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(E) CROATIAN STORIES - On Finding a Grave in Cleveland - Josip N
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  01/8/2003 | Culture And Arts | Unrated
(E) CROATIAN STORIES - On Finding a Grave in Cleveland - Josip N
Distributed by CroatianWorld

Croatian Stories

On Finding a Grave in Cleveland
           - JosipNovakovich -

My grandmother had died in Cleveland, and nobody in my family--most of them living in Croatia and none in the States--knew where her grave was. I couldn't find the records in the downtown library in Cleveland. 
I visited the old house on Carry Avenue where she used to live, between 55th and 60th Street, one block toward the Lake Erie from St. Claire Avenue. Before the second world war, the block had burned down on one end of the street because the gas tanks there exploded and many Slovenes and Croats who lived on the street were killed. Now, at one end of the street, there was a new park, Grdina Park, after a Slovenian priest by the same name who had buried many of the industrial victims. Grd means ugly, so the park has been appropriately named Ugly. 
Even 25 years ago, when I visited the States for the first time, the neighborhood, as the first sight of the glorious country for me, a Balkan provincial, appalled me. Rusty factories with shattered windows, orange-brown rails overgrown in weeds, houses with caving porches. The old Croats and Slovenes spoke a strange language, a mixture of English and Croatian, and both languages were ungrammatical, or in a way, they had their own grammar: Cronglish, or Slonglish, one could name the language if there were enough people speaking it. And there, in that neighborhood, my grandfather had worked and wasted his health, acquiring chronic bronchitis in a screw factory, along with many of his compatriots. According to letters Cleveland immigrant workers sent to Croatia at the beginning of the century, the smoke arising from more than a thousand chimneys was so heavy that one could rarely see the sky.
My grandfather of course did not have a car, and he walked home from work. On one such walk he saw a girl playing in a yard, liked her, walked up to the door, rang the bell, and asked the man who opened the door for the permission to marry the girl. The man invited him in, interviewed him for ten minutes, and without consulting his daughter, gave my grandfather, who was 28, the permission to marry the girl, who was 14. And that was the beginning of that line of my family, of me. Still, my grandfather never liked Cleveland. Once Yugoslavia was formed in 1918, he decided to go back and enjoy the panSlavic state. He planned to become a big-time farmer, American style, but he overestimated what his savings could do. He went to a village, Medjuric, and wouldn't budge from it, even tough he was a poor peasant, having chosen sandy soil that alternately flooded and dried up, and yielded more frogs than cornstalks. He wheezed in the fields happy that he did not have to go to a stultifying factory in Cleveland. He read, talked, and joked, and I remember him as a tall, jovial and emaciated man. He died when I was seven. 
His was the first in the line of many funerals in my childhood. He was buried next to the train tracks, so every time I took the train, I'd lean out the window and see Pavao Bubanovic on black marble. This gave me some satisfaction--So, I thought, these are my roots, next to the rails, inviting me to uproot myself. 
Anyway, Mary Volcensek, my grandmother, had left him before his death, right after World War II, even though as a communist she had got a good apartment in the center of Zagreb. I don't know the reasons for their divorce and they were after all their business. But death and cemeteries, that is everybody's business. 
She loved the war years so much that in Cleveland, while working as a cashier at Mace Company, she read all the second world war novels she could. She easily talked about the war, the wormy gangrenes she as a nurse had attended to on partisans' legs, the warm handshake Tito had given her. In the States, she never accumulated any property because she gave away everything she had to her sons in Croatia, and much less to my mother. 
She lived first with a priest who had a temple in their house and held private services in Latin, and she laughed at his religion good-humoredly. She spent a lot of time walking from one friend to another. I visited her after she had her first heart attack at the age of 76. She said she had no desire to live, and she refused to eat, trying to die, but after the second heart attack, doctors revived her again. The third did it. At the time I lived without money and jobs in NYC, so I did not go to the funeral. She was buried by her older brother, who'd had a stroke, and his wife, Stephanie, who worked for the police department and even at 65 wore mini-skirts, proud of her legs. She was incensed that she had two sick old people on her hands to deal with, and a burial to boot. She shouted at me on the phone, so I didn't call her to ask her where my grandmother was buried, and when I tried later on, her number was no listed.

Now, fifteen years later, in 1999, I was sure I would find Stephanie in the same house, or somewhere else in the city, and she would tell me how to find my grandmother's grave, after rightly rebuking me for neglecting the funeral. Plus, she would probably want me to pay for part of the expenses, which would be all right. I had just received a Guggenheim fellowship, and although I hadn't written in the application that I would pay for debts on my grandmother's funeral, I was sure the Foundation couldn't object to such a use of part of the money.I came to the one-story white house with wooden siding, and in the yard was a man I didn't know washing a car. He didn't know anything about the Volcenseks.

Who are you looking for? asked a woman from across the street.
Mary Volcensek used to live here. I am her nephew. I would like to . . .
Oh, she died.I know. I am looking for her relatives.
They died. Everybody in that house died. They all died within a year.
Stephanie too?Yea, she died of cancer.
Do you know any of her relatives?
Well, yeah, I am her niece. Do you know where Mary is buried.
I have no idea.Who would know?
Maybe my other aunt. She's a bartender at . . . she gave me a name of a bar on St. Claire and 72nd.

I drove there. It was a strange dive, with deer heads, pool table, and many old men. The aunt had a husky voice, broken down by too much smoking.
I have no idea where she's buried. But you could talk with my cousin, Babe. Babe knows everybody in the neighborhood. 
Where does she live? What's her address?
Her last name is Cizel. You can look it up in the book.
I did, and I drove to the house, but there was nobody there. Another whitehouse, near 55th, on Bona, near the Sterle Slovenian Restaurant, where many weddings were held, and where I was defeated in my attempts to become a vegetarian. I had been one for a month, but now, during the break in my search for my grandmother's grave, I couldn't resist veal goulash. The best veal goulash I've ever had. Later I couldn't repeat the experience at the same place. I am sure that the break-down of my resolve had much to do with the pleasure of that initial meal--I savored the juices with onions and soft Italian bread. . . . Anyway, after it I tried to find old woman Babe, but she wasn't there. 
I went to the Slovenian Catholic Church, St. Vitius, two blocks away although I thought that was a hopeless try since my mother was a Baptist who did not attend churches, and later she attended a Lutheran church for the lunch-hour for the elderly. My wife and my kids accompanied me, and the kids chased each other in the parish office, while I tried to calm them down. A young woman showed up and gave me the parish records to look through. And sure enough, I found Mary Volcensek's name in the book. The priest walked in, a serious and sad Slovene in his later forties, and he said, Oh yes, Mary and her brother John. They died within a couple of weeks. That's an incredibly sad story. 
When I asked him to tell me more, he wouldn't.
But he gave me the directions to the Calvary cemetery and said that the office there would be able to direct me to the location of her grave; they would have the records of her section and lot numbers. 
I tried calling the office but got no response. 
On the way there, we stopped by the Cizel's again. Upon my ringing at the door, an old woman's face appeared and I recognized it. My grandmother and I spent an evening with her 25 years ago, during Nixon's resignation address. But that was in a different house. 
Oh, you are from the old country, aren't you? She asked. Come in!
I introduced myself, and she said, I remember you. I was delighted for a moment to be in the world in which memory does not fail; or rather, after many failures, the memory resurfaces and brings us together again. My enthusiasm in memory was dimmed a little when she asked me how my father in Zagreb was. I realized she took me for my cousin who had visited with his father. Oh, you mean my Uncle Ivo. He's dead. Bled to death from ulcer. And his son Damir, he's doing well. Married, has a daughter . . .Oh, that's it, Damir.
Yes, you mistook me for Damir, I said. But I visited you too, three years before he did.Oh, yes, now I remember. I remember that evening . . .
And I think she did. Her mind seemed to be quite together.
And this is your family. Lovely children, she said. My six year old son hid behind my wife. Eva, my two-year old, ran in circles around the room. 
There was an old woman with Babe, her mother. Babe was 70 and her mother 97. As renters, they lived together on the ground floor, which hey kept it perfectly clean. Babe brought out a box with paper, death records, and photographs."She goes to all the funerals around here," her mother said. 
"Somebody has to," she said. "Many of our old friends have died, and some without anybody to take care of the funeral arrangements, so I help the priest out that way."
"Oh, and she goes to the gravestones, and pulls out the weeds, cleans the stones."
"Yes, but we haven't been to your grandmother's grave in half a year. We'd like to go, but we just got back from a dentist's appointment. Can you believe it, my mom has such good teeth that she still gets toothaches. You wouldn't think that was a good sign but it is--her teeth are alive. Se we had to go to a dentist to fill out a cavity. Oh my, that was a journey. See, we don't have a car, so we walk everywhere and we take buses. But next time you come to Cleveland, let us know, and we'll all go."

Are you hungry? Would you like to eat some Slovenian sausages? 
Yes, we saw the Slovenian grocery on the corner on the way here, I said. 
Their sausages are the best, she said.
How about some beer? She brought out some Heineken beer. 
I was impressed, The ladies were aging with style.
Oh, no wonder you have lived to be over 97, I said to Babe's mother.
I never drink, she said. The priest visited us, and for some reason he brought us this, so whenever a guest comes, we hope to make him drink some. We had a dozen, now 8 to go yet.
They boiled the sausages for Jeanette and me. We enjoyed eating them with sauerkraut. Won't you join us? I said. 
Oh no, said the older one, we have sausages just for guests. I haven't eaten one in years. 
She just eats bread, crackers, fruits, and salads, said Babe.
The old woman was smiling happily at us.
I was a bit disenchanted with their healthy example; I prefer to see people stay healthy and eat and drink and be merry, but here, they were merry enough without heavy food and drink. In fact, they were merrier than most people I had talked with in days. 
The old woman remembered my grandmother, for they would be now the same age, and even better, she remembered her family and her mother. "They were our neighbors just a couple of blocks from here. You could see Katarina walk barefoot even in the winter. She was a strong woman. She gave birth to her children while men were at work, and then she'd cook a meal for them, so once they came back from the factory, they'd have something to eat. And then, she'd go back to her baby. I don't think she ever saw a doctor. 
"She wore shoes only when she went to St. Claire Avenue--for her that was the high society, and she didn't want to look like a peasant there. She liked walking barefoot because she saved on shoes that way."
Wow, that was great--she was remembering my great-grandmother, and she would have probably come up with more details, if Babe hadn't insisted on dominating the conversation and on talking about St. Vitius church, which I didn't mind, just having seen what great service the church provided: it buried even those who didn't pay any dues and it kept records.
Now and then, Babe would interrupt her mother: Oh, Mama, you don't remember it right. 
Then she'd turn to us, and say, You know just lately her mind has been going.
The old woman would smile in the meanwhile knowingly. It didn't seem to me that her mind was going--she looked alert and clever.
And she doesn't watch out enough for herself. A couple of summers ago, we still didn't have air-conditioning--thank god, now we do--and one hot night, I found her asleep on the floor, with the front door open right into the street. Someone could have come in . . .
Oh, at my age, how could I fear that? asked the old woman.
How did you like school? What subject did you like best? I asked the old woman.
I liked them all. Oh, it was all interesting.
Really? You had no favorites?
No, hardly ever. Even with people, I didn't play favorites. 
Something in her attitude struck me as terribly wise and healthy. Too bad she was not a blood relative, and through in-laws our relationship was extremely distant. On the other hand, here she was, an immigrant before World War I, like my grandfather and my grandmother's family, and her life was parallel to a large extent to theirs, except that she had never bothered with Yugoslavia.
What struck me about these lives was the absence of men. Most of them had died early because of terrible working conditions in the factories and because of unhealthy life-styles. This was, in some way, amatrilineal society. My quest for the roots here was matrilineal.
After parting from the wise women, we drove to the cemetery. Calvary is huge, with rolling hills and many lots. It took us quite a while to find section 110, and then the lot--the lots weren't marked. Most of the tombstones were level with the ground, kept up pretty well. It took us half an hour to find her grave. The stone was pretty clean, thanks to Babe. The wind was blowing. My son shivered and stood on the stone. I told him, You can t stand on the stone. 
Why? He asked. 
It s not respectful.
I don t know. Who knows, maybe your Great-grandmother would like it, that you are here, standing above her. OK, stand there if you like. 
Jeanette took pictures I planned to send them to my mother, who was 81, and ill, in Croatia. But, it occurred to me that she might not like to see that 81 was the biological limit, so far, for women in her lineage. Maybe I would not send her the pictures. Should she die without seeing her mother s and grandmother s grave?
We took a walk to the other section, where Mary's mother was. That one was next to a large maple. I was surprised to see that her first name was totally anglicized, into Catherine; I had expected her to be Katarina. My daughter danced at her grave, and said, ABC. Daddy, there s alphabet soup down here! And she sang, Now I sing my ABC. We all laughed. Eva had found a good use for tombstones. Later, we would of course revisit, and then, I suspect, Eva will not sing, and as the years go buy, the stones would strike more sadness in her. 

Josip Novakovich

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