Recently, I sent frequent commenter Daniel Zappala a copy of my family genealogy for safekeeping. I figured that a Mormon with a lot of computer equipment and a penchant for making backups was ideal for this. Little did I know that Daniel, without being prompted, sent me a wealth of documents about my mother's side of the family. But what was especially fascinating was finding out by my maternal grandmother and her family. The Croatian part of me (a quarter of me) feels to be more of a part of me now than just wearing a checkerboard shirt.
My maternal grandmother, Ella Kimberling (pictured on the left from around 1911), lived with me as I grew up and her influence was more than just being the woman who cooked dinner almost every night and produced untold numbers of cookies, cinnamon rolls, cakes, pies, and grilled cheese sandwiches. I always remain grateful that my parents did a good job of raising me, but I also benefited from having the added perspective of another generation's wisdom and experiences.
Ella Rose Zuzenak came into this world back on April 12, 1904 in St. Louis. She was the daughter of Michael and Magdalene. Michael Zuzenak (or Zuzinjak, Croatian spellings get transliterated in many different ways) had come to this country from the town of Loncar Brdo in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (You can use the link and then you can zoom in to find where the town is located, not many people live there.) Family lore has it that Michael traveled on a dead man's passport, but on his application for naturalization, Michael swore that he arrived in New York on a ship from Antwerp in 1889 at age 15. He also renounced his allegiance to Francis Joseph, Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary. That probably came in handy during World War I. And it probably accounts for my latent distrust of anything having to do with the Habsburgs.
Michael married Magdalene Culiberg (or Culibrk or Luliberg) in 1901 and Ella was their second child after a son Michael and they would have seven children in all. Michael worked much of his life as a molder in a foundry in Granite City, Illinois, while Magdalene ran a boarding house for Croatian immigrants.
My grandmother never spoke of her childhood all that fondly. Her family, while not poor, wasn't very wealthy either. Her mother was, by all accounts, not a very nice person. Her father was nice enough and supposedly adopted baseball as his favorite sport soon after settling in the United States.
Schooling wasn't of paramount importance to my great-grandmother, especially for girls.
The photo here, showing my grandmother at her First Communion, likely around 1915 at age 11, was close to the end of her formal education. Soon, she would start working at home doing piece work sewing clothes together. By the time she reached eighth grade, her formal education was done. Although I don't recall every job she had, she would eventually end up at the Fleischmann's Yeast Company factory in St. Louis where she worked for several years as a wrapper. Cakes of yeast would come off the line and she would package them for sale.
And at this factory, my grandmother met a salesman for the company by the name of Walter Hitchcock. As Grandma told me almost 70 years after the fact, Walter Hitchcock walked into some staff area where people were drinking coffee and poured himself a cup. He remarked that he thought the coffee was great and he would like to meet someone who could make coffee this well. Grandma volunteered that she made the coffee and she would be glad to make a fresh pot. I never could figure out who was using the pickup line in that interaction. Probably both of them.
The coffee must have been good as the two started going out. However, in the 1920s, Croatian girls weren't supposed to go out with men who weren't Croatian. Walter Hitchcock was English and Irish (the Irish family's name is Cohen, something I've never figured out) and he was not suitable.
Nevertheless, a couple months after her 21st birthday (when her parents couldn't stop the proceedings), Ella married Walter at her local parish church. But not in the church, but rather in the rectory. And it wasn't a big wedding on a Saturday. It was on a Wednesday. My grandmother tried to keep the wedding secret for as long as she could, but once the public notice went in the paper, her parents found out and after what was presumably a large amount of yelling, Ella left her parents' house and moved in with Walter.
Ella and Walter had two children: my aunt, Mary, in 1927, and my mom, Jeanne, in 1929. Walter was far from the ideal husband. He drank heavily. He was unemployed a lot and tended to get jobs only when companies in the St. Louis area needed him to play on their company soccer teams. Supposedly, Walter was a vicious defender whose tactics on the field would have earned him a stack of yellow and red cards if that system had been in use then. However, a knee injury ended his playing career and he tried to make ends meet by refereeing matches. But most of the time, Walter just drank.
In 1932, Walter Hitchcock visited a speakeasy and, for some reason, fell down a flight of stairs (just why this happened is another mystery, but it was officially ruled an accident) and died of a skull fracture. This left my grandmother as an unemployed single mother of two young girls in one of the most dire times of the Great Depression.
My grandmother moved her family back in with her parents, who apparently had forgiven her. Somehow she was able to find work, but it wasn't easy. Her own mother had only become more difficult to deal with. One of her brothers played in a band and would invite his friends over for late night rehearsals in the house. It was not a happy place to live.
In 1940, Grandma married again, to a much older man who lived in her neighborhood. She assumed that the man, a retired career Army officer named Henry Kimberling, would be able to provide for she and her daughters better than she could on her own. But as it turned out, Henry really wasn't all that wealthy. He passed away in 1941 and before he did he told my mom that the U.S. Army in the Philippines (where he had fought alongside Douglas MacArthur) would never fall to the Japanese. Henry was, according to everyone I've talked to about him, a fine gentleman, but all he left behind was a widow's pension check for my grandmother. And that $13 check per month was something my grandmother looked forward to each month.
In 1960, my mother and father moved out to California. My aunt was already living out here, so my grandmother bid farewell to her hometown and headed west.
The move to California finally gave Grandma a chance to have a "normal" family life even though she was the grandmother, not the mother. She didn't have to worry about where the next paycheck was coming from. She had time to relax and enjoy her grandchildren. She got to perfect her chocolate chip cookie recipe. She produced cinnamon rolls at a rate that would have made her a prized employee in a modern day shopping mall food court.
And although Grandma grew up as a Cardinals fan and told me stories of the Cardinals wild reception in St. Louis back in 1926 after beating the Yankees in the World Series, she switched her allegiances to the Dodgers once she moved out West. And she would listen to or watch nearly every Dodgers game that she could. She wasn't a big fan of other sports, but she would from time to time walk up to the TV set and make an X mark with her index finger over the face of an opposing player or coach she didn't like. The first successful use of this heck was believed to have taken place on New Year's Day 1975 when Grandma successfully hexed Woody Hayes. Sadly, there were no controlled studies to determine the effectiveness of her hexing. The Reggie Jackson hexing of 1977 was a notable failure.
Grandma always remembered the Great Depression and she never felt she had much money saved up, although she always had a comfortable amount in her savings. When I bought my first new car back in 1989, I took out a loan from Grandma for part of the purchase price. She charged me interest of 5% I believe, but I think she was just happy that she had money that she could lend out.
My grandmother outlived my mother, who passed away in 1993, and that event seemed to take a lot out of her. When I saw my grandmother talking to my mom near her death, she no longer spoke to her like a parent speaking to an adult child, but probably in a way that she talked to my mom back in the 1930s. You could she was trying to go back to a time where the worst thing she had to deal with her child was a bad dream. But now it was something worse. Although it was incredibly sad, watching my grandmother at age 89 act as a young mother trying to calm her daughter again is an image that will never leave me.
Grandma stayed in relatively good health until around 2000, when a series of small strokes started to take a toll on her. She had gone through two pacemaker batteries and she decided she didn't want a third one. And a few weeks shy of her 97th birthday, Grandma passed away. I was planning to go visit her at her nursing home, but my father called me to tell me that there would be no one there to visit. And my connection to an era before radio and television and microwave ovens was gone.
Most of us just remember our grandparents in their later years and find their stories of the past something you have to suffer through on holidays. But I enjoyed my grandmother's stories of the past (and Daniel's research has showed me that nearly all of Grandma's stories were factual). We're all products of our past whether we like it or not. I like to try to piece together all the parts of how I got to be here today. Maybe one day it will all make sense.