As if I can look back in time… I can see my great-grandmother with such certain clarity!
by Charlie Leck
My maternal great grandmother’s name, before she married my great-grandfather, was Mary Doubrava. She was born in 1864 in Bohemia – now generally referred to as Czechoslovakia – 146 years ago. Her mother, Marie (my great-great grandmother, was twenty-one years old when she gave birth to Mary.
I was born in 1940. Mary Doubrava would have been 76 years old when I was born – an old woman who had given birth to two boys and two girls.
What do I know about great-grandmother? You want me to answer – “nothing!” Yet, I contend that I can see her in my parents’ apartment, on St. Anne’s Avenue in the Bronx, as she looked down at me on the day of my birth and shook her head and gathered her thoughts.
“Ježíš Schmallyá! A Bohunk, indeed,” she said. “A real bohunk! Look at his nose!”
Mary Doubrava had come to America with her parents, John and Marie, in about 1880, as a 16 year old girl. My, what a beauty she was. Thinking about her beauty, leaves me nearly breathless. She was a tall and slender girl, with attentive and remarkable breasts. Her legs were very long and strong looking and so were her arms. She had straight black hair, cut exquisitely short, with bangs neatly cut across the center of her forehead. Her nose was slightly pugged, but delightfully small and delicate. It was her eyes that made her so attractive. They were the color of dark chocolate and they were large, confident and penetrating. Everything about her seemed in perfect proportion. Her skin was delicate looking and radiantly white; however that first time I saw her, on the ship's deck, her cheeks and forehead bore a hint of pinkness from the time spent outdoors in the sun and wind while crossing the sea.
The moment I saw her, I knew it was she. She paused on the deck, in front of the ramp that led down from the ship to the dock, and she looked out upon the faces of those waiting for family and friends to disembark. She saw my face in the crowd and her eyes bore into me and her large mouth and lips formed a ravishing smile of charming happiness. She seemed to wait for the way in front of her to clear and then she came down the long gangway in front of her parents, carrying only one small suitcase, with a large purse that hung on a long strap that lay across her shoulder. Her parents, both 47, were wide-eyed and nervous as they followed her. John Doubrava was struggling with two large suitcases while his stunningly beautiful wife – as dazzling as a princess – carried only her small purse.
Among those who greeted the Doubrava family upon its arrival were members of their families and many friends who had earlier arrived in America. As soon as John, Marie and Mary appeared at the top of the gangway, great cheers and loud clapping rose up from this gathering of hopeful people who waited on the dock.
My great-grandfather, Anton Svejda, was among the gathered greeters. He was a young man, two years older than Mary Doubrava. His father, Francis, owned a delivery and moving service that amounted to a single horse and wagon. John Doubrava was an old friend, and so Francis volunteered his son’s services to move the family's luggage and steamer trunk from the piers on 14th Street over to the east side of lower Manhattan and Little Bohemia.
Anton was overwhelmed by Mary’s beauty when he saw her descending the gangway. He had never seen such a smile or eyes that glistened so brightly. His heart pounded and he was nearly overcome with longing and hopefulness.
I stood far away, but I could see the handsome young man in the crowd and I could see the look of wonder in his eyes. He was a strong lad, with powerful shoulders, arms and hands. His body, with a broad, tight chest and powerful legs, looked as if it could have been sculpted by an Italian renaissance artist. Like Mary, he, too, had dark hair and deep, brown eyes. His nose was prominent and powerful and his jaw was square.
Anton held back while many in the crowd rushed forward to gather Marie, John and Mary in their arms, welcoming them to the land of such promise. He waited patiently, glancing only occasionally toward the street to make sure that his horse was still secure and undisturbed by the shouting and the whistling that came from the vessels on the river. Soon Mikolas Vavelas came to him with the claim check for the steamer trunk.
“Mr. Doubrava tied wide, yellow ribbons on the handles at each end of the trunk, Anton – to make it easier for you to identify it. You’ll need to have this claim document to retrieve it, son.”
Anton knew the routine. He’d been sent here by his father, to perform duties just like this, a number of times. He headed for the baggage claim area to look for the trunk. The line of people claiming their property seemed longer than any he had seen before and the process moved ever so much more slowly than other times that he had come here. Yet, when he cleared the baggage checks and lugged the big trunk, across his strong back, toward the street, he could see her waiting patiently near the horse and wagon. She was chatting with some other pretty, young girls and Mikolas was there, patting the old, gray horse and talking with John Doubrava.
“Ah, ha! Such good work, Anton! And so quickly, too.” Mikolas shouted cheerily to Anton as he broke from the dense crowd of people with the big trunk still secure on his back. He heard what John Doubrava then said to Mikolas.
“A powerful young man to haul such a heavy load upon his shoulders.” He clapped politely as Anton approached and others in the small crowd joined him. Mary turned away from her girl friends to see what had caused the ovation and she saw Anton approaching the wagon. Their eyes met and she smiled broadly at him. It was at that precise moment that he fell in love with her – before the two had ever said a word to each other.
Mikolas waited until Anton had untied the horses and climbed up onto the seat before he began to help the ladies climb up next to the driver. Anton sat to the left and there was barely room for the two ladies to fit on the seat next to him. Mary came first and squeezed tightly against Anton. Marie found just enough room and snuggled in next to her daughter. Anton could feel the marvelous heat of the girl’s body against his. He found it very pleasurable, but also embarrassing. He kept his eyes straight ahead and damned his face for burning so and likely turning slightly reddish.
“Gablasha,” Mikolas shouted to Anton in their native tongue. “Meusta vey!” [Go! Be careful!]
I watched as Anton flicked the reins on the old horse’s hind flanks and the wagon creaked as it moved away from the pier. Anton turned east on 14th Street and the gelding slowly clomped his way forward, trailing the members of the family and friends who walked ahead of them. The mother saw something off to their right and laughed and pointed it out to Mary. They both laughed gaily. Anton couldn’t see what had drawn their attention.
It was nearly half an hour before they reached 1st Avenue and turned south. At 10th Street, Anton turned the horse and wagon east again and drove carefully over to Avenue A and the northwest corner of Tompkins Square. There, he turned south again and pointed off to his left at the big park. He spoke to the passengers in Bohemian.
“This is the center of Little Bohemia. The park is always busy on nice days, especially on Saturdays and Sundays. There is always entertainment, like singing and dancing and acrobats and fools.”
Mary and Marie looked over at the park. What they really noticed was that it was surrounded by dense housing. Apartment buildings that were three and four stories tall were packed along every street and avenue. On the street level there were shops and café restaurants and beer halls. They had come from a small village in Bohemia – perhaps of 400 people – and New York was overwhelming to them, but also exciting. They felt as if they had embarked upon a great and important adventure.
They passed by the park and soon arrived at 4th Street and turned east again. Anton moved the horse and wagon far to the right, near the curb and saw the crowd of friends waiting for them. John Doubrava waved to his wife and daughter as the wagon pulled up in front of their new home. Again, there was clapping, shouting and cheering. The smile on John Doubrava's face was broad and real. He was very excited about showing his ladies where they would settle and make an American home. He reached up and took his wife’s hand and helped her navigate her way to the street. As that was happening, Mary turned to Anton and touched his arm softly. She spoke in perfect English.
“Thank you so much. And please thank your father, too. Tell him I look forward to meeting him.” She bowed her head slightly toward the young man and then turned to her father and took his hand.
Anton tried to say something in reply but his tongue seemed not to be working. He looked at the girl’s lovely figure as she bent, seeking a way to climb down from the old carriage. He could imagine Mary’s taunt and curvaceous figure beneath the layers of material that made up her long dress. The girl bent forward, seeking her father’s helping hand. Anton had to look away because his pulse pounded wildly.
“Goodbye, Anton,” the girl said from the ground, looking back up at him, as if teasing him into saying something – anything! He turned and looked back at her.
“Perhaps you could take me for a walk sometime," she said, "and show me around Little Bohemia.”
“Da,” Anton managed to force out. “Ano to bylo pěnkné!” [Yes, that would be nice!]
The girl smiled and nodded and then took her mother's hand and walked away. John Doubrava smiled up at Anton, as if approving.”
“Přivedu zavazadla spolu, Mr. Doubrava” [I’ll bring the trunks along.]
“Děk, Anton. Děkuji,” John Doubrava said, extending his hand up to the boy and then moving off after his women. [Thanks, Anton. Thank you!]
The smitten young man climbed down from the wagon and handed the reins to the horse to his cousin, Vaclav Borcla.
“Hold the old boy, Vaclav, while I get the trunk and travel cases out of the wagon and up to the Doubravas' apartment.” Vaclav took the lines from Anton and winked at him.
“See the girl? Isn’t she a knock-out!” Vaclav used his best English to ask the question and he did his best to accent it like a proper, New York, American boy.
Anton looked at him calmly. He frowned mysteriously, as if he didn’t understand what Vaclav was talking about and then answered him in perfect English.
If you have read this far, I hope you recognized the above as fiction – as only my hopeless imaginings about how my Great-Grandfather Svejda might have met the beautiful, young Bohemian girl, Mary Doubrava.
And, if you did read this far, your reward follows. Here are some extraordinary photographs from the archives of the Library of Congress. The one at the head of this blog is my favorite of all those I looked through in the last few days. As you look at these, keep in mind that the Ellis Island facility pictured here did not open until 1892, quite a few years after the last of my ancestral family had arrived in America. The Statue of Liberty facility did not open until 1886 and all of my family arrived before that as well.
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