Clark peers down at a village in the hills and tears come into his eyes.
Clark Griswold: There it is, kids, the motherland.
Rusty Griswold: Grandma’s from Chicago.
Clark: Shut up, Russ. (From the movie European Vacation)
When my grandparents emigrated from the German region of Romania in 1923, my grandfather told my grandmother that the move was “only temporary.” Well, it was not. Chicago became their home, and as soon as they could they became American citizens. But in 1937, my grandmother had the chance to return to her homeland to see the family she left behind.
That summer, my grandmother, my mother Mary, age 12, and my uncle Jack, age 7, took the trip of a lifetime. My grandfather stayed home to run his store, and my aunt Liz, a recent high school grad, was also left behind. After all, someone had to cook and clean and do my grandfather’s laundry. In June, the adventure began. First, they took a train from Chicago to New York. Then they boarded the German ocean liner, the Europa, the beautiful, modern sister ship of the Bremen, complete with a nice dining room and some shuffleboard courts to keep Mary and Jack entertained. Their cabin slept four, so the fourth bunk was occupied by a woman they’d never met who was traveling alone.
Here’s my mother Mary, my uncle Jack, and my Grandmother boarding the train in Chicago.
Aboard ship… Jack is standing in front wearing a crown. My mother and grandmother are behind him. In the adults only party photo on the right, my grandmother is seated in the first chair on the left.
After a five or six day voyage, the ship docked in Bremen, and the family’s journey continued by train to Budapest. There, they stayed overnight in a sparsely furnished room overlooking a courtyard. The next day, another train took them to Arad, Romania, where a family member met them with a horse and wagon for the journey to Neu Banat, the little village that my grandmother called home.
For Mary and Jack, Neu Banat was a step back in time. Back home in Chicago, a city of skyscrapers and streetcars, electricity and running hot water were not considered luxuries. Not so at Grandma and Grandpa Heinrich’s home. Like everyone in the village, they lived in a thatched roof, stuccoed home that featured a large great room, furnished with tall feather beds and a table and chairs, and a kitchen with an immense hearth and a wood-burning stove. The formal living room was off limits, too fancy for every day. Water? That came from a pump outside. Bathroom facilities? An outhouse. Laundry? A horse trough right outside the kitchen door. Kerosene lamps kept the darkness away. Attached to the house was a stable for the horses and cows. Pigs and rabbits resided in pens, and chickens had the run of the yard. Flower pots decorated the half-wall that surrounded the house.
The villagers farmed the land surrounding the town. Each family owned their own acreage, but their plots of land weren’t contiguous. As farms were divvied up among descendants, one might own a chunk of land over here, another over there, like random patches on a quilt. When a farmer went out in the fields for the day, he would travel from plot to plot to tend to his crops – corn, wheat, soybeans.
Once a week, Grandma Heinrich baked. First she heated up the clay hearth by burning corn stalks in it. Then she prepared seven enormous loaves of bread and pushed them in the oven with a flat wooden shovel, then closed the hinged door. When Mary and Jack were visiting, she made them each a small loaf of their own – hard crust on the outside, soft and steaming hot on the inside.
The three Wolfs from the States were quite the celebrities that summer. Every relative insisted that they come for dinner, and since my grandfather was one of twelve children and my grandmother one of six, that meant a circuit of celebratory chicken dinners. They travelled to the city of Timisoara, where the big shot of the family, Uncle Joe Wolf, lived with his wife whom they called “Titzy Tante” and his two kids, Hansel and Gretel – yes, those really were their names. Somehow Joe became educated and was a banker, quite a step up from his siblings who worked the farmland. Lena, Mary, and Jack spent a week with Joe and Titzy Tante. These rich relations not only had electricity and running water in their fancy house, they also had a maid named Kathy to take care of it all.
Mary and Jack both understood German, but didn’t speak it, but by the end of the summer, they were fluent. They hung around with the local kids, who congregated every night on the felled tree trunks next to the gate. There was typical horsing around, but Mary was taken aback to see young couples, some only twelve or thirteen, necking, away from the watchful eyes of their parents.
My mother in traditional dress; my mother with the some Neu Banat family; my uncle Jack in Uncle Frank’s uniform; Grandma, my mother, and Jack with some relatives.
While the necking seemed “fast” to Mary, the long, full black skirts, dark stockings, and aprons that the women wore seemed to be from another century. Both the women and girls typically pulled their hair back in buns, and married women wore starched white caps. Mary, in her breezy cotton skirts, white anklets, and strappy shoes, must have caused quite a stir.
My uncle Jack created a bit of mischief of his own. My grandmother, prepared for any emergency, had packed X-Lax for the journey. Jack convinced the local kids it was American chocolate and doled it out. Still, Jack was pretty cute, and no doubt was doted over by his aunts and uncles. Frank, my grandmother’s brother, dressed him in his army uniform and let him pose for a photo on horseback.
The visit lasted all through the summer, and Lena, Mary, and Jack immersed themselves into village life. They attended Mass in the little village church, and joined in the fun at local dances, where neighbors polkaed to traditional tunes played on accordions and concertinas. The children played with the family’s rabbits, and refused to eat them when one was served for dinner.
During the visit, the family made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Maria Radna, a basilica high above the shores of the Maros River outside of Timisoara, dating back to 1325. Mary and Jack were awestruck by its magnificence as well as by the crowds of worshippers, especially the ill and the disabled who crawled up the church’s steps to seek healing. My grandmother bought Mary a souvenir of their visit, a porcelain coffee mug, white with red polka dots. The mug rests in my mother’s kitchen cabinet today.
When September came, it was time to head back across the ocean to Chicago. But, their return ship was quarantined in New York harbor, and alternate plans were made. They returned on a smaller ship, one not equipped for the crowd of passengers it transported. The ship took a stormy North Atlantic route, and my grandmother spent several days in their cabin, suffering from seasickness. Mary and Jack ventured into the dining room for breakfast, but by the time they were served, the food was cold and their stomachs were churning from the roiling of the ship.
School had already started when they got home, so Mary and Jack quickly shrugged off their European adventures to resume life in Chicago, hopping on the street car to head for St. Matthias School, flipping on the radio to listen to Jack Armstrong: All-American Boy. Mary was soon yakking on the phone to her pal Peggy, maybe planning to see the new Marx Brothers movie, “A Day at the Races.”
I wonder about my grandmother Lena, though. I know she must have missed her husband Jacob and her oldest child Elizabeth during the several months she was away. But how she must have savored her time with her mother, her stepfather, her sisters and brothers, her cousins and all her friends back home. Did she regret coming to Chicago in the first place? Or was she grateful to have left the hard-scrabble world behind, and to live in a beautiful city home, to have hot water at the turn of a knob, lights at the flick of a switch? When I asked my mother about this, she shook her head. “I never heard her express any regret at leaving her home. She was proud to be an American.” That’s the Grandma I remember, too.