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My Grandmother, the Criminal

Anna Wondra Peroutka 1890-1927

In the late 1990s I visited her grave for the first time. We didn’t any of us know where she had been buried—or even her name--until my sister and I did some research and scrambled through cemeteries near Montgomery and New Prague Minnesota, finding, eventually her headstone and, amazingly a glass-framed oval photo cemented onto her granite marker. Despite decades of harsh Minnesota winters, the picture had stood up well. Her dark hair is pulled back and severe, so that she resembles a cameo, yet her face lacks the dourness of the usual Midwestern portraits of that time. There is something delicate, something that belies the hardship of life. Do I share any of her features? The narrow nose, the deep set eyes, an expression that could connote sorrow or discouragement or a weariness with life? I see my own sadness, perhaps, in my grandmother's constrained, tight-lipped mouth.

Anna was my paternal grandmother, the granddaughter of immigrants from what was then called Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Her grave is in the Czech National Cemetery south of the small farming town Montgomery—best known for its Kolacky Days yearly festival and its winsome promotional wordplay: “Czech this out!” “We’re Czeching to see if you’re planning a visit!”

Here is what we know: Anna died on February 12, 1927. She was thirty-six and recently widowed. It must have been cold, maybe snowing on the day she was taken, somehow, up to Minneapolis. Someone must have driven her, feverish, clutched with pain, bleeding, terrified, the 50 miles north to the big city.

Maybe she was too ashamed to go to a local hospital or doctor. Maybe she was too sick. Maybe someone - her mother? - was too ashamed to seek local medical care. I wonder about the car. The driver. The weather conditions. The poor roads. How long did it take to get to Minneapolis? I wonder what her children were told when their mother didn’t return. A burst appendix, perhaps. An accident of some sort. I’m sure there were lies. That I know for certain. I don’t need to research it. This is where I come from.

But I did research the cause of her death. Death certificates don’t lie. Curious about what might have caused the death of a relatively young woman, a widow who was the sole support of six children, I discovered I could order my grandmother’s death certificate from the Minnesota State Historical Society. When the certificate arrived, its stark pronouncement left me reeling: “generalized sepsis due to criminal abortion.”

My paternal grandmother died from a botched abortion. She was a criminal. Best forgotten. I don’t know how she became pregnant back in 1926 or early 1927. A failed relationship with a man who refused to do the right thing? Rape? Had she turned to prostitution to support her children?

I believe that Anna left a legacy, and that the sepsis that she suffered from an illegal abortion did not dissipate with her death.

I grew up in the more cosmopolitan college town about 30 miles to the east, Northfield, home of St. Olaf and Carleton colleges. And though I had never been to Montgomery until the day my sister and I searched for our grandmother’s grave, I have fond memories of slumming at polka dances in New Prague as a high school student. Both New Prague and Montgomery were settled largely by Bohemians/Czechs in the late 1800s. Mostly Catholics. Mostly farm folks. Of course, in Minnesota, eastern Europeans took second, or possibly fifth place, behind Lutheran Norwegians and Swedes.

When Anna died in 1927, my father Joe would have been six years old. His father, Joe Valentine, had died three years earlier. I can’t say for certain that the loss of both his father and mother at such a young age, and his subsequent shuffling from one female relative to the next, made him the alcoholic I knew, a man who, I believe, hated women.

I had practically no contact with my father for my entire life. My parents divorced when I was an infant and I never knew him or heard from him. My mother did not talk about him. My aunts and uncles did not talk about him.

Everything about my father seemed to be hidden away. I have the oddest and quite improbable memory of a picture of World War II soldiers in uniform hanging behind my mother’s dresses in a closet at my grandmother Kate’s house. The one who was supposed to be my father looked to my child’s eyes like Danny Kaye in White Christmas. He was not smiling. His lips curled in what looked to me like a mildly derisive sneer. Years later, after my own children were born, my mother sent me a photo of my father in uniform awaiting duty in the European theater of World War II. Yep, Danny Kaye. I look like my father.

I don’t know why or how Joe showed up, after decades of absence, in Webster, Minnesota, a tiny crossroad not far from my hometown. The day I met him, our first and only meeting, I went with my brother Larry, and my sisters Judy, and Jane to his tiny apartment above the post office. We took turns, knocking and knocking, and then pounding on the door. Finally, we heard a shuffling sound. The lock slid.

Joe was on the floor, drunk, unable to stand up without help. He asked us to get him a six pack of Miller at the liquor store down the block. He was, at the time, in his early 80s. He had a hard time keeping us straight, remembering our names. He asked Judy and Jane and me where our husbands were, but he talked mostly to my brother. As the afternoon wore on, he found a photo album, a handful of snapshots, including one of the five of us taken when I was about three. By then, he had been long gone so I wondered how he had come by this picture. Perhaps my mother had retained some tie to him that she had never mentioned. We tried to ask him about his parents, to find some connection, perhaps, to that side of our family but he avoided our questions.

So, of course, we, her grandchildren, knew nothing about this woman. No one talked about her. Ever. I don’t know what my father was told when his mother died. I don’t know about the ages of his five sisters and brothers, or what their lives were like.

I will never know him and I will never know Anna. But I do know that even in my generation there is a loss of family continuity, of wholeness, of belonging. There are secrets and lies. Only my grainy cell phone snapshot of the picture on the tombstone connects me to this woman. Anna, my grandmother. Anna, an American tragedy, as Theodore Dreiser once wrote, yet another story of a woman who lacked the resources to care for her children and to care for herself, to live legally, safely, to conduct her life with dignity.

Now, there will be more.

broken image

Shirley Peroutka is a professor emeritus in media and cultural studies at Goucher College. She was an artist and writer before becoming becoming a college professor.