I’ve had many blessings this year, many things to be thankful for, but my thoughts lately circle back to my grandparents. They were immigrants—refugees from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, escaping political persecution and seeking economic opportunity. Interesting coincidence: both of my grandfathers were named John. Both grandmothers, Catherine. John and Catherine Macinga, and John and Catherine Menosky. The inspiration for my name is no secret.
My maternal grandfather, John Menosky, died when I was six months old, but I was blessed to have the others in my life, to know them and hear their stories, and to witness their hard-work ethic that made it down the bloodline to me. They came to this country as farmers, but became steelworkers in Northeast Ohio, in the rust belt where an influx of mostly Italian and Slovak immigrants settled. During World War II, my grandfathers made steel for tank treads and ramps for landing crafts. Catherine Menosky worked as a welder during the war, even though she had six children at home. Catherine Macinga took on laundry and sewing jobs. At one point, when the steel mill issued layoffs, John Macinga dug graves at a cemetery—whatever it took to make ends meet.
Along with their work ethic, my grandparents brought their traditions to this country. I grew up eating kolachi (nut or fruit rolls), haluski (cabbage and noodles) and halupki (stuffed cabbage). The smell of boiling cabbage always takes me right back. John and Catherine Macinga had a plum tree in their backyard on Youngstown’s Northside, and I remember seeing them in their basement taking turns stirring a huge kettle for 24 hours to make lekvár filling for kolachi. Both families also had small gardens in their backyards, with clinking tin cans on strings to keep the animals away. I have yet to taste any tomato or cucumber that is their equal.
I lost my grandfather John Macinga in 1988, and both grandmothers have also passed. The family is scattered now, but I remember spending the holidays at my grandparents’ homes, cousins playing, chicken soup simmering—and cookies! Plates and plates of cookies. Thinking of all of my first cousins, second cousins, nieces and nephews, I sat down and did the math. Combined, my grandparents had:
- 8 children
- 31 grandchildren
- 44 great-grandchildren
- 14 great-great grandchildren
That’s a total of 97 descendants and counting. It’s not just a number, of course. Out of that 97 came teachers, doctors, nurses, soldiers, accountants, a police woman, large and small business owners. And a writer. Blue and white collar workers, all contributing somehow in their communities.
My grandparents lived simple lives. Went to church every Sunday. Hung their sheets to dry on the clothesline. Grew their own vegetables. They were law-abiding citizens who cared for their families and neighbors. They weren’t seeking fame or fortune when they came to this country. They sought a fair wage for honest, hard work, and freedom from ethnic tensions and religious repression. They sought a country where their children would be born with those freedoms. I didn’t understand this when I was growing up. They were just my grandparents who spoke funny words every now and then and had bottomless candy dishes in their yummy-smelling homes. I never got to thank them for their courage to leave their homeland, to get on a boat and travel across the ocean to a start over in a country that didn’t speak their language. How many of us would be brave enough to do that?
So thank you, John and Catherine Macinga and John and Catherine Menosky. Your courage, hard work and sacrifices are the reasons I live this blessed life.