Searching for clues. I’m working now with a Polish guide, Adam, and an Ukrainian guide Sophia, through Lvivtours, a genealogical tour service, who will search down local records, drive me to my ancestral villages, help me to find living relatives in Czech Republic, Poland and Ukraine, and connect me also with cultural, culinary, historical and ecological sites to explore and soak in.
In preparation, I’m currently seeking illumination on where to find my great-grandmother’s people from the Czech Republic. I love the sleuthing of finding a thread and pulling on it, seeing what unfurls, and what unravels, as I stitch together filaments of the past…
What town in Bohemia did Sophia Strolk, or my Great-Grandma Voegeli, come from? I followed a trail of breadcrumbs to a group of second cousins who live in Toledo, Ohio, where she once lived, worked, played and prayed. These cousins have in their possession a pile of old photos and postcards from Bohemia – perhaps one would contain a postmark to pinpoint where Sophia is from?
My cousin McKenzie and I took a roadtrip to Toledo and sat down around the dining room table with the Cherry branch of our shared Voegeli clan. The siblings were boisterous as they spread out photos of relatives, known and unknown, and told stories from the past. The postmarks weren’t conclusive and no one knew what town Sophia came from, just that in 1906, she traveled by herself from Bohemia, at the age of 16, arriving in Ohio, stopping a man in a wagon to ask for directions, who turned out to be her father. In 1910, she met and married first Paul Voegeli from Switzerland, waiting tables in a bar and boarding house for shipyard workers. They had 3 children. Then in 1930, she married his brother Ernest (my great-grandfather) and they had 3 children of their own. No one knew how Paul died, or what happened to Anna, the wife of Ernest, just that they ran the bar and boarding house together for years. Also that Ernest mixed it up with a notorious gangster and bootlegger, Yonnie Licavoli, during Prohibition. I reveled in the mafia mystery and criminal twist to the tale…
Ernest and Sophia’s shipyard union gave rise to three sisters, with tributaries of children branching wide. Sophie, my grandmother, a woman who woke up one day to a note on the car and an empty bed, left to raise 8 children by herself, all of whom eventually scattered across the country, each to their own. She would lock herself in her bedroom for days on end, leaving the kids to fend for themselves, taking refuge in her books and St Francis and doing her best to survive. Her sister Norma, had 4 boys and lost 3 girl children, each within days of their birth. Her depression was treated with electric shock therapy, lest she feel anything as a grieving mother. I felt my rage at the patriarchy that made her feel crazy and ignored the legitimate source of her pain. Gloria, the oldest, also had 8 children, who all stayed nearby and tightly knit, held together by her determination to be an anchor in the storm. I loved seeing pictures of the three sisters together, along with my great-grandmother Sophia, and the power of their bond through turbulent times.
Tom Cherry drove us through their old neighborhood, filled with small brick churches and dilapidated houses, seeing the vacant lot where their boarding house once stood. Took us past the old brick storefront of the old Hot Dog Johnny, the hip spot where they once got wieners and fries, with its now faded sign and weeds poking through the sidewalk cracks. We also stopped by the nearby gravesites of Ernest and Paul, letting them know that I will soon travel back to their homelands in Gachlingen, Switzerland and asking them to open the way. It was a lovely day of old lore and speculation, imagining and remembering, poring over faded postcards, reconnecting with branches of kin, watering the roots of our family tree.
“We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. Not forever, perhaps, but for a time. It’s a kind of immortality, I suppose, bounded by limits, it’s true, but then so’s everything.”- Urban fantasy writer, Charles deLint