Matriarch: An Immigrant Woman in the Gilded Age

By Jessica Prescott

When Charity announced this month’s theme, “Favorite Historical Periods,” I knew right away what I’d choose: the Gilded Age.

I know, I know. I see a lot of you scratching your heads out there. The Gilded Age? Late 1800s to early 1900s, right here in plain old America? You’re remembering your history textbooks, probably; a few black-and-white photographs of sweatshops, child labor, and fat-chinned oil tycoons. Desperate farmers raking through the dust of the Great Plains. Maybe throw in a quote from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and that’s your mental picture… of a grimy, grinding, hopeless era, when people squandered wealth, while babies starved.

Your mental picture is accurate. The Gilded Age was a time of tremendous income inequality and widespread suffering among both urban and rural workers. And never, for a single moment, would I want to make light of that. But let me tell you a little story.

“Picture it,” says Sofia from Golden Girls. “Sicily, 1912.” Only this isn’t Sicily 1912. Our story begins in 1908, in a little pocket of the Russian Empire known as Lithuania. Our hero, Magdalena Brazdakis, is just seventeen. Magdalena is the oldest in her family, and her parents have heard there’s money to make in America. They write to a Lithuanian couple in Poquonock, Connecticut, arranging work for Magdalena as a laundry maid. They scrape together enough cash to pay her passage, and off she goes… alone. At seventeen.

Before crossing the ocean, there’s an even bigger challenge: crossing the border. Russian soldiers patrol the forests, charged with stemming the tide of emigration. They have orders to shoot on sight. Magdalena gets a ride in the bottom of a hay wagon. The driver bribes the guard, then tells the girl to get out and start running. “If someone yells at you to stop, just keep going. They’ll kill you anyway.”

Miraculously, she makes it out alive.

After a rough Atlantic voyage, Magdalena Brazdakis arrives at Ellis Island. She’s met by the Lithuanian family who hired her, moves into their Connecticut home, and sets to work washing and ironing. She sends her wages to her parents. She meets and marries a Lithuanian boy, a tobacco worker named William Kracunas. Over time, Magdalena births eight children. Over time, William turns out to be an alcoholic. To feed her babies—since he can’t, or won’t—Magdalena Kracunas takes a job in a typewriter factory. She comes home each day with steel splinters in her palms. But she survives it all, for a full seven decades of life in America. At her passing in 1978, she leaves behind dozens of grandchildren, scores of great-grandchildren, and (eventually) God knows how many great-great-grandchildren.

I’m one of them.

We call her Grandma Kracunas, and if there was ever a woman to whom the title “matriarch” applies, it’s her. She was the foundation of our family in this country. A strong woman who stepped up and succeeded when the men around her failed. It’s hard to imagine a worse time for a penniless young girl to arrive in America than the Gilded Age, with its trifecta of low wages, hazardous conditions, and discrimination against women and ethnic/racial minorities. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story. I don’t for one moment believe these terrible conditions were “needed” to make people like Magdalena Brazdakis Kracunas “tough,” in some kind of survival-of-the-fittest challenge. She was tough already. Tough enough to prevail over injustices which never should have been allowed, tough enough to make a new beginning for my family. And today, here we stand. Americans, for better or for worse.

Here’s to you, Grandma Kracunas.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott writes books under the name Katie Hanna and blogs under the name Charles Baker Harris (confusing, she readily admits). You can find out more about Jessica, her pet projects, and her obsession with Doctor Who at I’m Charles Baker Harris (And I Can Read).

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