Monday, January 4, 2016

The great grandmothers

My great grandmother Zuzanna Kryvoš came to America in 1920 at age 49 from Važec, Liptovský Mikuláš, Slovakia.

My great grandmother Mary Coils emigrated to America in 1906 at age 8 from Houghton le Spring, County Durham, England. 

My great-great grandmother Christina Mathilda Andersdotter came to America around 1885 from 
Vasketorp, Frodinge socken, Smaland, Sweden. I was given her name.

My fourth great-grandmother—my father's grandmother—is unknown to me. She lived in Slovakia when it was still part of the Kingdom of Hungary, before World War I. Her son, my grandfather, came to America and volunteered to fight in that war, maybe for the opportunity to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, which he later did.

I wonder, did she ever hear from him again? Did he tell his children about his mother? If he did, my father did not tell me. Nor did I ask.

Many things were not spoken of.

But now I want to know.

They all came here, but the one. And in due time they died.

The children the grandmothers left behind, and then their children, moved away.

I am the only one of all my family who still lives in this city they came to, this northern city on a great river. 

I come across their ghosts. Their traces linger in the digitized records I find online. I find their names listed in city directories and censuses, marriage and death records. Their gravestones stand in the military cemetery.

From these bare facts, I piece together fragments of their lives. 

The many houses where they lived, so close to where I live today.

The many children they bore, some who died while heartbreakingly young. 

What sorrows, I think. What difficult and full lives they must have led! All shaped by that brave and bold adventure: leaving behind their homelands and families to roll the dice on America. A different country, a new language, and a young flour milling city by the river. 

I met just one of my great grandmothers, and when I was still too young and shy to ask her proper questions, like: Why did your family decide to cross the ocean? How did they choose Minnesota? Did you ever go back? Do you know your great-grandmother's name?

I am rolling this thought around in my mind: Maybe all the places our families have lived are like our ancestors, part of our DNA. Prairies in our eyelashes, rivers in our bloodstreams, oceans in our heartbeats, oaks in our bones.

I have no children. My mother is gone. My family is not here. I am reaching back to these grandmothers, discovering relations I never knew who cannot be called strangers. Here, I walk in the footsteps of generations who never dreamt of me.

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