My grandmother is on the right, photographed in a studio with an unknown friend. The matching outfits are probably Sokol uniforms, the Sokols being a social organization for Slovaks which revolved around gymnastics, dance, and camaraderie. I love the way the photographer placed them so that the fake window in the backdrop is on the right edge of the frame, the diagonal line of the curtain continuing down into my grandmother’s right leg and foot. Though stiff and somewhat contrived, he girls’ pose is still graceful and resolute, made all the more poignant by the debris scattered on the studio carpet. The horizontal line made by my grandmother’s left arm combined with the perpendicular white sash running down her leg serve to anchor the duo perfectly in the space. The other girl’s stance, by comparison, is less resolute. Her eyes show just the slightest tinge of doubt, and her grip on my grandmother’s raised hand seems somewhat tentative. Likewise her body seems a bit more frail, having not quite the presence of Susan’s stocky peasant build.
Susan Polacek arrived in the United States at age 14, penniless and with no relatives to meet her. She cleaned houses for “rich people,” later taking the ferry across the Hudson each day to clean offices in Rockefeller Center. She claimed the bathroom fixtures in “the big boss’s office” were made out of gold.
Consequent to these experiences, Susan was a resourceful individual, and could be tough when she felt it necessary. My mother tells the story of when one day, sixty or more years after this picture was taken, Susan ambled out of the kitchen to find my grandfather sitting at his desk, staring out the window, tears streaming down his face. Though we’ll never know the exact reason, my mother believes my grandfather was pining for the old country.
“Whatsamatta with you Pop?,” she said. “Come in de kitchen I just made nice coffee. Forget about it.”
A few years after this photo was made, my grandmother gave birth to my mother in 1918, my Uncle Joe in 1921 and my Uncle John in 1923. By the time she was twenty one, she had three children and her Sokol career had ended. Unlike my grandfather, who loved his homeland and had emigrated reluctantly, Susan had been cast out by her family and never expressed any interest in visiting the old country. She believed the United States was the greatest country on earth.