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They're Almost All Gone

Today in the mail I received my copy of the latest newsletter of the Texas Czech Genealogical Society publication, the Cesky Stopy. My father signed me up as a member of the organization and though I don't take advantage of the conferences they hold or resources they make available, I enjoy reading the Stopy four times a year. My dad has really become interested in our family genealogy in the true sense of the word - researching one more generation back in the family line, then another, then another.  He's serious about our heritage, both Czech and Polish. See his brand new custom made boots at left with both country's flags and, below them, the earliest date our ancestors immigrated from each. He's a proud man; there's no way I, the oldest child, could not be affected by his love of history and of Texas. My dad was recently moved to write the article below, which I was pleased to  turn to on page 12 of the Cesky Stopy edition that arrived today.  

I'm cheating on my blog tonight by offering my father's article, though you'll find one of his aunt's recipes at the end, added by me. My Dad's writing illuminates a bit my own need to chase down a recipe and my obsession with things like letters and memorabilia my grandmother saved for upwards of nine decades.  I also inherited my father's (and mother's) strong sense of family and family history and all the activity and obligation that accompanies that. I'd like to say "damn you, Mom and Dad!", but what I really mean is "thank you." 

by Steve Orsak

Steve Orsak, age 3. 
I recently turned 70 and it caused me to reconsider life’s different phases and experiences. Family history began to seem more important.  As my aunts, uncles and closer family members slip away, childhood memories of visits to their farms and homes are taking on a new significance. I  am realizing that we are shaped by even these small experiences. 

For example, tasting an olive for the first time at Aunt Pat Rippamonti’s apartment after she married my Uncle Tommy Orsak.  Then later finding out that her grandfather had come from Italy to drive stakes on the railroad from Victoria to Houston for Count Von Telfener. Or being a farm laborer loading watermelons on trucks that were bound for Chicago from Cuero for Uncle Ben Parma.  I earned a quarter per hour.

The humbling experience of being third in line for a bath behind 2 cousins...  humbling because it was on their back porch and we all used the same water.  Losing nickles and dimes to uncles who learned the art of poker on the pitching decks of destroyers in the South Pacific during WWII. 

Listening to war stories around the kitchen table at Grandpa Steve’s farm house and noticing that Uncle Tullie (Alvin), who had served in WWII and the Korean conflict, never said a word.  He had won the Silver Star for holding his platoon together while forcing the communists to retreat at Hangye, Korea, killing nine Chinese in the process.  I followed him out on the porch where in the night air he simply said “No more killing”. 

I had seventeen aunts and uncles who served in WWII and they all came home safely. Whether I realized it or not at the time, their sacrifices kindled a desire to serve my country,  as most of my cousins and friends did also.  On the whole, I don’t see that kind of desire anymore in young people. Maybe it isn’t necessary.

When my wife and I got married,  we were blessed with having a total of 76 aunts and uncles between us.  Yes,  76.  The stories about them are endless, but two traits common to all four families were working hard and having fun whenever possible.  Some of the events and traditions that have kept our families close are still celebrated.

The Morkovsky family on my wife’s side still gathers once a year to make over 1,000 links of sausage.  It isn’t the act of sausage making that holds them together, though - it’s getting together as a family that counts.

Morkovsky family sausage making event.
Photo by Lori Najvar. 
Being part of a large family means a full time commitment and responsibility to be somewhere, other than your own home, almost every weekend. Birthday parties, family reunions, anniversaries, baptisms, weddings, graduations, engagements parties, and of course funerals keep everyone close.  If not there in reality, people’s presence is there in our minds.  The experiences keep rising to the surface of our lives as glue to bind them together.

I used to make fun of visiting my relative’s homes because there was never a place to put down a cup of coffee.  Every inch of available flat surface was covered with pictures.  I now realize that the pictures were more than a remembrance.  The pictures kept the family alive in my relative’s minds.

Sundays were always mandatory “visiting” day in the family.  It was usually to visit grandparents, but you got to escape that crowd by leaving with cousins in some beat-up old truck for a swim in 12 Mile Creek or the Tres Palacios River.  You knew when to head back because at 3:30 both grandmothers served afternoon snacks.  “Svacina” is both a Polish and Moravian Czech tradition.     

My father's parents - Joe and Irene (Zielonka) Orsak.
My grandmother's still dancing at 93. 
Of the 80 aunts and uncles (counting our parents), there are only four left - two on the Orsak side, and two on the Zielonka side, including my mother.  The loss of a whole generation is mind numbing.  The rich variety of family experiences we used to enjoy can’t be made up by today’s technology that takes away afternoons and free weekend days.  Visits to grandparents' and relatives' homes cemented family ties.  Experiences that should be made easier by today’s transportation seem to get tougher when we have the choice of watching TV instead of making the sacrifice to visit family and friends.

I have truly been blessed to have been from such a large family. What used to be considered an obligation is now a blessing.  It took a lot of work and effort, but the laughter, tears and smiles were worth every minute I spent in someone else’s home or on their farm.  I have learned and been loved so much that words cannot express, and I hope, after reading this, that you take some time to think of the family that has shaped you. 


Spiced Pickled Beets (based on Steve's Aunt Pat's recipe)

3 cups water
3 cups sugar
My parents' canning -
Aunt Pat's spiced pickled beets in the center. 
1 1/2 cups pickling vinegar
1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Boil whole beets in water just to cover until a fork can barely pierce them. Cool slightly and slice or quarter.

Mix vinegar, sugar and slices in a large kettle. bring to a boil, add beets and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Pack beets in hot, sterilized jars. Pour hot vinegar mixture over beets to within half inch of rim. Seal tightly and cover with a towel until cool. 

*For plain pickled beets, simply leave out the spices.


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