Can you say babushka? Sure you can.
I am happy to report that Grandpa had a clean driving record. Not sure how clean the horse was on the streets, though.
In the 1920 census he lived near the Queens cemeteries where he worked as a stone mason. His entire enumeration district contained only two pages – probably hundreds of times more people buried in that area at the time than lived there. Also: horses.
(Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.)
My grandparents emigrated from Czechoslovakia in the early 1900s, met and lived up on the west side of Manhattan when they had my mother. That community had a very strong Czech component, as did some parts of Queens they later moved to.
My mother grew up learning both Czech and English, attended Sokol gymnastics and other social events at the Bohemian Hall in Astoria.
(Good job fitting into that same outfit when posing with my Mom so many years later, Uncle John!)
We still have my Mom’s flowery outfit saved in my Babi’s steamer trunk, although we are hesitant to take it out after having been folded in place for so many decades.
When I was eleven,
eleven days before my father’s birthday,
as I tiptoed up the creaking stairs at bedtime
he called me from his bed.
My boyish perspective of him
was as a somewhat mysterious being
who had existed full grown, free range and in power
Although I had seen our family photographs
I didn’t really link the baby in them
nor the yard full of dirt and gardens
and odd bits of wood lying about
From these photographs I did understand
he was in the Navy during the war
but didn’t see any of the fighting
(which I, of course, attributed to an imaginary
undercover spycraft they needed him for)
and that he and my mother met at work
and went to the beach together.
I also suspected that quite a bit seemed to have happened
in the several years before I was around
while my brother and sisters were,
thanks to the projector and slides
that smelled of electricity and dust
he took out at intervals and the mote-filled light
he pointed at the wood panel walls.
I can recall his taking me to work in Manhattan
down through dark and dingy subways and streets,
printing out pictures of Snoopy for me
made up of the alphabet in unlikely formations
by machines of great size and noise
using paper with alternating bars of white and green.
And our trip to the Museum of Natural History
early one Sunday morning, so early the museum was far from open.
He talked a man cleaning out a side street bar
into giving us two short bottles of White Rock cola
which we carried back to the museum steps
and sat drinking, sweet and warm,
while he pointed out places in the park he used to play
and the architecture of buildings that stood coldly around us.
On this eleventh day before my birthday,
I can see my father sitting upstate in an Adirondack chair
a blanket covering his legs and keeping him warm
in stuffy summer air
with The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in his lap.
I can remember walking from the bedroom steps
to him after his call
and his blue, blue eyes looking at mine.
I can feel his thin arm reaching around my shoulder,
his kiss on my head,
his “Goodnight, Johnny”
and his hug longer than expected.
I can look back over my shoulder
his eyes still on mine
while I climbed the stairs to bed
just before cancer won the day.
On this eleventh day before my birthday,
the same birthday my father was approaching when I was eleven,
as I climb the creaking steps
to my own children’s bedrooms
I will think of his kiss
and I will kiss their clear, sweet faces
as they sleep.
While resurrecting my family photo scanning project again (now aka PROJECT LAZARUS) I stumbled upon one of my very favorite family photos: my 15 year old grandfather Josef Vanac and his sister Marie all dressed up for a photo in New York city.
I love this photo not only because we have no other photos of my grandfather and great-aunt at this time, but because he is right off the boat from the Czechoslovakia. (Around this time known as Bohemia, Austria Hungary, and/or Galicia depending on the record and they area people came from.)
Marie had been in New York since she arrived in 1902 at the age of 16. The contact listed on her ship record was a cousin (actually listed as a sister, oddly) who had been here for many years.
My grandfather came over in 1907 when he was 15 years old, and his ship record has Marie as his contact.
I’ve included detail of his immigration record below.
The Vanac family came from a rural farming background in the town of Zamlyni in Czechoslovakia and my grandfather was a stone mason at a monument company in the middle of the cemeteries of Queens for his entire career. I would love to know what my Grandpa was thinking at this point in time.
In any case, they look terrific, and serious and at the beginning of their adult lives in a new country. And Aunt Marie looks especially beautiful.