Ask previous generations about their life stories
There’s a picture of my Lithuanian grandmother, Cecelia Bachalis, hanging in my kitchen. She’s in her grocery store in Deutzville, a section of south Trenton, holding a loaf of Fleischmann’s white bread in front of shelves filled with a wide variety of Campbell soups. It was part of a promotion that the old bread company was putting on at the time.
She’s beaming a beautiful smile, looking straight at the camera, as happy as a grocer could be. I came into possession of the photo when my parents moved from the house we grew up in; it was stuck in the back of a closet in my sister’s room, if I recall correctly.
Grandmom and Grandpop Bachalis ran a series of grocery stores as they made their way from Brooklyn through Elizabeth to Trenton, as far as I know, from the 1920s or 1930s until about 1954, when she closed the store to move in to our home to help my recently-widowed father care for us. My grandfather passed away in 1933 when my dad was 18, but Grandmom, presumably with Dad’s help for some of the time, kept operating the grocery store for another 21 years.
Recently, as my wife Barbara and I sat contentedly after a delicious dinner she had made, I contemplated this picture of Cecilia. I don’t know when the photo was taken, but judging from Grandmom’s countenance, etc., it seems like it was shot in the late 1940s or very early 1950s, well after Grandpop had passed, well enough after Dad had served and returned from duty in World War II, and probably after she had at least two or three of her four grandchildren.
Grandmom never got to attend school. Her father forbade her, laughing at her wishes with the comment that school was only for boys. So, any learning she had was from practical applications on the farm in Lithuania, cleaning house in New York City after her immigration here in the very early 1900s, and then owning and operating a series of grocery stores.
She was a strong, vibrant, down-to-earth woman, filled with the wisdom only a peasant, someone close to the earth, could encompass. I miss her to this day.
When I was a young adult, I had the sense to engage her in a few conversations about her life as a girl back in the homeland (she emigrated at 18 years of age), her early life here in America, and some smattering of the Lithuanian language.
She passed away when I was 34, so I was extremely fortunate to have known her for a long time (though not long enough).
But as much as I may have discovered about her, I know now it was not near enough. Looking at the photo of her in her store, I was flooded with a load of new questions: given her limited education, how did she handle all the operations of the store? Her store had so many different products for sale, how did she handle ordering supplies, etc.?
If you’re a businessperson, you know there are endless details to address. I assume my father was already helping at the store: how much more did he need to step up (and as a teenager poised on the cusp of college!) to help out? Did that have something to do with his decision to major in accounting (although he later also took a law degree from Rutgers)? What support system from limited family and friends in America kept Grandmom afloat and functioning after Grandpop’s death? What was her relationship like with my father, both before and after Grandpop died?
For that matter, what was her relationship like with my grandfather, and what was he like? What did she see as her greatest joy? Her greatest disappointment? When Dad enlisted after Pearl Harbor and was sent to Europe to fight, how did she cope? Did she greet him when he returned (I don’t even know where that would have been, having not asked enough questions even of my father). How was he after the war, different or much the same?
How did she react to the news of my mother’s passing so early? I had never considered all of the details of her life that should have been recorded.
So, what’s the point of this extended and perhaps maudlin story? Simply this: this winter, take the time to ask questions of your elders (or, if you’re an elder, of yourself), write down or record the conversations, print them out and share with family members, and keep asking more questions based on the new information you’ve received.
You will never have another chance to learn about the human being that is your father, mother, Grandmom, Grandpop, uncle, aunt, etc. When their time passes, you usually have only the smattering of information you’ve been able to glean from random talk at the holiday table.
This year, make it different: make it intentional. Ask them for their life stories. Make sure you get a record of it, for yourself and for the future generations of your family. And also for all of us, because the story of one family is in many ways the story of many families in this beautiful country of immigrants struggling to survive and thrive.
And consider sharing the stories with the Historical Society of Hammonton, so the stories are not only preserved but preserved in a stronger fashion than just sticking them in the back of a closet.
I wish you all a very happy new year. We are one large family, the human family, and we all need to stick together and share and understand our stories. Blessings to all.
Dan Bachalis is a former town councilman and has served a number of town committees. He currently serves as the chairman of the Hammonton Environmental Commission, the Lake Water Quality Commission, Bicycle Advisory Committee and the Veterans Affairs Committee.