I was born in May, the month of spring flowers and sweet strawberries, wild asparagus and soft winds. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I share this birthday month with two of my closest cousins, Judi and Johnnie, and my niece Rachel. But today I am thinking of my Grandmother, Annie Jane Devine Uknavage, a woman I never knew.
Born on May 11, 1900, in southern Indiana, Annie’s life was hard. Her father died when she was twelve, leaving her mother, Gertie Mae, with five children to raise by herself. Perhaps that’s why Annie married when she was just fourteen, to Joe Uknavage, a Lithuanian coal miner immigrant. Joe was fourteen years older than Annie and provided a haven to a fourteen year old girl who had just lost her father. Or maybe Joe was smitten with this sprightly waif and wooed her away. The life he offered her was nothing glamorous, living in the drafty little wooden house in a coal camp, Royalton, Illinois. And Joe was a drinker.
Annie gave birth to her first child, a girl, in July of 1915 and they named her Petrona, a slightly americanized Lithuanian name, after her grandmother Petronele. Their next child, a daughter born in 1918 named Gertrude after Annie’s mother, died at birth. My father, Joseph Uknavage Jr. was born in August of 1920, followed by his only brother, William born in 1924.
I’m told that Annie’s doctor warned her that she should not have any more babies, that her health was at risk. And for the next thirteen years she managed that, not an easy thing to do before the days of birth control pills.
Then, in 1937, she became ill, probably pregnant again, although I have no proof of that, and Joe “dropped her off” at her mother’s home in nearby Wasson, Illinois. I would like to think that he believed she would get the best care there but her family tells it this way, “He left her there to die.” And she did die, December 1st, 1937. My father was away in the CCC’s at that time and they called him home in time to see his mother one last time and to pray for her. When his prayers were unanswered, he left, an angry young man, angry with God, angry with the world.
On February 6, 1940, Annie’s husband, Joe, died in Royalton, a month shy of his 45th birthday. His daughter Petrona was married with a child of her own by then and both of his sons joined the Navy. Many years before my birth my grandparents, Joe and Annie, were gone and all I know about them I’ve learned from the sad stories I’ve been told, first by my father, and later by relatives.
Dad told me his mother had a terrible temper and once chased him around the yard wielding a butcher knife with every intent of using it on him. Annie’s sister told me she was a small woman who worked hard all her life. I knew two of her brothers but never once asked them to tell me about my grandmother. That opportunity is lost. So, I am trying to learn about Grandma Annie, bring her to life in my mind, imagine her living with Joe and raising those three children in that little house. I have a few photographs that capture moments in her life. For those I am thankful. And I know that she lives in me, in my genetic makeup. To quote one of my favorite songs, “Grandma’s Song”, by Gail Davies, “and I pray that there is a little of her in me”. I’m pretty sure I got her temper. I’m glad we were both born in May. I’ll bet there’s more…how else to explain that our husbands wear the same overalls and hat?