Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Writing Prompt: My Grandmothers' Stories

A Mama Kat writing prompt.
Your Grandma's story.

*NOTE* This post got really long. Feel free to skim. Some of the highlights are illegal 12-year-old immigrants, real, live atheist-commies, and 6-foot-tall grandmas.

I'm one of those people who loves genealogy. Like, paying money to use and going to Ellis Island to just "have the experience."

I am lucky enough to have had adults in my life who could tell me the stories of what it is like to be an immigrant or a child of an immigrant, to not have your first language be English, to be discriminated against because of your ethnicity. I say "lucky" (even though what happened was awful), because it gives me some sense of perspective and compassion for those are dealing with discrimination and injustice now.

My paternal grandmother, Henrietta, was one of those adults and it's her story and the stories of her mother and mother-in-law, that I want to share now.

I'll start with my great-grandmother, Rosalie Pietraszka (don't ask me to spell her maiden's filled with w's and z's and whatnot). She grew up in Lithuania, and when I say grew up, I mean she lived there until she was about 12, and then she left, stealing another girl's passport and sneaking aboard a ship, leaving for America, because her life, for lack of a better word, sucked, in Lithuania. Both of her parents were dead. She was dirt poor. There was nothing there for her. So, like many immigrants before and after her, she left for the States.

She came here illegally, by the way. Very, very illegally.

Once in the U.S., she made her way to Haverhill, Massachusetts and lived at a boarding house and babysat for a living. She also worked in a textile mill (either in Lowell or Haverhill). She married my great-grandfather when she was fifteen (but lied about her age, saying she was 18). And my great-grandfather, by the way, was another interesting case--he fled Russia because he didn't want to join the Russian army. Hmm. Wonder why...(It was basically a death sentence.)

Rosalie settled in Groveland, MA in the house I grew up in (until I was 10 and moved to Maine) with my great-grandfather and raised several children. Only a few made it to adulthood. One child died of a fever. Another literally burned to death.

When I think of Rosalie, part of me is amazed by her strength. She...I can't even put words to it. The gall and bravery it must have took to do what she did for herself astounds me. Another part of me, however, is so sad for her. She left Lithuania hoping for a better life and sometimes I wonder if her life really was any better here. Of course, if she hadn't come to America, my grandfather would never have been born (tragedy), nor would my father or aunt be here (another sad thing to contemplate), and neither would I (THE HORROR!). I am so thankful for everything Rosalie did, everything she put on the line, and I am proud that a small part of her is within me.

My other great-grandmother, my grandma's mom, is someone I know very little about, but I sense her within me.

I don't even remember her name, but I do remember her, or at least a picture of her that hung in my grandparents' upstairs hallway. She had dark hair and eyes and a pretty face. I had looked at this picture every time I had gone to my grandparents' house and if I close my eyes now I can see her looking at me. There is something of grace and composure and intelligence about her. I might be superimposing all this on her, due to what little I know, but maybe it really is there.

My great-grandma was a Bolshevik. At the turn of the 20th century, she and my great-grandfather (a musician) came to the U.S. I know only a little bit about their first time here and that's that they had two kids, my great-uncle Henry and my great-aunt Vera. Just as the revolution in Russia began, they went back to Russia to "help."

By all accounts, the trip back home was not good. While ideologically in line with what the Communists wanted to do, things weren't going quite the way my great-grandparents had planned (read Animal Farm, it was nuts over there). For one, they had been seperated from their two children (who had been shipped off to school, were forebidden from speaking English--and remember, they were American citizens--and had to have their heads shaved, due to lice), and for two, they were basically spending their time sleeping in barns, just trying to survive.

Eventually, they were able to get back to the States, but only because my aunt and uncle were citizens (anchor babies!).

My great-grandmother's experience, while very different from her counter-part, has me equally fascinated. To hear my grandma speak of her mother, you often heard a tone of admiration. She was well-read and seemed intelligent. She was very clear about her atheism, but made my grandmother go to the congregational church in their town, calling it "one of the lesser of the evils." That part always made me laugh.

I guess I have a very specific idea of her in my head, and though I have no idea if it actually fits her truly, but from the bits and pieces I know, I feel like she's very much like me--political, thoughtful, a bibliophile. Of all the relatives I've never had a chance to meet, I'd say she's tops on my list of "Dead People I'd Have Lunch With." She just seems so cool.

Lastly, there is my grandmother. I lost her about two years ago, and the loss still feels raw. She was such an amazing and interesting person, and such an incredibly strong prescence in our lives that it still feels strange to not have her here.

She led such an interesting life. She played basketball in college (Boston University), travelled the country and the world, could grow anything, sew anything, told the best stories, and, as she got older, was so open to anything. More than all that, she pushed me very hard to be good at what I did, to be a good student, writer, mother, person. She expected me to be the best, and I wanted to be that for her as well as for myself. Though she could be incredibly critical, I never doubted that she knew how high my worth was.

One of the defining moments of our relationship came at the very end of her life. I was in the midst of practicum, an intense 12 credit course that all education majors go through. It's like boot camp. A major portion of that class is the completion of our portfolios (yeah, we do a lot of portfolios). I had just finished mine and was so proud. I hadn't turned it yet, by my professor allowed me the chance to hang on to it for a few days to show to my grandma.

She had uterine cancer. And while she'd faced other cancers before and won (in addition to other ailments), this one was defeating her...though I hadn't realized how much.

She could barely move, hardly speak, barely a shadow of the strong, towering woman I so admired. I knew I wasn't going to be able to show her my portfolio, nevermind even have a conversation about it. But I did have it out...just in case.

And then, one day, mere days before she would pass, she asked me, barely audible, "Kirsten, what's that?" She was looking at the massive binder on one of the end tables in the living room, where she'd been sleeping. I told her it was my portfolio for practicum. "Let me see it," she said.

I gently held it in her lap, turned the pages, talked about the process, the lessons I'd planned, what was hard, what was easy. We went through all of it. At the end she told me she was proud of me and I said thanks.

My getting through college was a huge deal for my grandma. It was something she had really, really wanted for me, probably even more than I had wanted it. It kills me to think that she wasn't here for that moment last May (like, this is something that keeps me awake at night), but I am so, so glad she got to see my practicum portfolio and say those words to me.

Wow, this has turned into a hugely long post, far longer than it should have been, but it has been cathartic. I hope that those who read this have been equally blessed with amazing women in their families and cherish them with all their hearts.

My grandma in the middle, my dad to the left (as if you couldn't tell he's her son) and my mom's dad to the right (now there's a blog post--he's led a wicked amazing life).

P.S. This is not to say my maternal grandma is not the most incredible person in the world, but I don't know as many great stories about her as I do my paternal grandma. This is something I'll have to remedy.


Anonymous said...

What fascinating women to build your life's foundation from. I enjoyed every word.

Stopping by from Mama Kat's.

Judy Schwartz Haley | CoffeeJitters.Net said...

wow. just wow. what a great story.

Kirsten said...

Thanks for the comments! I feel so lucky to have these women and all the other incredible women of my family contributing to person I am becoming :-)

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