Throughout history, the powerful neighbors occupied the land on which stood Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia of my youth. Its people had a long history of pain and heartbreak. The Soviet occupation was nothing new. Perhaps it was the ability to put our pain and joy into stories and music that helped us survive even the cruelest occupations. Most of our electricity was hydraulic and was supplied by the rivers that run from the mountains in the North toward the valleys in the South. In the winter, when the rivers froze and with it our electricity, we would gather around the large wood-burning stove, the heartbeat of our family. A single candle on the wooden table provided flickering light and added mystery or nostalgia to the tale in progress. As a child, I looked forward to those nights. My mother often invoked music in her stories. Violin, in particular, steered in her deep emotions. I often thought it would have been nice if one of her children learned to play the instrument that had such a deep meaning for her.
My father did try to make a violinist out of me. At the age of six, the earliest a parent could enroll a child in music lessons provided by the communist government; my father did so. Not long after the instructions began, the teacher told my father I could not continue in his class. “The child is completely tone-deaf.” He said.
Undaunted, my father hired a private teacher. After all, how could the communist teacher be trusted? My father’s hatred of the communists was so fierce, he could not see that the teacher might not like the communist ether but loved teaching music.
After a long year, long, long, year for me, my father asked the teacher to enrolled me for the next year. The teacher looked uncomfortable while I stood within earshot petrified. “Your daughter has a rhythm,” said the teacher, “clearly she can hear the music, she just cannot reproduce it. I cannot take your money anymore.” Thus ended my short musical career. But I never forgot the teacher’s words. “she can hear the music…”
From then on, instead of fearing music, I took it into my heart, and I embraced it. Through joy, sadness, and when I needed strength or courage, music helped me. But the violin carved a special place in my heart. Not just because I heard it every day in our house, the violin had rescued me from feeling inferior and allowed me to understand it’s sound. Although the lone candle on our wooden table had long since been extinguished, the story my mother told us more than once, the story of my uncle Martin and the sound of his violin, will live inside me forever.
My mother was not quite ten years old when my Uncle Martin left for the New World. He was one of the many thousands of emigrants who left their homes hoping for a better life.
The tiny village, where my grandmother Katarina and her five children lived, consisted of twenty-five houses scattered at the foot of a small mountain. Food came from a patch of land supplemented by the surrounding hills in the form of wild berries, mushrooms, and small wild animals such as rabbits.
Grandmother Katarina became a widow shortly after her youngest child, my mother, was born. She did the best she could for her children.
The day my uncle Martin was leaving his home for that far-away place, my mother started to cry as soon as she woke up. She was a skinny child with short, cropped hair, which at the time was highly unusual because the tradition demanded long braids. But grandmother Katarina was a practical woman, and she had no time for long braids. She had taken her scissors and cut off my mother’s hair.
Martin was tall, slim, and looked as if he wasn’t done growing. Although the closest Lutheran church was three villages over, so Grandmother Katarina did not attend often, a word about her son leaving for America got around. In his donation box, the minister found a pair of “city” pants and a jacket for Martin. They were black and quite threadbare, but the minister believed they would help Martin blend in better where he was going than the linen pants he had. The shoes, donated by a kind friend, were too big, but an extra pair of socks solved the problem.
“You’ll be glad to have few extra pairs of socks in America,” Katarina told her son. His shirt was a traditional Slovak shirt, richly embroidered on the chest. His sister Katka had made it for him.
“Promise me you will come back.” She hugged him for the last time and made herself busy, so he would not see her sorrow.
Grandma Katarina and her oldest daughter Katka were known in the valley that encompassed theirs and several other villages for their beautiful embroidery work. The two women worked late into the night to make clothes to sell, to save money for Martin’s journey to America.
Martin had a soft spot for his little sister Emilia, and he asked his mother to let her come with them to the railway station to see him off. Grandmother agreed in hopes that the girl would stop her relentless crying. The closest train station was two hours away on foot, but a kind neighbor had offered to take them there in his cart.
Katka and her two brothers, Juraj and Jan, stood at the edge of the dusty road and kept waving long after the cart had disappeared out of sight.
The tired-looking neighbor sat on the wooden bench, holding the reins of an equally tired-looking horse, as they climbed the hilly road toward their destination. The sad trio of mother, daughter, and departing son sat on the hay in the back of the open cart. They moved slowly through the familiar valley and its quiet, rolling fields. In the middle of summer, the gentle hills seemed to be painted many different shades of green. By September, the valley would become ablaze in rich shades of yellow, orange, and red. By the time they turned brown, the harvest would be done.
A soft wind stroked the young girl’s face as her beloved brother took out his violin and started to play. The song, Ked sa Slovak od sve vlasti odberal, spoke of a son leaving his home and family for an unfamiliar world. The violin’s weeping sound confirmed the pain and sadness, and fear of a young man going to an uncertain future.
The little girl’s crying echoed in the empty station long after the train’s last car carrying her brother away had disappeared. The tired neighbor sat patiently on a bench and smoked his pipe. At last, the sobbing girl was willing to admit that she could no longer see the train and stepped back onto the cart that seemed large in its emptiness.
“I will never forget you, Martin,” she sobbed into her mother’s ample bosom, as the cart shook them gently from side to side. The way back was mostly downhill, so they arrived home before dark.
Martin worked in the Pennsylvania mines. His letters were short and not too informative. My mother suspected that due to the lack of education, his ability to write was limited. Work in the mines was hard and dangerous. Martin met an American girl and married her. He did not say much about his family, and his letters got increasingly infrequent. Martin did send us a picture of his son, Melvin, at his confirmation, and one year he told us he had a daughter, Nancy, who got married in March. I always remembered that because the phrase rhymes in Slovak. (“Naša Nancy vydala sa v Marci.)
There was a sizeable Slovak community in Pennsylvania, and Martin would play his violin at weddings and funerals. Not for money. They were all friends, and they were all poor.
I was about the same age my mother was when Martin left for America when my mother received a letter from Martin. He told my mother that he had tuberculosis and could not work anymore. Not long after that, my mother received her final letter from America. Inside was a deceased certificate and a photograph of a man lying in an open casket, dressed in a well-worn jacket, with his hands crossed on his chest, holding a bible. My mother held the photograph to her chest and wept quietly.
I watched her open the bottom drawer of her night table – “the funeral drawer,” where she kept all that she needed for any given funeral. Inside, folded neatly was a black sweater, black blouse, black skirt, and black scarf. She put the photograph gently back into the envelope it arrived in and laid it on a bed of black nylon stockings at the front, right corner of the drawer.
With it, she laid down her hope to hear Martin play his violin ever again. With a heavy sigh, she closed the drawer.
When I left home, many years later, I was haunted by the fear that the only thing left from my life would be a photograph of me in a casket.
But I had more luck than my uncle Martin had. After the Velvet Revolution booted the Soviets out of the country, I could afford to go home. Eventually, I took my whole family to meet their Slovak family.
I am now a US citizen, and although people still ask me where I came from after a mere hello, I am no longer afraid.
But the sound of the violin still reminds me that just because I cannot sing, I am not deaf. My ears are fine-tuned to the immigrant stories of today, and my heart weeps.
Jarmila Kocvarova Sullivan was born in Czechoslovakia. After the Soviet Union invaded her homeland, she became a refugee in London, England. She is a writer and lives in New York City.