She was the second daughter born to Ukrainian immigrants. They came to the U.S. for who knows what reason. To escape persecution of some sort, for better employment opportunities, the sheer adventure of a new country. I don’t know.
So much I don’t know.
Olga was my mother. Her real name. Really.
Her father was a glass worker employed in the glass factories of Western Pennsylvania. An amateur actor in local Ukrainian theater, he was short and my one uncle looked just like him. From the one and only picture I’ve ever seen of my grandfather that is. I know his birthdate, where he was from in the Ukraine and what ship brought him to Ellis Island. I know when he got married, what faith he followed and where he raised his four children. He may have been an alcoholic. I know the date he died and where he’s buried. And that sums up my knowledge of my grandfather.
I know even less about my grandmother.
Again, birthdate and place, immigration date, wedding date, date of death, burial spot. The “stuff” you can find from doing some basic genealogy research. I’ve never seen a picture of her. I know that she died of TB when my mother was only 16.
Olga grew up with her three siblings in a small three room house (with an outhouse) on several acres of land. Their huge garden and the plentiful Western Pennsylvania wild game got them through the depression.
She was a pretty smart cookie. Olga graduated from high school at 16 then went off to the “big city”, Pittsburgh, to go to nursing school. I love that she was ambitious and wanted a career. She wanted a better life for herself. Or maybe her mom’s illness inspired her to be a nurse. I don’t know.
Again, so much I don’t know.
Olga died 50 years ago yesterday from cancer. She was in her mid-40‘s. Way too young to die. After years of dark skies, the clouds were clearing, the sun was peaking through and her life had just started moving forward again. So unfair.
I was 11 years old. Way too young to think of asking the questions I would love to have answers to now. Way too young to realize how my entire life would be changed by her sudden, forced and total absence. Way too young to know how much I would want her by my side when life threw me curve balls and my own children were born. So unfair.
From the few pictures I have of her as a young lady, Olga was a real looker. And evidently turned the heads of quite a few doctors in the hospital where she worked. Sounds as if she could have had her pick of the lot until that fateful night at the frozen pond.
That darned frozen pond.
One night in the early 1940’s, she went ice skating with her friends. That was the night she met my father and her life went into a spiral. Now I realize that I wouldn’t be here otherwise, but for her sake, I wish she would have just stayed home that night. For her sake, I wish they’d never met.
Terrible thing to say right? I’d be like Marty McFly watching my image fade from the family pictures had they never met. But my heart wants her to have another chance at happiness.
She was 22 years old and fell head over heels in love with the charming, outgoing, handsome young man at the ice skating pond. They started dating and, as sometimes happens, one thing lead to another…
Their quickie marriage is recorded in another state with a date that is 6 months prior to the birth of my brother. Oops.
As far as I can tell, at the beginning, she was happy and in love. My sister has some letters Olga wrote to my father about how happy she was and how she was looking forward to having their baby and how much she missed him. Again, I’m not sure why they were apart. Again, I just don’t know.
But unwittingly, she had married a self-centered narcissist who was the only child of an authoritarian, judgmental, doting German mother who had been widowed 8 years before. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when my father told his mom he’d gotten his girlfriend “in trouble” and had to marry her. That couldn’t have gone well.
Sadly, it was only a matter of time before everything started to unravel in a devastating way…
But that’s another story for another day. Maybe in the middle of winter when it’s gray and cloudy and spitting snow outside. It’s simply too glorious out today to tell that part of the story. The sun is making too big of a fuss shining today.
From all accounts she was incredibly thoughtful, kind and generous. My one cousin remembers Olga for the gifts she used to always bring when she came to visit. And that she was a great cook. My other cousin said that my mother was the only person, other than Santa, who gave her Christmas presents. He so adored her, my one uncle (her younger brother), used to hitch hike the 30 some miles to Pittsburgh just to visit and talk with her. I remember his unconsolable weeping at her funeral.
So on this half century milestone, I’m choosing to picture her in my mind’s eye as that young, smart, ambitious woman with dreams of a better life. The newly graduated young nurse in the crisp white starched uniform. The beautiful, gentle soul, daughter of penniless immigrants, who saw life as nothing but possibility. The sensitive and kind sister, aunt, friend and mother who loved fiercely.
I like to think, to fantasize, that, had we been contemporaries, I might have been her friend. Maybe even a good friend.
It’s a terribly sweet thought…