America is, at its heart, a nation of immigrants. Millions of people have passed through New York and San Francisco harbors seeking out what the United States was founded on: freedom, democracy, and opportunity. Among the masses that came were the parents of Marie Gjersee. In 1913, Marie's families left their native Bulgaria for Steele, North Dakota, which had recently passed a law that allowed for the distribution of free land to settlers who promised to maintain and improve the territory. They set about cultivating golden fields of flax, corn, and wheat and raising cattle and sheep.
Marie Gjersee was born into this farming community, the oldest of five children. Her childhood could easily be an excerpt from a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. The natural beauty of the prairie—the song of the meadowlark, thunder on a stormy day, the wind whistling through fields of wheat, and endless expanses of sky—color her every memory. Marie attended the proverbial one room schoolhouse and many of her anecdotes are from her school days. The walk to school was four miles through the fields. The school bullies would torment the girls during the long march, but Marie was never on the receiving end of their tricks. A firm smack of her lunch bucket was enough to keep the boys at bay. Marie was among the more daring girls. In her first grade year, she ventured out too far on the frozen pond and fell into the thin ice and had to spend the rest of the school day waiting for her dress to dry.
As part of the first generation of her family to be born in America, Marie was also the first to learn English. She spoke Bulgarian at home, but quickly came to adore the English language. She kept a notebook with her at all times, even when she went to bed, in which she recorded new words that she learned. Along with her love of the language went her love of music. Marie often used music to help her learn English.
But by the early 1930s, the Dust Bowl had forced Marie's family to move by train from their farm in North Dakota to Oregon. It was harvest time, and windfall apples littered the land along the train tracks. Her father could not adjust to the city lifestyle and abandoned Marie, her four siblings, and mother. Marie's mother took on a job as a janitor at the local high school to support the family. Later, she graded lumber at the local lumber company. Marie's first paying job was also at the lumber company, where she served as the clerk.
Marie's high school years went by quietly until the winter of 1941. December 7 was a beautiful sunny Sunday. It was senior year and Marie and her girlfriends were enjoying the morning when they heard that Pearl Harbor, Hawaii had been attacked by the Japanese.
Marie felt an overwhelming sadness, because she knew that their lives were going to change irreversibly. Her classmates, most just 18 years of age, rushed to enlist in the army. Among them were her two younger brothers. Marie, too, was caught up in the patriotic fervor. She joined the Coast Guard as a volunteer and was stationed at the Port of Seattle, Washington. She also worked at the War Manpower Commission as a teletype operator. Marie and her family were among the lucky ones. Their family survived World War II without suffering any losses.
The vast political and cultural changes that occurred in the decades after the Second World War did not fail to affect Marie. The civil rights moment, as viewed through the evening news, has an indelible place in Marie's reminiscence. She remembers feeling a strong sense of empathy for the African-Americans fighting for their rights. As a child of immigrant parents, she too understood the hatred born of fear that was repressing the African-American community.
She also remembers vividly the assassination of John F. Kennedy. She was standing in the meat market when a stranger told her that the president had been shot. Marie had liked JFK because he talked about being a "good American." As many Americans would agree, Marie remembers the aftermath of the assassination as a sad time.
Then there was the Vietnam War. Of all the local boys who tried to enlist, only her 18-year-old son was chosen. He spent four years patrolling the deltas of Vietnam on a riverboat. He came home with long hair and a beard and spent years of his life roaming the country trying to readjust to civilian life. There were times when Marie had no idea where her son was. It was a difficult period for the entire family.
But there were good times too. The moonwalk captured the nation's imagination and renewed Marie's love for nature. When her son found the planet Saturn in his telescope one night, looking close enough to touch, she suddenly felt how personal space exploration was.
By 1972, Marie was living and working in California. She was enjoying her job at the Martinez Veteran's Hospital. All the time, she kept returning to the things that she loved: music and language.
After moving to Fairfield, Marie took up teaching at the Fairfield Civic Center. She decided to incorporate her love of music with her attraction to physical activity. She taught a wildly popular dance class that was based solely on her own lesson plans. Marie counts instructing this class as one of the most rewarding experiences of her life. In her retirement, Marie has also been able to celebrate her favorite musicians by attending concerts.
At every opportunity, Marie has returned to school to learn Russian. Throughout the Cold War, she watched Soviet premiers give speeches on the television, trying to catch snippets of words she recognized.
She had a game with her siblings. One would throw out a Russian word that they remembered from their youth and the others guessed at its meaning. The game brought them closer together and reminded them of days past on the prairies and in the city. Her love of the English language has also brought her much joy. Whether reading a magazine or serving as a secretary, Marie has always found pleasure in words. Marie is currently in a creative writing group. Her work is inspired by the natural environment she grew up in as a child. The sun, the sky, the row upon row of rustling wheat, the thunder, the birdsong, the peace.