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An American Tale (or, Let’s Forget About the Shutdown for a Bit, Shall We?)

October 15, 2013

statue of libertyI know – the shutdown has got us all depressed. The Left and Right can’t get along – on the political stage or the home front – and it’s just causing us all a lot of heartache and embarrassment.

In light of that, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own family, how we got here, and why we love it – even in times like this. I thought I might write a little bit about that, if for no other reason than to get us all talking about America in something other than political terms. America is, after all, a concept, a philosophy, a great experiment.

As recent immigrants, my family’s story is fresh and real – told by the same people who lived it. That in itself is a blessing, really. Sometimes a curse, too, but mostly the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It has helped me evaluate my own life as I walk, skip, do the fifty-yard dash, sometimes hobble my way through “the great journey” as somebody great once called it. I would have never met my husband – in the old country, as luck would have it – had my mother not dragged her pregnant derrière across dangerous, armed borders and made her way to America – or as we say in my family, “the best darned country in the world.”

Now, don’t go getting offended if you’re either not American and happen to think your country is pretty darned good, too, or if you’re one of those self-loathing Americans who hates to sound full of himself. My family owes the US of A a lot, so we’ve earned the right to our starry spangled banner-eyed opinion. It’s kind of like me saying that I’ve got the best husband in the whole darned world. It’s a subjective statement brought on by loyalty, gratitude, faith and flat-out love. Not arrogance.

And getting here, according to the people in my family who actually got here, was not a foregone conclusion. In other words, nobody woke up one day and said, “I think I’ll go to America,” got on a plane, and voila!

It was HARD. It took a hell of a long time in some cases. And it required a level of courage and faith that most of us hope we never, ever have to demonstrate.

Yet some might say it was in the cards all along. And I’m willing to go along with that, too.

gyspy fortune tellerAbout a year before the Prague Spring (1968), my Aunt Viki visited a fortune-teller. She wasn’t the kind of fortune-teller who had a tent, a crystal ball, and charged a fee in order to impart what your Uncle Louie wants to tell you from “the great beyond.”

She was simply a little old lady who lived in a cold-water flat beneath my aunt’s studio apartment in Prague. There was nothing “woo-woo” about her – she was just able to read your fortune from an ordinary deck of playing cards. Two of hearts, nine of clubs, etc.

If she liked you.

Well, she liked my aunt and one day she sat down to a cup of tea with her and got out the old playing deck. My aunt really only had one question for her – Will I ever see my parents again?

You see, my grandparents had fled Czechoslovakia twenty years earlier under threat of arrest.

They weren’t knocking off liquor stores or anything. During the war, my grandparents had helped people – mostly Jewish – get out of the country to safety. Theirs was no Oscar Schindler story – they only helped a handful of people: the boyfriend of a neighbor and the family of an Embassy official – but it was enough, after the communists seized power, to get my grandparents into trouble.

Despite the Soviets own complicated relationship with their German predecessors, they were not fond of people who would risk their lives for their principles or endeavor to break the law in any way. The Soviets liked their people compliant, morally vague, and easily frightened.

So that’s the part that gets my grandparents into heaven. The murkier part, the part that lands them in purgatory for a few thousand years (if you believe in such a thing), is that they left their daughters, ages six, four, and six months behind.

It was a devastating mistake.

While it’s true that it would have been difficult to get them across the border, it’s also true that the girls were harassed and harangued by the Czechoslovak government and treated appallingly by their own extended family. Their life in communist Czechoslovakia was nothing short of a tragedy and I can’t, as a mother, imagine doing what my grandparents did – or worse, doing it and then having to live with it.

As my mother has pointed out, during the horrible years of World War II women often chose to go with their children to the gas chamber rather than live without them.

But a child’s tie to her mother is no easy thing to sever.

My aunt wanted desperately to see her parents again – especially her mother. Even if she could scarcely remember her. She wanted to understand why they did what they did. She wanted out of Czechoslovakia – a country she felt had betrayed her, was filled with a people she found weak and corrupt, and run by a government she thought bankrupt in every possible sense of the word.

So, she sipped her tea and asked her friendly neighborhood fortune-teller if she would ever see her parents again.

The old woman dealt several cards from her deck, laying them on her table. She stared at them for several seconds before locking eyes with my aunt.

“Yes,” she said. “And soon.”

But she didn’t stop there.

“You will move to America,” she told Viki. “There you will meet a Czech man, like yourself – marry him, and give birth to two children. After the birth of your second child, you will become very rich.”

“But first,” the old woman cautioned. “There will be a terrible tragedy in your family. A child will die a needless death.”

Two weeks later, my four year-old brother, Viktor, would die of the flu. His death would set off a series of events that would change the entire course of history for my family. It would bring my mother and surviving brother to a new country, put a long overdue death knell into my parent’s truly horrible marriage, reunite my mother and her sisters with their long-lost parents, and finally, bring me into the world.

It is a horrible price to pay for a new start and a new life.dead bird

As for my aunt, you may wonder if the rest was true. Did she marry a Czech and get rich after the birth of her second child?

That story goes something like this: At a dance for Czech immigrants about two years into her life in America, my Aunt Viki did, in fact, meet my Uncle George (a fellow Czech immigrant). They moved from Chicago, to Iowa, to Florida and did, in fact, have two boys. As Viki was recovering in the hospital from her second childbirth, she called out to my uncle.

“Hey!” She said. “Go to the store and get me a lottery ticket. Everything that old woman said was true and we’re about to be rich.”

“You, idiot,” my uncle said. “We own a house and have two cars. You’re already richer than that woman’s wildest dreams.”

That did put things into perspective.

Only, about ten years later – after working their butts off, robbing Peter to pay Paul, and making some very smart decisions, my aunt and uncle were able to sell the small, wonderful retirement home they’d built from the ground up to a very large retirement chain for big bucks.

Theirs is a great American success story. (Picture shown NOT my real aunt and uncle.) tacky rich

  1. nice pic..

  2. I am sorry your family had to go through so much hardship and so glad that the story has had such a happy ending. I met many Czechoslovakian immigrants when I lived in Sweden (81-86). Some taught German in the school where I taught Spanish, English and French. Others attended the Catholic Church (there was only one in Malmoe Sweden).
    I became friends with many of them and the stories they shared were amazing. Even though I was in my 20s and most of them were substantially older, many had friends who had used Sweden as a springboard to eventually move to the USA, the ones I met settled and led great lives in socialist Sweden.
    I loved the way you put the perspective of America being the best country in the same line as having the best husband. I do believe everyone who is happy with their country or their spouse has every right to see such as the very best. I too as an American by choice (and I had choices) find this to suit me as the greatest country, in spite of the past two weeks that have shown so much ugliness.
    America is indeed formed of so many immigrants with so many stories full of tragedy. My family for many generations has had a much easier path than many, but as I am originally from Mexico the stories of survival and coming to America from Latin America really tug at my heart strings. When we think of immigrants as statistics and numbers it becomes such a scary thought of what will that cost us? But when we individualize the plight it shows what America is made of.
    Oh I should add that it is no secret I like psychics and seers and that too gave me a bond with the Czechs .

    • Catalina, I think you and I share the same love of mysticism and, well, love. We’re both sentimentalists at heart, eh? My former roommate spent years in Sweden (overlapping with you) and grew to love it. She said the first year was the loneliest she’d ever spent, but that once she broke through the “Swedish layer of ice” as she called it, the Swedes were some of the warmest people she’d ever known. And still some of her best friends. She also learned to hold her liquor there 🙂

      I’d love to hear your full immigration story some day. Preferably over a glass of wine, but I’ll take it any way I can get it.

      • Your Friend is right. Swedes take their time becoming your friends but once they do they are deep and beautiful people. I was far from lonely as I arrived as the wife of a handsome young Swede and my first job was modeling and getting loads of attention, I was terrible at it, but played around with it, I was actually pretty good at runway as I love an audience but ‘making love to the camera’ absolutely escaped me. My immigration tale is frankly full of irony and in a retrospective view even fun… Virginia is not far, I’m sure it will be a glass of wine someday 😉

  3. Reblogged this on writerchristophfischer and commented:
    A fantastic piece, thank you Vic!

  4. I’ll hold you to that story, then. And I think you made a great model – inner glow goes a long way (longer than making love to the camera, I think).

  5. Marvellous, a cracking story, full of human woe and joy. Living in a mostly settled old country like England it is sometimes easy to overlook just how turbulent other places are. So many stories, too. The whole of America, still being a relatively young country, is like a book shop with about 250 million living and breathing stories. I love it. Here’s to freedom.

    • Oblequante – thank you and yes – here’s to freedom! We are truly blessed to live in democratic countries. And I love your bookshop analogy. It’s so true. I often tell my European friends and relatives – “You think you know us because you see so many of our movies, TV shows, etc – and we’re in the tabloids a lot. But most non-Americans know America the way people think they know Britney Spears. There’s some truth to what you see – for sure – but this country is as diverse as Europe and Asia and someone from Indiana is as different from a Californian as a rural Greek from a Londoner.

  6. fakhbros permalink

    Reblogged this on fakhbros and commented:
    get it

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