Marissa Mazek sent Over Wide Sea, an inspiring essay that explores issues of boundaries and ancestry, to ZiN Daily hoping that it will resonate with Zvona i Nari’s mission to build connection between cultures. Indeed, she was right and it is with delight that we publish Marissa's search for her Slovenian heritage. She explains:
"I began writing Over Wide Sea after conducting research on my Slovenian ancestry. At the time I was conducting this research, Donald Trump, who is married to a Slovenian woman, was running for the presidency of my country. His campaign and presidency have spurned vast, incomprehensible hatred against immigrants, and a rash of xenophobia. It is my objective in this essay not only to explore my personal background, but to tell a true story of the descendant of an immigrant to the United States. I also hope to illuminate the life story of my great-great-grandmother Neša, who, like so many loving relatives, was left behind after her son’s departure.
To that end, I have interspersed fragments of Neša’s letters (in translation) throughout the essay."
"I hope Neša's voice speaks to readers as it has to me, and I hope it helps readers who don’t know much about Slovenia better understand its people and history. I wrote this essay to connect with both my past and with my country’s present political strife. I hope it helps us all connect a bit better to each other."
Marissa in her bio explains: "I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University in 2015, and got my BA in English and Creative Writing at Barnard College, Columbia University in 2010. A short story of mine was a Top 25 Finalist in Glimmer Train’s March/April 2017 Fiction Open. In 2016, an essay of mine was a 2016 finalist for the Center for Women Writers Niven Award in Creative Nonfiction. My work has been published in Watershed Review, The RS500, THEThe Poetry, The Emma Press Anthology of Homesickness and Exile, and elsewhere."
Over Wide Sea
We’ve come here searching for my great-great grandmother. Her name was Neša, and, as far as I can tell, she lived in this village called Čabrače for most of her life. Čabrače, population 42, is on a mountain in Slovenia, just over an hour’s drive from the capital.
On vacation in Austria and Slovenia, my parents and I have decided to learn more about our heritage. We hope to see where Neša lived, and maybe find her tombstone so we can pay our respects. Neša’s voice has carried across a century from this mountain to us. We have an address from the letters she sent to my great-grandfather Frank, and now the GPS has led us up a winding road to this cluster of houses capped by a church.
Since it’s the only landmark, we head to the church first. From the valley, its spire stands out against the mountain’s greenery, pale and straight compared to the landscape’s blur. We follow the road as it winds through the village, then park in a flattened patch of grass beside the church. We wander the property, but there’s no graveyard. There’s no one around to ask, either, just a plaque declaring the church’s name: The Church of St. Jederti, and outlining its history. Just the plaque, and a pair of locked wooden doors, cobwebs stretching across the slats.
We waver, arguing about whether to explore the village or just leave. My mother wants to continue on to Salzburg, where we have hotel reservations. My father and I want to try to talk to someone about our family. I circle the perimeter as my parents bicker.
Perhaps we linger because it’s almost a certainty that Neša came here for Mass. We may not be able to find her burial site, or meet someone who knew her, but we can let her past and our present come together in this place.
The church wasn’t supposed to be here. In 1501, when the people of Čabrače were building their house of worship, they wanted it to be in a spot lower down the hillside, at a more centralized location. But legend has it that after the residents set the construction materials at the planned site, everything moved up the mountain overnight. The people returned the equipment back to its original place, but the same thing happened again the next night. Čabrače’s inhabitants decided that their church was meant to be at the higher elevation, and built it above the village. Around 1723, something happened to the original building, and the current structure was constructed in its place.
The biggest altar is dedicated to St. Jederti, or St. Gertrude. In her lifetime, St. Gertrude was known for her generosity to the poor, sick, and travelers. She’s a relatively obscure saint in Slovenia, though there are a few sayings about her feast day. A nice feast of St. Jederti, March 17, promises a good harvest. A warm wind will blow that day, if not sooner.
Other saints who dot the church include St. Lucia (eye ailments), St. Florian (the patron saint of firefighters, which makes me think the original church burned down), St. Gregory (church musicians), St. Margaret (women in labor), St. Apolonia (dentists and toothaches), and St. Luke the Evangelist (artists). The church has a mix of dedication to saints supporting people with health ailments and creative types. I wonder what sort of people have worshipped here, if Čabrače was once known for its medical misfortunes or for producing artists—if those legacies brushed my family’s story.
Through the dirty windows, I see blurs of the sanctuary, fragments I try to arrange into an understanding of what this church’s interior looks like. At the back, a half-full bottle of a bright green sports drink rests on a table in a small office. So someone’s been here recently. Maybe it’s not always this deserted.
I let myself imagine the place bustling. I imagine decades or centuries of my people processing into the chapel every Sunday since 1723, or even since 1501. I don’t know what Neša looked like, or her husband Blaž, but I picture her small and sturdy, her hair, the same shade of brown as mine, wound tight in a bun. Blaž has my father’s lean build and green eyes.
On one side of the building, there’s a window open from the inside. I hop onto the ledge beneath the window and peer through, trying not to disturb the layers of dust lining the panes.
St. Jederti’s interior walls are streaked with decades of disrepair. Once covered in painted frescoes, they’re now mottled from years of ground moisture seeping up into them. The walls are painted white from about waist height up. Below that, they’re black in spots and scraped to plaster in others.
A chandelier has been pinned against the back balcony so it doesn’t hang freely anymore, as if it’s on a ship that’s expecting to hit a squall. Its glass beading still shines, and several of the candle cups are filled by upright candles. Four rows of wooden chairs are lined up for a service. A small table stands in front of the altar, covered by a neat white tablecloth. A statue rests, covered by a tarp, just in front of the table.
There’s the chipping plaster, yes, but also a gilded side altar featuring a saint I can’t identify. She’s posed against a blue background, a chain or leash dropping from the crook of her left arm. A cherub’s face hovers near her shoulder. Two other figures stand off to the sides, and there’s another saint and two angels above them.
I get my camera out of my bag, stick my arm as far into the building as it will go, and click without seeing what I’m photographing. My aim is to get a sense of what the central altar and front of the chapel look like. I lean against the window frame, and take picture after picture.
I walk to a section of grass that juts over the valley. The view from up here can’t have changed much since my great-grandfather, Frank, departed Čabrače for America over a century ago. I know that I’m seeing the same group of hills Frank and his parents Blaž and Neša saw, the same valley dotted with a few red roofs and neat fields arching into the hills.
Looking, I claim this landscape, and it feels right. For the first time, I’m able to stand in a spot and know that I am from here, as if its dirt is wound into the strands of my DNA. Ĉabraĉe is home for me in a way that no other place is. A source. It’s where generations of my predecessors may have lived and died, their bones decaying into the soil that fed their children, until one of them up and left and made way for my grandfather and my father and me. This view is an inheritance Neša wanted to pass down and which Frank rejected. I accept it now.
Frank left Čabrače for America in 1907, when Slovenia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was seven years until Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination would spiral the continent into the First World War. Life under the Habsburgs was increasingly difficult, and thousands of people sought opportunity in America. Immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States spiked after 1900; by the time Frank arrived, nearly one-quarter of immigrants entering the U.S. was from a land ruled by the Habsburgs.
From Slovenia, Frank made his way to The Hague, where he boarded a ship bound for New York. When he arrived at Ellis Island in March 1907, he was seventeen. He settled in Burdine, a mining town outside Pittsburgh, and became a coal miner.
My grandfather, Felix, remembered Frank as a fearsome man who beat his wife. When Felix turned eighteen, he moved his mother out of the house and never spoke to Frank again until the man was dying from black lung.
Frank died alone. Felix visited him in the hospital, but my father wouldn’t. When Frank died, much of the story of where he was from—where we are from—died with him.
But traces remain. Felix died when I was four, and his third wife, Rita, followed a few years later. After Rita’s death, a relative found a packet of letters dating from 1911 to 1932 in the attic. Whoever had saved the letters also kept their envelopes. The earlier ones are stamped with Emperor Franz Joseph’s face and the seal of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s postal system: Kaiserliche Königliche Österreichischerpost . After 1919, the stamps represent the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes; after 1925, the Yugoslavian postage is partially in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Our last name varies from letter to letter. On some, it’s the newly Americanized Mazek. On others, depending on the author and other factors I don’t understand, it’s Meseg, Mesek, or Mezek.
Not long after the letters were found, my father paid a friend of a family friend to translate them from Slovenian. Most are from Neša, and from a woman named Marija, who seems to be a cousin. A few are by Marjanca, who may be Marija’s daughter, and one of the earliest is signed by Blaŝ. Many of the letters end with a plea for Frank to respond or with a lament for the distance between author and reader.
I am asking you to write me soon and if it is possible, to help me somehow. Your mother, Neša—March 1, 1915.
Perhaps the translator—an Italian translating Slovene to English—has made stylistic choices that make Neŝa sound more desperate than she really was. At times, her pleas verge on the melodramatic. But perhaps not. Her only son is an unfathomable distance away. Her husband is weak, then dies, and she’s left to run a farm by herself. She expects her son to return and help, but he never does.
Neŝa and Marija often speak of the high costs they face. They write about debts they owe, and rising interest rates. Anxiety about money travels through the decades.
Throughout the years, Neša worries over what to do with the house and farm. In November 1911, she tells Frank that she is always ready to give him the property “since this is a big burden for my old days.” Four years later, Neša thinks about selling the house to pay an aunt back. She continues to ask Frank to return home and to take over the property.
I would ask if you could remember me sometimes again, because needs are hard now, inflation is high, and I am on my own and helpless. I will not be able to work on the fields nor to hire someone else.—Neša, January 8, 1921.
My favorite language is in the closing of Blaž’s letter from April 1913: Now I say again with a very sad heart my regards, as well as your Mother and maybe the last time in this life I hold out to you my right hand over hills and mountains and over wide sea, wishing for this letter to land safely into your hands.
A letter dated March 1, 1915 is ringed in thick black bands, even the envelope. It announces that Blaž had died in January. Neša grieves, and emphasizes to Frank that it’s his responsibility to take care of her now:
I inform you with a very sad heart that father died on January 21. Now I am asking you to think well for you are now the first one after father and now it’s up to you to look after me and for the rest— March 1, 1915.
Neša spends so much space on the page asking her son to come home. She’s hesitant to make a decision about what to do with the property without Frank’s input, even though he’s so far away. As a woman, Neša may have felt that she couldn’t make such a big decision without the approval of the oldest man of the family, even if he lived on another continent. At times, she’s almost nagging, but I think it was because she felt stuck. She wanted Frank to tell her what to do, but it seems as though he never gave her a straight answer. It’s not clear if Frank planned to stay in the U.S., or if he ever intended to go back home. Perhaps Neša could have sold the farm, could have up and left, but a hope that Frank would return one day tethered her to the land.
Father’s last wish was, while he was still at full consciousness, that his son would come back home to be together with his mother and that each would have something…The home is yours whenever you come, I am just asking you to take care of me—April 22, 1915.
As far as I can tell, Neŝa lived alone for another seventeen years until her death in 1932.
At a split in the road out of Čabrače, there’s a black-haired woman walking by herself. My father stops the car, and I get out. She asks me something in Slovenian and looks at our Austrian license plate.
I mumble one of the variations of our last name.
The woman points down the valley, like she’s giving directions. I take her answer to mean that there are still people with our surname in the area. I nod, as if I’ve understood, say hvala, Slovene for thank you, and get back in the car.
It is strange to me since you write me no more. On July 24 it will be two years since I’ve gotten your last letter… I wish once a year you could remember me and write me and ask me how I live with my old age.
Now I want to ask you something else. What am I supposed to do with the house, should I stay in it or should I sell it, since I can’t work anymore nor can I earn money. I ask you to answer me as soon as possible.
Nothing special to write about, though I could talk with you much more, but then, it is impossible to talk to you since the distance between us is so big. But I wish you well all the same.
As I can hear here, even in your new country life is not easy.
Now I wish you from my heart all the best, to your wife and Felix too.
Once again I ask you kindly to answer me quickly. —Neša, April 28, 1931.
About a year after our stop in Ĉabraĉe, I begin seriously researching my heritage. I joke that my efforts are an elaborate attempt to prove that I am in no way related to Melania Trump, whose husband is somehow about to be elected president, but the truth goes much deeper than that: I want to know what sort of people I come from. What lives led to mine.
I join Ancestry.com and look up variations of Frank’s name on the Ellis Island website’s passenger search. There are a few leads, some of them major: I stumble upon Frank’s naturalization papers and learn that he became a citizen in 1917. I also join a Facebook group dedicated to Slovenian genealogy.
Through this new round of research, I begin compiling a list of questions: who were Blaž and Neša’s parents? Were they from Čabrače? After Frank emigrated, were there any other young descendants left in the area? He seems to have been an only child, so the family name would have had to pass through Blaž’s siblings or cousins.
A Facebook search reveals that there are people with each variation of our surname still in the Gorenja vas area. I email the local parish, asking if they know of any relatives. My email goes unanswered.
Much of the information I encounter comes from unexpected sources. One of my biggest helpers is a woman whose grandfather lived with relatives in Čabrače around 1905, after his mother left for America. He was about twelve; Frank would have been fourteen or fifteen then. The woman and I hypothesize in Facebook messages. Her grandfather and my great-grandfather must have known each other, we decide. The village was simply too small for them not to have met. And now we’ve met, sort of, two American women interested in the same tiny mountain village.
With her help, I’m able to piece more together. For several weeks, I’m addicted. I call my father almost every day with a new hypothesis, new leads. I may have found Blaŝ’s grandfather. There was a Marija around the age of our letter author whose daughter is still alive. The daughter would be an old woman now.
One night, after I’ve spent a couple hours down the genealogy rabbit hole, my fiancé asks why I’m pursuing this work. He thinks, I can tell, that maybe I’ve gone too far. Maybe he’s right.
“What does all this research do for you?” he asks. His logic is reasonable: most twenty-somethings don’t spend half their time fixated on dead people they’ve never met.
The next day, someone writes a long post on the Facebook group asking why she devotes so much time and energy to studying her heritage. She ends without reaching a conclusion, without an answer, though I think I have one for myself.
I don’t expect this research to change my life, I tell my fiancé. It does shift my understanding of my life, though—of its context. To know down to the village where one part of my family is from is an experience many people don’t have. But it’s about more than just having a unique experience. It’s having a sensory understanding—a memory—of the place that my ancestors left. It’s the ability to trace the line of where I’m from not just to a country or a region, but to the village. To see the view of the world my ancestors had. To look through my eyes at what they once saw.
It’s an extraordinary moment of connection to my heritage to stand in the village, to peer into the church, and to imagine. It’s something else to hear its voice, garbled through the generations and through translation. Nonetheless, Neša’s letters help me understand snippets of the world Frank left. I can try to make sense of the enormous risks Frank took in leaving home at seventeen, to learn what and who he left behind. I’ve spent my life around immigrants and the children of immigrants. Before this process, I had never really thought about the impact of a relative’s emigration on the people who stay behind. Neša’s letters open up that experience.
There are other branches to explore—Frank’s wife’s family, for example, or my paternal grandmother’s side, or my mother’s entire side of the family, but I’m drawn to Blaž and Neša, maybe because I’ve seen exactly where they lived. I’ve breathed their air.
Neŝa is always at the core of the process. I think of her, alone in her home for nearly two decades, and wonder what sort of person she was. I wonder if she ever thought about just selling the farm and moving down the mountain to Gorenja vas to be closer to Marija and Marjanca, Frank’s opinion be damned. I wonder, too, if I’m glamorizing her, if we truly have anything in common besides genetics. I wonder what she’d think of someone devoting so much time to hypothesizing about her life with almost no hard information about it. Most of all, I wonder if I’m doing her any justice, or if I’ve completely missed the mark.
I think about what I’ve gotten from spending this time with what little I know of Neša’s life. What I’ve inherited from Neša, from the visit to her home and from her letters, is more than a last name, or the color of my eyes or hair. It’s an understanding—however partial and incomplete—of the lives that came before mine. It’s a life.
At the time I’m conducting this research, I have another project: planning my wedding. For months, the two don’t overlap. Then, I decide that I am going to address the invitations myself in calligraphy. I eagerly buy a beginner’s set of nibs and inks.
It’s relaxing, the hours I spend at the kitchen table, focusing on the shapes of individual letters, then words. I haven’t thought about handwriting since I learned script in fourth grade. I haven’t thought about language on the level of letters in years. My calligraphy starts out shakily, but eventually becomes legible.
I study the shapes of Neša’s handwriting. In her C for Čabrače, I see the curved structure my materials say I should emulate. Neša took care when writing to her son. Each page is neat—there’s never a word crossed out or scribbled over. I wonder if she rewrote a page every time she made a mistake.
Did she worry about the shape of each letter? Did she worry, as I always do when I write, about the sound of one word following another? Did she worry whether the meaning and the longing and the love she hoped to convey, sentence by painstaking sentence, reached her son? My great-great-grandmother and I write in very different times, but we are both writers. Both trying to use our shaky grasp of language to make meaning of our lives, to say please don’t forget about me.
Later, my father and I will talk about returning to Čabrače. Maybe one day we will, armed with questions, more information, and the time we need to seek out a deeper sense of our history. But now, in the moment, I’m fully here. I’m not thinking about future trips or the information we don’t have.
I photograph the view from beside St. Jederti, of the valley through gaps in the trees. My parents are re-reading the plaque, so I have the moment to myself. I try to memorize the landscape. As I look, I’m conscious of the fact that this was Neša, Blaž and Frank’s view. That it’s the one Frank left, and the one Neša never did.
This was their view, and I’m privy to it. They were here, my ancestors, and my father and I have made our way back. We’re not Frank, and we’re a century too late, but we’ve come back.