by Femigration Staff Writer (edited by Sandi Radoja)

It was in the early 1970s when this little blonde five-year-old angel boarded the big plane. She was on her way to America, but she didn’t really know that. She knew she was going on an airplane, but what really counted was that she was with Mom and Dad, so who cared about details? Not her. It was simply an adventure with her hand in her mother’s and her father nearby.

She adored her mother, the symbol of everything she wanted to be one day. She was a warm and comforting person, loving and caring, and always there. She looked up to her father as the leader, the head of the house, the one making the decisions. Her brother, too, would watch over her, as he was much older; only six years older really, but at that time in a child’s life six years is a vast chasm between siblings.

At age 50-something today, she concedes it’s hard to recall all the details. It’s more like remembering feelings, incidents as a whole, emotions that were widely varied. She doesn’t remember arriving or deplaning in the United States. She couldn’t tell you who picked them up at the airport. But she remembers her new life beginning in Indiana. She remembers her grandfather, who was already in America, being there for them. He immediately became another man to look up to as a source of security and comfort, but also with a sense of harmless mischievousness and fun.

When she was registered for school in Gary, she sensed immediately that she was seen as “different.” The other kids went to kindergarten for half a day, but she was to stay in school for both morning and afternoon kindergarten. It was the school’s way of immersing her in the English language, which was good, but it did mark her as unlike the other children. Even at her tender age, she knew she was not the same.

Back at home when her parents were working, she was left in the care of her grandfather, and would often go with him to his regular card game. Because the men were gambling, they would employ her as the lookout. No doubt that kept her out of their way as much as it kept her pleasantly occupied. She felt she had an important position. The men would pay her in pennies when they were done gambling and she would make her way with her ill-gotten funds straight to the local candy store. Eventually, the candy store owner became suspicious seeing her so frequently, and asked her, “Do your parents know you are here? Where do you get your money?” Finally, he did what he thought was his duty and marched her home. “I couldn’t believe he ratted me out,” she said.

Her own loyalty and ability to keep a secret were soon tested. Her parents demanded to know where she was getting the money, asking if she was stealing. Unlike the candy store owner, she refused to give up her grandfather, so she simply stayed close-mouthed. Her punishment was to stay close to home when not in school. Since both her parents worked, it meant her watchdog grandfather had to stay home, too. Maybe it was best for both of them.

Eventually they moved from Gary to Merrillville into a three-bedroom ranch. She was enrolled at a new school. “I struggled through it all. I was not good at grammar and English, or writing.” Probably as a consequence of English being a second language, she was lagging, and therefore didn’t really like school. Teachers with no familiarity of Eastern European names dubbed her Barb. She found that name distasteful because it wasn’t hers, but she did not question authority.

At home there was no help with school assignments or problems. Her parents were always busy working. Her grandfather had little knowledge of English himself, and even less of school subjects being taught to children in America. Her brother was busy with his own studies. School became a constant challenge she had to face on her own. She got a chance to bring up the Barb issue, hoping her parents would object on her behalf, but they told her to just “go along” with the new name and do what she was supposed to do.

“There’s a picture, I wanted to rip it up,” she said. It was in second or third grade. “Visible in the picture were these penguin figures. They were like awards, rankings. My penguin was at the bottom, furthest from the igloo. These are horrible memories,” she said, adding that it had embarrassed her at the time. “I couldn’t understand as well as the other kids, I needed more help. I just knew I wanted to burn that picture.” To this day, it brings a rise in emotions difficult for her to swallow. She followed the recollection with the simple explanation: “I just didn’t fit in.”

When her grandfather died she was left with an emptiness. Part of the comfort that came following his departure was in the fact that she was given his bedroom and furniture. She admits that it was a bit strange to think of occupying his spot, and she was full of sadness that she wouldn’t see him again. But, despite all of that, she felt a strange excitement. She was going to have a big bed and would be able to close the door to protect her own private world. She had never been alone before, and she came to know the joy of being alone without being lonely. She had a place where she could think and contemplate, she had her own turf, and…it was a gift from her grandfather. 

Through junior high and then high school, while her grades were not the best her social status improved. At these higher schools which took in a wider swath of students in the town she met many new friends, particularly those of Greek, Serbian, Macedonian and Italian descent. These were people that seemed like her. Her world began to grow.  “Until I got to junior high, I felt like an outcast. But then I got involved and developed friendships.”

Church should have been a haven for her, but her family was not especially welcomed. Since they had arrived in America so many years after the second world war, there was an underlying suspicion that her family could be communist, particularly by the earlier World War II refugees who had fled Communism at great personal expense. Those people that remained behind in Eastern Europe did so for varied reasons, and were often judged to be communists, too. In the post-war years many of them developed an appreciation for the sitting government that was providing them with energy, health care, and infrastructure, even if they didn’t share the political views. This combination made for a difficult transition for many of the so-called latecomers.

“My parents had plenty of friends, and there were people who knew my grandfather who were nice,” she said, “but politics and opinions got in the way a lot, so our circle was really kind of small. For me, that meant I didn’t really ‘grow’ until I got older and had more freedom.” She found her niche for a while in gymnastics. Her mother would come to watch her whenever she could. Involvement in extra-curricular activities led to more friendships outside the small ethnic circle that enveloped her.

After high school she acquired skills that led to employment without a university degree. Some old school parents just didn’t find it worthwhile or desirable to send a girl away to college. She had friends of all backgrounds but generally referred to them in two classifications: “my ethnic friends and my American friends,” even though the ethnic friends were all American, too. She was moving frequently in both worlds and gracefully between them. Again, she felt she had found her niche.

Her “American” friends especially enjoyed when they would come along with her to ethnic social events. “They loved it because they thought we were cool. The boys were all cute, we would have a lot of fun. They were wannabes,” she said with a chuckle. But mixing the two worlds was not always that easy for her. Often it was cumbersome to make certain the “Americans” were welcomed into that other world, and  that everyone was having a good time. It took a lot of work on her part to bridge the gap, which meant she herself was missing out on a lot of good times. “It just was too much to deal with, so I stopped ‘mixing’ my friends.”

Although it was from the cradle of a loving home, her memories of growing up were filled with many early struggles including feelings of rejection, restriction, loneliness and ridicule.  She chose a man of her own ethnic background when she married. He was third-generation American born, and together they discovered they shared as many differences as they did similarities. This was the backdrop for her transition from immigrant girl to American woman, which she recalls as seamless. “I really never felt ‘American’ until I was married,” she said.

In this new phase of life, she became a mother, and in that role has had dreams, hopes and prayers, like those of mothers everywhere. “I just want my kids to find true love and happiness.”  While the role her parents played in her upbringing was far different than her own approach to parenthood, it’s likely these are at least thoughts they had in common, hopes that transcend borders and languages. True love, happiness. Surely these were wishes that her parents had all those years ago when they left the old world, and clutched the hand of that little girl boarding the big plane to a new world, America.

Blognote:  This true story is told by an immigrant woman who chose to conceal her identity and her ethnicity. That decision was made for reasons other than protecting the people in the narration. The anonymity doesn’t close a door, but opens it to include young girls from all countries who arrived on these shores, barely realizing they were beginning a new life, but quickly discovering the security blanket of their previous existence was gone. A child facing the struggle to grasp a new language while parents are often absent at work is more common than many realize. All of us, not just educators, need to recognize these signs and offer help in any way possible.

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