14 February 2013

 More Than One Home

Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if they had stayed in one spot. If my grandfather hadn’t moved to Vermont for Famolare Shoes, and my parents hadn't followed him there. If my great-grandparents hadn’t boarded a ship to raise their children in New York City. If nobody had ever left Madunice.
               When my brother and I stepped off the train in Bratislava, the first time I visited Slovakia, he turned to me and said, "Callie, these people look like us." And he was right, they did. I saw chins that looked like my chin, and cheekbones that looked like my cheekbones, and there was dusty brown hair and eyes set back enough to make them look a little sad. 
               When I stepped off the train in Bratislava for the second time, I had my grandparents with me. I had my parents with me and my sister too and we had planned this trip because Poppi wanted to see where his parents came from. He wanted to walk on the dusty, rust-colored earth that his brothers and sisters had worked with. In the months leading up to the trip Poppi would speak more than four sentences in a row, and this is how I knew he was excited- normally Poppi is very quiet. In the months leading up to our depature, Poppi began to remember words. One Tuesday I went in to say good morning, and Poppi and Dad were talking about the night before.  The night before Poppi had lay in bed thinking about our trip and he was thinking about living in that small apartment in Manhattan and he was thinking of his mother and he started to remember her words. The first words he remembered were something about toast. Every morning leading up to our trip Poppi remembered more Slovak and Mom bought him a little dictionary and I could see how happy he was because in those pages were his parents. His parents were born in Slovakia, in a little town named Madunice, but Poppi was American and in America not everyone speaks Slovak so these words had been pushed away. Words pushed away in the back of his mind like the note I received from my parents on my high school graduation. Stuck in the back of a drawer but not completely forgotten.
               When I stepped off the train in Bratislava for the second time, there was a plan. Dad rented a minivan and we all loaded in and we drove to Madunice to find Josef. Poppi knew his cousin Josef had stayed there, and Poppi remembered the letters that Josef used to write Aunt Agnes before she died.  Madunice was dusty and small and there was a lot of construction going on in the street that lay between the store and the post office. There was a pub next to the post office and we sat down. We pointed at what we wanted as we meekly tried our best to say please and thank you. But not Poppi. Poppi was proud of what he remembered and he ordered in Slovak with confidence and a smirk. We ate Rezeň and drank RC cola and Dad showed the waitress his license and he pointed at “Benik” and I looked at my sister and she looked at me. We thought Dad was crazy but the waitress laughed and smiled and ran to get her niece. Her niece drew a map and in her broken English she told us we should go to see Josef Benik and then I wondered how we could call such a beautiful woman's English broken.
               We found Josef in his garden. He grew grapes on a trellis and the trellis looked over a big field that looked over another big field. The fields and the sky are layered like trifle in Slovakia, and the fields are sprinkled yellow with rapeseed. At first, Josef wrinkled his forehead at the van full of Americans, but we waved our hands and we smiled a lot and with Poppi's help and the dictionary, Josef understood. He smiled back and he brought us inside and he sat us at his little table in the room that had pastel-papered walls and a pretty tablecloth and lace curtains. It was crowded and cozy and reminded me of my family. Josef’s home reminded all of us of our family and of each other. Josef poured cognac and gave us three different types of crackers and we sat there and sometimes we tried to talk but mostly we just smiled and ate crackers and clanged our glasses of cognac together. And in that moment I knew I was home.
               Afterwards we went to the cemetery and we found the stones that marked where my great-great grandparents were buried, and where Josef's brothers were buried. One of his brothers was named Michal Benik and that is my name. I saw my name on the headstone and it was eerie at first, but as I kneeled down in front of it, the wind murmured and the soft grass tapped at my bare knees and again I knew I was home. It was an old home- this land that created my ancestors. 
               Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if they had stayed in one spot, in that town with the pub and the post office and the people who have the same eyes as me.
But then I look in the mirror and stop. The girl looking back through the glass is tied to the mountains of New Hampshire and the softened granite of the Ashuelot River and the wildflowers that grow by the barn at the end of County Road in Walpole.  She has the sidewalks of the Upper East Side and the dust of Madunice inside of her. This woman is made up of many stories, and many people, and she is made up of earth that's on two sides of one ocean. I smile back at her and start breathing again- I breathe deep, even breathes. I know who I am and I am proud of the land that’s inside me. Proud of the land that lets me be two places at once.

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful post. As someone who also has family in Europe, I enjoyed the last part in particular.


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