In many ways, my immigrant grandmother was the blueprint for my personality, character and physical appearance. We were soulmates before the term existed. Her struggles with English as a young child and the scars they left no doubt led me to the work I love to do now: teaching English to adult immigrants.
She loved to keep busy. She was very organized, and she was an honest, upstanding person. So it came as a shock to find out that she had also been an undocumented immigrant.
Erma Pauline Gildner was born in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada in 1899. At that time, the city was called Berlin. The city changed its name during World War I to avoid any misconceptions about the loyalty of the local citizens.
Berlin had a very large German immigrant population throughout the nineteenth century, attracting laborers, artisans, tradesmen and farmers. This migration stream grew into a full river by the time my grandmother was born.
When my grandmother was ready to start kindergarten, German was the language all around her. Almost everyone spoke German, and many people spoke no English. In those days, there were no English classes for immigrants in the schools, what we would call ESL or ENL today. So off she went to struggle in school where she didn’t understand what was going on. Those days left a scar. My grandmother was a very intelligent woman who always felt that she was not very bright.
Eventually she learned English and forgot the German language. All her adult life, she said her prayers at night in German without understanding what the words meant.
She was still a young girl when her father decided to move the family to Rochester, New York. While her father – my great-grandfather – was a successful furniture maker, he died young. To make ends meet, my great-grandmother took in boarders, and my grandmother and all her siblings went to work in factories and wherever they could find work.
My grandmother liked earning money and taking the trolley to work. For a short while in 1916 and 1917, she kept a journal of what she did each day. There is no mention of how she felt about her life or anything else, just the facts.
Besides working hard, she and her siblings and friends enjoyed going to church and Sunday school, sleigh riding, going to the ice cream parlor, dancing, and singing. She often said the family sat around her mother’s piano with neighbors and boarders in the evening and entertained themselves by singing. She had fond memories of these times.
What stands out in these journal writings is that almost every day my grandmother sewed buttons onto someone’s clothes at home. And she noted it over and over again in her teenager’s journal. She worked hard and liked to be efficient.
Much later in life, after my father was grown and serving in the military, she and some friends answered the call to patriotic duty during World War II. They took technical courses in reading blueprints and working with machinery for defense work.
My grandmother went to work at Eastman Kodak, a major employer in Rochester at that time. She had various jobs over the years, but the one we heard about all the time was how she worked on an assembly line filling canisters with rolls of film. She figured out a way to do this more quickly and efficiently. Since workers were paid by the piece, her paychecks were always the biggest. Eventually, the managers caught on and reprimanded her. She blamed bureaucratic rules.
In the end, Kodak was a great place to work. In the Fifties and Sixties, she could buy cameras and film at a huge discount, and she took up amateur photography, especially for holidays, fishing trips and sunsets.
My grandmother was a city girl, but when she married my grandfather, Vernon Greenow, she learned and enjoyed many of his pursuits, such as hunting, fishing and gardening. He had grown up in the country and had led a different kind of life. My grandmother learned how to catch, clean and cook fish. She learned what to do with the venison my grandfather brought home, and how to can fruits and vegetables. She kept a freezer full of food, and her greatest joys were to give someone some of her pickles or canned tomatoes or pears, and to cook for her family.
One important food item was unavailable in Rochester – a special “summer sausage” made in Canada. It was like nothing else we could get in Rochester. But that didn’t stop them. The family story was that on their frequent trips to Kitchener, my grandfather hid this sausage (apparently illegal to bring into the U.S.) inside one of the seats of the car, like a smuggler.
My grandparents traveled to Ontario on family visits over the years. But at some point, my grandmother got into trouble, and not because of smuggling sausage.
My grandparents were coming home from Ontario one day and the border patrol asked some simple questions. Where were you born? My grandfather was born near Canandaigua. My grandmother answered, “Kitchener, Ontario.” “So,” the patrolman said, “you must be a naturalized citizen of the U.S., then?” “Oh,” my grandmother answered in all her innocence and helpfulness, “I must be a citizen! I vote in all the elections!”
But of course she had no naturalization papers. She thought she was a citizen! She was immediately in trouble, and my grandfather had to hire a lawyer to help get her out of it. She became a citizen somehow, and there was no more trouble after that.
This little story tells us two things. The first is that my grandmother, who believed in following the letter of the law, got into serious trouble anyway and innocently. The second is that there must have been a whole generation of people, especially Canadians and Americans, who had not grown up in a bureaucratic, legalistic system of immigration. They must have changed residence, immigrated from Canada to the U.S. or vice versa, perhaps as young children with their families, and the idea of citizenship papers never came up.
A cousin and a niece lived at various times with my grandparents. My grandmother’s door was always open for anyone who needed her. After my grandfather passed, she occasionally hired a very nice widowed man from church as a handyman. She discovered that he had a problem with his esophagus and had to eat only very soft food. The task of preparing such food was too much for him, and he was losing weight. This was my grandmother’s strong suit – cooking for a very nice man, to help with his health problems and to enjoy his company.
Russell’s family was from Nova Scotia, but their ancestors were originally from Ireland. My grandmother’s efficiency and hard work was delightfully complemented by Russell’s good humor and funny stories about his life as a commercial fisherman.
My grandmother was always self-conscious about her lack of formal education and her early problems with English, which she never forgot. To me, these were unimportant compared to her resilience, honesty, and willingness to learn a new language and to help others.
Today, that’s what I see in my English learners – complex people with fascinating stories. We say we want to give back, and for me that is giving back to the many people, including my grandmother, whose immigration experiences have led me to teach English. The mixing of immigrant groups and experiences of the past are mirrored today right here in Ulster County. And our newer immigrants are facing some of the same problems that immigrants had back then.
Linda Greenow lives in Tillson. She is a volunteer English teacher for adult immigrants with the Ulster Literacy Association.