In the year 2009, my grandmother told me that the biggest difference between her travels and mine was that she had to burn all of her bridges as she moved forward.
My accumulating list of friends from Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, and my fellow Americans who I have met this year proves her point.
I have the privilege to foster relationships I find in far away places and return to the lands with which I fall in love.
As I think back upon the final leg of my travels which led me to the home that my grandmother lusted over and the home which she settled into, I force myself to internalize those wise words of hers.
I feel unsatisfied with my time in San Francisco and New York City. I was just beginning to form my questions and curiosities about these vibrant and multicultural cities when the time came for me to pile my belongings onto my back and move on. Contrary to my time in Europe, at most I spent a week in each American city. Part of this was out of financial necessity as the end of my travels neared and the other reason was to encapsulate the speed of her life as she became adjusted to America.
Hana headed to San Francisco in 1951 as a single woman in her mid-twenties. Her English was “getting so good that your hair didn’t stand up on your head,” she described.
She found herself an unfurnished apartment for $35. Equipped with her pioneering spirit, she bought her furniture from the Salvation army and carried her bed, teetering it on the top of her head, all the way to the peak of the hill where her apartment sat.
“I got myself the luxury of of all luxuries, a telephone. I had the apartment walking distance to work. I walked down the hill to work and up the hill home. I saw the fog come in from the San Francisco Bay. I joined a Swedish-American club. I joined a ski club. I started to have some social life,” she shared with me in 2010.
The job she found was in a morgue. For $32 a week, she washed the stainless steel tables after the autopsies were done.
I went to San Francisco excited to spend time in the Bay Area. I was generously hosted by new friends at the Moishe House, a Jewish communal living space in the heart of the Mission District. Before the Spanish arrived and settled this piece of land, this part of the city was inhabited by the Yelamu Indians. Now, while it still bares its Spanish roots, the neighborhood is amidst gentrification, a vocalized concern that is addressed through much of the provocative street art.
I loved the urban hiking that the city of San Francisco offers. I could walk from one neighborhood to another, following the spirited crowds of people and the charming architecture.
I trekked down Valencia Street and through the Castro towards Chinatown and then made my way west towards Pier 39 where I watched tourists point their camera phones at the sun-bathing sea lions.
The stretch of beach transported me from the commotion of the city to a quieter place where young kids blossomed in the essence of their childhood. I wondered about the thoughts that Hana would have had, perhaps envious of the young girls being reprimanded by their mothers. The guidance and maternal love every child should receive was stripped from her at the age of 14. She was now 26, the age I am as I write these words.
As the saying goes, Hana left her heart in San Francisco. But what she went after was more important than her fleeting desires. She wanted a family and a German man from New York City offered one to her.
Ralph Seckel, the past boyfriend from her life in Cincinnati (the one she listened to opera in the car with) followed her to the West Coast. He had been engaged to another woman when they had broken up, a fact that only emerged months after their relationship ended. But that romance didn’t last and now he wanted Hana’s hand in marriage.
At the time, Hana was dating Paul, a fellow immigrant who came from Denmark. He worked as a grounds crew member for Scandinavian airlines. It was 1952 and they were in love.
But the love she had for Paul, for her thriving social life and the apartment which she had nested in so nicely wasn’t enough. Paul didn’t have parents, siblings, or a new niece to offer Hana. So, she said yes to Ralph’s proposal and at the age of 27, in a rabbi’s study in New York City, she was wed.
Ralph had promised Hana that they would return to San Francisco; she had paid her rent well into the new year with this intention in mind. But, life didn’t have that plan for her.
But, for the first time in 13 years she was part of a nuclear family.
With the music of her wedding bells leading me, I followed in my grandmother’s footprints for the final time. I headed to Flushing, Queens in New York City.
I spent a few nights sweating from the insistent summer heat in my cousin’s shoebox size apartment which he shares with his fiancée in the heart of Greenwich Village. For the first time in my year-long journey, I was hosted by another one of Hana’s grandchildren, a fact that feels incredibly appropriate.
I descended to the underground world of New York, boarding the B train before transferring to the 7 train headed towards Queens. I rode it to the last stop, noticing the stark diversity and pockets of ethnic groups who departed in certain neighborhoods along the way. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, I emerged in what was easily the most identifiable cultural difference I have seen all year. In the nine months I spent hopping around Europe, I had never felt the same peculiar feeling of being out of place.
I was eased into the neighborhood by the subway advertisements which alternated from Chinese to English repeating the same information about a casino featuring the faces of cheerful gamblers. Step by step I made my way out from the underground, more often than not being stalled by the perspiring crowd and forced to come far to close to the backside of other commuters. The dark, narrow staircase led into the stagnant air of a humid day. I arrived in Flushing, but felt as though I was immersed in China.
My final destination, and the one closest to my hometown of Boston, somehow proved to be the most foreign.
I walked through Flushing, not understanding the store fronts or the newspaper headlines. For the first time in my travels, I did not look like the people around me. I could always blend in while venturing through Central Europe and Scandinavia (until I began to speak), a concept which of course makes sense as three out of four of my grandparents emigrated from that part of this world.
I had less than a mile walk from the subway station to the address I held in my hand. En route, I passed by a vendor on the street plucking live crabs from a bucket and selling them to eager shoppers, all of their little claws were frantically moving, shocked and exhausted by the muggy New York City air. Pedestrians, most oblivious to the unusual scene, covered their mouths with masks, doing their best to distant themselves from the polluted environment and lingering smell.
Arriving at Hana’s residence was an anti-climactic moment. I stood there in the worn-out clothes I had been wearing for the past year, under a grey sky, on a modest, residential street. Behind me was a child daycare center welcoming families in a language I couldn’t understand. I stared at the brick house in front of me. The moment was subtle. The relief was great.
To anyone else passing by, I was a strange white girl staring up at a random house. But for me, this meant that my journey was complete (at least for the moment). This was the place where Hana began the next chapter in life, the one which brought my mother as well as two other children into this world. Just a generation later, Hana’s strength resulted in seven joyous grandchildren around her dining room table.
She was unable to provide her own children with the blessing of being surrounded by extended family, but she made sure that her grandchildren knew what it was like to feel the admiring love of a grandparent.
Starting in the fall of 2014, I went from the Czech Republic through Germany and then immersed myself into a life of routine on a farm in Denmark. From there I headed north into Sweden before making the journey to the United States which took me from Cincinnati to Chicago and then via train to Denver and then San Francisco. There were countless other places in between that my own personal journey led me to. But now I was in New York City. I was just four hours from the life in Boston that I was preparing to return home to.
Hana settled into New York City just fine. It wasn’t the perfect situation for her, but it is rare in life when we find one of those. In the thirteen years prior to her marriage, Hana experienced the type of trauma that no person should ever have to witness. Her childhood was stolen from her and parents and sibling murdered. Without any support system or national identity to lean on, she moved from one place to another, in order to survive and to thrive. She learned new languages and harnessed new skills. Life was hard in a way that is impossible to prepare for. But she made it through. One footprint at a time, she found herself a comfortable place in this world.
Hana stopped telling me her story at this point, feeling assured that I would get the rest from my mother, my aunts, uncles and cousins. But she left me with a stroke of her humor.
“After the war, I wanted twelve children to make up for the amount of people killed. I had three and gave up.”