Hello from Cracker Barrel,
It is a few hours late, but over the last couple days I pondered a small and mighty person, who would have been 97 years old yesterday. Lydia Louise Rutkowski was no ordinary person. She was focused, goal oriented, and particular in ways that many would have found excessive, but nonetheless, it served her well, both as a person and as a professor. I wish I had been able to see her in a classroom. I can imagine she had every minute of her classes planned and she knew exactly where she was going. By the time I met her, she had long since retired, but anytime one of her long-before -former students met her out and about, they would greet her. She would always be a bit shocked and would respond. Once they were out of ear-shot, she would exclaim, “I don’t know how they recognized me.” I would simply smile and shake my head.” There was not even an inkling of doubt as to why they would remember her. She left a life-long impression.
I still wonder what she must have thought and felt as a person in her late teens, being sent away by her parents to live with relatives in Vienna. She and thousands of others left the Sudetenland toward the end of the war, walking hundreds of kilometers through the mountains to be safe. Her parents were wise about the events on the horizon and sent her away, saving her life. This was not your average walk-about. Perhaps because it occurred immediately following the horrors of the Shoah, it was mostly ignored. Yet 12-14 million Germans across Europe were displaced – they were also tortured, raped, and murdered. Lydia, who had been sent to Austria, lost her parents in the immediate atrocities that characterized much of Central/Eastern Europe. After her arduous trek to Vienna, she would never see her parents again. Her recounting of their passing to me late in her own life was spine chilling. I am often mortified by the human ability to commit atrocities upon its own because of a political ideology or out of revenge. Lydia was able to speak Czech, but refused to speak that language the remainder of her life.
One of the things I need to work on is the time period between Lydia’s living in Austria and her move to London. It seems many refugees (those misplaced because of the changing political landscape) would find their way to London. Between 1946-1953, she would relocate to London, meet and marry a Polish man. Her husband was a n incredible story in his own rite. He was a member of the Polish resistance to Hitler; he was a political prisoner, incarcerated in Dachau, escaped, returned to Polish to fight Hitler yet again, and eventually also emigrated to London. They would live in London, and in 1953 would book tickets to sail to the states. This is no minor decision, but characterizes an entire group of people who made the decision to leave family, culture, and language behind, believing they had a brighter future in a new land. I am not sure it is much different for those trying to come here today. However, the America waiting for them is much different.
I realize the wave of people who came to our shores in the 1950s came to explore the possibility of a new life, but they gave up a great deal. Many of them left those European ports to begin a life unknown. They struggled with language, with customs, with culture, and with loneliness. They learned self-sufficiency, resilience, and adaptation. In their attempts to assimilate, they closed the door on their previous lives, often to the point they seldom talked of their homeland, and they worked hard to use only their new language. Some might believe this was the best way to become Americans, but I am not convinced. The loss of a language because of a conscious decision to no longer use it is tragic in a number of ways. Language explains a lot about those who speak it. Language is one of our most identifying traits, and I should probably reach out to my linguistic colleagues to substantiate my thoughts, but I believe our language inherently reveals how we think and what we value. From structure to sound, I believe our language provides much more than words and utterances. Just this morning (and it is now Saturday, the 14th) I was at an appointment and the RN assisting spoke Spanish as a first language. We noted the differences in her learning English at the age she was when coming to the States and her daughter who was pre-teen. We spoke about the way her usage is more standard or formal and how her daughter’s was more colloquial. Even our decision about language usage reveals things about us. I remember Lydia once noting that she took classes to try to eliminate her accent. It did not work and much to her chagrin, that accent was one of her endearing qualities. I also remember one of the last times I visited her (in the latter stages of her battle with dementia) it was much easier to speak with her in German than English. She spoke, and probably thought, in German more readily at that point.
What still inspires me about Lydia’s generation was their determination and work ethic. They were tenacious in their desire to succeed, and they were beyond purposeful or dedicated in their willingness to work hard and long to achieve their goals. They did not believe failure was an option. She talked of working two or three jobs before she would begin her education at Northwestern University. George took a different path, but one nonetheless laborious. He would work in Chicago with Frank Lloyd Wright disciples and become a painter and interior decorator. There was little in a house he could not do, or re-do. Lydia continued on to graduate school at the University of Illinois-Urbana, working through her Masters and toward a PhD in international economics. She once told me of George’s words about how they would purchase items for their house or their clothes. He said (with apologies for the grammar), “We are too poor to buy cheap.”
There was little doubt they lived their life maintaining that philosophy. When I met Lydia, almost two decades after George passed, she was quite the formidable two-digit midget, as I called her. She knew exactly what she wanted, what she thought, and she had quite the control of the entire little circle where she lived above Lake Menomin. At one point she owned about a third of the circle, got the city council to rezone it, and still had the incredible compassion to pay the overdue taxes for a neighbor to keep them from losing their family home. Along with that, she managed the upkeep of her three story home, was meticulous about her yard, and still managed to keep abreast of worldly economic issues. She read the Wall Street Journal daily and would forecast where the economy was going months before it happened. She really understood economics both micro and macro.
I still miss her wit, her spunk, and her voice. As much, I miss those moments her incredible heart shown through. I marvel at what she and George accomplished in their lives and am still humbled by their achievements and the faith they had in their own hard work, but also the faith they must have had in this country. I struggle when what I see now seems so different. We cannot seem to get along with each other, let alone “the other.” I continue to realize how blessed my life has been. I think often what it means to have been born in America during the boomer generation. Everything was focused on making our life better, but we also both into the concept of “the dream.” We believed with all our heart and mind it was available. Even though I was a blue-collar kid, even though college seemed out of reach, even though I did not get everything I wanted, I was fortunate to always have what I needed. Lydia and George came to the States believing in the same possibilities. Much like my father, who graduated at the height of the depression, they worked hard to make sure they could work their way up that ladder. Yet, they did it overcoming language and cultural barriers. They did it believing in the adage of hard work pays off.
Lydia never quit working. Until about 13 days before she passed, she was a bundle of energy and ready to let you know what she thought. I am still grateful to the amazing Comforts of Home staff who cared for her from the outset. Carissa treated her as if she were her own family. I could give a list that numbers into more than a couple dozen of wonderful individuals who were not paid nearly enough as they provided outstanding care. It is hard to believe it is six and a half years since she left us. She still wanders into my dreams and my thoughts. I can hear her voice as clearly as if she was still here. I miss you and happiest of what would be a 97th birthday, dear Lydia. The picture is almost looking out from her shoreline view of the campus where she worked 38 years.
Thanks for reading,