Sunday, April 12, 2015

My Grandmother and Science

I came home from school to discover that one of my science books was out, next to the couch.  My grandmother had been reading it. She probably spent an hour a day with the book for a few days. 

Christmas 1966.
Her father's name was Covanic,
but he changed the spelling when he
moved to Hungary from Croatia.
Agnes Kovanics was born on January 21, 1896, the village of Szentkirályszabadja in the county of Veszprem in the kingdom of Hungary, within the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy.  She witnessed the advent of the automobile, airplane, radio, television, and space travel. 

When the Earth was predicted to pass through the tail of Halley’s comet in May 1910, she joined her village in church to pray for their salvation.  Of course, nothing happened…  It might have been then that a light went on. Perhaps she recalled the event much later when her experiential world expanded.  Either way, she told me that ignorant people believe anything their priests tell them.

A decade after Halley’s Comet, she was married to my grandfather, Paul Babos, and living in West Virginia.  He worked in coal mines.  She knew about the “Monkey Trial.”  She also knew that miners brought huge bones out of the ground.  To her, evolution seemed like an obvious fact of life. 
First edition, 1959.
I got it for my
ninth Christmas.
At some time about then, but before they moved to Cleveland in 1931, she was hanging up the wash and she saw a long, large smoky gray streak cross the evening sky. She said that Grandpa did not believe her.  Mom always said that Grandpa was unschooled and ignorant, but he might only have been as practical as Thomas Jefferson who also denied that stones fall from the sky.  Anyway, she said that a couple of days later, she read in the newspaper about a meteorite strike in Texas.  Checking Wikipedia now, the two likely candidates are the falls in Troup (April 26, 1917), and Plantersville (September 4, 1930).  The third, Florence (January 21, 1922), was unlikely as that was her birthday. Even if she had been outside hanging up laundry in January, she would have remembered and remarked on the date.

Many were the times that she would look out of our kitchen window and say to me, “Nez a csillag!” – Look at the star.  Typically, it was a planet setting in the morning sky. She bought me my second telescope, a 4-inch reflector.  And she was fascinated by much else, of course. 

I think that this is what brought the stories
of the fossils in the coal mines.
My grandparents retired to Florida; and the seashore was a constant source of new discoveries for her.  But time and place define much of who we are; and for a working class woman, an immigrant, radical changes late in life are rare.  Nonetheless, she was a voracious reader.  We always had at least one newspaper in the house, the Plain Dealer.  We sometimes subscribed to the Cleveland Press; and, in addition, were the thrice-weekly West Side News and the weekly Szabadsag (Freedom) in Hungarian.  The family belonged to the Book of the Month Club, often ordering books reviewed on television by Dorothy Fuldheim.   But science was something they encouraged for us to pursue, rather than practicing themselves… and, yet, there were times…


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