Tag Archives: Ellis Island

Embracing My Heritage

Several weeks ago, I had a very unusual dream.  I was in a large auditorium.  I don’t sing or dance, so it is rather surprising that I was onstage.  My performance had just ended, and I was walking down the wooden steps at the front of the stage.  As I moved through the crowded auditorium, people were clapping for me and patting me on the back.  I was hugged and told how much I was loved.  I politely thanked everyone but continued walking through the room.  I didn’t stop moving until I came to the very back of the auditorium where I suddenly noticed an elderly woman standing in the last aisle.  I stopped walking and stared at her for a moment.  Her dark, heavy hair was hanging in waves down to her shoulders, and her dark eyes were looking deeply into mine.  Her mouth was set in a firm but kind line.  For just a moment, we looked at each other and breathed deeply.  Then the woman stepped forward and pulled me into a deep embrace.  Her thin arms were wrapped tightly around me as she told me how much she loved me.  She told me how proud she was of me as I hugged her close.  At that moment, I opened my eyes, and I was no longer in the auditorium.  I wasn’t surrounded by crowds of people.  Instead, I woke up in my own bed in my home in Kansas City, Kansas.  But even though I realized then that I had been dreaming, I still believed that I could feel the elderly woman’s arms holding me close. 

There was no doubt that the woman who embraced me so intensely was my paternal grandmother, Mary Zunick, who had passed on more than 25 years ago.  I was surprised in my dream that I could feel so loved by someone I never really knew.  I wasn’t close to Grandma Zunick while I was growing up.  I wasn’t comfortable being around her.  Her stern, morose personality scared me.  I didn’t like the smell of the exotic, foreign foods that filled her home.  I didn’t understand why she always wore long dresses and kept her hair pulled tightly back behind her head.  I struggled to understand the words she spoke in a heavy, strong, harsh accent.  Grandma would struggle with English for most of her life.  As a child, I was too impatient, too scared, and too nervous to spend any time with my grandmother except on holidays when the whole family would get together.

But then, in 2008, my mother and I decided to go on a long road trip to the east coast.  In New York, we stopped at Ellis Island to pay homage to the many immigrants whose dreams and hard work made America strong.  I watched as my mother frantically searched through the long lists of names engraved in stone plagues around the courtyard.

“What are you doing, Mom?”  I asked her curiously.

Mom absentmindedly answered me.  “I’m looking for the name Mary Ozanic.”  I stared silently at her for a moment with a blank look on my face.  “Your grandmother,” she clarified for me.

That’s when I finally knew my Grandmother Zunick’s maiden name.  Suddenly, I felt a strange shift in my heart and mind.  I leaned forward and helped my mother search until we finally found the name “Mary Ozanic” carved into the brass plaque on one of the many short stone walls that surround Ellis Island.  I suddenly felt inspired and, on our drive back to Kansas, I began to ask my mother about my grandmother’s life.  My mother’s information triggered an interest in genealogy in me.  Through online explorations and deep discussions with relatives, I found out some very interesting information that made me look at my family, especially Grandma Zunick, in a completely different way.

My grandmother was born Mary Ozanic in Yugoslavia on October 30, 1904.  Mary’s mother passed away when she was just a young girl.  Her family consisted of two sisters, a younger brother, and her father, who left his family behind to create a new life in America.  A few years later, when Mary was in her late teens, she traveled with her two sisters, Kate and Anna, to the United States to be with their father.  The young women arrived in America on August 10, 1922.  They settled in Kansas City, Kansas in a district known as Strawberry Hill, which is mainly populated with immigrants from Yugoslavia and Croatia.

Unfortunately, Mary and her sisters had to leave behind a 10-year-old brother, Jozes, in Yugoslavia.  The siblings would not see each other again until Jozes finally visited America 56 years later in June 1978.  It was an incomplete reunion since Mary’s father and sister, Anna, had passed away several years before.  This was the only reunion the family would ever have.  After two weeks, Jozes returned to his home in Krjnski Kuzelj, a small mountain village, where he worked as a tailor.  After Jozes’s departure, Mary and Anna dreamed of returning to Yugoslavia, but due to financial concerns, time constraints, and health complications, Mary and Kate would never see Yugoslavia or their brother ever again. 

I have the only existing photo of Mary, Anna, and Jozes from their 1978 reunion.  I have amazing pictures of my Grandmother Zunick receiving her American citizenship shortly after arriving in the United States.  I smile when I look at my grandmother’s wedding photo.  Mary Ozanic married Joseph John Zunick, when she was in her early twenties.  It was rather a marriage of convenience.  The couple respected each other but rarely talked about any important matters.  Grandma didn’t even know that she had married a man 25 years older than she was until their 8th wedding anniversary.  The couple had two sons, Albert, in 1928, and my father, Joseph John Jr, in 1934.  Mary was a stern mother who worked hard to keep her young sons in line.  My father used to laugh when he told stories about hiding under the bed because my strict grandmother had chased him around the room while swatting him with a long handled broom.

Grandma passed away in December, 1992, after a complication of diabetes and heart disease.  She passed while I was living in England, so I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye.  Having learned so much about my family history over the last few years, I have tremendous respect for my grandmother.  I just wish I had spent more time with her while she was alive.  I understand now the challenges and losses Mary had to overcome to make a better life for herself and her family.  I have learned to respect and truly appreciate my heritage now.  I would love to tell her just how much she means to me.  But maybe the embrace Grandma offered to me in my dream was a way of letting me know that she loves me, too, and that she is always with me, Even though we may be separated by time and space, we will always have a connection through blood, through family, through dreams, and mostly, through love.