"Rachael, the biggest difference between your travels and mine is that I had to burn all of my bridges as I moved forward."

 

It was 2010, when my grandmother said these words to me. We had previously been discussing my recent road trip through Jordan, a country which she had also visited but, as an older traveler, not as a refugee.

I nodded and smiled. There wasn't much more to say. 

Hana headed to San Francisco in 1951 as a single woman in her mid-twenties. For the twelve years prior, she fled her temporary homes, without any time to prepare. But this move, for the first time, was out of desire, not necessity.

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 she now lived. 

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"I got myself the luxury of all luxuries, a telephone. I had an 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.

The job she found was in a morgue. For $32 a week, she washed the stainless steel tables after the autopsies were done. 

I hiked around San Francisco each day, walking from one neighborhood to another, following the spirited crowds of people and charming architecture. I put one foot in front of the other as I climbed the steepest hills I could find.

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 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 that her lust for a man and love for a city. She wanted a family, and a German immigrant from New York City offered one to her. 

Ralph Seckel, an ex-boyfriend from her life in Cincinnati followed her to the West Coast and requested her hand in marriage. 

At the time, Hana was dating Paul, a Dane. He worked as a grounds crew member for Scandinavian airlines. It was 1952 and they were in love.

But the infatuation she had for Paul, 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, thirteen octobers after she fled Prague, she was wed in a rabbi's study in Queens. 

For the first time in 13 years, Hana had a family.

With the music of her wedding bells leading me, I followed in my grandmother's footprints for the final time. I headed to the Flushing neighborhood of Queens in New York City. 

I descended to the underground world of New York City, 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 looking so 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 caucasian gamblers. Step by step, I made my way out from the underground world, 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 stench of a humid day. I arrived in Flushing, but felt as though I was in China.

My final destination, and the one closest to my hometown of Boston, somehow proved to be the most foreign.

I had less than a mile walk from the subway station to the address I was holding in my hand, an envelope dated from 1956, the earliest I could find. 

En route, I passed by a street vendor plucking live crabs from a banged-up bucket, eager to sell them to shoppers; all of their little claws were frantically moving, shocked and exhausted by the muggy New York City air. Pedestrians, most oblivious to what I noticed as an usual scene, covered their mouths with masks, doing their best to distance themselves from the polluted environment and lingering smell. 

The intersection nearby Hana's home in Queens.

The intersection nearby Hana's home in Queens.

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 one of the first houses where Hana began the next chapter of her life, the one, which brought my mother, as well as two other children into this world. 

A generation later, Hana's physical and psychological strength resulted in seven joyous grandchildren around her dining room table.

She was unable to provide her own children with the blessing of extended family, but she made sure that her own grandchildren knew what it was like to feel the admiring love of a grandparent. 

Hana settled into New York City just fine. It wasn't the perfect place 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 her parents and younger brother murdered. Without any support system or national identity to lean on, with no one to cry to or share joy with, she moved from one place to another. She fled 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, one footprint at a time, she found herself a home.

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, before closing this chapter of her life, 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.