Published June 1, 2010
This is a story. I have no idea if it’s true. I doubt anyone does at this point, because it happened 98 years ago and everyone involved is dead.
My mother told me this story when I was little, and I loved it.
I love family history, family heritage and family lore. My mother couldn’t stand her actual life in the present tense, and so she told stories about the past, where everything was happy and wonderful.
I listened to a lot of stories about people I’d never met and would never know, but over the years, as I visited cemeteries and heard more pieces of stories, and got to know cousins who were so-and-so’s grandchildren, I was hooked.
At one point, my mother could name all 11 (or 12?) of Aunt Hazel’s siblings, and what happened to each of them. It made it much more interesting to visit Aunt Hazel, who was in her late 80s when I was a teenager. Visiting Aunt Polly was a lot more fun when I realized she was the one who stole the blueberries, or swam across Lake Champlain because she didn’t want to pay the dollar for the toll bridge.
So my mother and aunts might quibble with this version. It’s all sort of jumbled together in my head. I never met my great-grandparents, and I don’t know if I spelled their names right. I don’t know if they met here, or in Poland. I don’t know if my great-grandmother was born here or in Poland. I guess I’ll have to start asking questions and actually writing it down -- I used to know some of this, but it’s been forgotten.
And so, since this a story, there might be poetic license involved. And it might be 100 percent true.
My grandmother's name was Eva Golembesky, daughter of Waclawa and Wladyslaw Golembiewski, who were of course known as Nellie and Walter.
Nellie and Walter lived in Mineville, New York, deep in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, across Lake Champlain from Vermont. They call it the North Country, or God's Country. They still hunt bear up there. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, in the summer and fall. In the winter, the average high temperature is 26 degrees. The average low is 7.
And Walter went to work for the Witherbee iron mine.
I don't know how they got from Poland to Mineville, and I don't know if they met in New York or in Poland.
But by 1912, they were married and lived in a tiny house in Mineville, rented from Mr. Witherbee, who owned everything.
He owned the mine, and the houses in town, and the mining equipment you needed to go get ore. If you wanted to be a miner, you had to buy your equipment at the company store, and then they'd take the cost out of your paycheck.
Next door to Walter and Nellie lived Margaret and Victor Smith. Victor Smith was also a miner. Everyone was. But they were born and raised in the Adirondacks.
By 1912, their families had been here 200 years and had fought in the American Revolution, and the Civil War. It must have been interesting living and working next to newly immigrated Poles.
It's 1912. Victor and Maggie have settled in to mining life, and they have a bunch of children. Next door, Nellie and Walter settle in, too, and have a baby. Within a month, the baby has died.
And then another baby is born, less than a year later. And two weeks later, she, too, is dead.
At Victor and Maggie's house, they end up with four living children, and three more who die young, but they can't feel anything but sorry for the Polish couple next door. No living children yet. They try again, and this time the baby lives three months.
Meanwhile, Maggie takes in boarders. They have a tiny house, just three bedrooms and less than 900 sq. feet, but they pack the miners in like sardines. Every night before she goes to bed, Maggie makes the dough for 20 or 30 pot pies for the miners to take for their lunch. She bakes them in the morning, wraps each one tightly to keep them warm until lunch, then makes breakfast for at least ten men. Pancakes, sausage, biscuits. She sends them off with two or three pies each, then spends the rest of the day making beds, cleaning and making dinner for ten very hungry men.
Victor goes to the mines every day with them. He asks every few months if Mr. Witherbee will let him buy his house instead of rent, but is turned down.
The Polish couple have another baby, their fourth. Within a month, this baby is gone, too.
Desperate, they finally consult with a doctor. It takes all of their savings, but this is what savings are for. The doctor does an examination and tells Nellie to come back when she's pregnant again.
She does, and he says, "There is a reason for this, and God has given us a way to make sure that you will have a baby that lives, as long as you honor him and the Bible. When this baby is born, if it's a boy, name him Adam. If it's a girl, name her Eve. This will please God, and the baby will live."
And so Nellie had a girl, and they named her Eva, and they waited. She made it to the six-month mark, and they started to breathe a little easier. And then, for the first time, they had a baby make it to one year old. And then two. And then another baby came along, and she lived, too.
And they had four babies in a row who lived and thrived.
When Eva was 12, her father, Walter, went into the mines one day with his pies wrapped up warmly. Finally, Mr. Witherbee was putting electricity into the mines, so there would light, and clean air would be pumped into the shafts. This was an exciting time for the mine.
Walter reached back behind him into his sack to get his pie and touched a live wire. He was dead when they brought him to the surface. Eva went to work cleaning houses. Now they had no income, but four children to feed.
Less than a year later, Mr. Witherbee offered to sell all of the houses to the miners. He'd give them a mortgage himself, and offered to take the payments right out of their checks. About half the miners in town took him up on it, and were amazed at the possibly of owning a home on a miner's salary. They figured that perhaps Mr. Witherbee had finally made enough money that he would make some changes to safety in the mine, and wanted to build the town up by having everyone own their own home.
This is where Mr. Witherbee lived:
My grandfather, Bernard Smith, Maggie and Victor's oldest son, was 14, and had grown up next to Nellie and Walter and was already in love with Eva. He knew he'd have to support her, fatherless as she was, but he had a bout of polio which crippled and deformed his foot. He tried to work in the mine, but he lasted two days and had enough.
He knew someone who knew someone who'd gone to sea, and that was good enough for him. He went and became a Merchant Marine, and shipped out by the time he was 18, taking his new bride, Eva, with him, away from mining, away from the Adirondacks.
His parents and her mother, though, stayed in Mineville.
They'd bought their houses, you see. And three months after Mr. Witherbee sold everyone their new homes, he closed the mine and put everyone out of work, and the homes were now worthless.
So Eva and Bernie sent money home, and their parents lived out their lives in the tiny red wooden houses in Mineville.
My grandparents did come back, though, to visit, and every summer my mother played in the yards of the tiny red houses where her parents had grown up.
I have stories in my head of Tongue Mountain, and of wild blueberries, and grandma’s house where you took a bath in the living room once a week in an iron tub because there was no plumbing. And of dogs living under the front porch, and a train trip that came to an end when the conductor yelled, “Next stop, TI-CON-DER-OGA!”
There are stories about Leo’s wife, Larry, who was beautiful, and stories of the Smith brothers and the trouble they got into, and a story about Uncle Hank getting hit by a train when he was a baby and living through it. Those days are very real to me, stories or not.
The houses are still there, more than 100 years old, and still have families living in them.
And while all of Eva's siblings left the Adirondacks for warmer climates, most ending up in San Diego, Bernie's family still lives there, running hotels, working in restaurants, hunting and trapping and getting by as they have for the past 300 years.
And that, in a very long-winded way, is why my grandmother was named Eva. And why, in some fashion or form, I’m going to give my daughter that name.
When she’s born, it will be 98 years since her great-granmother was born, and 72 years since her grandmother was born. But in some way, she’ll be connected to those memories, and to those people, and will know where she came from, this little Eve or Evie or Eva or Evangeline. And I’ll feel good about having a daughter who knows the stories.