Thursday, March 10, 2011

Grammy Never Smiled

     I grew up in a suburb of New York, and was for the most part protected from the grittier details of the urban landscape. All of us were. Our parents wanted it that way. The days of war and depression, and the roots of our parents’ humble beginnings, were left behind, just a distant memory.

     My father was one of eight children born to immigrants from central Europe. My grandparents arrived in this country just before 1900. They started out in New York City, moved to Ohio, then came back east, where they struggled to make ends meet amidst the smoke and smog of Ansonia, Ct., a small industrial city along the Naugatuck River.
Ansonia, Ct. library

     My father rarely talked about his growing-up years. He never mentioned his father, who had died before I was born. But I knew that my grandparents had scrimped and saved and, in 1915, were able to buy a two-family house within walking distance of the factories on the river. The only conspicuous consumption in their lives was a telephone. They were one of the few families in town who were listed in the telephone book.

     It must have been a hard life. My grandmother, who we called Grammy, lived well into her 90s. But I never saw her smile. Not once. My grandfather was sent to his grave at the age of 60, the victim of a chronic lung ailment contracted, no doubt, from his years working in a metal factory.

     Grammy had lost a daughter as a little girl. She later lost her eldest son to the great flu epidemic of 1919. That left her with four sons and two daughters, and she took great interest in what was going on in their lives.

     Her daughters were married off early. But Grammy poked and prodded and beat and bullied her sons to do well in school, go to college and make something of themselves. Even into middle age, she would scowl at them and order them around in a language that no one else understood – a smattering of English mixed with some German and her native Czech. She did speak enough English to tell us grandchildren more than once about how proud she was of her boys. And also about their shortcomings.

     "Your father," she told me with a scowl. "He came in second in his high school class. Only second. And he lost to a girl."

     Grammy had emigrated from a little town called Boliarov in what is now Slovakia. She was an ethnic Czech, and proud of it, taking a dim view of the other Eastern Europeans who populated Ansonia and the other factory towns in the Naugatuck Valley.

     She especially didn’t like the Poles. "Those Pollacks," she’d grimace. "They’re lazy. Good for nuthin'." Then she’d shake her head for emphasis, "They even smell bad."

     No one ever identified the exact ethnicity of my grandfather. When I asked my dad, he put me off. "I don’t know," he said offhandedly. "It was a long time ago."

     When I pressed him, my dad told me my grandfather was German. "He was an ethnic German who came from the Sudetenland," he told me, sounding very authoritative at the time. "Sudetenland is a section of Czechoslovakia," he explained, "a part of the country where a lot of Germans live."

     I knew my dad spoke some German. So maybe he was right. But my Uncle Johnny spun a tale of how their father was really Russian, a runaway from the Czar’s army. Later, he amended that to say he was actually from Belarus, born in the city of Minsk. Not that I knew the difference between Russia and Belarus. But Uncle Johnny still insisted that my grandfather had resisted joining the Czar’s army and fled to America.

     It was much later when my older sister told me, "Actually, I think he was Polish."

     When I was a little kid, my dad would herd the family into our Buick and drive two hours up to Connecticut to visit his mother. My dad, always the dutiful son, regularly paid his respects to the family matriarch, like a Mafia captain to his don, and he insisted on dragging all of us along to make sure we were dutiful and respectful as well.

     For me, as a kid from middle-class suburbia, a visit to Grammy’s house seemed like a trip to a foreign country. We’d wind up the Hutchinson River Parkway and roll over the hills of the Merritt Parkway. All that seemed perfectly familiar. But then, after crossing the Housatonic River, we’d exit onto a local highway that cut around a cemetery. We’d drive down past some industrial buildings and along a big cement wall until it brought us to the main street of Ansonia, lined on one side by old stone churches and ramshackled wooden storefronts, and on the other by hulking factories that backed onto the river.

     Grammy’s house sat in a row of low-slung tenements that marched up the hill from the river. We’d park on the street, walk down the sidewalk along a chain-link fence and turn onto her little wooden front porch. Dad led the way. He’d open the door and pack all of us inside a dark hallway that smelled of boiled cabbage and old potatoes. Then we walked down a long, narrow corridor and turned into a doorway on the right. It seemed strange that Dad never knocked or rang a doorbell. But then I’d remember – he’d grown up here. This was his house.

Factory in Ansonia
     The door led directly into Grammy's kitchen,   the main room of the house. It was always hot   and steamy. Pots and pans hung from the walls.   Worn linoleum covered the floor.

     A metal table rested against one wall, with room enough for two chairs. A bowl of walnuts sat on top of the table, along with a metal nutcracker and a dusting of leftover walnut shells.

     A door behind the old stove gave way to the living room. We rarely ventured in there, because it was dark and dusty and kind of scary. Another door, off the back of the kitchen, led to Grammy’s bedroom. We never went into Grammy’s bedroom.

     A back door off the kitchen led out to a small wooden porch covered in chipped green paint, then down a flight of creaky wooden steps to the backyard.

     By the time we’d arrive Aunt Alice, my dad’s younger sister, was usually bustling around the kitchen, helping Grammy cook and clean. They cut quite a pair. Grammy was fat and proud of it. In her view, if you were fat, it meant you had enough money to eat well – you were rich.

     Aunt Alice was also fat. But she was embarrassed by her girth. My sister insisted that when Aunt Alice was younger, she was pretty and had a nice figure. I couldn’t see it. To me she looked like a younger version of Grammy – short and fat, with a wide Slavic face. Like my grandmother, she wore a dumpy-looking housedress and an apron.

     Aunt Alice’s husband, Uncle Larry, would sit at the kitchen table, cracking walnuts from the bowl. Their two boys would be playing in the backyard.

     Uncle Johnny, my dad’s older brother, would usually swing by the house as well. He looked kind of like Aunt Alice -- not fat, but short, with a wide face and light curly hair. He came over from New Haven with his wife and three kids.

     Grammy’s kitchen was dominated by a big wood stove made from heavy gray iron. She’d open the little iron door to reveal the wood fire inside, flames dancing away. Sparks would fly when she tossed in another log or two. The fire got hotter, and the soup in the pot on top of the stove would begin to bubble.

     Grammy had an indoor bathroom off the kitchen, but no flush toilet. There was no plumbing. The toilet led to a hole in the ground. I tried not to use the bathroom while I was there. But if I just couldn’t hold it any longer, I’d take three or four deep breaths, yank the door open, step inside and hold my breath while I unzipped my pants and peed. It doesn't take that long to pee -- but it seems like forever when you're holding your breath.

     I’d push real hard, trying to make it go faster, but hardly ever could I hold my breath long enough. I’d be forced to let it out and take in a lungful of hot stinky air. I’d breathe through my mouth. But it didn’t matter. The stink got inside me. It was awful. Afterward, I’d leap out of the bathroom, run through the kitchen and tumble out the back door, falling down the steps into the fresh air.

     The entrance to the celler was around the corner from the bottom of the back stairs. Three stone steps led down into a dark and damp enclosure with a dirt floor, where Grammy kept bags of potatoes and carrots and rutabagas. She’d use these for the noodle soup that always simmered on top of the stove. She also cooked a kind of sausage she called kielbasa, served with clumps of cabbage. My dad loved Grammy’s noodle soup and kielbasa. That was strange, because at home my mother cooked normal American food. I never saw my dad eat noodle soup, much less kielbasa, except when he was at Grammy’s house. Uncle Johnny ate it up, too, and so did Aunt Alice. But my mother, who was Irish, hardly ate anything at Grammy’s house.

     When we visited Grammy, my older sister hung out with Grammy and my parents. But the rest of us would escape outdoors. The backyard was enclosed by the house on one side and a fence on either side of the yard. At the rear was a six-foot stone wall, topped by a chain-link fence. Behind the fence was the school playground.

     We were supposed to stay in the yard, and we usually did. We played hide and seek, and softball and touch football. But when we got bored and needed other distractions, my brother and me and my cousins would scale the stone wall, climb over the chain-link fence and go play on the swings, climb the jungle gym and ride the seesaw.

     We didn’t make friends with any of the kids in the neighborhood. First of all, there weren’t many kids in the neighborhood – most of the residents were, like my grandmother, old immigrants from Eastern Europe. We didn’t think Grammy was particularly popular in the neighborhood anyway, so we thought it best to keep to ourselves.

     Besides, I would never want to bring back a Polish kid to Grammy’s house. And since none of us could tell the difference between a Czech, a Slav or a Pole, we couldn’t be sure who was who.

     But it made me wonder:  How could Grammy hate the Poles? How could she even tell the difference? All these old immigrants looked the same to us kids. Later on, when I was in college in the early '70s and came back to visit when Grammy was in her 90s, I could see there really were different kinds of people moving into her neighborhood. There were blacks and Hispanics and a few Asians.

     The funny thing is, Grammy didn’t seem to mind them at all.


June said...

I am sure you had a great time writing this. I am positive that you went right back to that place with all the smells and the sounds.
I worked for a few years with a woman whose husband who had been born in Czechoslovakia and lived there until he was eight years old. Several years ago, they went back to visit the family in the Czech Republic. It's a different way of life there, even now. Her stories fascinated me . . . about German Czechs in the north and some other-influenced Czechs in the south . . . their different points of view . . . in regard to the role of women, in particular.
I dated a man whose grandmother grew up in Lithuania, and her house was much the same as your grandmother's. I think she had indoor plumbing, but all the rest . . . the darkness and the closeness, and the mixture of English and her native language.
All of it seems so wildly different from our lives now. Imagine having come to this country and having bough a HOUSE! ...with a YARD!
It's something to muse upon, isn't it...

Carol Lashnits said...

Reading this made me very nostalgic. I tried to post a comment a couple of hours ago but it didn't work. Now I'm a follower.
Is this coming across to you? If so, I'll try to re-create what I wrote earlier.