I was born in Rochester, Pennsylvania and my parents lived in East Rochester. My father was born in Jastrobarsko, outside of Zagreb, Croatia. He came to this country when he was two years old with his mother and one year old sister.
My mother was . . . this is a real interesting story. My grandmother was born in, I’m not sure, but I think Karlovac. She was born out of wedlock. And this woman, her mother, for whatever reason, didn’t want the baby. Her father gave the baby to his sister to raise – he couldn’t very well bring it home to his wife. So my grandmother was raised by her aunt and uncle. The saddest part of the story for me is that I will never know who my great grandmother was. As far as I know, there is absolutely no way for me to find out.
So my grandmother was a thirteen year old girl living in a Serbian community with her aunt and uncle. Her father had come to the U.S., where he had a boarding house. A man from Austro-Hungary, about thirty-four years old, was living there at the time. My grandmother’s father arranged for her to come here and marry this thirty-four year old man. They stayed in the U.S. for a few months and then went back to Europe for about six months. My mother was conceived in Europe. They returned to the U.S. and she was born here.
I can’t imagine being a young, thirteen year old Serbian girl transported to the U.S. to marry a man three times your age that you have never met. And, I don’t know why he had never been married before. My grandmother died when I was seventeen. I wish I had taken the time to ask her more about this story. So, that was the Serbian side of the family. My father was the Croatian side of the family.
My parents lived in the little community of East Rochester from the time they were married. My father still lives there. They lived in three different houses in this little tiny community – that was it. There was the Fire Hall, the church, and across the street from the church was a Mom and Pop grocery that they owned when I was little. My parents were very active in the community. My mother was the head of the church choir, my father was an elder in the church and they were both active in the Fire Hall.
I went to public schools. My father was Catholic and my mother was Serbian-Orthodox. I was baptized in the Serbian-Orthodox Church but we didn’t go there. In fact, that church no longer exists. The church I went to when I was little was the one in our community. It was Lutheran and was affiliated with a Lutheran Church in a neighboring town. After a time, it lost that affiliation and became a Presbyterian Church and that’s how I was raised. I went to that church until I was twenty-one. On my twenty-first birthday I was married there. That’s probably the last time I was in that church because I moved away from the community.
My father’s side of the family is very Catholic. We would go to his mother’s house on Easter and other holidays. We didn’t visit frequently as a family because my father worked across the street from his mother and saw her every day.
I was really close to my mother’s parents. They lived in the same community as we did. In fact they owned the house my parents lived in when they first got married, and the second house they moved to after I was born. My grandparents owned both of those houses as well as the house they lived in. When I was about twelve they bought the property next door to the house my father lives in now, and they built a house there. So, they’ve always been very close.
My parents both worked. I’m the youngest of three daughters. My grandmother cooked dinner and we ate at four o’clock every day after my father got home from work. My mother was running the store during the day when my father worked at the steel mill. So, when he finished dinner my father would go to the store so my mother could come down to eat dinner. After she ate we were able to spend the evening together.
My mother was president of the CFU [Croatian Federation Union] Lodge for many years. Interesting for a Serbian woman to have that position. As far as I know, there were no Croatian people in our neighborhood. But we would go to Serbian picnics in the summer on Sunday afternoons. My mother called them Serbian but I think they were a mixture. They would have roasted lamb, sauerkraut and hot dogs. There would be a pavilion with a band for dancing and a bar band for singing. My mother didn’t dance much but loved to sing.
As a kid I liked to get up and dance. One of the first ones I learned was the miserlou – a dance created in Pittsburgh. I also learned syrto, which they called makedonka and malo kolo. The kids I watched dance as I was growing up ended up going to Duquesne University. Many of them came to the picnics and that’s how I learned to do the dances right. When I first met Dick Crum he could tell immediately that I was from Pittsburgh from the way I danced.
One thing that made us different – that I really liked – was that we would celebrate both Christian holidays and Orthodox holidays. As kids we called them Serbian Christmas and Serbian Easter. When I was older I found out they were Orthodox. But we always thought we were hot stuff because we got to have two. My father was the oldest of ten children. As a result family get togethers with his family included a very large number of people. But they weren’t really involved in the ethnic side of things like I was. And that was because of my mother.
In fourth grade I joined the junior tammies at the CFU Hall in New Brighton. I loved the singing and dancing but didn’t have the talent to play an instrument. Since they required all three I left the group after a year and a half. We had fun. We did perform. It was done to keep the culture alive. But we didn’t learn language.
The only time I heard Serbian spoken was when the adults didn’t want us to know what they were saying. Actually, I never heard my father speak a word of Croatian in my entire life. They were trying to be westernized; that was the thing then. When I was a kid I didn’t know there was a difference between being Serbian and being Croatian. They came from the same country – Yugoslavia – so I figured, hey, it must all be pretty much the same.
Now, my aunt and uncle on my father’s side of the family are in a performing dance group based in the Croatian Club in New Brighton and run by a girl who I was with in the junior tammies. I discovered this about ten years ago when I went back for a visit. That was after I had been living away from the area for almost twenty years. My aunt and uncle had traveled with a dance group and orchestra to Yugoslavia. My aunt showed me a video of them performing in a town square. It was really interesting to me. Afterward she grabbed my sisters and a couple of her sisters and we danced in the kitchen for two hours. I had forgotten how much fun dancing kolos is.
Shortly after returning to California I found the Slavonic Center and joined the dance group Slavonijo. Then I started going to every dance class I could. I learned as much as I could as fast as I could and got to know all the bands in the area.
Last year I decided we needed a folk dance directory for the area from Santa Cruz to Santa Rosa. I mentioned it to Paul Bourbon and he said “Oh, I can do that on the computer.” We try to list every place that has a weekly or bi-weekly class, a workshop with a special teacher, performances and so on. It can be used as a clearing house calendar. This is all on the website with Paul Bourbon.
It’s deeply personal. To be part of this community. To be part of the greater Balkan community- to be part of the Slavonic Center – to be part of the Kolo Festival. And just to be involved.