Immigration was on the brain as I lay in bed nursing a concussion caused by sheer stupidity and lack of coordination. Between ears ringing and different states of consciousness, I pondered my difficulties obtaining a work visa in France. And then something bizarre happened, I channeled my tattered family tree somewhere out there in the murk…
There they were, one quarter of my family, the Pennsylvania Dutch – those bone deep Protestants – traveling across the United States in a covered wagon. “Giddyup” Great Great Grampy yelled to the horses barely old enough to spell her own name. The women from that side of the family were clearly trailblazers and stern teetotalers all. The men – they came, went, and died early – it was the women who set up the “dirt farm” in Rocky Mountain Colorado and tilled the unforgiving soil. It was the women who took care of the children. It was the women who picked up the pieces when the farm went bust and moved to California for jobs. They became teachers and cooks – movers and shakers.
And later, not long before she passed away, Great Great Grampy, lit up her wood burning stove one final time and made pie pastry to last her family after her death. One of her daughters froze them. There’s probably one of her famous cherry pies hidden way down in that freezer.
I’ll never forget Great Grandmother’s baking. She would get in that kitchen and make everything by hand – even when catering huge parties. Her upper arm flab would get moving as she whipped egg whites to no return. But no one had a hand for pastry like my great, great grandmother, Grampy. Her daughters and granddaughters always wanted to know, “How hot should the oven be Grampy?” The answer was always, “Well, just put your hand in carefully, like this, and when it’s hot, but not too hot, then you’ll know.”
Sometimes my grandmother, would call her for a recipe and get the standard reply, “Well sure, it’s simple, you just take flour, a pinch of salt, a few eggs separated….” But it wasn’t, no one had hands the same size as Grampy.
The Pennsyvania Dutch women grew to be outstanding in their chosen fields of baking and teaching and they weren’t afraid to protest their beliefs now and again. Great Aunt Bernie was a member of the WTCU, and it’s rumored she marched for Prohibition. If she went into a restaurant (which wasn’t often because it cost too much money) and saw wine glasses on the table. She would, with back straightened and lips tightly pursed for the audience of the server and the rest of the clientele, dramatically lift up her glass, turn it around, and bring it down firmly stem-side up on the linen, announcing to everyone, “I don’t like drinky places!”.
My head ached in the strangest way possible. A lump was emerging from a cranium soft spot that once was my skull and an icy cold pain trickled down around the growing mountain. I could see people gathered around my bed trying to decide whether or not a trip to the doctor’s was in order.
“No, I’m fine, I just want to rest….” I weakly protested.
“Don’t let her sleep – you need to wake her up every three hours and ask her questions…” Some one murmured.
“Look, there’s nothing the doctor can do but tell me I have a concussion. Trust me, I’ve done this before. Well, it was done to me before…”
I closed my eyes and then from out of the mist came three ships. Three large slowly rollicking sad ships carrying immigrants from two countries in three different time spans. The one boat from Ireland carried my Great Grandmother shaking with cold and hunger barely escaping the potato famine and death. Not much is known about her, except the cotton wedding dress she carried with her from her home that I have tightly packaged to this day. It was rumored she was beautiful and it couldn’t have taken her long to find her loving handsome husband, the Welsh James Glaze.
James worked in the Pittsburgh steel mills and fought on the weekends. His nickname, “Honey Glaze” was his fightin’ name. He was big, muscular, sweet as pie outside the ring and downright scary inside. He was a great prize fighter and a smart man, but rumor had it he killed a man in England which is how he ended up in America. No one really knows, and no one dared asked him. From the Pittsburgh steel mills they moved to Ohio where James moved up the ranks to foreman in the newly opened mills. His son James Jr. followed in his footsteps, while operating a small farm on the side.
I don’t remember my Great Grandpa Honey Glaze, but I do remember my Grandpa Glaze and that farm. The cornfields for miles and the back 40 forested with deer and berries. The chicken coup that disgusted me and the barn of dough-eyed cows for milking and thick haunched horses for tending the fields and jumping over fences with. I remember the water pump outside the house and the fireflies at night lighting up the star studded Ohio sky.
But I also remember my Grandmother, midwestern farm wife that she was, who longed for something more glamourous than the life she had been given. And it’s no wonder, she too had a figure that wouldn’t quit and she knew it. She would let me try on her finest velvet and satin dresses, that she sewed expertly to match the styles of the time. I doubt she actually ever wore them, but they hung in the back of her closet just in case. I never filled into the breast pockets of her gowns, and the waist was always too tight to zip up all the way. She was one small hourglass of a woman. The dresses hang unworn in my closet now and I still don’t fit into them.
James was lucky to keep her up on the farm with three boys. She wanted to be an actress she would tell me as she churned butter in the old wooden machine. Up and down her arms would go pumping the churn, arm flab wagging away as she talked in out of breathy sound bites. “I…even….had…a man that was….interested in being my agent….but then I met…your Grandpa”.
Now, Grandpa was like his father: tall, muscular, soft spoken, and handsome. But he hated vegetables. Can you believe a farmer hating vegetables? If Grandma put a salad on the table then the heinz ketchup bottle and the salt shaker wasn’t far behind. He squeezed ketchup over everything he liked and disliked. I thought ketchup was salad dressing for a very long time. “Salt,” he used to say, “brings out the flavor.”
Years later the farm turned to swamp and the fields were no longer giving. My sweet Grandpa died of stomach cancer, maybe because he wouldn’t eat his veggies, but certainly not because he smoked two packs of unfiltered Camels a day. And my Grandma is still hanging on, God Bless her.
I rolled slightly over in my bed reaching for the bottle of ibufrofen and a drink of water. Only to be hit with a wave of naseau. “Perhaps I’ll rest some more and then take the pills….”
With my eyes closed attempting to steady the nausea, the last two boats, my mother’s father’s ancestors, rocked and rolled in my head more ghost-like than the first—maybe because I only know the stories from that side of the family and I’ve never seen all family pictures. My mother’s father, my grandfather Ryan, now dead was more handsome than Clark Cable and more of a womanizer too. He left my Grandmother (the Pennsylvania Dutch hardworking woman that she was) shortly after World War II with two small children. He had women around the world from Japan to California, and what did he need a tiny periwinkle blue eyed wife for?
I don’t remember a lot of him, except for the passionate letters I found between him and my Grandma from WWII and the silk Kimono he sent me from Japan when he was stationed there, and then his death bed where he lied unable to move. His emphysema got the best of him and so we gathered around to watch this man who had never been a good father, a good husband struggle to breathe through air tubes. He was a good sailor though, and a WWII hero. I remember sailing on his teak racing yacht when I was little. He had seven wives all of them beautiful and all of them different. He remarried his second wife in his last years.
His mother and father were both from Russian Jewish backgrounds. It’s thought that his grandparents escaped the pogroms. Who knows? There’s no one around who can say anymore. There’s no one who even remembers the family name besides “Berkely” and that was probably originally “Berkowitz”. They were smart people, Great Grandpa set up one of the early modern medical clinics in Chicago, and during the Depression, he let people pay with whatever they had available, whether is was eggs from the chicken coup or dollar bills. He felt strongly that healthcare should be for everyone.
Great Grandma Goldye liked to travel and entertain. She brought her daughter over to Paris to study ballet before WWII. There she learned French cooking. She was quite the linguist speaking English, Yiddish, and French. Smart woman that she was, she fired her first cook when she learned he was taking a cut off the produce he shopped for in the markets. Determined not to let her husband’s hard earned money go to waste, she hired a new chef but told him that she would do all the shopping. She learned her French from the market stalls and her recipes from her various French cooks. As her daughter attended ballet school, she entertained artists including Chagall. They left Paris shortly before WWII began.
After Paris, she traveled to Mexico where again she set about learning to cook Mexican cuisine and speak Spanish. Her collection of French paintings decorated their big house in the Indiana woods along with huge silver Mexican serving platters. But it’s all gone now. Even their big house that once hosted weekend parties for the elite has vanished.
But my mother remembers visiting that grand house and my great grandmother Goldye as a child. And here’s where the Protestant Pennsylvania Dutch butts heads with the Russian Jewish elite. Goldye made borscht and blintzes but my mother, a child, turned up her nose and refused it. Goldye having no tolerance for picky eaters or unappreciative grandchildren asked my mother what she did like to eat. “Hamburgers, I like hamburgers!” And that is what she made for the rest of the vacation. My mother returned home a very embarrassed little girl.
My relatives set down roots across America fighting their way through poverty and persecution and with one easy click on my computer I have reversed all their hard won struggles and bought myself a ticket for Paris. Like a trout swimming upstream. If they could see me now waiting around in Paris for my immigration papers what would they think? No doubt Goldye’s Russian blood is running hot and the Dutch and Irish blood is running ice cold – like that strange sensation on the top of my head.
“Now will some one please give me my damned work visa so I can get on with it?”
“What was that Amy?” my mother asked coming in dutifully every three hours to make sure I still remembered my name.
“Nothing, I don’t know, I was on a ship or something and there was Grampy, Goldye, and Grandma Glaze and…”
“Well I doubt they would ever tolerate being on a ship together, but it looks like you’re feeling a little better. Did you take your pills?”
“No, I guess I will though.”
I didn’t have to reach this time as my mother’s hand cupped an ibuprofen inches from my lips with a cup of water close by.
“Thanks Mom… can you tell me the ‘Drinky Place’ story again? I don’t know why I was just thinking of that…”
Note to reader: this story is concocted only from the shards of memories and stories I have heard or remembered. Fact, fiction, or both it’s how I perceive my history not how it really was I’m sure. Well parts of it really were…