Monday, February 14, 2011

How Grandma Got Her Passport

by Julia Buckley
I am the namesake of my grandmother, Julia, and she would have been 110 today. In honor of her birthday and as a Valentine treat, I'd like to share one memory out of a rich tapestry of her life stories.

This particular story is one of my father's favorites. My grandmother came to this country from Hungary as a seventeen-year-old girl. She traveled by ship, alone, to join her father, who had come years earlier. She left her mother and a brother behind, and as it turned out, she never saw them again.

She met a young man who was also Hungarian. They married and divided their time between Chicago and Coloma, Michigan, where her father had a small property. She and her husband had four children, the eldest of whom died of scarlet fever. Her next-oldest son was my father.

When my father and his siblings were grown with families of their own, they tried to encourage my grandmother to go home to Hungary and see her mother. They never managed to persuade her before her mother died. But one year my parents went to Germany in honor of their 25th wedding anniversary; my mother was born in Germany, and they greatly enjoyed their visit to the land where they had met and fallen in love.

When they got home, they spoke so highly of the trip that my grandmother must have finally become convinced that she, too, should return to the land of her birth. She called my father one day and told him she needed him to take her downtown to get a passport.

"Why do you need a passport?" my father asked.

"You seestor buy me a ticket to Europe," his mother replied in her thick accent.

So my father took the day off of work and drove his mother downtown to obtain her passport.

My grandmother had always believed she was a United States citizen, because her father, Imre, was a naturalized citizen who worked on the railroad, and his friends told him that made his children citizens, as well. So for close to sixty years my grandmother had believed this.

When the clerk asked her for evidence of her citizenship, she handed him some ancient paper that had belonged to her father. He stared at it blankly. "I don't know what this is," he told her. She insisted that it was evidence of her American citizenship.

"How else could I vote all these years?" she asked.

"You've been VOTING?" asked the shocked clerk. "I'm not sure you're even a citizen. How did you get to VOTE?"

(She voted in every election, always Democratic, because that was what my grandfather's Union Steward told them to do. My grandfather belonged to the machinist's union and he, too, spent many years working on the railroad).

Now my grandmother, in her flowered dress and little white sweater, gave him her steely expression. He went into the back to consult some higher authority.

When he returned, the news was not good. "Ma'am, we can't find any evidence that you were ever made an American citizen."

My grandmother stomped her foot. She opened her purse, dug into her wallet, and pulled out her Senior Citizen card. "Look!" she yelled. "It says citizen RIGHT THERE! How come you tell me I am not a citizen?"

My grandmother got her passport. You can't argue with logic like that. :)

Happy Birthday, Grandma.


Sandra Parshall said...

Great story, Julia. Your grandmother didn't need the Dream Act. :-)

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

ROFL! I adore your grandmother!

What a wonderful story.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks! That's just the tip of the iceberg. I might have to do a Grandma part II. :)

The Cat Bastet said...

I wish I had known your grandma. What a feisty lady!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks! She really was great. In later life she suffered from Alzheimer's Disease, but even then her spirit really shone through.

Jerry House said...

She sounds like a fantastic person. I envy your knowing her.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Your story brought tears to my eyes, Julia. My grandmother also came from Hungary, as a 29-year-old with two young children joining her husband, and she too never saw her mother again. Because she was Jewish, there wasn't much to go back to after the War, but my aunt, now going on 99 herself, went about 30 years ago and did find a few distant relatives. My grandmother lived to 92, I adored her, and I remember her Hungarian accent vividly.

Julia Buckley said...

Jerry, I wish I could share her with everyone. :)

Liz, I get teary too when I think of all the hardships of my immigrant relatives--my grandmother and grandfather especially. And when I think about that child that they lost to Scarlet fever--he was only six, and had to be quarantined away from them, and they could only look at him through a little window.

She never got over that. At every Christmas celebration, even when she was in her eighties, she would say "Someone is missing."

Diane said...

Your Grandmother sounds like she was a wonderful lady to know. You were really blessed. Sometimes I think those of us too many generations removed from our immigrant ancestors are missing an important part of our personal history.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Diane--that's an interesting point. It certainly does add an interesting dimension to my life that both my mother and my father's parents were immigrants.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Great story! Thanks for sharing.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for reading, Kathleen. :)