On July 2, 2015, after a year of planning, I returned to the Muranska Planina region of Slovakia with several members of my extended family. On July 3 we visited our ancestral village Muranska Lehota and on July 4 we explored the Muranska Planina forest and the ruins of the Muran Castle, concluding the day with a surprise meeting of long-lost relatives. July 5 was the last day of our visit.
Sunday, July 5, 2015: Having agreed to meet up with our newly found relatives at church on Sunday morning, we returned to Muranska Lehota for early morning mass. We squeezed in the pews amongst the locals and easily followed the familiar, universally Catholic stand, kneel, sit cycle of the service.
Tightly packed between strangers and behind my Slovak relatives, I felt self-conscious about my children’s growing discontent. I looked across the aisle and noticed a grandma breaking the solemn silence with the familiar sound of opening up snack bags for her restless grandkids. She smiled at me and I felt calm. Like the rhythms of mass, fidgeting kids in church and our attempts to placate them are apparently universal too.
When mass concluded, Father Daniel came out to the congregation to greet the parishioners and us. He made a bee-line for my daughter and gave her a special blessing that translated to: “Your hair the grass, your forehead the hay, your nose the hill, and your mouth – bless them all” or something like that. It was like he cast a magic spell on her – she was calmed and mesmerized instantly.
In the church yard, my grandmother’s cousin Olga introduced us to two of my grandmother’s other first cousins Hanka and Margarita, their niece Katarina and nephew Jan, and their great-niece Veronika.
“Come, we will take you to our house…House 29,” said thirty-something Veronika in perfect English, showing an antique-looking iron key. Her aunties nodded in approval.
I thought back to how when we first arrived in Muranska Lehota, some 48 hours prior, no one in the village had the key or knew who would have a key. I never would have imagined that Sunday morning, nine newly found relatives would lead us on a walk from church through the village to our shared ancestral home.
As we walked, we learned that Veronika had inherited the house from her father, who inherited it from his father…and so-on back to our shared great-great-grandparents Jan and Zuzanna. I marveled at the idea that my children were about to enter the house of the great-great-great grandparents. Our talkative group fell silent as we entered the gate and stood in the yard.
We watched as Veronika opened the door to House 29. One-by-one we reverently poured into the cool one-floor stucco house. There was a tiny hallway that led to an old kitchen straight ahead and a sitting room to the right. There was a sofa, table, and chairs in the sitting room plus a glass cabinet. I could have been in Hungary at my husband’s grandparents’ – identical in look, feel, smell…
Right off the sitting room was a bedroom with two huge closets and two very old fashioned twin beds with old blankets and a sheepskin. Old. Quiet. But not unkempt. Although Veronika kept excusing the oldness and disorder. It was in better shape than I expected. We were hoping to see the photograph of my great-great-grandparents that my grandmother had photographed during her 1981 visit, but it was no longer there.
I retreated to the hallway where Katarina had an old family photo album on display. As my American and Slovak relatives mingled, I looked through the book and photographed some of the pictures. I nearly fell over when I discovered a picture of my grandmother and her siblings, as children, in Katarina’s photo album. It was taken in America on my great-aunt Lucy’s first communion day. My great-grandmother had sent a photo from America to her brother in Slovakia and it is in his family’s photo book to this day. Wow!
Veronika and Katarina helped me fill in their branches of the family tree. I learned from them that Miklus Senko, a deceased first cousin of my grandmother, was a famous Slovak folklorist and that there is a yearly national festival in his honor and in Dubnica nad Vahom, Slovakia there is a museum dedicated to him. Recently, a Slovak film student even made a documentary about him. Forever loyal to his ancestral village, he is buried in Muranska Lehota. Veronika told me that she returns to Muranska Lehota often and that they have a day of the dead festival in November where they honor ancestors.
We gathered the group together to take a photo in the yard of House 29. We represented four generations of the descendants of Jan and Zuzanna Senko. We laughed, we cried. We talked with our hands.
We stood in the same yard where our ancestors posed for the photo that Olga showed us the night before. According to family lore, it is also the same yard where my immigrant great-grandparents played as children while their mothers arranged their marriage more than 100 years ago. And this very yard was where my American grandmother was received by her Slovak relatives during her visit in 1981.
I said, “Thank you all for this amazing experience and for your hospitality. We never imagined the trip would be as magical as it’s been. This is not a goodbye…but a see you later.”
Veronika said, “Less than a day ago I learned I had American relatives who had come to learn more about the family. Come back anytime and stay. You are always welcome in House 29. We built this together – it is just as much yours as it is mine.”
Our village. Our castle. Our ancestors. Our cemetery and church. Our family. Our angels standing amongst us in the yard of House 29, Muranska Lehota, Slovakia.