My parents brought me over from Czechoslovakia in 1939 and here I was, a seven-year old, knowing three words of English: Please, Thank you and Donkey. Off I went to a Brooklyn public school in my weird Czech clothes, an only child’s heart full of terror. I was asked on one of the early days in second grade to write a composition about Christopher Columbus. Who was that? I sat with pencil in hand, expecting to be sent home, or worse, to the office of the principal. The teacher took pity, said a few kind words and took away the piece of paper on which I’d written my name and the title: “Explorer,” copied from the blackboard.
I had so much to learn: Peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, Coca Cola, and corn on the cob. I recited the Pledge of Allegiance, in those days without “under God.”
Where are you from? the kids wanted to know. How do you say it? How do you spell it? Where is it, anyway?
Things slowly got better. I saved my allowance for a certain kind of American cardigan sweater, buttons in back. I made a friend. Ate Good Humor ice cream on a stick.. I learned English.
In due course, I am proud to say I had twenty books published in my new language.
Last summer I went back to Prague, that most beautiful of European cities. My cousin had stayed behind and I had a chance to see what my life would likely have been if we’d stayed behind.
She’s lived difficult years under the Nazis, then the Communists, with never enough money for more than rent for a modest apartment and gas for the car to get to work. Lack of any opportunity reduced this clever and charming woman to dreary years working as a bank clerk.
She showed up in an old outfit I’d sent her from America. Showed me her wedding photos: she’d been married in one of my discarded dresses.
My life as an American has been full of advantages, too many to enumerate here. Prague is breathing free and full of charm these days, but the contrast in our parallel lives says it all.
Liberty, justice and peanut butter –I learned to love it all.