My Grandma Wink was the only of my four grandparents who wasn’t born in the United States, which, to me, made her the most interesting. She was five when her family emigrated from the Netherlands, so she didn’t have many stories about the “old country” but she remembered Ellis Island very well.
She remembered her mother.
I never met my great-grandmother, Wink’s mom, and as a kid I never thought much about her. Until my sister interviewed Grandma Wink for a class project, and I heard in detail like never before what it was to be a woman in the early 1900s.
The interview started with rural Holland. Grandma Wink was too young to remember what life was really like there, and with fourteen siblings I can only imagine that early life–no matter where it was taking place–was probably more like a din than a childhood. Without description to the contrary, I can assume the family was poor or put-upon in some way. Otherwise, why in deurklink would crossing an ocean on a stank boat for a place no one in the family had seen be an appealing option?
But that’s exactly what they did.
Pappje (daddy) and the two oldest sons left first; headed for the Pacific Northwest where there were a number of Dutch enclaves (the Dutch went where it was green and wet, like home). Pappje and the boys planned to acquire land and set up a farm. The rest of the family would follow once there was something to go to.
I don’t know how long Moeder and the younger kids were apart from Pappje and the older boys. But at some point, Pappje wrote to Moeder to let her know it was time for the family to join up in Washington State.
That’s where the story that amazes me really begins. Moeder, who neither spoke nor read a zoutlik of English and had only a vague idea (“west”) of where her husband was, gathered up thirteen of her fifteen kids and set for America.
During the several weeks on ship, everyone got lice and most of the kids got sick.
Grandma Wink remembered seeing Ellis Island and thinking, “Finally, FINALLY we can leave this awful boat. Everything will be better now.”
But the immediate relief they’d hoped for wasn’t what awaited them at Ellis.
First they got haircuts. Every last one of them was shaved bald because of lice. Then they got new names. Grandma Wink, whose given name was Willimpje, was declared “Winnie.” She despised it. “It’s a terrible name. It’s the sound a horse makes,” she told my sister. Even in her 80s, the sting of being named by a stranger burned her a bit. Finally, they got quarantined. They were merely seasick, but sick is sick. They were put in an open gym-like room where the grown-ups slept on cots and the kids slept on the floor. Once in a room filled exclusively with sick people, several in the family did develop fevers. Their time in quarantine lasted three weeks.
I’ve tried many times to imagine what this would have felt like. A woman, probably about thirty-five, accompanied by thirteen children, ranging in age from infant to fourteen, many of them sick, stuck in a room, in a city, in a country, in a hemisphere they had never been in and had no knowledge of, with no way to ask questions, for three weeks. I can’t imagine it. And yet, this is a scene that was very, very common.
Wink was put in a windowsill by one of her older siblings to play. She remembered playing there several times during their three weeks in quarantine. Self-content, out of the way, it was a good solution for Moeder’s five-year-old, who was one of the healthy kids, until Wink tried to let herself down from the sill, not aware that the radiator below had turned on. Wink’s dress caught on the edge of the skill and her bare belly was held against the scorching radiator. Tangled and stuck, she couldn’t get away from the hot cast iron. It burned her chest and tummy badly.
The family was days from getting out of quarantine and Moeder wasn’t about to let her now healthy family remain confined in a room filled with tuberculosis and diphtheria any longer than they had already been. Afraid that Wink’s blisters would be mistaken for smallpox and fearful that the open skin of the burns would make her more susceptible to the airborne infections in the room, Moeder treated and dressed the burns herself and instructed Wink to hide them.
The family was released from quarantine on schedule and they headed”¦west, wherever that was.
My great-grandmother’s struggles obviously continued beyond Ellis Island. She crossed the U.S. with her kids mostly by train, staying with strangers along the way, and met up with her husband who had barely a foothold in their new community. She worked with her hands inside and outside of the house. She raised children, and she lost children. But the part of her story that touches me the most is just the getting here. What she did was so common and so remarkable at the same time.
The baddest-ass ladies in history aren’t just the ones we’ve read about in books, they’re the ones we came from. Our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers are and were extraordinary. They did things we can’t imagine. And the most humbling part of it all is that their extraordinariness was ordinary.
There was nothing special about my great-grandmother. She imagined a life better than the one she had, and she did what immigrants have done and do every day. In the pictures I’ve seen her face looks hard and she’s not really smiling, but her eyes are bright, and she’s beautiful.
What she did was beautiful. And in my mind her bad-assery is unparalleled. Just as your great-grandmother’s bad-assery is unparalleled.
And in case anyone was hoping my Grandma Wink took back some power after being named Winnie against her wishes. She did.
Her family continued to call her Wink her whole life, she never went by Winnie. And when she decided she wanted a formal name, she picked it. The woman who raised my dad was known as Grandma or Aunt Wink by most everyone who met her, but on her checks, she signed Wilma. A name she liked. And that is the name that went on her business license when she bought her own store in 1948. Yep, she was bad-ass too.