Immigrant Mothers and the Legacy They Leave

(Front row, left to right) John, Tom Sr. Shirley, Agnes, George and (back row left to right) Tom Helen, Alice and Ed Sazama pose for a family portrait in 1949.

Immigrant women come to this country for a better life and maybe even for the chance to dream. My great grandmother and grandfather moved to America from Bohemia, a country that no longer exists. They spoke no English, they had “no” skills. What they had was a work ethic and the hope that they could own their own place.

My grandmother Agnes Sazama was the daughter of John and Mary Kraus, she grew up Nebraska and never went to high school—many children didn’t, then. At 18, she was married to my grandfather Thomas and shortly after had her first of seven children, my father.

There were farmers. The day started at daybreak, when cows needed to be milked and ended when it was dark, the cows milked for the second time, and chickens shut in the coop, safe from foxes.

My grandmother had four sons and three daughters—all were born at home. When my father and his oldest sister were sent to a one-room schoolhouse in South Dakota, they learned English.

They taught the parents English—but still years later if the adults were talking and they didn’t want the kids to hear what they were talking about, they would speak Bohemian.

Tom and Agnes Sazama

My grandfather died before I was a year old, leaving my grandmother a widow. She would never remarry. She never learned to drive a car.

When we were little, she would make her false teeth pop in and out of her mouth—I don’t know why she lost all her teeth—but we wanted to do that with our teeth, too.

She didn’t have a telephone until I was elementary school—emergencies were a problem.

The cousins and I were left in her care one afternoon, and weren’t supposed to play on the farm machinery—but ever the showoff, I climbed on a hay racker, fell off backwards and hit my head on a large rock.

My poor grandma, who had no way to call for help, had trouble getting the bleeding to stop. There was blood everywhere. She kept putting pressure on it, and finally got it stopped: I still have an inch scar on the back of my head buried in my hair.

My grandma was “solid.” Somehow when you stayed with her, you knew that everything would be okay. Until she was in her 50s, her hair was down to her waist: she pinned it up in a bun during the day. At night, the long brown hair flowed free on the feather pillows.

I loved sleeping in her bed, because I felt secure. When I woke up and heard coyotes yelping in the distance and was scared, she’d say. “I’m here.” Then she would assure me that if anything was outside, the large stray dog, Daisy, that had adopted my grandma “won’t let anything get close to us.”

Generally, my uncle and grandma milked five or six cows and my grandma taught me to milk. When I stayed with her one week, it became really important to me to be able to milk the cow from start to finish: my uncle was fast and generally finished the cow I had started.

I told my grandma I wanted to “finish” the cow and the next morning we were up 20 minutes early, so that by the time my uncle came to the barn, I was well on the way to completing the task.

Not only do women on farms have to take care of the animals—eggs have to be collected every day and there are gardens to plant, pick and can. There’s cleaning and laundry—

She never complained—well, she didn’t like snakes and would kill them if they got to close to her house.

On Saturday, my uncle would drive her to town, so she could sell eggs and cream. Often, they would stop and visit us—we lived in town.

Saturday night, my grandma scrubbed her floors, so on Sunday, she could put on “church” clothes—and not work, other than milking and gathering eggs. She depended on other people to drive her to church—sometimes she got to go other times not.

When I was in high school, she got a little television set that was about the size of a large purse.

When I was in college, I’d still try to come and visit. She’d make something for lunch and generally tell me about a soap opera that she watched when she came inside for lunch.

“She’s a real naughty one,” she’d say about a character who was plotting the demise of someone.

I heard about how she stayed with her husband’s parents when she was first married and how Katherine, her mother-in-law ran after her own husband with a butcher knife. My grandma said she was scared, but where could she go?

She told me about how Katherine watched her husband supposedly commit suicide hanging from a noose in a barn.

My grandma loved gossip. I still remember when she told me about how a woman was arrested on main street in Mission for being naked. I asked “why?” My grandma didn’t know, but knew it was “true.”

Unlike today with Instagram, Facebook and phones, my grandma received information from the ever “reliable” neighbor, Gladys.

I moved to New York and my grandma was moved to a nursing home. She died there at age 90 in 1992.

Her legacy was seven children and 27 grandchildren and scores of great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

Her children and grandchildren went to college, there are doctors, nurses, teachers and writers. There were tragedies, as there are in every family, but with hard work and the opportunity she was given, my grandmother made her life better and for those around her.

Happy Mother’s Day to those who have set the path, the way to the future: to the moms that never give up.

Sue Pascoe (left) is held by grandmother Cora Larson, who was a farmers wife, until her husband was killed in a Fourth of July fireworks accident in 1950. Cora then went to school and received a teaching degree and taught on the Rosebud Reservation until she was 72. Agnes Sazama (right) holds Nancy and helped run the farm after her husband died in 1953.

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One Response to Immigrant Mothers and the Legacy They Leave

  1. Dorene Rutter says:

    My grandparents also immigrated to the US from the area of Bohemia; they spoke Czech and one grandfather also spoke German, having lived in Austria. Most came before WWI, one came after. They settled in the big cities, first New York and Chicago and finally Los Angeles. My oldest aunt started school in the 1920’s speaking no English and was taunted as a “Bohunk”. By the time my mother started school, her 3 older siblings had brought English into the home. The pictures you shared looked so much like my family’s old pictures. Isn’t it wonderful to have a legacy!

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