For both my father and mother, English was their second language and so my generation is the first to speak it as our mother tongue. This is a fact I’d known since childhood, but never really understood until I began teaching English as a Second Language at a private university in Central Massachusetts. Like any job, it has its humdrum days and times when I wish I were anywhere else but in front of a classroom, yet the experience is still most days personally gratifying with a sense that I am doing something that actually affects people’s lives for the better. One cannot ask for more than that from an occupation.
All four of my grandparents individually emigrated from Slovenia, then a part of Austria-Hungary, just prior to or during the First World War. Both grandfathers served in the army of Emperor Franz Joseph I. My paternal grandfather apparently spent his mandatory two-year military gig trying to find ways to get out of his conscription and failed woefully. My mother’s dad, “Ata” (father in Slovenian-which even Gramma called him) found his army experience to be some of the best years of his life. His huge repertoire of stories was replete with anecdotes of his time as a young soldier just prior to the outbreak of war in Europe. It was my Grampa, (what we kids called him), who hooked me with his art for storytelling, captivating my childhood and silently mantling me with the task of family chronicler with his passing.
Gramma began to learn English from my mom once she started school. She insisted my six-year-old mother bring her text books home each night and teach Gramma what the nuns had taught her earlier that day. As my mother often recounted, it was an incredible learning system because while Gramma gained the basics of the language, my mother was reviewing what she was just beginning to absorb herself. Grampa, on the other hand, had no time for such games. He was working in a malleable iron factory ten-plus hours a day. He learned English from his foreman, his supervisor and coworkers, the bus driver and the factory cafeteria workers. In Cleveland in the 1920s that meant Germans, Russians, Poles, Italians, Serbs, Croats and Hungarians and all the other Eastern Europeans who had flocked to this thriving industrial city for work and a new life. His new language skills were hardly skills at all, but rather basic survival language that served him well till the end of his days at eighty-six. He spoke what language teachers term fossilized English.
He conjugated the verb to be as follows:
I be guud/You be guud/She be guud/We be guud/Dey be guud.
As an example, his present tense would be structured “Today I be verry guud” (the “r” is rolled in Slovenian). The past tense he formed “Yesterrday I no be so guud”. For the future, however, he did adopt the use of gonna’ “Tomorrrow we gonna’ be verry guud”. Even as a youngster, I didn’t find Grampa’s English peculiar or unintelligible. I understood him perfectly, convoluted grammar and heavy Slavic accent included. His unique form of English seemed perfectly logical to me. It was his heartfelt stories about the old country that captivated me and I hung onto his every imperfect syllable to hear him recount each and every one of them.
My mother didn’t drive until well into her forties, so my father chauffeured her to all the evening Adult Ed classes she taught for years, dragging my little brother and me around with him. Two nights a week she had classes on the east side, so we waited for her at Gramma and Grampa’s house. My dad adored his father-in-law, admitting he was closer to him than his own father. I am certain the feeling was mutual. I loved spending time with Gramma because she was Earth Mother to me, the most loving and generous-with-her-affection woman ever to come into my life.
Time around the kitchen table listening to Grampa, however, was the ultimate treat and I never tired of his colorful tales. His props were the Raleigh Plain End cigarettes he smoked, punctuating his sentences with long, dramatic drags and very vocal exhales and P.O.C. Beer (Pride Of Cleveland) guzzling the last third of a bottle in transition from one story to the next. He chain-smoked those Raleighs for years, amassing tons of coupons until, in the early 1960s, suddenly switching to Kents (with the micronite filters). I remember they cost 21 cents because often, mid-story, he would send me to the corner store with a quarter for another pack and with the four cents change I bought a small bag of loose penny candy, running back quickly so as not to miss his all-important ending. There were dozens and dozens of stories over my lifetime with Grampa, seemingly never repeating himself. Yet some were my special favorites that I would beg to be retold and he performed those requests with extra vitality, not wanting to disappoint.
One of those treasured tales was the day a four-year-old Grampa was told by his father that he had to say goodbye to his dying mother. There were two older brothers as well, but the central character was Grampa. His mother had been ailing for days and now the end was in sight. He was old enough to understand what illness was, but certainly had no idea about the concept of death. He was instructed to kiss her goodbye. His father and brothers were crying, fully grasping what was coming to pass. Grampa was only fixated on his mother’s head lying against her pillow. He knew that underneath that pillow lay a box of chocolates she kept hidden, given only as the most special of treats – doled out sparingly. They were incredibly poor tenant farmers struggling to produce enough to fill their own stomachs once they had provided the required compensation to the landlord from whom they leased their tiny farm.
After leaving his kiss on her cheek, he waited for the others, taking his cues from them. When they saw that she had passed, his father and brothers consoled each other. Grampa took the moment to quickly slide the chocolate box from under the pillow and hurry outside where he could hide and gorge himself on every one of the remaining candies in his mother’s carefully guarded arsenal. He remembered knowing it was very wrong to eat them all himself, but the temptation was too great to pass up. He spent the entire night sick to his stomach. The others thought his vomiting was due to anxiety and fear, after all, the little boy had lost his mom. He always ended the story by saying: “Becoz my mooderr, she die, my fahderr, he merrry agen and den I haf mooderr-een-lauw. I be shem for wat I do to my poorr mooderr, dead een herr bed, steeling da kendee frram underr dee peelow. I steel be shem forr myself – eben too-day”. He would lift his eyeglasses to dry the fresh tears from underneath his eyes. Each time he told that story, I would tear up myself for the poor little four-year-old Grampa I saw there before me.
But the all-time favorite story for me, I came to realize as an adult, was what must have been purely Slovenian folklore. Grampa explained that this had happened to his father, Michael, years before my Grampa was born, when his father was a single young man. It was harvest time for the wheat and the neighboring farmers would help each other in the difficult and painstaking task. Normally they traveled by oxen, but because of the distance, their neighbor picked them up before dawn with a horse cart. My Great Grampa was excited about this job because of the large village they would pass through, but more so because of the speed of the horses.
The farm was enormous compared to other neighbors and the job of the wheat harvest even greater. Many men worked the entire day in the sun, cutting and baling to finish before the rain. It was well after sundown when they were done, stopping because it had grown too dark to see in the fields anymore. Exhausted, Michael and his father climbed back into the horse cart for the journey home. There was only a lantern next to the driver to light their way, so they had to travel more slowly than they had that morning. They passed through the large village, but could see very little in the heavy darkness.
As they entered into the open road in the direction of their farm, they soon came upon a crossroads where they would have to continue straight ahead towards home. The horses began to slow as they neared this rural intersection – something was in the middle of the road. The driver said it was a large black cat that was frightening the two horses. They began to buck and as they did, the cart lurched back and forth so that Great Grampa Michael and Great-Great Grampa had to hold on tightly to not be thrown out and trampled to death by the spooked horses. To gain control the driver used his whip on the oversized feline that refused to budge from her spot. According to Grampa, he did so by hitting underhanded with the whip in an upward motion. As the whip struck, “dee somma-nah-beetch cot, she grow up eento a ‘supernitza’ (Slovenian for witch).
At this point in the tale, I was peeing myself in fearful anticipation, as I watched him mime the whipping technique with his sinewy, strong-arm. His face grimaced in terror as he dramatically over enunciated the word for witch and he was frightened all over again as he terrorized me with the story his father had handed down to him. Usually my own father would interject here, his doubt concerning the veracity of the tale. Grampa always confirmed, shaking a crooked, arthritic finger near my father’s face “Frrank, wat I be telling you ees wat my fahderr, he tell me. End my fahderr, he nay-berr say no ting wat ees not dee trroot”. Then he would turn to me, still sitting mesmerized in total awe, wanting so to believe this really had happened. Cautioning me with that same gnarled finger “Wain you arre trraveling in dee rroad at night and you git to dee crross – eef you see bleck cot – nay-berr heet dee cot up. All-ways heet de cot down. Adderrwise, you gonna hef dee supernitza and she gonna’ try git YOU too!”.
The odd part of the story was, he never did explain how they dealt with the midnight witch in the road, yet that never was much of a concern to me. And I knew from his face and the implicit tone of his voice, he truly believed every word his father had imparted to him. Grampa had left his father, oldest brother and step mother in Slovenia when he came to ‘Amerrika’ at twenty-four and never saw them again. He took a trip back only once, in 1956 when he was sixty-eight years old and they were all long gone. As much as he loved this country and all the benefits he gained from immigrating here, he could never let go or tire of his beloved Slovenia. He spoke passionately about it every time we were together around his kitchen table where he held court. Although he was sort of a tough, man’s man, misogynistic, shot -and -a-beer kind of a guy, he openly wept when the family gathered together and my mom led the singing of old folk songs, his booming basso voice occasionally joining in on a particular favorite of his.
Once I left for college, those evenings of tales became few and far between. He didn’t often take to story-telling when we were all together with the entire extended family to celebrate the holidays. I marvel today at his ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, especially having to do it with a language always foreign to him. I mourn all that I missed by never understanding his mother tongue and how much richer and more enthralling his tales must have been in the original. And I measure my own ability, even with the obvious language edge over him, and I pale in his shadow.