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    Wednesday, August 29, 2012

     By Helene Gresser

    I recently came across some slides of my mom in the 1950s. (Slides! Remember those?? Sitting around someones living room and looking at vacation slides from a carousel slide projector, projected onto the blank wall, with a couple slides inevitably upside down?) The pictures were mostly of my grandparents' drive-in restaurant. (Again: drive-ins? Remember driving up to a restaurant and flicking on your lights to alert the car-hop, order food, and sit in your car while you ate and listened to your radio, slurping a root-beer float?) It reminded me, these crystal-clear pictures of a simpler (so we thought) time, of how different my grandparents' and parents' adult lives were from my own.

    My grandparents came from the same tiny village in a remote part of Czechoslovakia -- sailing to the United states in their teens with barely any money, not speaking English (at least I think they didn't), and meeting relatives who had paved the way in exotic Racine, Wisconsin. (Why did the Czechs choose, of all places, Racine, Wisconsin?? For some reason, the Czechs gathered there and even started the country's first Czech-language newspaper, had their Catholic churches -like St. John Nepomuk -- and brought more relatives over to experience the freezing-cold, long winters and humid summers by Lake Michigan.) My grandma Helen Kuzela did not meet my grandpa V.J.Konicek until she came to the states -- I think I remember her saying that he was her first kiss. They married and had the requisite four children: George, Mary Jane, Vince, and my mom Rose (Ruze, they called her, pronounced "roo-zshee." My mom is the blonde in the middle of my Aunt Betty and Grandma Konicek:

    My grandmother worked as a household domestic for a time, was humiliated when her dark curly hair and tendency to tan easily elicited teasing that she was really part Gypsy, a slur to the proud, hard-working Czechs who viewed Gypsies as many in the states viewed our African-American brethren as "niggers." My grandfather worked as a butcher, among many other things, and he and my grandma toiled at their many non-glamorous jobs, not having the advantage of any college (and perhaps high school) education, taught themselves to speak English, insisted her children speak only English and assimilate, and saved, saved, saved. (My mother Rose will correct my blurry timeline, I am sure, in her kind way. She does this because she knows I want to get it right, and I love her for it.)

    My grandparents had brothers and sisters and cousins and nieces and nephews surrounding them in Racine, all from this wee Moravian village called Vlcnov  ("verch-noff"), or relatives born here as new American citizens, and they decided to own their own business. There was one other drive-in in town, and my grandparents thought their was room for another, it being the cusp of the 1950s and that car-centric culture. They were very smart to do so. It was a summer-season business, and the entire family pitched in to make it work. My mom and aunt were "car-hops", my uncles manned the grill and soda fountain (the soda-jerk" was the official term for fixing the beverages), and my grandparents made their own ground beef for the burgers, managed, and worked, and cleaned, and saved, saved, saved. Here's my Uncle Vince grinding beef into delicious hamburger:

    They bought several acres and a lovely house, and my grandfather was so proud of the apple orchard he cultivated in the back yard,experimenting with splicing branches and creating new types of apple trees. My grandma nurtured beautiful flower gardens as well as the practical vegetable gardens, and they both landscaped and planted and made a real homestead. They bought a handsome sedan, an extravagant fur coat for my grandma, sent my mom to a fancy private school in Illinois for a time. They embodied the true American Dream: work hard and save, and you will reap rewards and live well - even if you started with nothing, not even speaking the language.

    I am their granddaughter. I was raised by college-educated (though she was interrupted by marriage and never finished) mom and a PhD dad (who also came from hard-working folk who never went to college) and  I was lucky enough to live in a wealthy suburb of Milwaukee - though we were far from wealthy - even after my parents divorced. We went through hard times in the '70s when my mom was struggling as a waitress, and my dad was a low-paid math professor, my mother sometimes bringing home leftovers (only the untouched) and hand-me-downs to feed and clothe my older brother John and me. My dad scrimped and used powdered milk and ate a lot of rice and chicken. He worked very hard and saved and saved. My dad, sleeping at his desk:

    And now  I look at my life, in my 40s, here in 2012. I went to an excellent public school in a privileged suburb. The world was my oyster. I went to a state university in Ohio tuition-free because my dad was a professor at the school, though I worked several jobs to pay for room and board and books. I went to graduate school, paid for mostly by my teaching assistantships, helped by my mother and some plasma donations for beer money. After seven years of higher education, I have an MFA in Acting. Ahhh. There it is. My choice of career.I wanted  - and still want - to perform for a living. Silly girl. Here is a picture with one of my idols, Hal Prince, the multi-Tony-winning Broadway director:

    If my maternal and paternal grandparents were alive today, they would shake their heads in wonder. Here I am, in the 21st century, several months overdue on rent for a 250 square foot apartment in New York City. I owe taxes, supposedly. I owe thousands to friends for personal loans. My grandparents were never in debt. My mother lives in a government-assisted apartment in Seattle, no car, no retirement money left. I have no health insurance and my left knee needs surgery. I have three part-time jobs, and it is still not enough to get by. I take anti-depressants and Adderall and Xanax and see a shrink who does not charge me, out of the kindness of his heart.  I made a choice, based on the comfort and dreams of one who saw that the world was a place big enough for everyone to make their dreams come true. My ancestors did not have that luxury - they did what they had to do, then did what they wanted to do, but it was all hard work and sweat and blood and tears. I sweat and cry and bleed as well, but have little to call my own, no plot of land and trees and money to assure my mother lives out her autumn years in comfort, much less myself.

    Where's the punchline, you ask? This is a blog about funny women, not tragic tales, you moan - that is, if you've even read this far - frustrated at the lack of laughs. But I am laughing, still, at this predicament. I do not fear hard work. I am determined and healthy and have no children (okay, cats, but still) to nurture. I am free to do what I choose, to fail spectacularly, to succeed despite the odds mounting against my career choice. I am standing on the backs of my immigrant grandparents and reaching for the nearly impossible dream. What a luxury that is. What a ridiculous, wonderful, heartbreaking, angst-ridden, insane turn of events. The American Dream. I will either make it come true here in New York City, or pack my bags, move to a safer place, and start over again elsewhere. I will not be deterred. The dream will not be deferred. I am a little work horse, pulling my wagon-load, the weight be damned. Strong little pony. Stubborn as a mule.


  2. 3 comments:

    1. I love how you pay tribute to those before you!

    2. Lady Ha Ha said...

      Beautiful reflection of so many of our stories.

    3. RHC said...

      Can I cop some Adderall? See my blog tomorrow Adderall Audition...

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