Monday, November 29, 2010

"There's one in every family!": A Special Place We'll Always Remember

All of us can recall a special place that brings back certain important or special memories. Whether it's the house we grew up in, a favorite family vacation spot, the school we attended, or where we met our spouse or partner. For me, the one place I will always remember is my Baba's Kitchen.

Some of my fondest memories from childhood are the times spent in my Baba's (Grandma’s) kitchen. I remember spending many Friday evenings in her two-story house on Hill Street in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, surrounded by my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Dressed in her blue and white cotton housedress, quilted slippers, and a white babushka (scarf) around her head, my Slovak “Baba”* stood over her stove for what seemed like hours, preparing chicken soup, mouthwatering golden buns dusted with flour, and lemon pie—all made without reference to a written recipe. Even today, I can recall the delightful aromas of fresh bread baking in the oven, the chicken soup slowly simmering in the large, "bottomless," white enamel pot on the stove, and browning butter in the old black iron skillet.

Then there were the holidays. In the Slovak culture, food is richly entwined with tradition and religious teachings, especially for Christmas and Easter, when special dishes are prepared and rituals observed. For example, on Christmas Eve, we celebrated with a meatless Vilia Supper (to honor the Christian practice of fasting) and ate foods like: bobalky, perfectly baked little balls of dough browned in butter and mixed with sauerkraut, and pirohi, ravioli-like pillows of dough filled with cabbage, cottage cheese, potato, or prunes.

At Easter, we ate paska, a round bread with a golden crust and yellow center made from eggs, butter, and white raisins (indicative of living bread come down from Heaven) and hrudka, a bland, sweet, custard-like “cheese” made from cooked and separated eggs and milk (as a symbol of moderation).

Whatever the occasion, “Baba’s” kitchen functioned as the center of her home. It was where this soft-spoken Slovak woman spent the majority of her days as wife, mother, and grandmother, preserving the traditions of her homeland. There, in her domain, she also assumed other important roles of comforter, teacher, disciplinarian, financial manager, and instiller of religious teachings, morals and values.

The kitchen also became the place where some of life’s most important lessons were taught and learned. Simple principles of generosity and honesty and, above all, a genuine love for her family that Grandma taught by example. Moreover, for me it was in this kitchen where the genealogical seeds were planted, eventually sparking a quest to discover facts about this amazing woman, along with the desire to preserve our family’s history for future generations.

At this time of the year, as everyone gears up for the holiday season, it’s not unusual to get a bit nostalgic—to reminisce about Christmases past, remember loved ones who are no longer physically present with us, and celebrate those traditions of our ethnic heritage that mean so much to us.

For me, all of the above memories, as well as holiday celebrations will forever be associated with my Baba’s Kitchen.

This post is part of Carnival of Genealogy’s 100th Edition, “There is One in Every Family" hosted by
Jasia of Creative Gene.
Congratulations to Creative Gene for 100 Editions of Carnival of Genealogy!

*In some regions of Slovakia, the term is used for "grandmother."
**This post includes excerpts from my essay, “My Baba,” written for the 2004 “Write Your Memoir Contest,” for which I received an "Honorable Mention"

Copyright 2010 Lisa A. Alzo
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Has It Really Been Five Years?: Remembering Dad

Five years ago today, at 4:10 a.m. I held the hand of my father, John, and watched him take his last breath. Where has the time gone? I still look for him in the house: in his favorite chair waiting to watch the football or basketball game; at the table where he read the newspaper every day after breakfast; in the room where he used to sleep that now functions as my office.A few years ago I wrote down my memories about the moments leading up to Dad's passing. Today, I share them as a loving tribute to my father, my hero.


I had been waiting for two weeks to receive the call. Still, hearing the words was difficult. "Lisa, this is Joanie from Lakeside. Your dad is not responding."

"We tried to wake him up for breakfast and he did not answer us."

"Do you think I need to come now," I asked.

"That's up to you," she replied, "But it would probably be a good idea." "I just wanted you to know."

I put down the phone.

"Michael, I have to go to Lakeside NOW." I said excitedly to my husband. "My dad is not responding."

"I'm sorry, Lis." he replied.

I had been up since 6:00 a.m. cooking. For some crazy reason, even though it was the day after Thanksgiving and I had just spent two days preparing turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes that we shared the day before with my dad. But that morning I felt the irrepressible need to cook. I was looking ahead to Christmas, specifically Christmas Eve. I had this awful feeling that my father would not make it until Christmas so I wanted to prepare a few of his favorite Slovak foods for him to have that weekend.

But he never got to eat them.

When I arrived at Lakeside that afternoon Dad was unconscious. He was breathing but his eyes were closed tight and not matter what I said to him he would not wake up or respond. I wasn't prepared.

When we left him the night before, which just happened to be Thanksgiving night, he was laughing and joking with us. His final words included, "Put the Pitt game on Lis," and "okay honey, I'll see you."

Joanie, the nursing supervisor gave me two books: "My Friend, I Care. The Grief Experience," and "Gone from my Sight: The Dying Experience," by Barbara Karnes to help me prepare for what was about to happen.

Thoughts about Dad

Losing a parent is never easy. Even when you are told the time is near—6 months, 1 month, or a few days or hours. But when I think back about the full life my father has lived to the age of 80, I take comfort in something I heard Basketball great Michael Jordan say during a 60 Minutes interview regarding the untimely death of his father who was killed in 1993. Jordan said, “But I had him for 32 years and he taught me a lot in 32 years. You know how many kids get that opportunity? Very few in today’s society get the chance to spend that much time with their parents, and get that type of influence,” I feel the same way about the 40 years I had with my father.

Not long before Dad was hospitalized, we shared a special moment one night that upon reflection I think was Dad’s way of letting me know that he would soon be leaving this earth. He remarked how the Lord had been good to him his whole life, but then the illnesses knocked him down and he was no longer able to do the things he used to do. Dad said that his only regret was that he wasn’t able to do the “Lord’s work” in the ways he desired. But the truth his, my father was a steadfast and faithful servant to the Lord—right up until his last days he was still showing love and kindness to those who cared for him—thanking his nurses and me for helping him, smiling even though his heart was weak and his body shutting down, without ever uttering an unkind word. I believe it was fitting that he died on a Sunday–the Lord’s day–and also on the first Sunday of Advent, when the scriptures told us we all need to be “alert and watchful for the Lord.” My father did not once indicate to me that he was afraid of dying. The truth is I was more fearful of the moment for him than he was.

I stayed two nights with dad in his room. Sitting in the recliner chair—keeping watch. I must have dozed off, but at 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning I awakened and saw that the nurse was by his side. I knew, but asked her anyway. “Is it time?” She looked at me and just nodded. I stood up and held Dad’s hand. “I love you, Dad” I whispered, “Go in peace.” Dad took one final breath. He didn’t gasp and it did not last for long. The nurse stroked his forehead. She said she would give me a few minutes and then would make the necessary phone calls. I threw my arms around Dad and sobbed. He had finally let go. And from that moment on, I knew I would have to let go too.

I love and miss you, Dad. Eternal rest!

Copyright 2010 Lisa A. Alzo

All Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Word of Thanks: For My Ancestors

This Thanksgiving, I reflect on the many sacrifices my ancestors made along the way that have enabled me to have the opportunities, privileges and experiences I enjoy today. I'm grateful to my great-grandfather, Jan, who did not back down against the feudal Lord regarding land he was promised. He and his brothers stood up for what they believed was the right thing, and they secured property for their descendants. I'm grateful to my grandparents (Jan, Erzebet, Janos, and Verona) who journeyed to America, leaving behind their loved ones and everything they knew in order to have a better life. At times, they must have questioned their decisions, but they worked hard and persisted through terrible working and living conditions, the Depression, and trying personal circumstances. I'm grateful to my parents for passing on the values their parents passed on to them: Work hard; fear God, respect others, show kindness, and how to persevere through adversity. Sometimes these values clash with what now seems to be the "norm" in society today where dishonesty, rude behavior, and selfishness seem to abound. But for today, I plan to focus on the good--remembering my ancestors, and my blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Copyright 2010 Lisa A. Alzo

All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 22, 2010

Learn with Me at Family Tree University - Sign Up Now For December Courses & Save!

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Two courses start in December:

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Finding Your Ancestral Village - starts Monday, December 6th

Uncover the most crucial clue to researching your family in the old country: the ancestral village. You’ll learn how to use immigration patterns and historical geography to pinpoint the place of origin, and the best tools to advance your search.

Simply go to Family Tree University and register. Enter coupon code FTUALZO at checkout to save $10!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sojourn in Slovakia: Day 9 - Saying Farewell

We said farewell to Stevo at the Kosice airport--he was the best guide. We then took a cab to Hotel Bankov. We paused for a moment outside to take this picture of our luggage and all of the extra items (gifts from our relatives) we had to squeeze in.

After just a few hours of sleep, we had to rise at 3:00 to get a cab to the airport for our 5:00 a.m. flight to Prague.

We had a long layover and enjoyed some time relaxing in the priority lounge thanks to Andy's generosity.

We then boarded the plane for the long flight back to JFK airport. The plane was full so we were not able to spread out to sleep. Ginny and I spent time watching two movies and looking at photographs from the trip on our laptops. When we touched down, I was happy and relieved to be back in the USA, but carried with me so many fond memories of the time spent in my ancestral homeland. I'm looking forward to going back again!

This ends my "Sojourn in Slovakia" series. Thanks for coming along with me as I recounted my journey!

Photos by Lisa A. Alzo, June 9, 2010

Copyright 2010 Lisa A. Alzo

All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 01, 2010

Update: Family HIstory Month Tasks

During National Family History Month (October), I listed five ways I planned to celebrate it. Here is a summary of what I accomplished.

1. Sort out information I discovered and follow up on family stories I recorded during my trip to Slovakia this summer.

I noted three of my favorite stories: 1) My great-grandmother missed my grandfather so much when he left for America that she wanted another baby. Her son Andrej was born supposedly 20 years to the day from my grandfather's birthday, January 1, although the birth was recorded January 2nd); 2) My grandmother and grandfather knew each other when they were growing up in Slovakia and my grandmother had a crush on my grandfather. They were married in 1915 after they both arrived in America at different times; 3) The tenacity of my great-grandfather and his brothers to ensure that they got the land they were promised by the feudal Lord. I am still digging for documents and other proof to validate various aspects of these stories.

2. Spend some time catching up with living relatives (via phone calls, visits, Skype).

I visited my aunt and uncle in Texas; I skype regularly with my cousin, Renata. I also connect with many of my cousins via Facebook.

3. Re-organize my family history files and binders.

I've started this project, but alas, it seems to be never ending.

4. Explore my great-grandfather's stays in America (he was supposedly a so-called "bird of
passage" who came to America at least twice to earn money and return back home to
Slovakia). Search immigration, census, and other records for documentation.

Found passenger lists documenting at least two arrivals.

5. Work on a multimedia tribute (presentation) honoring my immigrant grandparents.

Finished this project and showed the presentation at the CGSI meeting 10/30/10.

I enjoyed Family History Month and hope to keep the momentum going so I can tackle more specific tasks in the coming months.