I've been living in the past lately. My family's immigrant past. Passenger manifests. Naturalization cards. Census records. Marriage licenses. Following their paper trail. You can learn almost everything. Except for this one thing: What hopes carried them along? Were they pursuing some lofty ideal of freedom?
I wish I knew.
My father died eighteen years ago, so I can't ask him. Besides, he was just a little boy when his Scottish family settled in the United States in the 1920s, so he might not have known. The Kilpatricks were, as far as I can tell, a respectable working class family in Glasgow. Not oppressed, but looking for something better.
For my mother's Slovenian family, I have to go back farther. The facts seem starker. Especially for the women.
My great-grandfather, Alois Adamič, a 30-year old farmer, left his village in Slovenia in 1898. He passed through Ellis Island and ended up working as a miner in Ely, a small but booming town in Minnesota's Iron Range, where he had a sister.
In 1899, a 19-year-old Slovenian girl named Josefa, a maid, left her own village. According to the Ellis Island ship manifest, her destination was also Ely, Minnesota, where she had a brother.
Six weeks after Josefa arrived in Ely, she was married to my great-grandfather. A local Catholic priest performed the ceremony, two days after they got the license.
"It must have been an arranged marriage." That's what my mother said, when I presented her with this surprising fact about her grandparents.
In 1901 Louis and Josefa (now Josephine) had their first child: Mary, my grandmother. She was the first of my family--on either side-- to be born in the United States. A few years later, Mary and her family moved to another mining town, in eastern Pennsylvania.
A few years after that, the family settled for good in Cleveland, home to the largest Slovenian community outside Slovenia itself. Louis and Josephine got divorced when the children were young.
Teenage Mary, who had left school after the fourth grade, was working at a Slovenian boarding house when she met her husband-to-be. It wasn't exactly a romantic story. She later told my mother, by way of explanation, "What could I do? He forced himself on me."
My grandfather, Alois (Louis) Kozlevčar, had emigrated from a village in Slovenia in 1911. He arrived alone, as a teenage orphan. He'd lost his parents in the influenza epidemic and got passed around to a few relatives before he decided to leave for America. Family lore gives his age as twelve at the time of immigration, but his official birthdate makes him seventeen. He worked as a miner in Pennsylvania before he ended up in Cleveland, where he became a factory worker.
My grandparents, Mary and Louis, were married by a justice of the peace in 1917. She was fifteen . . . although the marriage license claims eighteen. Their first child, my uncle, was born less than a year later.
They all led such hard lives. Not much freedom, as far as I can tell. Three of them (my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my grandfather) turned to alcohol. There is a kind of freedom, even if it's short-lived, in the bottle.
The only thing I know about their dreams is this:
When I was ten, I received a note from my grandmother Mary. I'd gone off to Girl Scout Camp for two weeks. My first time away from home. I was only a little bit homesick.
My grandma sent me a card with a dollar bill inside. Her short note ended like this:
"Sometimes I wish I had a dog, then I would roam. Don't mind me, I am just being silly."
I felt so sad, reading that. I knew nothing about the harsh circumstances of her life, back then. So why did my Grandma, a sweet and loving woman, sound so sad?
The truth about my family has come out slowly, in bits and pieces. So I feel even sadder now, when I think of my grandmother. When I think about all of them. But I am also grateful. Because it did get better, eventually. But not until the next generation, my mother's. A promise of freedom, a hope for something better, that was deferred for years.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders