Marriage in Czechoslovakia
When I was young, Mom would toss me in the Tempest and, along with her parents, make the trip from Tacoma, Washington over the Northern border into Canada, to visit in New Westminster. Or Little Slovakia as we called it. This was fifty years ago, and I remember New Westminster as a drowsy little town, neat as a pin, stuck in time between Vancouver and Surrey. I don’t remember my Father ever going with us. He never seemed to get on with the Czechs and was much more interested in football than beer.
My mother was born near here and this is where my Grandmother first reunited with my Grandfather after eleven years of separation. Yes, eleven years.
He married her in Czechoslovakia under dark clouds. She felt that he was something of a rich SOB, meaning that he owned a rifle, acted as the local game warden, and had his way with ladies. Anna didn’t care. She was engaged to be married to Loise, her childhood sweetheart, and Jonko was a friend of his. That they hunted together was fine with her. But not tonight.
Tomorrow Anna and Loise would be married and Jonko would stand as the best man. It was winter and frigid in their mountain village. Against all good sense, Jonko convinced Loise to go on one last hunt with him as a single man. There might have been alcohol involved. It was late, dark, bitterly cold and the timing of the hunt was questionable. Later that night, too late, Jonko returned to the village alone and looking for Loise. A search ensued and Loise was found dead, frozen, with a mean and bloody wound to his head, presumably from a fall. My Grandfather was sent to trial for Loise’s murder and was finally acquitted. Once free, he married Anna as was his proper duty as the best man.
More like a servant than a wife, Anna moved into Jonko’s home and was put in charge of his ill and contemptuous father. When she was satisfactorily pregnant, he announced that he was moving to the New World and that he would send for her when he saved enough money to ship her and their child to Canada. He immigrated to Canada through Nova Scotia and it took him eleven years to save enough money. It’s tough to save money when you drink more than you earn each weekend. I never heard anyone wonder aloud why it took so long for him to fetch the family. Maybe it truly did take that long? Maybe it didn’t. Grandpa worked his way across Canada as a lumberjack, living with roving groups of men, moving to the next stand of old-growth firs. He was well known to tie one on with the loosest woman visiting the camp. I’m sure that I will never know what actually happened. It’s not even a family secret: no one left alive knows.
Visiting in Canada
When we visited in Canada, it was not like another country, but like another world. I’d been to Mexico where people spoke a different language but seemed to be made the same as me. New Westminster was different. We stayed in a section of town where everyone was Slovak or of Czech descent. Everyone knew one another and knew us and other visitors. Through my grandparents’ history there, we were made to feel as prodigals who were away for a time and now we’d returned home. We ate lots of cabbage and sausage. Old women would sneak me a nickel whenever my Mom wasn’t looking.
The strangest thing I remember were the homes. All of the families that we visited had the same set up: the houses were two-storied with a basement set up for family living. The family – a husband and wife, and however many children they had – lived downstairs in the basement. It was always neat and clean but was still a basement with concrete walls, a wash machine in the open, and a large fiberglass basin used as a sink for washing vegetables, dishes, hair, or what have you. Everyone slept in the open on cots or daybeds.
The upstairs was generally off-limits to the family. That was reserved for guests and for special visitors like me and my Grandparents. The furniture was new but not fashionable. Couches and chairs were covered in a god-awful thick plastic meant to protect the fabric. It did a good job: no one wanted to sit on the stuff. Rooms were spotless. The kitchens came straight from a 1945 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. Women by the handful gathered there to cut and chop and boil while the men drank beer and spit outside. All conversations were in Czech and I knew I was testing their English skills when they spoke to me.
I liked the downstairs better: what kid doesn’t want to live in the basement? Upstairs was a little horrible. The plastic was uncomfortable and Mom hovered over me to see if I would drop something on the clean carpet or say any untoward thing. The one thing worse than a bad cleaning job was having bad manners in public.
No End In Sight
My Grandmother’s story never really ended until her death. She continued to secret money to family in Czechoslovakia and, every time that Grandpa made her mad, which was often, she muttered under her breath that she is married to the person who murdered her only love.
So much for family!
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