Sunday, June 28, 2009

Grandma Zema by Grace Smelcer

Written by Grace Smelcer - 18 July 1993
Matthew, John, and Joe, I would like to share with you some interesting experiences I gleaned from talking with your great grandmother, whom you know well and who is dear to you.

Grandma Zema was born Marjia Grenko in a part of Yugoslavia known as Fuzine in the year 1892. Her father had come to live in the USA. After three years in this country, he returned to Fuzine, hoping that his family would return with him to a coal-mining town in Iowa. Her mother dreaded leaving her parents behind in Yugoslavia and held out against his wishes to return with him.

Young Marjia, being disappointed by her mother's refusal to return with her father, wrote her father telling him that, if he waned her mother to come to him in this new land, he would have to be strong to convince her. Soon afterwards, her mother received a letter from her husband telling her that, if they intended to have a life together, she would have to come to him. He told her emphatically that, if she did not come, he would never return to Yugoslavia.

This stand of Marjia's father, in addition to the knowledge that her oldest son Blaz would soon be inducted into the Yugoslavian Army, helped her to make the decision that she and her family should join her husband in the USA. In November 1905, after selling their farm and with the extra money sent by her father, Marjia and her family were on their way to a coal-mining town in Iowa.

Grandma Zema remembers well the sad times in leaving her grandparents and aunts and uncles. It took seventeen days for the liner to cross the Atlantic Ocean. They had fun on the ship and good food. She remembers that she fed bread to the fish.

They landed in New York harbor and proceeded by train to Cincinnati, Iowa, where there was a joyful reunion with her father. They lived with a cousin until her father could rent a house for them. A year later, they bought six acres of land and built a house.

Soon after their arrival, a school teacher came to visit Marjia's father and informed him that the children needed to be in school. Her younger sister Lucy went to school. Blaz went to work in the mines with his father. Grandma Zema (Marjia) helped out at home and didn't go to school.

Grandma Zema recalled a hard life in their first years in the USA. One incident she remembers vividly. She had picked up coal along the railroad tracks, enough to fill up a little extra room. This was their fuel for cooking and heating their house. After working so hard, they were compelled to move to Cincinnati, Iowa, and of course could not take the coal with them.

They made several moves, going where the work was available. Finally, they were able to buy some land and build a new house.

Grandma Zema proceeded to tell about her marriage to Steve Zema. She was then about 16 years old. Steve Zema had also come from Yugoslavia. He came because he didn't want to join the army. They bought their home and forty-six acres of land.

Grandma Zema and Steve had seven children, among them were your grandmother and mother, Mary Ivy.

She did not learn much English with her children until they went to school. When the children wanted to say things they didn't want their parents to hear, they spoke in English. She taught her children the Croatian language. Several families from Yugoslavia had settled near them, and they spoke the Croatian language and slipped into her native tongue. Oftentimes, she had to grope for words to express her feelings and ideas.

She went on to tell me that her husband Steve Zema died and left her a widow at the age of 39. He was only 44 years old. He died in the mines in a coal car. She never knew the cause of his death. She did not want an autopsy, and couldn't have afforded it if she had wanted it done.

Grandma Zema's sons continued to work in the mines. The children helped her with the farm work, even before Steve had died. Since he worked in the mines, she plowed the land, while one of her children led the horse. They raised pigs, chickens, geese, and cows. At one time, she recalled that she milked 14 cows by hand.

Later, when the children left home, she rented out the farm. After some time, she sold the farm and left, moving to Centerville, Iowa. When she was older, she moved to Davenport, Iowa, to live with her daughter.

She has lived courageously. She has had the last rites of the Catholic Church said for her twice and got better both times.

Now for a part of her life that will help you to understand what your great grandmother was like and what she did before she left Yugoslavia when she was about 13 years old.

She said that she went to school every day except on Thursdays. She helped carry things for her aunt in a chair factory. She remembers how kind this aunt was to her. "She paid me more than I likely deserved," Grandma Zema remembers. "My grandmother's sister owned a rich farm and had long strips of land. She let us have hay for our cows."

When I asked her about her school, Grandma Zema recalls, "I only went through the third grade. My teachers were very strict. She whacked children on the hand when they had been bad." She began to laugh as she remembered, "My teacher put on of my friends under the table for punishment. They teacher could not see him, and we were laughing. The teacher did not know why we were laughing. I got punished for talking too much. I tried very hard to please my teacher."

I asked her about games she played in her childhood. She mused, "We played Tag, Drop-the-Handkerchief, Hide-and-Seek, Hop-Scotch, and oh how we like to play in the hay loft!"

When I inquired about the foods she ate as a child in Yugoslavia, she said, "Much of the same foods that we have here--a lot of pork and polenta." Since I didn't know what this was, she described it as something like corn mush.

When I invited her to tell about holidays in her childhood, she said, "Many of our holidays were connected with the church observances of Holy Days. I carried bread on my head to the church to be blessed. We had Christmas trees, but gave no gifts. We made all our decorations for our tree. We put moss under the tree and then made little animals attached to sticks to put down in the moss so they would stand up. They were beautiful, and we all liked them." She continued, "The mirrors were covered with black cloth during Lent, especially on Good Friday."

"On August 15," she remembered, "we walked to a town seven miles away for a holiday. I think it was connected with the church. In February, we had a masquerade party, and dressed up in funny clothes. This was much like our Halloween here, but it was also connected to the church."

After discussing the changes in the Catholic church, she commented, "I like the changes. I like to know what the Father is saying. I have to go with the changes."

Finally, I asked her about her feelings bout her parents. In her own words, she spoke quietly, "My mother was very nice, very understanding, hard working. I never doubted that she loved me. She was always giving to my children when they visited. My father had a bad temper. When he said something, he meant it."

She spoke to me about her daughter Ann's going to Yugoslavia. This Ann could have been her sister. In the year I interviewed her, she spoke hopefully that Ann might have the honor of seeing Tito. She expressed the view that Tito had been good to the people in Yugoslavia. She spoke strongly, "I would not like to go back there even for a visit." Pointing her hand under her chin, she added emphatically, "I had it up to here with the place."
The editor sincerely appreciates the contribution of this article to The Jerome Journal by Marion Zemo of Centerville, Iowa. Grandma Zema was born Mary Grenko 3 April 1892 in Fuzina, Croatia, daughter of Romo Grenko and Agnes Blozovich; died 28 March 1977 in Centerville, Appanoose County, Iowa; and was buried in Oakland Cemetery, Centerville, Iowa.

1 comment:

  1. This may be a distant relative of mine