Thursday, September 9, 2010


My grandmother just turned 98.  I've put together some of what she's told me of her immigration story.  Its by no means a complete telling, but everything in it happened.

Her dark complexion made her strikingly beautiful, but it bothered her.  She was young—seventeen, wrapped in a wool coat on the deck of the ocean liner Ile de France.  She’d been seasick for three days,  found the smell of food from the ship’s kitchen unbearable, and had avoided the dining room since they left port.  Not eating had made her wobbly on deck, but the nausea was less keen in the cold salt air, so she spent as much time there as possible.  Her name was Antonia.
She had been born in Sleme, a small Slovenian mountain village, when Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Later, after the Great War, Slovenia became part of Yugoslavia, and in the 1920s, only six small extended families called the village home.  Antonia's family owned a small farm and roadside tavern which gave them their living.  Her father Josef was hard-drinking, stubborn, and occasionally mean.  His main desire was to relocate his family to the United States, but his wife Jenny was against going.  So first he went alone, leaving her and their children to fend for themselves.   He settled in Cleveland, working and saving what he could.  There followed several returns back to their farm, unannounced and unpredicted.  He would repeat his pleas for the family to follow him back to America, and stay only long enough to grow frustrated with Jenny's resistance, and to get her pregnant.  His returns to Cleveland were usually discovered in the form of  a note left behind on the kitchen table.
  Antonia’s presence on the French steamer was the final act in her father’s exodus drama.  During one return visit he had announced that this was the last time he would ever return to Yugoslavia.  He gave his wife an ultimatum; if you want to be with me, follow me.  This was enough.  While he returned to Cleveland, Jenny made arrangements to sell everything, and buy passage for herself and the children.   They included her son Pepe (in his twenties), Antonia, Ludwig, and four year old Sophie, the last two being fruits of father’s abbreviated homecomings.
  In the village, Antonia and Pepe had made an inseparable troika with another boy, and the three simply adored each other.  They spent their free time hiking the alpine hills, poaching fish from the river at night (alert for wardens and darting for the cover of the nearby hay fields when the official’s telltale torches worked their way up the riverside).  In winter they navigated the mountain on skis of their own make.  Once, when the villagers had been distilling brandy from the summer’s surplus plums, they got drunk together (Antonia was around 12 then).  The distillers had been "dutifully testing" the quality of their product all morning and needed to lie down.  When the children came on the scene, the men asked them to watch over the operation while they went home and took their nap.  The three obliged (of course), dared each other to try the sweet liquor (of course), liked it (of course), drank too much, got tipsy, then sick in turn.  By the time of her emigration they were welded in a deep and permanent love, but it was especially strong between Pepe and Antonia.
Antonia’s tomboy nature, her easy friendship with older boys and her somewhat olive skin had prompted some in the village to call her Rom--Gypsy—a mean-spirited nickname.  This was still an epithet in Old Europe, where the Romany were feared and disliked.  Antonia hated when they called her that, not least because it offended an inborn sense of equity.   Still, knowing its intent, the name bothered her, and she became sensitive about this aspect of her appearance. Not that she took it in silence. Once a woman who always made a particular point to mock her this way did it once too often, and Toni grabbed an apple off a tree, whirled and pegged the offender in the head as she fled into her cottage.  It may not have been directly related to her memory of this treatment, but for the rest of her life she was marked by an ingrained sense of what was fair, so that no one could ever remember her taking advantage of another person or letting someone else get away with it.
Their emigration route wound from the village to Ljubljana depot, then by train to Le Havre, the great Atlantic seaport in northern France.   There they boarded the steamer to Ellis Island, where her father would meet them.  The first leg of the trip ended in heartbreak.  The Great War (nobody called it WWI yet) was nearly 10 years past, but it had left old Europe unstable, under a steady, perceptibly increasing sense of dread.  The violence of 1914-18 had gone to ground, but you could say that people still felt it seismically as if a vibration through the soles of the feet.  By 1928 many concluded another war was inevitable, so at the train station, Jenny presented their travel papers to a government official, who, unknown to them, was there to deny passage to all men who might serve in the anticipated conflict.  Yugoslavia was claiming Pepe for the Army, but  having already sold everything to make the journey the rest couldn't stay with him.  His mother wept, cried in anger, begged the official to let her son come with her.  Failing that she offered the remainder of their money to bribe the female official.  This enraged the official who told Jenny she would be put in prison if she said it a second time.  In grief, they all boarded the train, leaving 20 year old Pepe under guard behind them.  Antonia’s most painful memory even in her 90's was walking away from her constant companion that day.
On the steamer deck, Antonia was approached by a young man of the ship’s company.  He was on the lookout for passengers made ill by the trip.  In his hand was an orange. He held it out to her.  In the circumstances she was too shy to take it.  She had never seen one before; did not know what it was; had no idea what he expected her to do with it.   Recognizing the look of confusion, he peeled the orange deliberately so she would understand how to do it herself, separated the segments, and held one up.  The fresh scent of the fruit had grown strong, and to her surprise this amplified her hunger instead of her nausea.  He mimed eating motions.  She took the segment and tasted it.  Perhaps due to its unfamiliar flavor, the acidic sweetness was a near ecstasy that pushed her illness aside.  She ate the remainder under his watch.  He laughed and said something in language foreign to her and walked away.  Later he delivered a paper bag that held over a dozen like fruits, which she lived on till she reached New York.  Later in the passage, another person took an interest in her.  A seemingly wealthy woman began to pay her a lot of attention, going so far as to buy her a hat they wouldn't normally have afforded.  Later the woman asked Jenny if she would consider letting her take Antonia home, while the remainder of them went on to Cleveland.  They refused, but never knew what to make of the offer.
At Ellis Island, where harried immigration clerks had long stopped asking people to pronounce their names more than once, Antonia was granted entry into the United States as Antoinette.  Her friends came to call her Toni.  In America, more than anything else she wanted to go to school.  She asked her father’s permission for just one year of the free public education available to immigrants, but he refused, insisting she go to work immediately.  One of her first jobs was as a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family but the situation was bad.  They mistreated her, made her work excessively, and did not provide adequate rest or food.  She lost weight and grew haggard.  When her cousin came for a surprise visit she was so horrified by Toni’s condition she berated the wife of the family, and threatened them with the police.  She packed Toni immediately back home. 
Too soon the world plunged into the Great Depression, and to make ends meet, Jenny brewed beer and made wine, earning money selling it to fellow Slovenian immigrant neighbors in their east side conclave during prohibition. Eventually prohibition was repealed, and the foreseen second Great War broke out, absorbing both their old and new countries into its unique furies.  Back in Yugoslavia, against the Fascists, Pepe became a partisan under Josef Broz Tito.  They learned almost nothing of his military service except that he an American air raid. 

Almost exactly one year after I first posted this, Antonia died.  It was an incredibly peaceful passing two days past her 99th birthday and three after the birth of her 5th grandchild. There was no fear, very little discomfort, and no obvious pain. Up until a few weeks ago she was alert, could walk, and could handle most of life's essential things (eating, and its obvious consequence the main ones) with very little aid. For about a year she'd had some dementia but this merely regressed her into simplicity, and childlike love and trust. A rapid physical decline began with a fall as of a few weeks ago, but its impossible to know if the fall was a trigger of the decline or just a consequence of its arrival. From that point on she began to mostly sleep. It was as if her amazing constitution had this one last card to play, that it would simply use its own brain chemistry to sedate her through to the end. During her brief moments of wakefulness she recognized us and could tell us she loved us, even if she only mouthed the words. When my grandfather passed away I was grateful because he'd suffered badly for many many months and his death came mercifully. When my grandmother passed away today I felt even more grateful, because for her, far against the usual odds, death actually came gently, even kindly.


  1. I'm hoping for further installments! About your grandmother....not some blond floozies who can't sing and are losing their mojo! (And by mojo, of course, I mean their DD cups....)