I spent yesterday struggling to avoid complaining about my wretched back and the quiet solitary life which I find myself leading. No laundry got done. No dusting, no errands, no yardwork. After my breakfast company left, I moved no further than the couch unless to satisfy a primitive need — food, drink, waste elimination. Otherwise, I huddled on an ice pack with my computer, tablet, and television remote at hand. I took four ibuprofen every six hours and even resorted to Ben Gay. I kept the walking stick nearby and used it for any timid creeping that I did. I did not go outside. I did not call anyone. I downloaded a book on Kindle and immersed myself to avoid self-pity.
Just before sleeping — sleep induced by the warmth of a heating pad and a last dose of OTC pain relievers — I thought about my maternal grandmother.
The Ellis Island manifest shows that my grandmother, Joanna Ulz, arrived on the Zeeland on 21 April 1908. Age four at the time, Joanna came to this country from Huttenberg, Austria. We knew my grandmother’s family to be Austrian although the manifest shows her place of birth as Germany. The Zeeland had departed from Antwerp, bearing scores of passengers including my grandmother, her mother Bibiana whom my siblings and I knew as “Mom Ulz”; her brother Konrad — our Uncle Cooney, then age 2; and her sister, also Bibiana, whom we called “Aunt Bib”, then age 1. Her mother was 23. The manifest scribes had poor handwriting: my great-grandmother and great-aunt are both misidentified as “Libiana”.
My great-grandfather Konrad “Dad” Ulz had come ahead in 1907, at age 31, a draft-dodger, sailing on the ship Kroonland. The family ultimately settled in Gillespie, Illinois, and had, if memory serves, ten more children.
My grandmother married Delmar Lyons, child of Syrian immigrants. They had three daughters: My mother, Lucille Johanna; and my aunts, Joyce Elizabeth and Della Mae. Nana, as my mother’s mother came to be known to her grandchildren, went to work during the Depression for the Montgomery Ward company. Eventually, she and my grandfather started a hearing aid business as a franchisee of Sonotone House of Hearing, in Springfield. They purchased a new home in a subdivision called Lake Knolls in Chatham. It is that home which I most remember from my visits to them.
Nana had a series of severe strokes when I was eleven or twelve. My mother and my aunt debated in my presence whether their father had gotten their mother enough therapy. Whether he did or he didn’t, only God knows; all the involved parties are now, presumably, closer to that knowledge than I am. The strokes left Nana paralyzed on one side, unable to speak more than stuttered guttural sounds, and dependent upon her husband, mother, children, and grandchildren. Even then I knew that Nana hated what she became.
During one of my last summer visits to my grandparents before I got too busy for extended trips to their home, she needed something that I could not identify from the urgent noises which she made. She finally tired of trying to communicate and dragged her bad leg down the hallway, fumbling in the bathroom cabinet with her one functional arm. Castor oil: she wanted castor oil. She stood in the hallway and drank straight from the bottle as I watched helplessly. My great-grandmother came into the room just then and snatched the bottle from Nana’s hand. Nana sought my eyes and held them with her own. She seemed to be forgiving my ineptitude.
I don’t take after my grandmother. I got my kinky curls from my grandfather and my fragile Irish skin from my father. My agitated soul is also pure Corley. But yesterday, struggling through the house with my left side shuddering, dragging my leg, leaning on my walking stick, I felt a flash of her tenacity course through me. As I fell asleep, I considered, maybe, that I have something of my grandmother inside.
Johanna Ulz Lyons at her home in Lake Knolls.