Last weekend I attended a surprise birthday party for two of my great uncles – Uncle Bobby and his brother Bernie turned 90 and 70, respectively, within a few weeks of each other this March. The brothers are the oldest and youngest in my Gram’s family of ten children, and although my Gram passed way in 2015 at the age of 82, it was good to see that several of her siblings are still thriving, as is the extended family of cousins, aunts, and uncles that span generations.
Both sets of my maternal great-grandparents came to the US from Czechoslovakia in the early twentieth century. Hard-to-pronounce last names, a dizzying array of extended relatives, ethnic foods like bobalki, stuffed cabbage, pierogi, and ceregy have been staples in my life for as long as I can remember. And from the time I was little, my grandparents always told stories about their childhood that I remember even now. The prospect of starting my own family someday makes me realize just how important our family’s history and heritage is, and it’s events like this surprise party that make me thankful for our big, crazy, Slavish clan.
Some of my favorite stories from my Gram’s family include the ones from when she was growing up. The family lived in a small house a few minutes from where I live now, and is still occupied by one of the siblings. The basement had a dirt floor with dozens of canning jars lining the walls, full of vegetables from the garden my mom’s grandparents maintained. Behind the house was a giant, hilly field that they called Kennywood dump after the trolley park (now amusement park), world famous Kennywood. I remember a story about how one of my Gram’s brothers, taking a stroll one day, pulled a sword from the dirt of the field, only to find out that it was a relic from the Revolutionary War which blazed through our area centuries before. I remember my Gram telling me that in another nearby field where our high school now stands, gypsies used to bring their caravans through every year to hawk their wares. One year, the gypsies spotted my Gram’s oldest sister, a young girl with long black hair and dark complexion. They offered to buy her from my great-grandparents because of her appearance – which they of course refused. I also remember my Gram telling me how, during the Great Depression, they all had to wear hand-me-down clothing, which included clothes made of burlap sacks and pants held up by rope. I remember the stories about them going to school, where my Gram would meet my Pap when they were thirteen years old.
By the time my mom was a teenager, the family had grown like wildfire. Most of the siblings had multiple children of their own, making holidays, birthdays, and weddings huge, crowded, loud, and fun events. My mom has to have about fifty first cousins, and I seriously have no idea how she keeps them all straight. Although many of these family members are now spread out in different cities and states, plenty still live close to where it all started, and we all pick up where we left off each time there’s a big get together.
I love events like this, mostly because they now only happen every few years as kids grow up, move away, and unfortunately, the older generation passes on. Sometimes I think that family traditions and big get togethers are a thing of the past, but attending a birthday party like this one made me realize we can still keep the traditions and heritage alive as long as we all keep in touch and never forget the stories that our grandparents and great aunts and uncles told us.
My favorite part of the day was when ninety-year-old Uncle Bobby made his rounds to say his good-byes as the party was breaking up. Since he lived most of his life in Florida, I’ve only met him a handful of times. But after hugging my mom and thanking her for coming, he turned to me to do the same. I hugged him tightly, telling him happy birthday and thinking about how cool it was that he was still sharp enough to remember all of us and healthy enough to walk around unassisted. He held my hands in his and asked in a soft voice, “Is everything going well for you?”
“Yes,” I answered honestly with a smile. In that second I thought about how many things have come together for me over the last year and a half – I finally feel comfortable in my home and my job, I’m married to a guy who’s just as weird as me, I’m getting my anxiety under control, and I’m writing like crazy. “Yes,” I affirmed. “Finally.”
Uncle Bobby squeezed my hands and nodded. “Well, sometimes it take a while to get to where you’re going.”
I felt myself choking up, so I just nodded and thought about how amazing it was that our family connection was still strong despite the years and miles that have separated us most of our lives. This was my grandma’s oldest brother, a man who has seen nine decades of family and world history, and I was his great-niece, someone just trying to make her place in the world.
“The important thing is that you don’t give up,” He said, his eyes – my Gram’s eyes – unwavering.
“I won’t,” I promised him.
My great-grandparents never gave up on building the life they wanted. I won’t either.
My Gram and her nine siblings (plus one other unidentified kid we don’t recognize. I guess when you’ve got ten kids, what’s another who wanders over)?
We think my Gram is the one in the middle row with the chin-length hair and the rounded collar.
In no particular order – Bobby, Doshie, Florie, Joan, Evie, Millie, Niecie, Ronnie, Jackie, and Bernie.