Archives For ancestry

This week’s wordpress photo challenge theme is Foreshadow, which is something we writers try to do with subtlety and symmetry, and perhaps with a bit of surprise.

This setting of my photo-story is Okolicne, Slovakia – a beautiful town surrounded by the High Tatras Mountains near the border of Poland – in the summer of 2012. I am standing in the kitchen of an ancestral home, of sorts, with a relative who speaks no English, but with whom I communicate via smiles, nods, and frequent (like, really frequent) shots of Slivovitz and Metaxa.

It is approximately 8:00 a.m. – an hour that finds the rest of the world up-and-at-em but finds me semi-coherent if not still totally asleep, especially on a Sunday morning – and Josef pours me a shot of Metaxa. We toast one another: Na zdravie!

Why are we drinking a shot at 8 a.m. on a Sunday, and what might this moment foreshadow?

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A trip to church, of course. After a short walk, we arrive at the church of Sv. Peter z Alkantara where my Slovak great-grandmother was baptized more than one hundred years ago. I take a seat next to Josef, and mass begins.

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So, technically, the foreshadowing is the fact that it’s Sunday morning and I’m even awake.

January 16, 1945
40th letter

Dearest Johnny,

Happy anniversary darling. No matter where you are at this time I want you to hear me saying I love you so. This day means so much to me. To think I married the most wonderful man in the world. You are wonderful you know.

This is how the letter begins. My grandmother wrote it to my grandfather on their second anniversary. She was somewhere in New Jersey; he was somewhere overseas, probably India (he returned from the war with pictures of the Taj Mahal). This letter is one of my favorite things.

For the many years I knew them, my grandparents bickered and yelled and waged war on the volumes of their respective televisions (his in the living room, hers in the kitchen). They engaged in bumper-car battles with their walkers as they fought for the right of way in the hallway. She repeated indignities from the ancient past: “I was never good enough for his parents because I was Irish. And what was so special about Slovaks? His father didn’t even know any English. His mother, I give her credit, taught herself to read the newspaper.”

Usually when my grandmother addressed my grandfather she said, “Oh for god’s sake, John!” And so there is something delightful about seeing it in her left-handed handwriting, as distinct as her voice: “Dearest Johnny.”

Which is why this letter is one of my favorite things.*

Almost three years ago when my grandparents finally had to leave their New Jersey home on the lagoon to be cared for at my uncle’s house in Pennsylvania, my grandfather – he’s appropriately called Grumpus – told me follow him to his room. Usually this meant he wanted us to go through his old boxes of things he couldn’t get himself to throw away and to take anything we might use. Boxes labeled “Calculaters” and filled with cheap and unusable calculators from 1970 to the present. Or “Wacthes” filled with watches from Bristol Myers or Time Life. He was not the greatest speller. This time, though, I followed him as he shuffled down the hall with his walker, and I sensed he something bigger on his mind.

In his room he removed a box from the shelf and said, “I don’t know what do to with this. It’s letters from Marge and me during the war. I should probably just throw them away or burn them.” He looked at me, his eyes full of tears. “But you’re a writer. Maybe you know what to do with them.”

He got lost in thought for a moment and added, “We were just kids. We didn’t know anything.”

Granny and Grumpus died this year, five months apart. I haven’t gone through all the letters yet, but they are part of me as a person and a writer. They and their letters will show up in my stories and novels and blog entries – and my dreams.

All day I went through memories from the day we got married until now. I can picture everything so well. That day we said I do & you squeezed my hand as you said it and how funny you were trying to put my ring on me.
That day was such a happy day…

*Thanks to WordPress for the Daily Post Challenge.