Saturday, June 2, 2012

To Have And To Hold

A few months ago I told you a little story in my post "The Christmas Lunch," the heart of which was the amazing and often mysterious ways our lives touch each other...and then move on.   I've been thinking about that lately for a very specific reason which I want to share with you.  You will need some background information and I have to walk that fine line between giving you the basics without putting you to sleep with the details.

I begin by explaining the one thing that is central to my story.  My ethnic background is Slovenian.  Both my parents were born in America, but their parents came to this country from Slovenia in the early part of the 20th century.  My father was the only one of his siblings who was born in the USA.  Slovenian was spoken in their homes.  Their mothers cooked Slovenian dishes.  America is a very large piece of real estate which makes the fact that my state of Washington mother met my Chicago father a pretty random happening in itself.  The added fact that they were both completely and irrevocably Slovenian has always seemed pretty amazing to me.  I grew up with friends who were fully Italian or fully Irish, but somehow it always seemed more statistically improbable that a full-on Slovenian would meet and marry another full-on Slovenian - unless one lived in Slovenia, of course.  But I am veering off course and must reset the compass.

My father was extremely proud of his name notwithstanding the fact the family had issues and drama.  I suppose all families are like that to some extent,  But - well - these were Slovenians and that says a great deal.  Oh, they were as American as can be, to be sure, but Slovenian blood coursed and rumbled very close to the surface at all times.  As wives and husbands were added to the mix (not all of whom were Slovenian, which was probably a good thing) the small fissures in the family crockery turned into ever growing cracks.  I knew they loved each other, but...what can one say?  Growing up I saw certain aunts and uncles and cousins more than others, but none very often.  There was the occasional trip to see a particular aunt (or "tata") who made her own wine in the cellar.  And there was an uncle who apparently loved Christmas and would arrive at our front door with a shopping bag of gifts or ice cream in the shape of pine trees.  And there were a few stalwart souls who tried to keep the family ties woven together.   But these Slovenians would not be lead.   As a result, instead of holding on, the larger family simply dropped hands and let go.  We scattered.

We can fast forward now and I will skip some details that mean a great deal to me, but would mean nothing at all to you.  My father and his siblings are gone.  There will be no further mending of those fences.  But for the cousins - at least for some of us - there is the distinct possibility that the Family Tree, with a little watering and avoidance of a lightening bolt, will continue to leaf and blossom.  I mentioned to one of these cousins, newly found this year, that I was trying to piece together the family history.  It was just at that moment that Serendipity stepped on the stage.  She was planning a trip to Slovenia.  She would do some detective work.  She did and she has now returned.  I will try to use her words as much as possible since I could never improve upon them:

  We found the town called Smerjeta, Slovenia, a truly pastoral, quaint, movie-set looking town. It was literally a sweet little Catholic church, one restaurant, one tiny market, a graveyard and lots of little stucco houses with barns next to them. We hit the graveyard first where we found two gravestones with the name G******** on them. I didn't recognize the first names on the stones, Vinko 1/14/1909-4/16/1961 and Alojz 5/24/1953- 1/3/1981.  We were not sure if we were in the right place, so I just decided to ask someone. I spotted some men sitting together on the deck of the restaurant and I asked if anyone spoke English. They spoke just a few words so I just said "G********?" One points toward a very cute little blue stucco house that is about 50 ft away and says, "There, married."  I did the only thing I could do, I knocked. There was no answer, so we decided to ask around in the little store hoping for someone with a bit more English. The only people who spoke English were super shy, but luckily we met a tiny little woman named Sonja. She spoke no English but with an amazing amount of hand motions, and charade type stuff, she was able to communicate that a woman named Ivanka lives in the blue house, and she used to be married to a G******** and they had two children who lived nearby, but that she had remarried, and that we should come back later in the evening. So around 6 pm we knocked again. I was so excited, I was sure that she was going to be able to tell us something. She opened and we started blabbing to her in English. I thought she was going to slam the door, but she didn't. She went inside for a while and just left us standing there with the door ajar.  She came back with a phone and handed it to me. I found myself speaking to someone who spoke really decent English.  I explained about my grandfather and she told me to wait thirty minutes and that she was coming.  We decide to sit on this little retaining wall by the church. We noticed a few teenagers are hanging out and talking. Then gradually more teens started showing up, some on bikes, some walking, some being dropped off by parents. They are all gathering at the church.  A few minutes later the church bells started tolling and the front doors opened and all the kids went in.  They were having a regular mass, complete with a tenor singing beautifully.  It seems like a movie, but our attention is quickly turned to the car that is pulling up at the blue house. A couple in their thirties with a three month old baby get out. Ivanka comes out of the house and we introduce ourselves and explain our quest, and its a bit awkward until Halib, the husband, suggests that we sit at this outdoor table and continue talking. Ivica is a G********.  Her father died when she was only 10 months old. He is Alojz. Her mother is Ivanka. She also has a brother named Martin. As we kept visiting it got to be really comfortable and fun, but we still didn't know how or if we were related.   They did tell me though that it is not a common name. I asked if she knew where I could find a birth record. She then pointed to the church and said, "Well, there are the cursing records." It took me a second but I realized she meant "christening." I asked how we could see those records, thinking that I would have to make an appointment.  But no, not in this quaint town.  She just gets up and starts walking to the church. I love it! That Mass that was going on is now wrapping up so Ivica walks right in and talks to the priest and he tells her to have us wait. So you think you were on pins and needles?  We were dying. After about an hour of waiting with Ivica and Halid, who are so sweet and so into the whole adventure, this super chubby priest leads us up a flight of stairs at the parish building into a library type room that also has old wooden carvings of saints and old wooden furniture...very cool. And there on a little table were these big old books. The Priest takes that chubby finger and starts dragging it along the names and by now we are DYING. Page after page, nothing but then suddenly there is was Franc G********.  The birthdate is right. His father is Janez, which is John and then there it was......his mother's name. Her Slovenia name is Jera M****. At first this confused me because I was looking for Gertrude. But Ivica told me that Gertrude looked like the German version of Jera. I was still a little worried though. But then the priest, who is super cute and now also getting into it, pulls down another book and says, "You might be interested in this." Back in the day, the priests would visit each home in their area and quiz each member on their knowledge of the church and then take notes on the visit. This book was that record. So he finds the Gr****** address, and listed beneath is essentially a census of everyone who lived in the house and their birthdates.........for TWO generations.  In it I see Janez and Jera's children and the first thing I notice is "Angela" who must have been aunt Angie. We took pictures of the books and all the names and dates...and of Ivica and Halid and Ivanka. 

She is a good cousin.  A very good cousin, indeed.  Janez is my grandfather and Jera is my father's parents.  Also in those books are the names of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother.  Ivica has promised to continue with the research, but just knowing that in that little town, in that little church, in a room filled with statues of the saints, there are dusty books lovingly tended by a chubby priest that tell a part of my family history has me feeling pretty happy and mighty hopeful. Hopeful that the family, newly found, will hold hands and not let anyone get lost.  More than ever I realize I am just one bead on a whole string.  It's like the song says, "That old highway goes on forever...that old highway rolls on forever."