My paternal grandmother remains a mystery to me and all I know from personal experience is she liked fishing.
During my adolescent summers, I would watch some relative drop her off at the driveway around our ranch. She arrived in long sleeves, long pants, and a scarf about her head. Fishing pole in hand, she took off on the quarter mile dirt road to the river. Small in stature, she disappeared into the tall grasses before reaching the river channel.
On her way, she never stopped by our house to say “hello,” but sometimes when my father was out working around the ranch or in adjacent fields they would linger together for a bit, lean in, and exchange a few words in Czech.
In the ensuing years delivering me from adolescence to being a grandmother myself, I have speculated. But in truth, I will never know what made my grandmother’s heart sing, what caused her to cry, what secrets she kept from whom, what parts of her body ached as she aged, and what dreams she fulfilled by coming to America. All I have are the hard facts of her journey.
She began life as Barbara Fedinec in a small village called Gajdos, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Born on January 10, 1884, at age 16 she left the familiar to join other emigrants in search of luck in America. Without money, unable to write Czech or speak English, she was nevertheless, strong, able to work, and apparently enterprising because she obligated herself as an indentured servant to a Pennsylvania road house in exchange for her passage.
In 1900, Charles Kowach also emigrated to Pennsylvania to work in the coal mines. Barbara knew Charles from a neighboring village back home and after meeting in America, he paid off her indentured servitude, freeing her to become his wife. Two years later they married, she took his last name, and they started a family.
Before her bridled duties weighed her down, she sailed back once to Gajdos with her first baby Mary and while there gave birth to her second daughter, Anna. She returned to Charles in Pennsylvania, and by the time Anna was two, they celebrated the birth of their first son, Mike.
Drawn by news of immigrants claiming fertile land under the Homestead Act, Charles decided to move the family to Colorado in hopes of staking a claim. But the transitory years living in ugly houses without adequate accommodations required unsung resilience and strength.
There was one storied house that became forever etched in the family history. The five of them were living in a dwelling that was half blacksmith shop and half living quarters. There Barbara had given birth to their fourth child. One day in February while Charles was away and Barbara at the neighbors borrowing a wash tub, the house caught on fire. The three older children escaped with minor burns, but the infant died inside while neighbors restrained Barbara from rushing into the flames after him. Everything was lost and the family had to rely on the neighbors’ good will to make it through the winter.
The tragic event exaggerated the need for a real home, but it was another five years before Charles obtained the required citizenship papers and was able to file a homestead claim. While still in transit, Barbara gave birth to another daughter. Finally, the family moved to the homestead, but had to live in a granary while the house was being built. My father and his younger brother, were both born in the granary.
In 1919 the house was finally finished. Barbara was 35 and after giving birth to seven children on the road, she was able to give birth to her last child in her own home.
Amazingly, just one year later at 17, their eldest daughter Mary got married. In an old photograph taken at Mary’s wedding, her mother wears a white broad-brimmed hat that nicely halos her head. Though no one ever spoke to me of Barbara’s temperament or beauty, looking at that image, her eyes hold a sad enchantment and her jaw a determined set.
What I see in the photo was never accessible to me as a child. By 1947 when I was born, Barbara had 19 living grandchildren, of whom I was the last. Many family dramas transpired in the intervening years. For better or for worse (and as I heard from my father, sometimes Charles was mean), Barbara lived with Charles until his death in 1957. She survived another nine years on her own until age 82.
In youth I wanted my grandmother to ask me to go fishing with her. But now imagine that after all the hardships, she savored fishing on her own. I see her content in the shade of the rustling cottonwoods where sometimes she caught a trout to take home and fry and sometimes just a sucker to throw back.
She made that one pivotal decision to come to America and remained partially veiled as an immigrant who didn’t speak English her whole life. So I cannot say if freedom was something she thought about or prized. All I can do is briefly bring to light her time on earth from my angle.
So for Barbara, and other ancestors whose choices appear limited by the constraints of fate, who were never idolized, or acknowledged in the fabric of history, and yet whose lives were undeniably layered into the soil that nurtured me and supported my access to freedom, I offer my belated honoring.
- Family genealogy information provided by my sister, Peggy Ence.
4 thoughts on “Fishing, Freedom, and Fate”
Such a survivor! Doesn’t that just make you feel strong knowing her DNA is part of you!
Thanks for sharing this.
You write beautifully.
i love the simplicity and clarity of this. also that both our grandmothers never spoke english.
What a beautifully written recount of what you know about your grandmother’s life.
i love meeting your grandmother. reminds me of mine who didnt speak english and had to rely on her daughter for translation, alos working long hours as a seamstress ruining her eyes, living in poverty and racism. reading your grandma i am again grateful for all my choices and freedom. for i am the one who reaped her benifits, who got the freedom and mobility.
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