We all have grandmothers. Like everyone else, I had two. You may have already read something about my mother’s mother, Mary (on the right in the featured image above) in Lessons Learned But Too Soon Forgotten. When I knew her, she had changed from the beautiful young mother you see in the photo, then burdened by the hardships of the Great Depression that had recently fallen upon her shoulders, to a middle-aged, Nurse Ratched only somewhat less tyrannical than her cinematic counterpart. I could write a book thanks to the contributions of my extended family, one that would contain dozens of interesting accounts of her no-nonsense approach to life, an approach honed by incredible challenges, perhaps the most significant of which was the loss of her 39-year-old husband–my grandfather George–who drowned in Lake Erie.
Mary was indeed a registered nurse who was still doing private duty nursing three weeks before her death at 85, and she was the nurse you would want to care for you. Mary was hard-working, nothing fazed her, and she was no-nonsense with her patients and with me. I never doubted that Mary loved me, but I knew never to expect warm fuzzies when I visited Mary for a week in the summer at her home high on Jenny Lind Street in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, the small city where my mother, Lois, had been born and raised. Mary and my mother spoke by phone–long distance, as we all used to call it–once each week, and I recall that often Lois would be in tears by the end of a call. I don’t remember specifics, but I do remember having the sense that Lois incessantly failed to meet Mary’s expectations, which I assume may have been fueled by resentments on Mary’s part that went all the way back to Baby Jane.
When I started high school and Lois weirdly began to think of me more as confidant than son, she shared stories about her mother, one of which (that my father, Jerry, confirmed at Lois’ request because she could see the doubt in my eyes as to her veracity) took place on a night in 1946 when my father went to McKeesport to ask Mary for Lois’ hand in marriage. Mary had summarily sent Lois to bed so that she and Jerry could talk about her, and they did into the early hours of the morning with Mary trying her damnedest to convince Jerry that Lois would make an awful wife and mother. Jerry had stood his ground and built a case to the contrary, and that no matter what Mary said, he promised he was going to marry her daughter, consent or not. I loved my mother, but I must admit that Mary had been right, although in fairness, I know most of Lois’ failures as wife and mother should be laid at the feet of her husband.
Cecelia Byrem, the woman on the left in the picture above, was Jerry’s grandmother, and I’ve included her in this post because there is a link between her and Mary. Cecelia–who was always called, for some unknown reason, Mawie (pronounced Moy as in rhymes with boy) by my father–was something of an Uptown legend in her day, the wife of an incredibly irascible sprite of a man–my great-grandfather–Sam Byrem. Mawie was legendary because she (according to Jerry’s childhood memories) could be found every day in the back of Sam’s tobacco shop, wearing a green vizor and sitting at a round, green-felt-topped table beneath a Tiffany-like chandelier, surrounded by denizens of North Third Street in Harrisburg with whom she was making book.
When my impending appearance was announced to Mary in 1947, she went ballistic. She exclaimed that she was horrified at the thought of being so young (she was nearing 50!) and at being known by everyone as a grandmother. She made it clear that no one, including me, would ever call her anything even remotely related to the word grandmother, and I never did. Lois pointed out to Mary that it would be helpful if there was something I could call her, and after several rounds of discussion, Jerry noted that he had always called his grandmother Mawie, and with that observation, the matter was settled. Mawie was how I and my brother referred to Mary all of our lives.
When Lois’ sister’s children began to appear on the scene only a few years later, Mawie was grandma to them, and perhaps because they were always close by while I was 3+ hours away in Central Pennsylvania, my cousins could check most of the boxes beside the list of duties normally fulfilled by a loving grandma. Me? Not so much. That said, I am proud that I am descended from such a courageous, intelligent, determined, and hardworking person, the life story of whom I did not begin to learn until I was in my early twenties.
Mary’s maiden name had been Smith, and her parents were known to all of the many grandchildren and great-grandchildren as Grandma and Grandpa Smith, and each of us believed what we were told: the Smith’s were of German descent. Ethnic origin was a not uncommon topic of conversation in Western Pennsylvania when I was growing up because of the number and diversity of immigrants that had gone there to work in the mills and the mines. While I knew Grandma Smith because she lived into her nineties, I never knew Grandpa Smith, but everyone spoke of him with reverence. I learned that he was well-educated, liked to discuss things political, had a skill in creating ornate mosaic decorations on things like the fronts of fireplaces, a skill that he had expected to rely upon to make a fortune when he came, alone, to America. Like so many before him, his dreams of gold were quickly supplanted by the reality of coal dust.
Unbeknownst to me, Lois, who had a very committed interest in genealogy, had always had doubts about the Smith’s claim to German ancestry, primarily because no one ever provided any details about an “old country” and because the language that Mary, her parents, and Mary’s siblings spoke sounded very little like any German Lois had heard elsewhere. When the 1970s rolled around, Lois would occasionally bug Mary about the family history, but Mary would brush off the queries with characteristic brusqueness: “Why do you want to talk about that old nonsense. It’s a waste of time.”
While visiting Mary shortly after the 1979 Montenegro Earthquake, Lois noticed packages prepared for shipping with addresses to a location in Yugoslavia. Mary dismissed them as simply her wanting to contribute to the relief effort, but Lois sensed that her mother was dissembling. Not long after and thanks to a not-so-innocent question from Lois, Mary let slip a reference to a cousin who lived in Yugoslavia. Lois pounced, and Mary capitulated. Prodded by Lois and through her tears at having “betrayed her family,” Mary began to tell her story, some of which was slightly modified based upon face-to-face encounters with previously unknown relatives in Canada and Croatia, and by facts unearthed by Lois’ hands-on research at the National Archives.
It turns out, Mary was not a Smith; rather, she was a Golic. Grandpa John, born Johann Golic in what is now Croatia, had fallen in love with a girl named Antoinette who lived across a river from Croatia in what is now Slovenia. Johann’s family disapproved of a marriage between the two and disowned him; nonetheless, Johann had married Antoinette and they had two children: Nicholas and Mary. Apparently running afoul of officials of the Austro-Hungarian empire (of which Croatia was then a part) because of his involvement with labor organizations, Johann set off for America with the promise of sending for his wife and children when he had begun to make his fortune.
As a child, I never understood why Mary insisted on having me cuddle a satin pillow when I went to bed, and it wasn’t the only satin pillow that was present in her house, something I could not remember having seen in anyone else’s house. I never asked the reason, assuming it was simply a quirk–of which, I had learned, adults had plenty–but years later, Mary told me a story that convinced me the satin pillows were not a quirk. The story was about the day when she, her mother and brother left Slovenia, which is where they had gone to live with Antoinette’s mother after Johann’s departure. Since they were going to America in steerage–the cheapest and lowest accommodations in the belly of a ship–they were forced to travel light, and Mary, then six, cried when she was told she could not take her satin pillows with her. “But don’t worry,” her grandmother told her, “in America, the streets are paved with gold. You’ll have all the satin pillows you could ever want.”
After traveling from Ellis Island to Westmoreland County in Western Pennsylvania, the train in which Antoinette and her children were riding came to a stop in the middle of a woods. Next to the train was a small wooden platform on which they were deposited along with their meager baggage. A man arrived with a horse-drawn wagon, and in it, the little family rode to the scraped-flat top of a steep hill where they found Johann–already beginning to suffer with black lung–operating the tipple that loaded coal into waiting coal cars at the bottom of the hill.
Mary told me that when Antoinette saw her husband, she began to cry at the life she saw lying before her, and that Antoinette had cried at some point nearly every day in the decades that followed. More than 70 years later, Mary’s brother Vencil took us to see the last remaining shack in which the workers’ families lived: a dirt-floored structure that was 10 feet by 20 feet in size and that had no running water; the interior, Vencil explained, was separated by a single drape that was pulled across the room to provide privacy for his parents while he and his seven brothers and sisters slept on the other side. It was on that day that my curiosity about Mawie’s satin pillows was satisfied.
On Mary’s first day in an American school, she came home in tears and promised she would never go back. She claimed the other children, having heard her name–Golic–had called her “Garlic” and had made faces and teased her about smelling like it. Lois related to me that the family decided to preclude such things happening in the future by changing their name to Smith, although she suspected that the name change happened much later when Johann’s brother, who was living nearby, had been wanted for manslaughter or some other egregious crime and had returned to Europe. Whatever the motivation or the timing of it, the family decided to change their name to Smith, and further, it was decided with a family oath that henceforth and without exception they would tell the world they were German.
It was a few years before some of Lois’ uncles would speak with her because of her having, in their minds, forced her mother to reveal a family secret, but in time, they came around and began to tell her what they knew about the family. Over time, some of my cousins–and my mother’s sister, Aunt Nancy–became earnest in finding out the truth about the Golic family, and what they collectively discovered was a gold mine of anecdotes not unlike those of millions upon millions of other immigrants who left–and are still leaving–nearly everything behind in order to follow a dream. I could write a book.
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