by Ray Lenarcic
As Thanksgiving Day draws near, memories have surfaced of a memorable trip I took during my childhood over the river and through the woods to my grandmother’s house. My Slovenian grandmother that is. As soon as I entered the family homestead on West Main St., Little Falls, I could smell the culinary delights she prepared-streukla, potica, and roasted capon. You heard right. Capon. Gram loved turkeys and couldn’t bear the thought of cooking and eating one. Capons-not so lucky. I can also recall the joy which abounded, the raucous laughter, the excited conversations in two languages-the adults speaking “old country” while my sister, cousins, and I bantered in “American.” Most of all, I’ll never forget what Grandma Mary had to say to me that day long ago. But first, as is my wont, let me digress.
Life was never that bowl of cherries for Mary Prevec Lenarcic. She and her newly-wed husband, Louis, escaped the hardships of life in rural Slovenia by migrating to America on an overcrowded boat filled with others like themselves, buoyed by the hope and promise of a new beginning. After disembarking at Ellis Island, they made their way to Little Falls, settled down, and raised a family. During that time, the harsh realities of life as a DP (a derogatory term used in reference to European immigrants) soon transformed Mary’s dreams of a better life into a daily nightmare. In addition to raising three young children (and a few years later, a fourth), she spent up to 18 hours a day cooking and cleaning for several boarders in that ramshackle house on Elizabeth, Street-putting up with it all to augment her husband’s income earned toiling difficult hours at the “hammer shop.” Through all the adversity, saddled with inexorable fatigue, she maintained a cheerful disposition which, in part, she attributed to her faith.
The Catholic Church and Slovenian Hall were cultural centers where like thinking and speaking people from the old country could meet and greet and either pray or dance their troubles away. Gram looked forward to the Hall for fellowship and fun with old friends and to the iconic Gothic-styled church for the spiritual sustenance necessary to endure the trials and tribulations of a second-class citizen. Despite the challenges, Gram persevered because she lived by the words of her faith-to love, not hate; to be compassionate and kind, not cruel to those in need; to be forgiving, not vengeful; to have trust in the Lord!
All of us have had moments in our lives that are permanently etched in the fabric of our minds. They’re like a mental scrapbook that can be opened at any time or age to reveal a special event in the most vivid detail-an event which oftentimes affected us deeply. A conversation I had with Gram that Thanksgiving Day was one such moment for me. It began with a question-“Gram, what are you grateful for?”
In her “broken” English, she replied that she was most grateful for her family. She was also thankful for having had the opportunity to come to America. When I asked how she could feel that way in light of the hardships she had to endure, she responded simply by saying that life was worse back home and that over time, through hard work and prayer, things got better. She told me that I should always be grateful for everything I had-loving parents, a nice home, good friends, and, smiling, my grandfather’s brains. She added that she’d be disappointed if I didn’t take advantage of my blessings and do something good with my life.
Continuing on, Gram said that she was thankful for the time and inclination to help people less fortunate than her and hoped that I would do likewise when I grew older. I learned later that what little extra money she had was spent guaranteeing that every child in the neighborhood had a Christmas present. “Saint Mary” also was known for never turning away a stranger or neighbor from her kitchen table, morning-noon or night. Finally, she asked me to remember to always thank someone whose deed or words merited such. She couldn’t understand why people had such a hard time saying two little words which could mean so much. Then, she took my head in her hands, gently kissed my forehead, smiled, and whispered-“It’s time for potica.”
Over the years, I’ve applied countless times the lessons (i.e. giving and thanking) I learned from my grandmother that afternoon (e.g., Herkimer County Hunger Coalition). Also, I incorporated those lessons into my teaching playbook at HCCC- with some positive results (e.g., Kris Cagwin Volunteers and Save-A-Vet)-and successfully introduced them to my daughters, Carrie and Jennifer, who will do likewise with my grandchildren. All told-quite a legacy for an immigrant daughter of Slovenia.
We ended that day by enjoying dessert and sitting around the living room exchanging stories and reliving memories, including the following told by my Aunt Fran. First, she recounted when two people knocked on Gram’s door asking for a contribution to the Bishop’s Fund. She shooed them away, reminding the pair that if the simple life was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for the bishop. As for the second, Gram was dining out at the local bowling alley and noticed the parish priest nearby enjoying a lavish meal. She turned to my aunt and said, “So that’s where the money I put in the poor box goes.” My grandmother’s religious beliefs, taken literally, were the guiding lights of her life.
This Thanksgiving, I want to thank the thousands of Mary Prevec Lenarcics who immigrated to this country, sacrificed more than we’ll ever know on behalf of their families, and overcame the prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination confronting them with grace, love and forgiveness, doing everything they could to ensure that their children’s lives would be better than theirs. We can best honor their memories by instilling in our children and grandchildren those aforementioned values which made them so special. Oops-almost forgot (thanks, Gram, for reminding me)-thanks to everyone over the past two decades who helped the Coalition achieve its many objectives. You’ve brightened the lives of more people and children than you’ll ever know!
Ray Lenarcic is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society