Friday, July 29, 2011

Meet My Grandmother

My maternal grandmother, Felicja Zajfert (pronounced ZI-fert), was born in or near Bialystok, Poland.  She had terrible childhood memories of blood running in the streets from the pogroms, and she detested bigots of any sort.

Immigrating to the United States as a very young woman, Grandmother went to work as a seamstress in the sweatshops of Chicago early in the 20th century.  Today factory floors are filled with some mindnumbing cacaophony over the loudspeaker.  Back then Grandmother and two of her coworkers would recite poetry to eachother on their breaks.  When the noise of the machines ebbed, you could hear verses by Pushkin, Mickiewicz, or Goethe being recited by three women who had been lucky to get a grade school education back in the old country.

Grandmother married in Chicago in 1917 or 1918 and had two daughters.  The first was my mother, born in 1919.  After the birth of her second daughter during a very difficult delivery at Cook County Hospital in March 1925, the doctor told my grandmother, "Mrs. Zajfert, if you have another baby, you will leave behind a widower and three orphans.";

Grandfather Jozef Michael Zajfert, born in Slesin, Poland, was a decent enlightened human being and not interested in sending his wife to an early grave.  So, they did what they had to do to maintain their marriage that lasted until his death in 1958.  They never mentioned to their daughters which birth control method they were using, and their daughters did not ask.  It was their parents' private business.

Needless to say, Grandmother heard the usual exhortations from the pulpit to be a good Catholic woman and to fill the world with Catholic children at Sunday Mass.  One day -- in the worst days of the Great Depression -- my mother was leaving the church with Grandmother when a woman in tears ran up to the priest.  The woman was begging the priest for help.  Her husband had abandoned her with eight children.  There was no food in the house.  They were being evicted.  She was desperate.  Could he help her --

The priest rebuked the woman, "Woman, nobody told you to have eight children."

Grandmother, God bless her memory, turned on that priest and crawled up and down that fool in Polish and English:  "What do you mean that nobody told her to have eight children?  I've sat here Sunday after Sunday when YOU were preaching that it's the DUTY of 'good' Catholic women to bring baby after baby into this world!  Now that she can't feed them, YOU want her and the babies to just crawl into some corner and starve!  [...]"

The priest was stunned, unaccustomed as he was to being called to account by a woman -- and an immigrant laywoman with only a grade school education at that.  He gave Grandmother a wide berth after that encounter.

My mother never forgot that encounter.  She related it to me when I was a girl as she was telling me about Erasmus of Rotterdam and "free will".  According to my mother, God gave every human being at least two grey cells to rub together in each cranium, and it is our duty to use them to the best of our ability.  It is one thing to consult educated experts about how to handle a problem.  It is quite another to let others do your thinking for you.  So, always think about things and check the experts' credentials both for technical expertise and the soundness of their judgment before you accept their advice.  Never suspend sound judgment and healthy skepticism to follow anyone or anything blindly.

No woman with two grey cells to rub together in her cranium will submit to any hypocrite that can turn on her like that priest in her hour of need.

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