My posts about my grandmother Anna Pereksta sparked some memories and conversation this week. Her children recalled new stories. I reflected on her significance in our lives.
Her sons remembered her as honest, loving and hard working - a woman who held the family close. She loved her flowers. She was the first one awake in the house on Baxter Street, stoking the coal oven that heated the house before heading out to work for hours in her garden. It was, in memory, enormous - with fruit trees, chickens and full of vegetables and her flowers. I checked on Google Earth. It was a city lot, narrow but deeper than others in the neighborhood. The house is smaller than the surrounding houses.
In the fall she would go out to the forests and pick wild mushrooms. She would string them to dry in the attic, then make a delectable mushroom soup for Christmas. She also made a caraway seed soup that is not a treasured memory for one of her children.
Their memories reinforced what a profoundly sheltered life she led. My grandparents never owned a car. They rarely, if ever, went out to dinner. Her daughter wrote about the years after my grandfather died.
On Sunday's we would take her out to dinner & an afternoon ride which she totally enjoyed. The first few times she got upset because she said she could feed us for a month on what we spent, but then she started enjoying herself too. She had never been to a restaurant where men were drinking.
The first time we took her to one she cringed & said "What will people think of me being in a beer joint" I told her not to worry, she was with us & not talking to men.She had, if provoked, a temper. Her visiting father, something of a dandy, turned up his nose at her husband's work clothes. She all but showed him the door, telling him in the clearest terms that if he was sleeping in their house and eating their food she would not listen to any criticisms of her husband's attire.
My memories of Baba, as we called her, are of a quiet, gentle woman whose hands were almost always busy in the garden, the kitchen or crocheting. She seemed exotic to my 1960s, East Coast suburban eyes.
Her hair fell past her waist. She braided and put it up each morning in an era when women had short, chic hairstyles. She spoke English with a foreign accent, never completely fluent or comfortable with the language. At home I heard my mother's fading southern accent, a hint of Brooklyn, or a long New England vowel, but words flew with constant chatter, lively debate. Baba's house in Binghamton had a fenced yard, a cuckoo clock chirping the hours, crocheted lace and doilies everywhere. We had Danish teak furniture and yards that flowed from one to another. Her kitchen smelled of cabbage, onions and kolbasa. Our kitchen smelled of Betty Crocker and pancakes on the weekend. Her church was full of gold, incense, centuries-old chants and hymns in a language I did not understand. We worshipped at an Episcopalian church (a compromise for my Greek Catholic father and Southern Baptist mother), our New England pastor speaking with a suede baritone and upright dignity.
Still, many children in the New York city suburb I called home had nonnis and bubbes who spoke fractured English and had warm kitchens full of old world smells. Many of us had first-generation American parents bewildered by our tie-dyed, politicized rants. Looking back, it was not her ethnicity that made her different.
Several readers commented about her journey, leaving home and starting a new life in America. And this hints at what I so admire about her, why she is one of my personal heroines. I don't consider her brave or courageous for leaving a life that bordered on destitute and going to one with far greater promise. It was a heartbreaking choice - she surely knew she would not see her mother again. But she travelled with her father and was going to her sisters. The path had been cleared for her. She went. But once there, she held out for even more.
The first thing I heard about my grandfather, Baba's husband, was that he never drank and never raised a hand in anger. Growing up the phrases washed over me. But their significance grew as I read more about life in their immigrant community, travelled some in Eastern Europe, and spoke more with my father and aunt.
There were few choices available to women in that community. Marriage was expected. Single women lived with their families. I examined the 1920 census for Binghamton's First Ward where Baba lived. There were 1561 women enumerated as married, widowed or single born between 1890 and 1900. Twenty percent were single. Only 45 of the women, less than three percent, were single, born in Europe and living as boarders in households. Baba was included in that number, even though she was living with her sister at that time. The number of women actually living apart from their families was lower.
The only socially acceptable way to have one's own home, to have children, was to marry. But marriage was not easy. Men's drinking and beating wives were accepted parts of the culture. I have no idea what kind of marriage my grandmother witnessed growing up beyond the fact that her father would be gone for years at a time. But abuse surrounded her in Binghamton. On Baxter Street, where she lived after her marriage, the men on both sides of their home and across the street drank heavily, beat their wives and children.
Baba did not marry, despite considerable pressure from her family. She conformed in every other way to her community. But she would not marry. Eventually, she moved into a boarding house and lived as independently as a woman of her background could live. She still would not marry.
And then, suddenly, she did. She married a man she barely knew, thirteen years older than she, already balding and with a little bit of a paunch. A warm man who sang and danced, worked hard every day of his life and never raised a hand in anger. Do I believe she fell head over heels in love that day? No. Did she grill him about his beliefs and extract promises about his behavior before she would marry him? Hard to imagine, but perhaps. She surely spoke with friends who knew him and his family. His cousin had been her priest at St. Michael's before moving to Indiana a few years earlier. That may have influenced her. Some how, some way she believed that she could trust him and she married him - immediately.
There is one other reason that I adored and admired her - beyond the normal grandmother stuff of good food and hugs. She was a devoutly faithful woman and very much wanted her children to marry and live within her community and church. My mother's mother, a staunch Southern Baptist, shared those beliefs. Both my grandmothers were disappointed when my parents married. Both were disappointed their grandchildren were being raised in a different faith and far from their homes.
Despite that I never felt a moment of anything other than warm acceptance from Baba. She lived her faith, took us to church, showed us how she lived without ever suggesting, hinting or expressing in any way that our lives were wanting. She and my mother were not close - the cultural gap was too broad for intimacy. But there was not a whiff of criticism or judgement. Rather there was considerable respect and fondness. Baba was who she was and she allowed us to be who we were. It was a stark contrast to our relationship with my maternal grandmother.
My grandmother Anna was a most conservative and traditional woman. My aunt's story about their Sunday drives and dinners amuses and amazes me. Not the stuff of a risk taker or rebel. I am grateful beyond all words that her family helped her make the journey from a dirt floor hut in Europe to a factory in New York; that she was determined to marry wisely and resolute or stubborn enough to withstand the pressures to marry where she could not trust; and that she was brave enough to marry when she thought she could trust. She was beautiful, loyal and strong in the ways that mattered. She is the pivot point of my story. Far beyond the simple genetics of my existence, I owe the quality of my life to her.
My first child, my only daughter, carries her name.