About Me

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When Ryn was in the seventh grade she thought she wanted to do three things when she grew up, she wanted to be an English teacher, a writer and a mother. All of that traveling, adventure, and Peace Corps was just research for what was to come. After more than twenty years of being told she would never be able to have children, she had two beautiful baby girls, a year and a half apart. She spends many of her daytime hours teaching English at Case Western Reserve University, and all of the rest of her time, inspiring her two little girls, or being inspired by writing at the writers’ workshop she calls “home.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010


The house was bustling with people. Children and grandchildren lingering around, I think because I was making pineapple kolachky that day. Little Richard, Amy, Virginia, Tommy, Bernie’s Boy, and a few others it seemed had decided that my kitchen was a better place to hang out than anywhere their high school friends were. It made me feel good seeing them all there, and I put that extra feeling into the pastries. Maybe it was too hot, that day in August, to be baking, but they loved my baking, and I loved their smiles. If there is one thing God and my life had given me that I was truly rich in, it was children. Children and grandchildren. It swelled my heart when they chose to be around.

“So, are you going for football again Tommy?” Richard asked.

“The doctor came to the house and checked my heart. He said I can’t play football anymore. But I am thinking that when I graduate, I’m going to join the Air Force.”

“Really?” Virginia asked. “Aren’t you afraid to go to war? These times are so unsure.”

“I know, but I really want to work on, with, around or even fly airplanes.” He said enthusiastically.

The two girls nodded and then suddenly there was a boom like no one had ever heard before. It wasn’t the heater, it was a hot day. It could have been a car backfiring, but the street was pretty quiet. Everyone looked at each other, and then the boys separated checking different parts of the house.

“MAMA!” Richard yelled from upstairs. “MAMA!” We all went running, but they broke way to let me up the stairs first. There sat John, slumped over in the straight chair in the corner, a rifle holding his head up, red blood and pieces splattered all over the wall behind him. No thought came to my head except the mess I would have to clean. No thought came to my head. No tears came to my eyes. No thoughts at all. No sound uttered, not a whimper, not a cry, not a scream. I was blank. Void.

“Mama,” Richard filled the blackness with his word.” I look directly at him and still didn’t really see him.

“Mama, we have to call the police.”

I nodded and he went downstairs. There I was alone with John. No one entered the room. What could I say to him? What was there to say? Nothing. Just nothing.

It wasn’t long before I heard sirens, followed shortly by booted footsteps coming up the stairs approaching behind me. I still didn’t move, didn’t say anything, they just came in around me. There was nothing else I could do but get the Spic-n-Span and a bucket of water. I went to the water closet to get what I needed, but two of the men there already started taking care of it. I put the bucket and sponge down on the ground and just sunk down on the bed. These four men did their job very efficiently without even really speaking. They each knew what they needed to do, and I just watched them wondering what it must be like to do this as a job. Cleaning offices was a job, but it takes a special person to clean another’s blood and pieces.
I began to really notice my own breath. It flowed so easily. Like a soft river, not heavy, not shallow, but full. There was a peace about it, a calmness. Maybe I would collapse later, maybe I would cry later, but right then, I just had to take the pastries out of the oven, and keep going.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Immigrant Ship

By the time we got to Bremen, I was actually happy to be on the ship, but what I didn’t expect was how sick I would get. I had been on boats lots of times for fishing, for fun, for getting to the next place, but this ship was bigger than the biggest hotel. It was named The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, and it didn’t seem like it could float. Once we started moving, everyone got sick, mother more so than me. The elderly, children, even the big strong men couldn’t control themselves. It seemed like the babies had it best, maybe because they are carried so much, but they had their own problems: fevers, rashes, coughs, and lots of crying.

Another thing that I didn’t expect was how many Slovaks there were. It seemed like the whole ship was filled with people like us leaving for the same reasons we were leaving. Some were from our village, or my grandmother’s village. Many were named Theresa. There were a few Lithuanians and Hebrews, but Sunday mass was basically in Latin with the special prayers made in Slovak.

On the second day, Mrs. Jakubik’s little boy Andrei became very sick. He had had a fever for three days and just couldn’t be consoled. No matter what she or little three year-old Maria tried to do, he wouldn’t eat either. All the women tried to help. One older woman suggested that a little vodka would pacify him because he was probably just teething. But on the morning of the fifth day, he died. He was just 23 weeks old.

After a few words from the priest, they threw his little body overboard. Mrs. Jakubik’s face turned grey and hollow. Her eyes emptied. How would she greet Mr. Jakubik when he met them on the pier?

The women took turns taking care of little Maria and distracting her from the truth of her poor little brother, while Mrs. Jakubik just laid in bed staring at nothing, but a sad sob would bubble up every now and then.

Much of my day time was spent walking on the decks. If I needed to vomit, it was easier to lean over the side. But also, the fresh air was rejuvenating. And water was shades of blue I could only imagine. Excitement was starting to build up in me about what this new life would hold.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Theresa's Christmas

“Mama?” Annie asked. “Why are we going to have another baby?”

“Because God wants us to.” I said with a bit of a sigh.

“Doesn’t God know that we are starving?” She said? Marjorie just gaped at her. As did I.

“We are NOT starving!” I stated emphatically. “What ever gave you the idea that you are starving? Honestly, Annie, you are so melodramatic. You have food in front of you right now, don’t you?’ I said pointing to her plate of potatoes and sour kraut. Marjorie had a look like I’m glad I didn’t say that. And Rudy remained quiet the whole time with his face close to his plate eating. He wanted no part of it. I repeated once again, “You are NOT starving!”

“Yes, mama.” Annie said with her head bowed. Most children wouldn’t even think of speaking again for the whole day after a response like that, but no more than five minutes later, Annie said, “Mama, can we name this one Nancy? I just love that name!”

“What if it’s a boy?” I replied. “In any case, your grandma Johanna will have it named before I have the energy to fight her, just like she did with you three.”

I had been saving money, even if it was a little bit, every week for Christmas.

“John,” I said one morning at a breakfast that he showed up to, “we’re having Christmas here at this house this year. My mother is coming, and Stephan and Mary and maybe a few more people. We will need a proper tree this year, money for food, and (I went for broke) new dresses for the girls.” I could see them swell up with excitement for the dresses, but they new better than to say anything that might annoy him.

He grumbled a bit, didn’t really say anything, and left the table. I took that as an “ok.” I couldn’t contain my joy either. A small victory for me, and now I could use the money I saved for presents for the children. We were going to have a good Christmas this year. I wasn’t working this hard for nothing, and we were NOT starving.

The Saturday before Christmas, I bundled each one up in their winter coats, mittens and boots, and we walked to the city train station and took the train downtown to the Halle’s Department store on Public Square. My little silk purse contained several dollars, and I planned to let them see Santa Claus while I bought the presents I had in mind for them. They were so joyous about being able to ride the train –especially Rudy. And then taking the elevator up to the seventh floor where Santa Claus and the toys were had them piqued for anything else. I was grateful that I had children who could revel in simple joy. “You can go get in line to see Santa. I’ll wait right here. And tell him your mother said you have been very good this year.” I smiled. I hadn’t been in a store like this since I was 17, buying that hat and gloves on Michigan Ave. in Chicago, a lifetime ago.

I had been searching the ads in the newspapers. I decided I would get a Raggedy Anne doll for Annie since it was her namesake. When I saw it up-close, I realized I could make the exact same thing, I just had no time for it right now. I was sure I would get Rudy a tin aeroplane. He seemed so interested in these flying machines. Marjorie, I wasn’t that sure about. It would either be celluloid circus animals, or a tin dish set with Little Red Riding Hood painted on them. When I saw them, the dish set won. The department store was brilliant. They had a delivery service that would deliver my purchases on Monday while the children were in school.

On December 23rd, John was in jail, so I didn’t have to worry about him. This was his fourth or fifth time since we’d been married (that I knew about). I don’t know what the charges were. I didn’t understand that legal stuff. I just knew that he would be out of my hair for a few days. Luckily, before he did whatever it was that got him locked up, he had bought a Christmas tree, put money in the cookie jar for food, and there were two new dresses hanging in the coat closet. I don’t know why he listened to me, but he did. The dresses were a little big and not exactly new, but they looked nice and would last them longer. The girls would be so happy.

“Marjorie! Annie!” I called upstairs. “Look what your father brought for you.” They came barreling down the stairs. “What? What?” They asked.

I held out the dresses and they squealed.

“Can I put it on?” Marjorie asked.

“Oh, please, please!” Annie begged.

“Tomorrow, for Christmas Eve…Although, I suppose you could try them on just to see how they look…as long as you are careful.”

“YES! YES!” And they each grabbed the right hanger and went running right back up the stairs.

I had wrapped the presents the night before and put them high on the shelf in the coat closet. Santa Claus was coming this year. I even bought some candy for their stockings, plus there was fruit from the trees out back, waiting in the cellar. We were not starving! This is going to be a real Christmas.

“Girls, why don’t you pick some berries out back? I’ll pop some corn and you can string the corn and berries up for the tree.” They could hardly contain themselves, quickly grabbing the wool capes I made them. They didn’t need their mittens, it wasn’t that cold yet and it would only hinder them. I gave them a basket for the berries. Whatever was left over could be made into jam for the kolachkys.

I popped the corn, had the sour kraut boiling, and was peeling the potatoes as they came back in. “How’s this?” Marjorie asked showing me the basket.

“That should do just fine.” I said. I set the bowl of popped corn on the table with two needles and thread. “You girls work on this, while I think of something your brother can do.”

“I can make a snowman, mama.” He said.

‘There’s not enough snow out there, dear. How about if you….” I looked around for a pen, some ink and paper. “Here, you can draw pictures that we can hang around the house. Marjorie, you can help him spell ‘Merry Christmas.” She smiled. She knew that it was important that she could read and write.

The baby in me was moving around like crazy. It either really liked or didn’t like the smell of sour kraut. Either way it was letting me know.

Mother arrived promptly at five, with Stephan and Mary right behind her. They were right on time and I was just finishing up the babalky.

“Grandma!” The children yelled.

“Oh your house looks ready for Christmas. Did you children decorate?” She asked in a syrupy sweet voice that almost sounded sarcastic. I managed to smile.

“Hello kids.” Uncle Stephan said in English.

“Uncle Andrew! Aunt Mary!” They yelled in unison. He bent down and gave them each a piece of ribbon candy.

“Mama, can we?” Marjorie asked.

“I suppose.” I said trying to sound reluctant, but what’s the harm? It’s Christmas.

“Something smells good.” Mother said as she walked past the stove in the kitchen. That didn’t sound sarcastic.

“Thanks. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.

“Don’t hurry.” Mother said as she walked through the kitchen into the family room.

“Annie and I picked berries and then we strung them with popped corn and Rudy drew the pictures, but I had to help him with the words, because he hasn’t learned them yet in school.” Mother just nodded at them with a joy that I don’t remember her ever showing me. Then I watched her slip a nickel into each of their little hands.

“Well, I think you did a great job.” She said. This was not my mother.

Mary slipped into the kitchen. “Can I help?” She asked.

I looked around like I did when I had to find something for Rudy to do. “Here,” I said handing her two bowls and two ladles. “You can put soup in one and potatoes in the other.”

She lifted the lid off of the soup pot. “Mmmm” she said. “Smells just like my mother’s. More mushrooms than onions –that’s the trick.” A girl who knows her soup! There are a few things sacred in this family, but the soup is one of them.

I was glad Andrew married her, but sorry I had to miss the wedding. Andrew was lucky; he got to marry for love. Never mind that now, I thought, just get dinner on the table.

There are two secrets about sour kraut soup that only insiders know. One is that you never eat equal amounts of mashed potatoes and soup. You finish the mashed potatoes and you get more, then you finish the soup, and you get more. This can go on for hours. The other secret is that once the sour kraut and potatoes hit your stomach, they expand. The dishes would have to wait until later, or even tomorrow because my expanded stomach barely allowed me to go from the dining room chair to a chair in the family room.

“Can we open our presents now?” All four children began to ask. I only had the energy to nod.

Andrew had bought them coloring books, wax crayons and new mittens. Mother had bought them new shoes, underwear, and picture storybooks. All of this paled to my ribbons for the girls’ hair, socks for Rudy, and a notebook and pencil for each. It didn’t matter to them though. They got more presents than they ever got. And John wasn’t there to mess it up.

“Mama, where’s daddy?” Annie asked the inevitable question.

“He’s got business.” I said dryly.

“On Christmas Eve?” Marjorie asked.

“Yes, on Christmas Eve.”

“When will he be back?” Annie asked.

“I don’t know. In a few days I guess.” My mother, who arranged my wedded bliss deserved a glare for that, and she got it.

“Enough of this,” Andrew said, getting up from his chair. “Who want’s to go to Midnight Mass?”

“I do! I do!” All the children got excited.

“Can you put our ribbons in our hair, mama?” Marjorie asked.

“And can we wear our new mittens? Annie added.

“And shoes?” Marjorie finished.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I said to each of them.

They cheered running around putting on all of their new things. I’m sure I never saw them so happy. Next year would be even better. And the year after that.

At the Midnight Mass, I could tell some of the women were whispering about John’s absence. I even saw Sylvia’s tongue wagging. But I didn’t care. My children were clean, well-fed, and had new clothes. They looked like everyone else’s children, though a little more well-mannered and we were NOT starving!

I was wear the dress, hat and gloves I wore when Luis gave me flowers. They were my best then, and they are my best now. My chin was up. A lifetime ago, someone loved me. Today, I have my children. This dress has seen a lot.

That night, the children collapsed from exhaustion in their beds. They even forgot their prayers, barely made it past undressing. I didn’t mind about the prayers though, since they had just come from church.

I wanted to pass out too, but there was fruit for the stockings in the cellar, candy in the icebox and presents in the closet to gather. Only then could I join them in sleep.

Rudy was the first to wake up, and there girls were just seconds behind, all them up much before I was ready. But I dragged myself downstairs with a promise to myself that I would nap –sometime.

John was lying on the couch and there were more than three presents under the tree. I looked at him puzzled and he just smiled. It was like he only had so much good in him. When he used it up, he had to be bad for while until his storage of good replenished. There was no luke warm for him, he could only run hot and cold.

He had gotten the girls silver brush and mirror sets, and Rudy a little fishing pole. I could think of a hundred more practical things he could have done with money like that, but what had I given them? And they were ecstatic.

After Christmas

The first Monday after the holidays was so cold and snowy –even for January. I thought they may have to stop the public transportation, but they didn’t. They were just very, very slow. Ever since that midnight mass, I stayed quiet around Sylvia. I don’t think she really noticed, but I didn’t want to give her any more stories to spread around then she already had or was willing to make up. Mostly, I just hummed to myself to keep from even hearing her. There was a new night guard to let us in that night. “Jimmy’s wife is having a baby. Can you believe it? In this weather?” He told us as he unlocked the door. I must have looked at him like he was crazy., because he became serious again.

After work, when we got off of the bus, I saw the police cars in front of my house. Oh, no, what did he do know? If he gets arrested and thrown into jail, that’s one thing, but to make such a spectacle in front of the neighbors?

“Mama, mama!” Little Annie came running to me. Marjorie wasn’t far behind.

“Where’s Rudy?” I asked immediately. They knew that no matter what, they should always be together.

“We were playing midnight mass, “ Annie started, but I wasn’t looking at her, my eyes were darting all around looking for my own answers.

“And the candle made a fire,” Marjorie added.

“On Rudy’s clothes!” Annie cried. She could barely hold herself up.

“What? Where’s your father? Where’s Rudy?” I asked again. Where’s my little boy? Oh my God, my little boy!

The girls were crying. They didn’t know or they would have told me right away. I went up to one of the officers. I was usually a bit shy about speaking English in front of strangers, but I had to know where my boy was. I had to know what happened.

“Ma’am,” the officer started. “Your son is at Grace Memorial Hospital. I have to tell you, he’s burned up pretty bad. Mr. Millan from over on Anderson Avenue ran over to help and rolled him around in the snow, but it was pretty late by then. He’s unconscious.”

I understood “Grace Hospital,” “bad,” “Mr. Millan,” and “snow.” I wasn’t sure where Grace Hospital was.

“Sir,” I asked, making my words deliberate. “Can you take me there?”

“Yes, yes, of course.” He said. I took the girls hands and we got into the back of the police car. I had never been in an automobile before, but I wished it were different circumstances. Where was John? And why wasn’t he there?

Poor Little Rudy looked worse than I expected. His skin was black like burnt chicken. I was afraid to touch him, but I wanted to cradle him so desperately in my arms. To comfort him, because I could feel his very pain. Oh, God, please take his pain away. Please help him to recover. I will be the most devote Catholic, just save my boy.

“Mama,” Marjorie whispered. “The nurses here, well, they say he’s going to die.” She started to cry.

“Shhh dear. Don’t talk like that. Rudy needs our strength and our smiles.” I said to her.

Then I leaned over close to Rudy’s face. I wanted to put my cheek next to his, but it would only hurt him. “Rudy? Do you remember how on Christmas you got all of that candy and toys? It was grand, wasn’t it? And you wanted to make a snowman, but there wasn’t enough snow. There is a lot of snow now, though, and if you get better, and open your eyes, we can go outside and build a snow man,”

But he didn’t get better or open his eyes. The nurses were right. He died that Thursday morning.

The girls were at Stephan and Mary’s house. It was just John and me in the deafening silence. I wanted to hit him, throw things at him, yell, but I was drained. I hated him at that moment more than I hated the Hungarians for burning down our village.

“You are going to get a coffin for our little boy and some decent clothes for him to be buried in. You will find black dresses for the girls, because I will NOT be dying their Christmas dresses for their poor brother’s funeral. You will buy ham and bread and other things for people to eat when they come here after the burial, and I will be sitting here crying and praying for our son. And know this, his death was your fault and I will never forgive you for leaving them alone.”

I wanted him to hit me, kill me, anything to deaden the pain, but he walked out of the door humbled and did as I told him. How I wished I could find comfort in a bottle the way he did. Comfort in anything really. All I had were my children, and now my little boy was gone.

The funeral was somber and cold. There is story-sharing when a child dies. No laughs about the silly times. It’s just sad. Sad and unfair. Why was I being punished like this? My mother came up to me and said, “I know you feel sad dear, but at least you have another little one growing in your belly.” It was all I could do to keep from punching her. And that is when the bleeding started. My mother saw it on the floor first.

“Hurry, John!” She said. “Get her up to bed! Stephan! Run over to Mary Gharni’s house over on E. 93rd. She is the closest midwife and she should be home.”

I did not want to be the focus of this moment. I did not want everyone to see me like this. This was about little Rudy. Maybe if I lie down for a moment, this will stop, I’m sure it’s nothing.

I lost two babies that week. Both were boys.