the day, and loved dancing in the clubs at night. It didn't take too long for someone to notice her. She was beautiful, exotic, and she looked like a movie star.
She married a man 10 years her senior, became pregnant with my mother and returned home to Connecticut to angry parents, at the age of 18. She and her husband rented the apartment downstairs, which was where my mother was raised.
With little education or skills, she got a job working in a bakery decorating cakes. Although she liked her job, it didn't pay well. Times were tough for the family, but she persevered.
By the time I came along in October of 1965, my parents lived in an apartment just down the street from my grandmother. I remember riding my tricycle on the sidewalk at 3 years old, with my mother walking closeby, on our way to Grandma's house. She always had snacks and goodies waiting for me, and I knew which kitchen cabinets they were hidden in.
My family moved to Bethel, which was about 38 miles away, just before my 4th birthday. But it might as well have been a million miles away. I missed my visits to Grandma's house. I loved it when she would call on Saturday mornings, and I would answer the phone and tell her all about school and what I was doing. I loved the two weeks I spent at her house every summer, playing at the beach all day while my grandfather dug for clams and my grandma watched me run and splash in the water.
As it is for all of us, time rushes by and before we know it childhood is a memory, and we get busy with our own lives. The summer visits stopped, I was wrapped up with my teenaged-self and suddenly I was off and running on my own journey.
During a 7-month period, at the age of 35, I lived with Grandma. It was one of the most difficult times of my life, as I had just separated from my husband of 16 years. Grandma and I became close friends, confidants. I no longer saw her as a little old lady. She had stories, lots of them, and she was a woman who was married and had a child. She understood me. We spent hours talking about life, about love, about what it was to be a woman in this world, which she made look easy. After my divorce, I moved on with my life and had little time for her. I knew she was sad the day I moved out of her place, but like with so many of us, I thought I had plenty of time for her, later.
I could say I have regrets, because that is the truth. I could say I wished I would've spent more time with her, called her, or wrote to her. But I didn't. Mary died this morning, August 28th, 2018, at the age of 90. She ate breakfast with my mother on the coast of Oregon, went inside the cottage where they were staying and laid down for a nap. I couldn't think of a better way to leave, peacefully in a deep sleep.
A few weeks ago, while rummaging through an old family trunk, I found a passport that was preserved in a ziplock bag. Inside of it were the photos of my great-grandmother and Grandma. Pages stamped with different countries, chronicled their path, as they made their way from train to train across Europe to board a ship to freedom.
They escaped a few years before the war began, but the camps were already starting to be built, and people were starting to be rounded up. I can't even imagine what it was like for a 7 year-old girl to leave the village where she was born and raised, leaving everything behind (except for a doll that she grasped), traveled by train and by steamboat with thousands of other immigrants, to the land where the streets were paved with gold, only to end up mostly homeless and hungry.
Mária was gentle and strong in her own right. She lived exactly the life she wanted. I know, as I write this now, that she is here with me. I feel her arms around me as tears fall from my eyes. "Thank you, Grandma. Thank you for everything."
I am living the dream, one day at a time, and sharing my experiences with you.
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© 2016 ZUSHKA BIROS ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.