Retirement gives chance to reflect on family history

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For Christmas gifts, our Oregon son and daughter-in-law gave us albums that, as we fill them out, will trace our life histories for the benefit of our granddaughters.

I have always been interested in my ancestral heritage, especially on my mother’s side, but never had the time to delve into it. I relegated the task to my retirement years, as my father in his retirement has done about his side of the family. Now that I am retired this album will spur me on to try to find out more about my maternal family background.

I’m an Easterner by birth, having grown up in Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts. My father’s job promotions were the reason we left our original home in Pennsylvania and began moving treks, which my parents continued even after I was married and left home.

I know very little about my maternal grandfather, but my maternal grandmother emigrated by herself at 15 years of age from what is now Slovenia. “Where is THAT?” my students used to ask when I was teaching and had occasion to talk about that country. It is east of Italy, south of Austria and west of Hungary. It’s the northernmost country of what was formerly known as Yugoslavia, but when my grandparents were young, before World War I, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

My grandmother left Europe through a French port by ship. She told us that many people became seasick — but not her! She had no trouble eating what must have seemed sumptuous delicacies aboard the ship after a hardscrabble existence in Slovenia, where she had lived with her parents and six sisters.

She arrived in America through Ellis Island in 1912 and lived for a while in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where her previously emigrated sister lived. Later she moved to Bethlehem, Pa., and met my future grandfather at a church function. Also an immigrant, he was from a village in Slovenia not far from my grandmother’s village.

My grandfather worked in the Bethlehem Steel Company, where other immigrant Slovenians worked. He also opened a butcher shop in the south side of the city, where many Slovenians lived. One morning when my mother was 9 and her brother 15, my grandfather was cranking up his truck to go to work and died of a heart attack. He passed away at 42, so I never knew him.

I’m the eldest of four boys, and the only one of my grandmother’s six grandsons to have had black hair. (Alas, no longer!) She told me I was her favorite because her father in Slovenia had black hair. I wonder what reasons she gave the other five to tell them they were her favorites?

My maternal grandfather had a bass voice and led the congregational singing from the choir loft in church. My paternal grandfather was a composer and had his own band called the Four Musketeers, and my dad grew up singing the popular songs of the day.

Coming from a musical family on both sides, I’ve been singing as long as I can remember. Dad would have us sing in the car, and at family reunions aunts, uncles and cousins would gather around the piano to sing. One song still inhabits my memory: “Mairzy Dotes” — “Mares eat oats and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?”

It was hardly the classical fare my mother appreciated, but singing songs together was a special family bonding time. My three brothers and I sang as a quartet in church before and after our voices changed. I’ll adapt the old adage, “The family that prays (or plays) together, stays together,” to, “The family that sings together stays together” — and we certainly did.

My first public solo, as a sixth-grade boy soprano, was “Red River Valley.” For that solo, my father taught me how to use vibrato. I remember I blushed profusely from my neck up as I sang my solo in the concert. I guess it went OK because I continued to have opportunities to sing in school. Music became my life and in school I was always in music programs, as well as drama classes and plays, and took piano lessons from age 8 through my first year in college.

I was the first person on my father’s side of the family to go to college. I had been a Latin scholar for four years in high school and so gave consideration to becoming a Latin teacher. But I was also interested in English, history and theology. However, I just didn’t know which area to choose as an entering college freshman.

My father, himself not a college or high school graduate (he earned his high school GED not too long ago — in his mid-80s), came to the college to help me traverse the rigors of academia during my initial registration. He asked me what I liked most, what area most took up my time. I’m sure he must have felt grateful when I answered music, which was in our family genes. And as if a good omen, as my dad and I entered the college registration line in the gym, the first table that met our sight represented the music department.

As I fill out my granddaughters’ family history album and contemplate the gratifying and wonderful years I spent as a teacher, I reflect on how amazing it is that I, the great-grandson of Slovenian peasants, became part of the fulfillment of the American Dream in the lives of my grandparents when they left their homeland for the fabled Land of Opportunity.

Stay tuned.

Terry Koch is stepping into the life of a retiree after 46 years of teaching music at the grade school, high school and college levels. He can be reached at 509-529-6101 or terrko2@charter.net.

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