Of all the characters in the Ambrose family lore, my great-grandmother Helen Ambrose (Helena Ambroz) fascinates me the most.
In spring of 1902, she left Slovenia (then part of Austria) for America, by way of a steamship from a French port, with four children up to the age of 6. According to the boat manifest at Ellis Island, Helen was 34 years old, had $15 and didn’t speak English.
The youngest of her children was just over a year old and had rickets from malnutrition. Legend has it that little Anton looked unwell and this almost resulted in Helen and the kids being sent back. Somehow, she made it from New York to Kenosha, where her husband Frank (Franz) had arrived a year before.
“She must have been some strong woman,” my father says, as he recounts the tale.
The toddler grew to be a man and was my father’s father. I am told that Grandpa Tony was a sociable fellow. Back in the day, he owned a popular tavern in Kenosha called the Ambrose Keyhole Club.
As with your name and your family, the home you are born to and the one you make for yourself may be very different.
In Slovenia, Helen left behind siblings with her maiden name, Suhadolc. Several years ago, my daughter and my sister and I visited their descendants and explored this beautiful motherland.
“It must have broken her heart into a million pieces to have to leave such a place,” I said, after spending several days among sun-swept country hills, mountains, and castles.
Our distant cousins told us it was all economics. Times were hard, and there was a job waiting for Frank in the United States as a tanner.
At the Gilbert M. Simmons Memorial Library in downtown Kenosha recently, a librarian showed me a treasure trove of local historical photography. As I browsed, I happened across a picture of a tannery from the old days. I was amused to think I might be looking at the place where my great-grandfather worked.
The old library opened in 1900, and my ancestors may have visited the space where I was sitting.
Helen and Frank could not have dreamed how their life choices would ripple across the generations. Their littlest boy’s legacy alone includes dozens and dozens of descendants, among them my siblings and me, most of whom continue to reside in southeastern Wisconsin.
As a child, I knew nothing of our family’s origin. Lately, I have come to appreciate what it means to be from somewhere, that the stuff we are made of goes way, way back.
From Dad’s collection of photos, I borrowed a family portrait of Helen and Frank and their first four kids, from around 1903. Little Anton sits in front. The couple later had a fifth child who was born here.
I search Helen’s face for some resemblance, hoping I might carry forward a fraction of her courage.
If I could reach across time, I would thank her for boarding the boat.
Amy Ambrose writes this column monthly.