Editor’s note: Susan Bodnar is a clinical psychologist who works with people from diverse backgrounds and teaches at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, two children and all of their pets.
By Susan Bodnar, Special to CNN
Last night I went online, clicked into my bank, and began to pay bills from three separate piles: must be paid or else, can wait a bit, and we’ll pay these whenever. I never used to have to juggle, but this economy challenges even the most fastidious of savers. Everyone I know seems to hurt a little at the end of the month. During these stressful economic times, I remember stories about survival from my family’s immigrant generation.
We framed my great-grandmother’s shopping list to commemorate her attempt to write in English using foreign pronunciation; becoming American with the tools she could muster from her home country. Baba maintained an allegiance to Czechoslovakia, but her heart came of age in the new country. She spoke in that sing-song melodic cadence of her birth tongue, substituting the English words she had proudly learned. Even when I was a young adult, she summoned me using that potluck language of hers, “Přijďte to your baba and řekni me about škole.” Assimilation was simple for my Baba – embrace it all and make it work.
My great-grandmother, Baba - grandmother - emigrated with little more than her shawl and a satchel. She came from a small village outside of Prague and moved into a miner’s patch town in Pennsylvania, along with the Ukrainians, Slavs, and Lithuanians who were populating the once Irish- and Welsh-dominated mining communities. Despite their discomfort with each other, when the whistle blew to indicate that a man was down on the job, everyone stopped work. The entire community stood by when the horse and cart pulled the fallen man away.
Baba married a miner. They already had two children and their third, my grandmother, was on the way when he died in the flu pandemic of 1918. This flu hit the anthracite coal mining communities quickly and harshly. It easily traveled on the newly installed rail lines from the hard-hit city of Philadelphia. Neither flu nor tragedy in the mines discriminated on the basis of ethnicity.
Soon after her first husband died, Baba met another miner, a Ukrainian, who was already the father of four. His wife had also died in the flu epidemic. Within months, they married. They believed that marriages were built of necessity, by hard work and thorough moral discipline - not romance. Those types of feelings were expected to evolve over time if the first three principles were in place. Together, they had three more children for a total of 10. Their intermarriage between ethnicities, unheard of in the old country, was becoming commonplace.
It wasn’t easy to break down ethnic barriers. Resistances often prevailed, especially when it came to strengthening workers’ rights. When all ethnicities eventually united behind the United Mine Workers Union of America, working conditions and salaries improved for all workers. The mines became safer pathways to the bold democracy that seemed a striking advancement from their European hometowns. Zdethy, my great-grandfather, hung photographs of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John L. Lewis, president of the union from 1920 to 1960, along the wall of the narrow stairway that led to his bedroom. Baba blessed them.
Years of hard mining and domestic work propelled my family from a patch town to a small, but comfortable home in McAdoo, Pennsylvania. Then the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. The community survived by working together and once again crossing ethnic lines. Men established wildcat mines where they could collect and sell available coal even though the collieries were shut down. Baba and other women fought back with an irreverent domesticity. They planted gardens, cooked on wood-burning stoves and established sewing circles. Everybody who could play brought their instrument to community dances at the firehouse. Even when her cupboard was bare, Baba had enough faith in her new country to insist that her kids attend the shared public school, where they would speak and read English. Some even received their high school diplomas. Later, she encouraged her sons to defend their new home when World War II started.
Individuals didn’t always like each other and stereotypes were common. In the mines, mills, and small schools, however, the need to cooperate often took precedence over ethnic parochialism. Partial to her Slovakian heritage and proud of her opinions, Baba still imparted to me the value of pluralism. Her eventual citizenship enhanced rather than detracted from her identity.
I once tried doing the laundry by hand on Baba’s washboard. I don’t miss it. Nor, am I pining for the insularity of small town communal life. Yet, I often long for the togetherness and citizenship that characterized my family’s struggles, like a strand in a web of meaning thick with lessons about how to live now.
Neither my Baba nor my Zdethy could have imagined on-line bill paying. But they made it possible for me to be part of this future through faith and commitment to the dream that was this country. So when I stare down that stack of whenever bills that need paying, I try not to dissolve into the anxiety fueled pessimism of lesser character. Rather, I keep preparing my family for the better world that once arose and will rise again from the labor and faith of every kind of American worker.
My Baba lived until I was 23 years old. All the immigrants in my family imparted to me the value of democracy. So many risked everything - country, stability, safety - in order to join the new venture of equality. Occupations have a long and noble history in this country. They began with men and women, laborers and their wives, who had the nerve to occupy this country and claim themselves as equals within it.