I've written about my maternal grandparents before, who have an interesting background because of their various entrepreneurial endeavors, but haven't yet introduced you to my paternal grandparents, Matt and Mary Pletkovic. What makes them special? Oh, just a few things....
Allow me to take you to the "Old Country", where both of my grandparents came from back in the early 1900's. Although eventually known as Yugoslavia, and more recently Croatia, back then their homeland was occupied by the Turks and called Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
My grandpa was the youngest of several children, and the only family member to make the bold decision to come to America. As a parting gift to his parents, he saved enough money working in the coal mines to buy them a cow. He recalled walking away from his home, hearing his mother sobbing. He didn't dare turn to look back, knowing that if he did he would change his mind and stay.
Grandpa made it to America, settling in a Croatian enclave in Pennsylvania and working in another coal mine. I guess that makes me a coal miner's granddaughter! He lived at a boarding house with other Croatian-speaking coal miners. Although my grandpa isn't in the picture below, it was taken in Pennsylvania during the same era:
My grandma overcame even more hardship to come to her new country. Her older siblings and mother left her and her younger sister with their grandparents while they emigrated to the U.S., promising to send for them later. My grandma's mother and older siblings happened to settle in the same boarding house as my grandpa in Pennsylvania.
There was famine in the old country, and while staying with her grandparents the grandfather died of starvation. It's a Croatian custom to feed the children first until they are satisfied, then the adults would eat. Apparently, there wasn't enough left over for my great-great grandpa. Once this tragic news reached my grandma's mother in Pennsylvania, there was a renewed urgency to get the two girls to America. Their mother struck a deal with a Croatian gentleman in the U.S., promising my grandma's hand in marriage if the man would pay for the passage of the girls. My grandma was only 15 at the time, but she was suddenly engaged and on her way to America!
During the ship ride, my grandma's sister came down with chicken pox. Immigrants with contagious diseases weren't allowed into the U.S., but miraculously her pox disappeared the day the ship arrived at Ellis Island! Unfortunately, a young girl who had bunked nearby caught the chicken pox and was sent back to Europe by the health inspectors. Can you imagine how heartbreaking that must have been for her? That might have been her one and only chance to come to America.
To make matters more complicated, my grandmother didn't care for her benefactor, who she thought was too old (he was 15 years her senior), and the arranged marriage fell through, with some hurt feelings and a debt to deal with. Grandma was swept off her feet by my grandpa, who was also 15 years older, but he had a romantic touch that made all the difference. On his way to the coal mines he would press his palm into the frost on my Grandmother's boarding house bedroom window to let her know he was thinking of her.
After turning 16, my grandma married her romantic beau. I just love their wedding photo:
Personality-wise, my grandparents were total opposites. My grandpa was easy-going, calm, and affectionate. My grandma was ambitious and kind of a handful but affectionate too. She called the shots in the marriage, even at her young age. In most traditional Croatian households, the woman runs the show, so part of this was expected. But I'd say my grandma probably took it to another level.
After my dad was born, my grandma decided it was time to move away from the other Croatians. She wanted her family to be American-ized, and thought staying where they were was keeping them insulated from the mainstream. The family moved to Warren, Ohio, and my grandpa got a job in a steel factory, which was a move up from the coal mines.
The family was complete after four children. Unfortunately, when the Great Depression arrived, my hard-working grandpa lost his job. The family somehow survived by growing their own produce and raising chickens. My dad helped the family financially by shining shoes and collecting bottles for deposit. My Uncle Joe often helped, because he was younger and cuter, and generated sympathy at the shoe shine stand.
Eventually, things improved and my grandpa was back at work. My grandma worked at a factory too. She had never had any formal schooling, and never learned to read or write, but all four of her children became successful adults. You can see in the picture below how proud she was of her children. My uncle Joe is seated to her left, my uncle Mike on her right, my dad is behind her and my aunt Nikki is next to my dad:
My dad and my uncle Joe both served in World War II. My uncle Joe suffered life threatening injuries as a Marine when he was shot in battle at Okinawa. A bullet hit his celluloid cigarette case and deflected into his arm, which was nearly severed. For a time my grandparents thought he had been killed, but miraculously found out he had survived. He spent a year in the hospital then more recovery time at home.
Eventually my grandparents moved to downriver Detroit, where there were abundant jobs related to the auto industry. When it was time to retire, they moved to beautiful Tucson, Arizona. I loved visiting them there and exploring the desert terrain.
My grandma was the kind of person that had to have the orange on the very bottom of the pyramid at the grocery store. She would stand in line in the rain to save a quarter in bus fare. If we took her out for dinner and she thought the prices were too high, she would refuse to order anything. She was difficult, but we loved her! And she's the only woman I know that would dissolve in giggles when watching the Three Stooges. My cousins called her "Baba", Croatian for "Grandma", and my grandpa was "Dida". I usually felt more comfortable with the traditional monikers.
I painted a little picture for my grandparents when I was a kid and they had it proudly hanging in the middle of their family room, as if it was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci himself. My grandma was a fabulous cook, and I loved watching her make strudel. She'd start with a ball of dough and stretch it so thin over a table that you could read a newspaper through it. She'd fill the rolled pastry with poppy seeds, apples, or ground nuts.
Both of my grandparents lived until their late 80's, which isn't bad for people that ate bacon and eggs almost every day! I'm really proud of my grandparents and what they achieved in their lifetime. They overcame a lot of hardships, first to get to America, then to get through the depression and raise a family during that difficult time. They achieved their "American Dream", without a doubt.
My grandma and her four adult children gathered for my grandpa's funeral in 1975. My dad is the one wearing an orange shirt:
Baba was never afraid to speak her mind. But she was completely devoted to her family and friends. She loved to laugh and had a playful sense of fun. Here she is trying out an exercise machine!
I wonder if there's a waiter that remembers an older woman who gave him a hard time about the taco platter that cost $8.95 at the restaurant where he worked in 1982. He probably thought she was just a cranky old lady. My grandmother knew the cost of ground beef, shredded lettuce, and cheese. She couldn't comprehend how a restaurant could get away with charging so much for a couple tacos on a plate that she could make for fifty cents. I suppose if the waiter knew that she lived in a household where her grandpa literally starved to death in front of her, he might understand where she was coming from. That saying "don't judge a person until you walk a mile in their mocassins" might apply here. I still can't explain her infatuation with the Three Stooges, however.