September 16, 2012
My great-grandmother was fourteen years old when she immigrated to America from Hungary. Alone. The next year, she married my great-grandfather, a coal miner in Indiana, who had three things going for him: he was employed, he was Hungarian, and he was Catholic. Their first house didn’t have indoor plumbing; nor did it have a floor. Just dirt. She had a baby at sixteen; a couple years later, she had my grandfather, and three years after that, another son. My great-grandfather was a character, meaning that he played the piano, drank too much and got into trouble; Great-Gram was the brains of the operation, and the heart.
Though they weren’t fluent in English when they started school, they did okay, those three Kristan boys: my great-uncle Paul became a teacher of avionics at Parks Air College. Uncle Joe went to Johns Hopkins, became a doctor and a brigadier general in the Air Force, one of the happiest and smartest people I’ve ever known. My own beloved grandfather went to Notre Dame (go, Irish!) and got his master’s in English from Yale.
Great-Gram herself never went past third grade.
She was roughly 4’ 11” and was built like a fireplug. I never saw her wear pants and rarely saw her without an apron. She ran a small grocery store and in her spare time, played the stock market with astonishing success. She would make me tiny hamburgers on Saltine crackers and taught me to swear in Hungarian (a skill I maintain to this day). Sometimes, when I slept over, I would comb out her long gray hair, which she kept in a braid wrapped around her head. “You look like a witch, Great-Gram,” I commented with typical child-like honesty. “I am,” she said, and chased me around her little house. The guest bed was so soft, and I told her how much I loved it. “Your great-grandfather die in dis bed,” she said in her wonderful accent. “Good night.” : )
Great-Gram offered credit during the Great Depression and left it to her customers as to whether or not that debt would be repaid. The neighborhood kids worshipped her; their pennies went further at her market than anywhere else. My uncle tells the story of how she took care of a little African-American boy who had been beat up by a gang, how she cleaned his face and gave him ice cream.
As she got older, my great-grandmother was crippled by arthritis, which didn’t stop her from working, wielding her butcher’s axe with solid thunks as she cut up chicken and beef on the big chopping block. Her hands, though gnarled, were amazingly strong. She didn’t know the meaning of self-indulgence—she wore the same sturdy black shoes for decades—nor self-pity, even though she buried a son: life was what you made it, good or bad.
She died when I was thirteen, almost the same age as she was when she got on that boat, never to see her parents again, never to go back to Hungary, the girl who made so much out of nothing. And what I remember most about her was that she was happy every day of her life.