Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Slivovica With the Szterankas

(Note: This is a two part post and you shoud read the previous one first or this one won't make any sense.)

As we made our first contacts with my newly found distant relatives, Michael immediately recognized the woman in the garden from the a photo I had shown him. He showed the photo to the woman, identified me as a cousin to "Bruce" from America, and I was suddenly caught up in embraces and kisses. This woman was Luba and her husband was Andrej. At this point all that could be established was that my grandmother and Luba's father were Szterankas. Luba confirmed that they were the only Szteranka family in the area, so it finally dawned on me that I was meeting family, my relatives, that I couldn't even say "hello" to without an interpreter.

Luba and Andrej insisted we come in, and she hurried off to call her sisters, Viera and Nadeza. When they arrived it was obvious that they were twins, and later on we learned that they had married brothers. Even now at 60, they dress identically, right down to eyeglass cases and necklaces. Doug commented that the twins reminded him very much of my mother, and that alone confirmed that we were relatives.

I should have put 2 + 2 together when I first saw the Hostovice crest on the village sign. On a blue shield there is a yellow table, upon which are a liqueur bottle and a large chalice-like glass. In retrospect, it could only mean one thing---there would be drinking involved. And there was.

The event began. In their very comfortable kitchen, we sat around the table. Michael took turns asking and answering questions. Somebody brought out shot glasses and the bottle of homemade plum brandy, locally called slivovica. For someone who only drinks wine (which is generally sipped), drinking shots has a learning curve. I think by number 5, I was doing it OK. Na zdravie!

In between shots and an incredible spread of food Luba materialized on the spot, Michael wanted to determine how Luba, Viera, Nadeza and I were related. He pieced together birth records he obtained for my grandparents and great-grandparents with part of a family tree Luba supplied.

Birth registration of Maria Szteranka, my grandmother, b. 20 April 1881 to Basilius Szteranka and Eva Czapar.

The ladies knew their parents names and dates of birth, but they knew only their grandparents' names and nothing about any siblings. So, they could not have known that their grandfather Ivan (Jan) Szteranka (b. 1868) and my grandmother Maria Szteranka (b. 1881) were brother and sister. We share the same great-grandparents Basilius Szteranka (b. 1834) and Eva Czapar (b. 1843).

Birth registration of Ivan (Jan) Szteranka, Luba, Viera, Nadeza and Igor's grandfather, b. 29 January 1868 to Basilius Szteranka and Eva Czapar. It is outlined in red and may be written in Hungarian.

Birth registration of Basilius Szteranka, our great-grandfather, b. 23 January 1834 to Michael Szteranka and Maria ? in Palota.

Basilius Szteranka was the one member of the family who came from elsewhere---Palota, about 20 km away. As Michael said, that was a very long way back in the mid-1800's. His occupation was a coachman, which could have meant that he was on the road or that he worked out of another location where he was stationed---perhaps Hostovice. At some point he made his way to Hostovice and married our great-grandmother Eva Czapar.

Birth registration of Eva Czapar, our great-grandmother, b. 31 December 1843 to Michael Czapar and Eva Zvats.

Marriage registration of Basilius Szteranka and Eva Czapar on 21 January 1860. He was 26, a coachman from Palota; she was 16 from Hostovice; both Rusyn villages.

While we were connecting inside, Fergus was whooping up a storm outside with his new Rusyn soul-mate, Luba and Andrej's 2-year old beagle. Apparently they had no need of an interpreter, as dog-speak transcends all countries and ethnicities. Doug alternated his time between monitoring canine activities and photographing family history. Since he was driving, he declined multiple shots of slivovica. Luckily, a departing gift was a freshly-filled bottle for the road. Lots of good shots ahead---na zdravie.

I have always had a hard time remembering names, and matching names to faces only exacerbates it. I knew early on that day there was no hope for me to correctly identify Nadeza from Viera, especially when they were wearing matching everything. The gentlemen in the photos (besides Luba's husband Andrej in camo) are Stefan, Viera's husband (in tan jacket) and Igor, the sisters' younger brother (in plaid shirt). If the gentleman in the tan jacket isn't Viera's husband, it must be Nadeza's husband Ivan. But since they are brothers, they probably look alike too.

Luba brought out a couple old B&W family photos. Above is the three girls with their father Michal, probably taken in the mid-1950's. Below is Luba on her wedding day with her mother Maria and father Michal.

Every time I would take my eyes off of my glass, miraculously there would be another shot in front of me. The only way I could get the stuff down in one swig was to stand up. So, there were more than a few pictures taken with glasses raised and arms around waists. The Szterankas were happy to pose for photos and requested copies.

Before we left, the sisters asked if I wanted to see the place where my grandmother (and their grandfather) were born. The house had long ago been torn down, but they knew exactly where it had been. Now a green lawn bordered by flowers, I stood on the spot where my grandmother not only was born, but also where she slept, ate, played, and grew up.

I felt exhausted, and not just from the slivovica. I said my good-byes to my new family. I don't think any of us are pretending that this could be an easy relationship to nurture. We come from different worlds, we speak different languages. But we have some of the same Szteranka blood running through our veins. And that can't be taken away.

When we parted from Michael later that day, he asked me if I was satisfied with his services. I found myself imagining how different the day would have been if Doug and I had just driven into Hostovice, clicked a few pictures and driven on. Yes, Michael, I am satisfied.


Anonymous said...

This is such an incredible adventure! Your friend Michael certainly did give you great service!

The funny thing is...the twins look a lot like my Aunt Stella, who is Polish (I don't know her maiden name...she's a Bartolomeo by marriage). She is Bryan's godmother. The shape of the faces and the hair color looked so familiar to me.

Since my relatives come from Poland on my father's side and Ukraine and the Russian-occupied part of Poland in the early 1900s on my mother's side...I feel like you may have gotten me close to their families' homes.

Since I'm adopted I hail from "the old sod"...but I've always felt "simpatico" with the Ukranians/Russians.

Enjoy the rest of your trip. Luke

This has been just wonderful. Thank you for sharing your story and your newly-found relatives.

Kate said...

Wow Aunt Nancy! This is such an amazing story. I'm impressed!

Peggy said...

Nancy, I always knew you were from good stock and this confirms it! What a cute family and how great that they were so welcoming (not to mention generous with the slivovica). They are probably still talking about your visit.