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Wisdom packed in grandmother's trunk

What should be her new name? The answer

What should be her new name? The answer was in this trunk all along. Credit: Handout

When my daughter was about to give birth to her first child (my first grandchild), I had to decide what I was to be called. Indeed, this is not a simple task, nor one to be taken lightly, for once chosen, that designation stays around forever; it is not only the name by which that grandchild knows you — it is the name to be used by all the grandchildren to come.

I obsessed over this decision for quite some time. But then, one morning, while sitting on the trunk that is at the foot of my bed, putting on my shoes, the answer came to me. So obvious, so easy.

You see, I come from a long line of strong, independent women; women who made their way in the world at a time when they were expected to just keep quiet and obey their husbands. This is my grandmother's — my "Babush's" -- story, as manifested by that trunk. So here is that story, as told by my grandmother to my mother, and then passed on to me.

At the dawn of the 20th century, young men in Poland, struggling to feed their families, would travel to America to make their fortunes in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. They would come on their own, find rooms to let, find work and send their paychecks back home. But too often, their plans would go awry: Many died of black lung, or in mining accidents; some would find other women, begin new families and abandon the families they had left behind in the old country. Often, they would fake their own deaths to begin anew. My grandmother Rose's husband was one of the men who died a painful death in the mines. She was left a young widow with a small baby.

But she did not immediately mourn the loss of her husband. Instead, she told her family she had to be certain he was, indeed, dead and not abandoning their family to start over in America.

So she packed her belongings into that trunk and sailed for America. The journey was not for the feint of heart; it was, after all, the turn of the century, and she had little money. Years later, she told my mom about the ship, about the hardships of being in steerage, about other passengers getting sick, some dying and getting thrown overboard, about fearing the possibility of reaching Ellis Island just to be rejected and sent back.

But she wasn't sent back. And when she and the trunk finally arrived in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., she learned that her husband was indeed dead. She eventually remarried and gave birth to seven more children, five of whom survived — all girls.

When her youngest, my mother, was not even 2, my grandmother became a widow once again.

She raised those five girls alone.

My Babush died just a few months before I got married. She was 95. When some of her things were distributed among the children, my mother asked for that trunk, and eventually, I was lucky enough to get it. It sits at the foot of my bed, a bit beat up from its journey and from over a century of use, but still strong, still sturdy.

Sometimes, when life seems overwhelming, I think of that young wife and mother sailing out into the unknown, and I think of how, with all the odds against her, she successfully raised five wonderful girls. And her strength becomes my strength.

Like I said — so obvious, so easy. I would be "Babush" for Lila. And I hope someday my daughter will tell her daughter stories about her grandmother — stories of how her Babush was strong, and good, and hardworking. I may not have crossed the Atlantic, but I have had my moments in life's steerage, and I have survived and thrived.

I want Lila to know that.

--Patricia Flanagan, East Setauket


Adult children living at home? What's the problem?


I don't get all the fuss about 20- to 24-year-olds living at home with their parents.

When I was growing up in the '60s, everyone I knew lived at home until they got married. They worked and gave some money to their parents every week, which their parents often saved for them or used toward their weddings.

My husband lived with his mother until he got married at 27, and nobody thought it was unusual. My kids lived at home until they married in their 20s. We were glad they did. We were not in a hurry to kick them out of their home.

Is not wanting your kids to come home after college an issue of where you live, or is it cultural? Many students from New York City go to city colleges and live at home through their college years, so there is no problem with them coming home because they never left.

After college, if they get a job they have to save money. My grandson is away at school, and his parents expect him home when he graduates. Where else would he go? Should he rent an apartment with some friends and continue to live a college life rather than coming back to his home and live as a part of his family?

I just don't get this angst about living with your kids while they become financially secure and ready to leave your nest. Maybe we are old school, but we enjoyed living with our children until they were ready to get on with their lives.

--Sandy Dalsas, Freeport

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