We think of our grandparents as venerable and wise, unlikely to be impulsive, reckless, or spontaneous as youth is wont to be. But what if we could see them as they were viewed by the generation older than they — if we could see them as they really were in their younger days, not the way they present themselves through the foggy, faulty lens of memory.
As I’ve written before, I was stunned to learn of my grandfather’s impatient, risk-laden determination to get to America (See Terror atop the Train). His letters exposed his surprising romanticism and desperate love for my grandmother, Lisi, pulling out all the stops to persuade her to join him in America– another eye-popper! (see If you love me)
But what about my grandmother, Lisi? I always saw her as a powerful, no-nonsense woman, the antithesis of spontaneity. The opposite of ill-considered action.
But that’s not the way her former employer, Mrs. Jickeli viewed her decision to join Josef in America. Forty-five years old at the time twenty-three-year-old Lisi left, Mrs. Jickeli’s first letters to her peg my grandmother as a foolish girl who acted too impulsively in rushing off to America to join her equally reckless husband. You can feel Berta Jickeli’s frustration—like a mother for her wayward daughter, hoping for the best, but harboring serious doubts that things will work out.
December 10, 1911
I received your letter and the picture, and I am glad that everything goes well for you. With great anxiety, I let you go to your uncertain fate in such a foreign place, and it is good that up to now everything has gone better that we thought.
Nevertheless, the fear and worry about you, who were my greatest problem child, has not lessened. When I see the picture, it proves to me that you are now a wife and so will be the victim of the painful and changing nature of life. From my entire heart, I wish that fate intends for you a gentle future and brings you nothing bad, and if you can write me over the next ten years that you still are satisfied, I will be truly happy and be glad that I was wrong.
The circumstances in America are certainly very different and in many instances they will be difficult to get used to; in other cases, easy. The culture of the wide [world] is certainly an enlightenment, and when you look around you and think of home, everything here will seem small to you.
Above all you must beware that you don’t let yourself become homesick. Because if that happens to you, you are lost. The best would be to strive to forget your old home town and only think about the future. When you next write me, write me what you do the entire day.
What kind of food you cook? Who is your boss, and how she is? How is Mr. Gärtz? His heart will be satisfied because he has you there, where he wanted you. Does the American climate suit him well? And how is he making out with his military duty? Does he want to report for it in March or be forever divorced from his homeland? (See Drafted 100 years ago. It’s not clear to me if Josef ignored his draft summons, or signed up but left before he performed his duty)
I often wonder, why [your departure] all had to be so outside the law [or proper way] and form, when in a half year everything could have been worked out in the right and easy way. If now it would only come to good!
Here no one has called you or Gärtz –or have they? Because if [your marriage] hasn’t been announced here, your marriage is not according to law, and you must either marry here again or you must abandon any rights to each other’s families.*
*[Note: In Neppendorf or Großpold the pastor announced an upcoming wedding in the week(s) before the event so community members had a chance to object for any reason. Without the announcement, it wouldn’t be entered into the family book and not been considered legitimate, as Mrs. Jickeli describes.]
I am often with you in my thoughts and we also speak often of you. Our girls were completely crazy with joy when they saw your beautiful picture [undoubtedly the wedding photo].
Of course, Mrs. Jickeli didn’t realize that World War I was just around the bend, that Josef likely would have died in that horrid war, as did Lisi’s younger brother, and that the life she knew in Siebenbürgen would soon come to an end. In this case, impetuous youth had made the wise, forward-looking decision.
Wow! What a fascinating letter. It’s wonderful to have such an insight into how others viewed your family memebers. Powerful stuff!