BY MARY HELEN STEFANIAK
TAKE THE TIME MY grandmother gave her last $50 to another poor woman who was pulling out her own hair on the boat to America while her children wailed around her. It was 1921. Traveling with my grandmother were her sixteen-year-old daughter (my aunt Madeline) and her eight-year-old son (Uncle Joe). They were coming from their village in Hungary to rejoin my grandfather in Milwaukee after a seven-year separation occasioned by the First World War.
The woman who was pulling out her hair didn’t know you had to have $50 in your pocket when you got off the boat in New York. “Oh, yoy!” the woman had been crying, “I don’t have no money. That’s why we’re going to America!” My grandmother knew that she could wire my grandfather in Milwaukee to send her $50, so she went ahead and gave the money to her desperate fellow passenger.
“Now there is a miracle, and don’t matter what,” Aunt Madeline used to say every time she told me this story. “Because we gotta wait for that money to come, we don’t get on the train right away from New York to Chicago. And next day we find out that train got in a big wreck and lotsa people killed. That’s in 1921, you can look it up. If my ma didn’t give that money away, we woulda been on that train.”
“So did the woman and her kids get killed?” I had to ask.
“What? No, no. That was the train to Chicago and they was going someplace else.”
My aunt Madeline was fluent—though not always standard—in English, Hungarian, and Croatian. When I mentioned this to a linguist at a university reception years ago, he seemed to regard it as a kind of miracle. He explained that these three languages belong to three great language families, which operate in three entirely different ways. After a bit more chat about inflection and accretion and who knows what, the linguist, hors-d’oeuvres in hand, asked me, “And what does your linguistically talented aunt do for a living?”
I told him she worked in a bank, which was true. She was a cleaning lady for many years at First American in Milwaukee.
Another miracle, this one in Iowa City.
My husband and I were walking down Gilbert Street one winter night, arms linked and hands stuffed in our respective pockets, on our way to the new Korean restaurant. A car went by, kids hooting, and something hit John hard in the back. We both whirled around to see, our arms disengaging. “Ow,” said John. “What was that?” I’d seen a white flash so we thought maybe a snowball, although the back of John’s coat was dry. We shrugged it off and went across the street into the restaurant.
After dinner (bok choi, bulgogi), I stood up, put on my coat, and slipped my hands into the pockets, looking for gloves. I stopped.
“John,” I said. “There’s something in my pocket.”
He asked what, of course, but I couldn’t quite say. I was still rolling it around in there.
“I think it’s an egg.”
“You mean like a ceramic egg?” We had a couple of those at home.
“No,” I said. “A real one.” And I drew it out, whole and white, from my coat pocket.
“How did it get in there?” he said.
The miraculous truth was not the first thing that occurred to us.
“Maybe it’s from the restaurant,” I said. It had opened only recently. “Maybe the waitress slips an egg in your pocket and you win a year’s supply of bulgogi.”
There was no such grand opening deal. We had to talk ourselves into believing that we were the victims, or in this case, the beneficiaries, of an egging. The raw egg that hit John squarely in the back had not only failed to break but had somehow rolled down the arm of my black coat—the flash of white—and into my pocket, guided into it, like a foot guided into a shoe by a shoehorn, at the very instant when I pulled my hand out.
Miracle Number Three. Or Four. (Who’s counting?)
Just before Christmas my son calls from Florida. He’s 27.
(That’s a miracle right there: How could Jeff be 27?) He says, “Hey, Mom. You know how I never do anything in the traditional way?”
I hear in his voice the frog pond he and the girls dug in the yard one spring, lining it with plastic garbage bags. I hear the faint echo of his blessedly brief but consuming interest in pyrotechnics, remembering scores of packages of tiny firecrackers he gutted for their fuses and grains of gunpowder. I picture him with the radio- controlled car he transformed by means of spray paint and cardboard into K-9, the robot dog from Doctor Who. I see him in a Halloween robot costume constructed of foam packaging materials and circuit boards ingeniously attached to a zip-front jumpsuit that I actually wore in the 70s, oblivious, at the time, to the robot within.
“Yes?” I say into the phone (aware for only an instant of the miracle that makes him sound so near).
From a thousand miles away, my son says, “Well, I got married!”
My husband and I had to wait until June to spend a few days with our son and his new wife in Florida. Monika was waiting for us at the hotel, wearing the polo shirt that my husband’s sister had sent her from the family real estate office in Milwaukee, the one with “The Stefaniak Group” embroidered on the pocket. I don’t know exactly what it was about her—the way she sort of danced into the shy hug she gave me, or the way she kept taking Jeff’s arm, or maybe it was the wholehearted way she played Pictionary with us one afternoon, although English is not her first language. Something told me almost at once that my son had found someone who loves him at least as much as I do.
And what was it about Jeff? When had I last felt this close to him? It was as if all those barriers we construct to protect ourselves against the slings and arrows of growing up were suddenly unnecessary for him to maintain, as if opening the door to let Monika in had opened a door for the rest of us, too.
And if all that is not miracle enough for you, consider this: Monika is from Hungary. When they go to visit her parents next summer, she’ll take Jeff to see the village my grandmother left in 1921.
We know what Aunt Madeline would say about that.