My Father’s People
When I was born in Cleveland in 1945, the firstborn in my family, my father got an insurance policy from the First Catholic Slovak Ladies Association (FCSLA) in my name. I still maintain that account, hoping some day, if I have the money, to invest more with them.
My father was a poor factory worker who was born in Prešov in what is now the Republic of Slovakia, but back in 1911 was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Hungarian administration. It was only in the 1990s that the country became independent—for the first time in its history.
I still get a copy of the FCSLA’s magazine, Fraternally Yours, and read it for news of my Slavik forebears around Ohio and Pennsylvania, where most of the Slovak population is centered. With the most recent issue, I even found out that my old classmate Frank Basa from the Class of ’62 at Chanel High School in Bedford is a Catholic priest in Akron, Ohio.
There isn’t too much to tie me to Cleveland these days. All I have are three graves: my father, my mother, and my great-grandmother Lidia. I would like some day to visit Cleveland with Martine and show her the scenes of my youth, sedate as they were.
My Father’s Side of the Family Around 1918
When I visited my brother a week and a half ago, he brought out two boxes of old pictures and papers relating to my past—except it was his past, too. From left to right, the pictures are of:
- My Uncle Emil (twin of Alex)
- “Mama” or my paternal grandmother Margit
- Margitka, my Aunt Margit
- Stará (Old) M., clearly a member of the family, possibly the same as my Father’s kindly Aunt Valera
- My Father, various called Ellek, Elek, or Alex (twin of Emil)
Shortly after this picture was taken, Grandma Margit and her husband Emil Sr. abandoned their children in Prešov-Solivar while they went off to the United States. Little Emil, Elek, and Margitka were cared for by Valera. My father tells me stories of picking mushrooms in the Tatra Mountains and hunting for frog legs to feed his brother, sister, and aunt. All three children made it to Cleveland some ten years later.
As a result of fending for himself in the mountains of Slovakia during the postwar famine, my father always had an insatiable craving for meat. When he came to America, he and his brother indulged in that craving—and that’s what killed them. Sometimes it’s best NOT to have your heart’s desire.
I visited Czechoslovakia with my parents in 1977 and met Valera. She was the only Slovak in the family who could still speak Hungarian, so I was able to communicate with her. I would like to think she was the pleasant looking Stará M. in the above photo.
My Father and My Uncle at a Picnic
Set your Wayback Machine to about seventy-five years ago. At one of Cleveland’s many parks, you would see those two irrepressible Slovak twins—Elek (Alex) and Emil Paris—and their girls having a Hungarian-style picnic. The entrée of choice is likely to be szalonnás kenjer, or sliced rye bread with chopped onions, paprika, and smoked bacon drippings. On the left is Elek, my father, with either a girlfriend or his first wife, who was said to be overweight. Next to her are my Aunt Annabelle (née Herbaj) and Uncle Emil. It was a scene to be repeated well into my teen years, except the girlfriend/first wife was replaced by my mother.
Speaking of Hungarian picnics, allow me to quote Carl Sandburg to you. His short poem is called “Happiness”:
I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life
to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of
thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though
I was trying to fool with them
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along
the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with
their women and children and a keg of beer and an
I’m not altogether sure about the accordion. The Paris brothers were too busy eating to sing. On the other hand, when I went to Slovakia with my parents in 1977 (it was then part of Czechoslovakia), we sang all the old songs with my pretty cousins Gabriela, Margit, and Marinka (the last two being themselves twins).
A brief note about nationality: Like the Kurds, the Slovaks were a cohesive people for hundreds of years before ever having a country of their own, until Vaclav Havel, last President of Czechoslovakia, granted them their independence in 1993. When my father and uncle were born in 1911, Slovakia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was administered by the Hungarians. In the end, my father spoke better Hungarian than Slovak; though I found out as early as 1977, Hungarian was spoken only by the old people.