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