Icon of Spring is a short but poignant look at the lives of an immigrant Slovak family in a coal mining camp in southwestern Pennsylvania during the Great Depression. It is told from a child's perspective - simple and innocent - yet ever so full of wisdom. In many ways, it is a reflection of what life may have been like for many immigrant families that came to this country and worked as manual laborers in the coal mines, steel mills, and factories. As a piece of social history, the book describes the poverty of the time, the working conditions endured by the mine workers, and their struggle to unionize. It also tells of the hope and opportunity brought by the New Deal and the government works projects as the country was slowly pulling out of recession.
Sonya's family, like many who entered this country through Ellis Island after World War I, found making a life for themselves to be an ongoing struggle. They persevered, however, embracing the belief that life for their children would be better. As one reader reflected in a letter written to the author, "I am overwhelmed by the remarkable courage and faith which sustained seemingly ordinary people who crossed the ocean to build new lives here for themselves and their families." It is this latter point - the importance of faith in sustaining one's journey through life - that provides some of the most moving scenes in the book.
As was common in many places in this country earlier in this century, there were no Orthodox churches nearby her family - the closest being many miles away. Without adequate means of transportation it was difficult to attend services on a regular basis. Nevertheless, their faith was practiced at home as an integral part of their daily lives. The author relays how every evening her father would lead the family in prayer, intoning the petitions from the Divine Liturgy, with the whole family singing the responses. This is how she remembers her parents' devotion that she observed as a young girl:
Time and time again father and mother bent over the grayed black prayer book and talked about the lessons in it. Then, with eyes closed, they meditated as the kerosene lamp burned lower and lower on its wick.
For special occasions, the family traveled to the nearest Orthodox church. One of these occasions was the feast of St. Sophia, namesday of both Sonya and her mother. The tiny church was filled with many images for the senses of a young girl - beautiful painted icons, the light of candles, and the smell of incense. But as mother and daughter worshipped in the church, Sonya's most vivid image was that of the older women:
But it was the babuski [babushki], those women standing at the front of the Church - staunch, solid, and intent upon every word that wended its way upward over the altar in a trail of incense vapor - that I recall most vividly. Whoever the babuski were, they mattered so much that there was no need to ask about them; they were just always there.
As is the story of many first-generation Americans, Sonya is conflicted between being part of a community from the "old country" and wanting to be "American." (In a way it reminded me of the bond between my own mother and grandmother. Although their paths would eventually diverge, they shared much of the same road. As one reader recalls, "Reading [the] book has been a personal blessing. It has given back my own grandmother.
[The] descriptions of your mother and recollections of her words opened a floodgate of memories and feelings which have lain dormant for fifty years.") It was in these moments that Sonya had with her mother that the connection between mother and daughter - old world and new - was made. This is how she remembers the conversation on the way back from attending the Liturgy on their namesday. The babuski were singing the responses. Baba Cebulla had coaxed young Sophie to join but she refused. On the way home her mother chided her:
"But I don't understand that language [Church Slavonic] . . . . I talk English." Later stopping before a bridge on the way home, her mother pointed to a bridge.
"See?" She pointed to the bridge. "That is you."
"Yes, I am Rusyn who come here.
Yet. . ." she struggled hard for just the right words, "I am not 100 percent American. Never." She pointed to her heart. "In here, you not 100 percent American. Your children, maybe, but not you, not yet. You are a bridge between the old country and America." She shook her head vehemently. "But some day you will pray in church in English . . . like you talk."
Life in the "patch" (the village of those who worked in the coal mine) was hard, but the community provided love that nurtured and supported them. This sense of community was extended and deepened in the sacramental life of the Church. Sonya relays the experience of her first confession as one in which her initial feelings of trepidation and uncertainty give way to a sense of "safety filling her being." In one of the most profound examples of simple wisdom that I have ever read, Sonya describes the experience:
Father Igor listened most intently and seemed . . . to hear something more than what human lips were speaking. Then, instead of the scolding I half expected, with one arm about my shoulder, he told me of someone who loved me in a way no one else could. I was very special to the Person. In fact, I was the daughter of the King of Kings. And from this moment henceforth and forevermore, no matter what happened in my life - good and bad, and there would be both - I must never, never forget that Love and always remember to talk to God quietly, just as Father Igor and I were doing right then, and God would never fail me and would guide me, mostly through other people, to help in troubles with my brothers and sisters, my friends, school, and later - in all my life . . . ."
It was this knowledge of God - a knowledge gained through the experience of community - that guided and upheld the family during the hardships of the Great Depression. By the end of the era, the family members began to the leave the patch and move on. Like so many families from that time, the children would grow up to experience life differently from their parents - a life that included literacy, and perhaps even the university. They would move from a "world of pure feeling to one intermixed with intellect to give it balance." Many would make their way into the middle class, complete with a house in the suburbs; a chance to live the American Dream.
Some would leave and never look back. Others would leave and take a part of that life with them. For Sonya, it was the image of her mother - her faith and her humanness - that would always be with her. As Sonya concludes her story, "And then I perceived that icons, too, can take many forms, and hers to me was the gift of days and years of deep humanness that had sustained me."