Between 1900 and 1914, several hundred Hercegfalva villagers left for the United States and Canada. Many settled in close-knit communities in northern New Jersey. Many, like Frank Meninger, my grandfather, worked in the woolen mills along the Passaic River.
Anna met Frank, who had emigrated eight years earlier, and they married in 1917. Miraculously, her father once again crossed the ocean, this time to give her away in marriage. Again he sailed back to Hungary alone, never to return. My grandparents had three children. My father was the oldest.
While my grandfather worked nights at the mill, my grandmother was on her feet all day running a neighborhood ice cream parlor and taking care of three little children. Out of respect for the country that welcomed her, she never allowed anything but English to be spoken at home. She made soap in her basement, canned fruits and vegetables from her garden, and made fluffy eiderdown quilts with feathers her mother sent from home. The children left for school each day wearing freshly laundered and starched shirts. Her home was spotless. This was a thrifty family where every penny counted - pennies that eventually added up to Dad's private school and college tuition, and a house without a mortgage.
My grandmother never forgot her family back home. During the communist takeover, she sent packages of used clothes - intentionally soiled, so they wouldn't be confiscated - with ground coffee, a scarce commodity, hidden in the hems of coats. Over the years she became more Americanized. Long braids coiled around her head gave way to a permanent wave. But many of her European ways remained. She'd buy a fresh-killed chicken for the Sunday soup, and sweet butter and paprika out of a barrel to make strudel and goulash. She loved the polka, and couldn't imagine why I studied the piano instead of the accordion.
Last fall, my husband and I flew to Hungary. I wanted to pay tribute to my grandmother - to honor her courage, perseverance, and hard work. My hope was to find her village, a name on a grave, a notation in a church.
We hired a driver and headed south from Budapest on a modern highway, then turned onto a narrow country road. We weren't sure we'd find Hercegfalva, since its name had been changed to Mesofalva in 1951 - from "Village of the Prince" to "Village of the State."
But, suddenly, there were two freshly painted signs on the side of the road: "Hercegfalva" and "Mesofalva." With teary eyes and goose bumps, I walked down the little main street. This was where she and her girlfriends spent winter nights spinning flax into linen - where the church service was accompanied by violins instead of a too-costly organ. This is where she said a heartbreaking goodbye to her mother and brothers.
A farm wagon pulled by two enormous draft horses passed by, a reminder that some things hadn't changed. The village consisted of just a few public buildings: a nursery school, a town hall, a bright-red feed store, a restaurant, and a church. Small houses lined a few narrow streets laid out in a grid. Everything was clean and in good order. My grandmother, who never wanted me to see where she came from, would have been proud.
The cemetery was lovely, with masses of flowers both real and artificial covering the graves. More astonishing was that every fifth or sixth headstone was engraved with a name I recognized - surnames of my aunts and uncles, my grandparents' pinochle friends and neighbors. I walked up and down the rows looking for my maiden name or my grandmother's. But no luck.
Then I ran into an elderly cemetery worker. We had no language in common, but he knew exactly what I was doing. He led me to an area overgrown with brambles and small trees. These were the oldest graves - mostly crosses, about three feet tall. Together we pulled back the prickly underbrush to reveal deteriorating wooden crosses, whose writing had long since disappeared. On others made of crumbling concrete, the writing was illegible. The cemetery worker eventually gave up and, with an apologetic shrug, went back to his work. I kept searching. Then I saw it, four rows over: my father's name in Hungarian. It said "died in 1838." It might have been my great-grandfather five times over. Certainly it was a relative. This was what I'd been hoping for. On a blazing hot day, I stood there shivering in amazement.
There was more. On a World War I monument in the churchyard, many of my ancestors were listed. In front of the town hall, there was a charming hand-painted poster under glass depicting a tree. The roots represented the origins of the original village settlers, and the branches the cities where they'd immigrated. My relatives' hometowns - Passaic and Clifton - were there on the 1900-24 branch.
Before returning to Budapest, we went back to the cemetery one last time. At the gate, there was the cemetery worker. Our driver told him in Hungarian how happy I was to find a perfectly preserved headstone engraved with my father's name. The worker broke into a big smile. It seems that he had spent many years cleaning up the oldest headstones in case someday someone like me came back to look for her family. I was the first, and this was one of the happiest days of his life. He put his arm around me. We both beamed and my husband took a picture.
In my early 60s, while caring for my failing parents, I worked on my family's history. As their memories faded, it became increasingly important to get their stories down on paper.
I started with Mom's family. There were sea captains, Indian fighters, Revolutionary War soldiers. In contrast, Dad's family seemed ordinary. But not to me. To me, Anna Altmayer Meninger was remarkable and heroic. Yes, she was just one among millions who came through Ellis Island, hoping for a future of opportunity. But when I think of the choice she made, the chance she took, I am very grateful for that courageous moment when she hugged her family goodbye and set off for a new life, changing the future for the better for all who would follow.
Lynne Whipple writes from Meadowbrook. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.