Last June, shortly after I wrote a blog post about my great grandfather, Thomas Miklencic, I received an email from my mother’s cousin, Donna, who said, “Eric, you have relatives in Slovakia. You should go see them when you are living in Romania.” Donna was kind enough to connect me with Eva, the daughter of my great grandmother’s nephew. If that’s too abstract, Eva is essentially my aunt.
Eva and I began a correspondence, became Facebook friends and started messaging each other. This past Saturday morning, Sujata and the kids and I rented a car in Timisoara, drove through the northwestern part of Romania and across Hungary, crossed into Slovakia by late afternoon, parked our car in the center of Nitra, Slovakia as the sun was setting and shortly thereafter fell into Eva’s warm embrace.
We all walked over to Eva’s parents’ flat where we drank wine, enjoyed delicious Indian food and klotsche and talked about the ties that bind us all together.
My great grandmother, also Anna, emigrated to the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. She was still a teenager when she boarded the boat. All of Anna’s brothers and sisters stayed behind in Czechoslovakia. She made her way to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she met Thomas Miklencic. I’ve heard that they met at Allentown General Hospital, where they both worked, and I’ve also head that they met at a dance where Thomas was playing clarinet in a local band. I prefer the second account. Thomas and Anna started the line of our family that runs through my grandmother, also named Anna, my mother, Cheryl, and me and my sister, Tara. When my son and daughter met Eva’s father, William, yesterday they united four generational lines of our family.
After you cross your fifth decade, as I did nearly two years ago, your expectations about life begin change. There are more funerals than weddings and more reports of sickness than of births. You spend more time worrying about the health of your parents and, for that matter, your own health. It’s just how it is. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It just is. Given that, meeting relatives I never knew I had, falling into easy conversation with them, looking into their eyes and seeing reflections of myself as well as my long-departed grandparents, listening to stories of what their lives have been like, sharing the same foods that my grandparents prepared for me when I was a child, visiting the graves and the homesteads of our kin, well, it’s not what I was expecting. It’s much better.
On Sunday morning, Eva, her father William, her son, Andrew, and the four of us piled into two cars and drove from Nitra to the small village where my great grandmother was born at the end of the nineteenth century.
We climbed a steep set of stairs that ended on a hilltop cemetery overlooking a wide valley. As we climbed the stairs, I grew worried about William. He is in good health, but he’s 88, and the stairs were steep. He was determined to get to the top with the rest of us, though, and when we arrived he carefully navigated the uneven and slippery sod, shouting out stories about the family in Slovak as Eva translated. Two of my great grandmother’s sisters, Paulina and Emerencia, are buried there.
I’m not sure why my great grandmother decided to emigrate to the United States. Maybe she got into a fight with her mother or father and decided it was time to leave. Maybe there was a boy who didn’t return her love. Maybe she just got bored. Who knows? As we were walking around the village where she was born, Eva pointed to her head and said, “Your grandmother, Anna, was clever go to the States.” Maybe she was. Maybe it was just a random, silly idea that turned into reality.
Walking through these ancient Slovak villages and driving across these fertile plains, I realize that geography makes us as much as we make it. The Danube plain is fertile, vast, and very flat. It’s not until you get close to Budapest that the plain breaks and gradually rises. The sylvan, rolling hills of the Hungarian and the Slovak countryside reminded me of eastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, and I suspect that the Slovak and Hungarian immigrants who came there in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries felt that same way.
Atticus and I were reflecting on our time here in Slovakia and he said, “This is the stuff that happens in fiction. Not real life.”