I barely knew my grandmothers. I was just a pup out of diapers when my maternal grandmother died and hardly more than one when my paternal grandmother went to her grave. I never met my paternal Czech immigrant grandfather and have no recollection in my earliest memories of my maternal grandfather. Both of these men made their way to South Alabama to scratch out their livings as hardscrabble farmers.
My dad was the youngest child born to Alois and Emily. He came to life in this world in Minnesota. The rest of his siblings were born in Europe. His oldest sister, already married, remained in Czechoslovakia when the rest of the family immigrated to the United States in the early part of the Twentieth Century. Tracing this lineage beyond the point of their immigration is not an impossible task. It is, however, a rather difficult one considering the language obstacle.
If there is one thing I regret about my Czech ancestry it is that my dad felt no necessity in teaching us the primary language that filled his family home. On the occasions when his siblings gathered together, their conversations were carried on predominately in the Czech language, interspersed briefly with English.
His mother learned only a very few words of the English language. Though she lived out her “old age” years in a little house built by my dad on our small farm, I was never able to carry on anything that resembled an intelligent conversation with her. I often walked over to visit grandma but suffice it to say that our conversations were carried on through a lot of primitive trial and error pointing and grunting. Without knowing the Czech language there are rivers without bridge crossings.
It is, however, in discovering and uncovering the long and very interesting American history of my mother’s paternal and maternal lines that I find my attention predominately arrested. It is a history that grows more detailed, interesting, and meaningful with each unfolding of the historical pages that have, until this point in time, been lost to my own awareness.
The awakening awareness of my own living personal heritage can be likened to finally waking from something of an induced coma of ancestral sleep, one that was imposed upon me in my formative infancy. This description, as good as it is, is still inadequate to describe this process that I’m discovering to be life-altering.
PHOTO: My maternal grandparents, John and Vada Harbison