Erminija: Again a Slovene Woman
A Story of My Grandmother
by Robb J. Frederick
PrefaceI cannot tell the real-life story of my maternal grandmother, once an immigrant from Slovenia, and later an American citizen, without first describing the ambiguity and vagueness that have always clouded my own sense of ethnicity and heritage. This has troubled me for years, being a grandchild of four poor immigrants from different parts of Europe (Slovenia, Italy, Lemko Galicia, and Hungary).
Many times I asked specific, probing questions, but the answers were never well formed. In the end, we were Americans, I would be told, but it was clear that the heart of my maternal family bore an Italian identity. Truly, we were an Italian-American family. Except we all knew that "Gramma was Austrian."
"So Gramma's language was Austrian?", I would naively ask... "So how did she ever learn to speak Italian... did Grampa teach her?"... "What was the name of her town?"... "What was her mother's maiden name?"... "Who was her grandmother?"...
My annoying, nosy questions were almost always answered by my mother or one of my numerous aunts with "Why you gotta know so much?... "Whaddya you... writing a book?" But we were not a purely Italian family. (Interestingly, my father's family bore a Ukrainian identity, which was not really Ukrainian. That is another story, but I mention it here as an aid to understanding my frustration with my own blurred ethnicity.)
IIt is only recently that I have learned more specific facts about my grandmother, Erminija Apollonia Kaucic—not from my family, but from unknown clerks in offices and church dioceses in Europe, far from my sheltered small town in rural New York State. Now only a few of my aunts remain, but it wouldn't matter. I already asked the questions, over and over, years ago. No one in my family ever told me that Gramma was a Slovene, only that she was "Austrian." When Gramma wrote words, they were in her "mystery language," which we all called "Austrian." I can remember receiving birthday cards from Gramma, on which she spelled my name (Bobby) as "Babi." I was always annoyed at this, because it looked so much like the word "baby." I vividly remember trying to decipher her hand-written recipes in the flyleaves of her old battered cookbook, again written in that "mystery language." Inside the back cover of that old cookbook was a poem, or maybe a song, written in her own hand, titled "Tiho Luna." I wish I could remember the verses.
On her passenger manifest, as well as the church document that recorded her baptism, it is clear as day that Gramma was Slovene. I still cannot understand why this was never made known inside our family. I do understand now that for many, many immigrants to this free land, there was a forgetting, a looking-ahead, whereby the painful, difficult, bittersweet past had to be put away, alongside the memories of wrenching, tearful good-byes. Here might lie the reason for all my unanswered questions.
For me, the by-products of all this forgetting, however, are the big, dark blind spots in my identity. I have formed an obsession to learn my family's history. I need to resolve, to restore, to own a connection to the families from whom I come. I want to know their names, but I need more than just names.
IIErminija Apollonia Kaucic was born in May of 1884 in Nabrezina, Slovenija, Kingdom of Austria-Hungary, slightly north of the present-day Italian city of Trieste, then also part of Austria-Hungary. Slovenija was later a province of the former Yugoslavia, but today is an independent nation. It is situated near the top of the Adriatic Sea, east of Italy. Across the narrow sea to the west sits Italy, whose coastline actually curves around the top of the Adriatic, like a folded cuff at the top of the boot, so that the Italian city of Trieste is actually across the water from the mainland of Italy to the west.
Erminija's parents were Martin and Katarina Peric Kaucic. She was baptised at Zupna Sveti Rok (Chiesa San Rocco), in Nabrezina. She had a brother Augustus, and I cannot say whether he was older or younger, but I do know he died at about the age of twelve. This I can personally recall from Gramma's own telling—how he died so young, and how devastated she and her parents were. By some family or cultural tradition, hundreds of pieces of candy wrapped in colorful paper were strewn inside the young boy's coffin during the wake. Young Erminija and her companions could not resist taking pieces for themselves, but they were discovered, only to be humiliated and punished by the grown-ups. What a fascinating story I found that to be... especially that Gramma was once naughty! The Gramma that I knew was almost always stern and austere and, because all her idle time was spent with a rosary in her hands, more pious than I could ever hope to be!
Erminija's father Martin died when she was still quite young, and her mother Katarina later was remarried, to Stefan Zaharia, who had no children of his own. Erminija's new stepfather apparently provided well for his ready-made family, building a house for them, and becoming a supportive father-figure and companion to Erminija. He planted beautiful gardens and fig trees and, for a time, life was sweeter. He died not long after that, leaving Erminija and her mother to fend for themselves in pre-war Europe, as young Augustus had already died.
Somewhere around the age of twenty Erminija met young Giuseppe Martellotta. He was a stone-quarry worker from Massafra (in the heel-of- the-boot), far south of Nabrezina, which, for Italy, was a universe away, geographically and culturally. Tall, lanky, swarthy Giuseppe had found similar work in Nabrezina, a town known for its beige, marble-like rock, and abundant work in the quarries. Giuseppe's hometown of Massafra was also a source of stone and rock, and also riddled with caves, probably explaining Giuseppe's familiarity with or attraction to his work.
In February of 1906 Erminija and Giuseppe were married, at Chiesa San Rocco. By the end of that year their firstborn, daughter Adele, was born. In the fall of 1907 came their second child, a son, Angelo. In mid October of 1907, a month after Angelo's birth, Giuseppe would sail from Naples to New York, aboard the SS Algeria, with some paisani. Oral family history has it that they were traveling to meet a load of Nabresina stone destined for the construction of some state government buildings in Albany. The passenger manifest, however, indicates that they were headed to Little Falls, New York, a mill town about 70 miles west of the state capital. Little Falls is on the Erie Canal, as well as a railroad artery, so it is possible that the Italian stone was there, waiting for transport along a final leg to Albany.
During this year-and-a-half separation from her husband, Erminija and her two children stayed with her mother in Nabrezina. Adele grew more cherubic each day; grandmother Katarina grew more and more enamored of the infant Angelo. How, thought Erminija, can I leave my mother alone? How can we go so far away, forever? How can I do that? Somehow, Erminija made the choice to take Adele... and leave Angelo. I cannot say whether this choice was made between both parents. Did Giuseppe know that Angelo, the son he had only known for one month before leaving for America, would not be coming to America? Erminija had made her choice, and it would haunt her for the rest of her long life.
In January of 1909, Erminija and Adele boarded the ship SS Martha Washington at Trieste, destined for New York. The combination of painful farewells must have been agonizing—a daughter leaving her twice-widowed mother, a mother leaving her infant son, a grandmother seeing off her three-year-old angel. Goodbye to Nabrezina, to the blue Adriatic, to the blood-red soil of the northern Istrian Peninsula, to the beautiful Trieste, and off into the unknown.
Sometimes the worst-imagined nightmares become true. Midway along the voyage across the winter's cold Atlantic, the young Adele became gravely ill. Terrified, Erminija was beset with that pit-of-the-stomach parental ache that dread and fear bring. The ship's doctor likely removed the baby girl from steerage class accommodations, the bowels of the ship, and moved her into an infirmary; at this time Erminija was likely separated from her daughter. At some point someone came back to summon Erminija to Adele, for the last time. The baby girl struggled, and then died, after burning with fever. One of the ship's crewmen brought orders from the Captain, completing Erminija's nightmare. She was told that Adele would be bundled in muslin and buried at sea. My grandmother, facing the unknown, having left behind her own infant son and mother, then saw her beautiful little girl cherub dissolve into fever and die aboard the tossing ship. She watched her three-year-old angel being hurled into the icy Atlantic. I cannot, I must not, fully imagine that horror. This year, when I saw the passenger manifest of Erminija and Adele for the first time, one chilling reminder elegantly retold the story—a black line, crossing out the entire manifest entry for Adele, all the way across the page. My family's retelling of this story always ends with the merciful comfort of other "Austrian" (Slovene) women passengers, who embraced and cared for Erminija for the rest of the voyage, encouraging her to keep hope alive, giving her chamomile tea and blankets.
Giuseppe and his paisani had rented quarters in the immigrant district, on the south side of the Mohawk River and the parallel Erie Canal, just below the rocky cliffs that towered over the waterways. Erminija stepped off the clackety train at the Little Falls station, carrying her bundles, and the little suitcase with her baby's belongings. The joy of their reunion was overshadowed by her onerous task of the moment. She broke the tragic news to her husband, almost choking on her sobbing grief. I have always wondered what was my grandfather's reaction.
With the arrival of Erminija would Giuseppe's married life resume, with the touch of a woman upon his household, in the kitchen, as the warm partner in his bed, and as the "engine" of his soon-to-be boarding house, which would provide survival income for the household for years to come. Among their boarders would be Italian, Slovene, German and Irish immigrants, most of them hard workers—and hard drinkers. The protection of her gentle parents had evaporated. All things familiar had disappeared. The blue Adriatic was but a memory. She was far from warm sea waters now, in landlocked upstate New York, in the middle of a cold and bleak winter. Her hard American life was just beginning. She would bear ten more children in her new world. Eight of them, Albena, Dante, Carmela, Eda, Michelina, Anna, Maria, Gloria, would survive. Two of them, Mario and Almo, would die in childhood. She would endure poverty and forced humility all of her young life. During one winter of the Great Depression she burned all the wooden furniture in the house, in lieu of coal, to keep the family warm.
Her husband would die twenty-five years before she would. She would never own a home, instead renting flat after apartment after old house, then living as a guest in the homes of three different married daughters, at various times. But by her will, her strength, her body, and her wits would she build and shape the American lives of her children, her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on.
In our family we call ourselves good people, and we have always put family first. Ours has always been a family headed by a matriarch, and our matriarch was Erminija, from Nabrezina, just north of Trieste, by the head of the Adriatic Sea. We are an Italian-American family who always knew Gramma was "Austrian."
She was my grandmother. Her name was Erminija, and as she once was, she is again, a Slovene woman, forever in time and in memory
Copyright 2001 / Robb J. Frederick
This page compliments of Robb J. Frederick
Created: Tuesday, December 05, 2001; Last Updated:
Tuesday, March 11, 2008