Today I turn 38. I’ve been particularly introspective this year. Maybe it’s because my high school class is celebrating its 20th reunion this summer. Or maybe it’s because I’m watching some of my friends in the throes of minor midlife crisis meltdowns on their own birthdays. Or maybe it’s because friends and family and coworkers keep asking me how I feel about turning 38.
I recently rediscovered a folder from my high school days. In a senior year history class, we were tasked with exploring our own genealogy, and I found an old paper I wrote about the history of my family, at least the history I could gather from a bunch of family members who didn’t really want to talk about family history.
Today, as I turn 38, I look at that old history paper (printed out on fan-fold paper on an old dot matrix printer, no less) and it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time. I’m not seeing the dates and names, but the stories. The hardship. The loss. The sadness. And as I turn 38, I look at the stories of the line of women who made me possible and wondered where they were when they were 38.
Bara, maternal great-great-grandmother, 18??-19??
Though I’m not quite sure of her birthdate, I know my great-great-grandmother Bara had experienced much loss by the time she turned 38.
Bara Dolinar and the man she would marry, Stjepan Makar, were born in what is now Croatia, but what would have been the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. They married and, hoping for a new a better life, left behind their family and friends and set sail for the New World. They made a go of it in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where Stjepan worked in the coal mines. Somewhere along the way, they had three sons, but only one, little Stjepan, would survive early childhood.
Coal mining was dangerous work. In 1905, Bara’s husband died in a mining accident. Alone in a foreign land, she buried her husband in an unmarked grave before returning to the Old County with her son.
Ana, maternal great-grandmother, 1904-1970
Ana Blažević married the now-grown up Stjepan Makar at the little church in Lipnik in 1922. Ana gave birth to her first child, my grandmother, in 1925.
After World War I, the former Austro-Hungarian Empire was disassembled, carved into what was perceived to be logical clumps of kingdoms. A sort of Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was formed, and it would become Yugoslavia in 1929. As these changes were occurring, life was hard, and Stjepan, a native-born citizen of the United States, wanted something better for his family. In 1926, when my great-grandmother was pregnant with their second child, he left them to travel to the land of his birth. But the world came crashing down on America at the end of the 1920s, and then America was at war again, and Yugoslavia would become a Communist country, and the distance between the two continents grew far larger than any ocean could ever be. Ana and her two children would never see Stjepan again.
When my great-grandmother was 38, she was trying to raise two children alone in a European country in the middle of World War II.
My great-grandfather would die on a turkey farm in Indiana in 1969.
Ana, maternal grandmother, 1925-
My grandmother Ana Makar and her brother Stjepan grew up without a father. My grandmother once told me she only finished five years of school before the war, but she was functionally literate in her language and could manage a household. She was 29 when she married Ivan Mikan of Karlovac, and they would have their first child, my mother, in 1955, and a second daughter, my aunt, in 1957.
In December 1959, Ana’s husband drowned in a river near their home.
When my grandmother was 38, she was alone in a post-World War II Communist country trying to raise two little girls in a tiny house in Karlovac. She took any job she could find–scrubbing floors, tending the cemetery–to try to make ends meet. But my grandmother had the courage to dream big and wanted to bring her girls to the United States, where they were eligible to become citizens through her father, who was born in Pennsylvania all those years ago. And when a very nice man moved in near her home and began to help around her house and take care her kids, she married him, and the four of them started a new life together in Kansas.
Mary, mother, 1955-2004
My mother was born in Karlavac in 1955. She was only four years old when her father drowned in the Rjeka Kupa, and she and her mother and sister lived a hard life in their little house in Karlovac. Yet they had a television that would occasionally get translated American shows, and one of her most prized possessions was a autographed photo of Michael Landon, one of the good guys on Bonanza. When it was time to pack for their move to America, the four of them–my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, and my new step-grandfather–were each allowed one suitcase. Michael Landon made the final cut and came to America with my mother.
My mother and aunt found themselves thrust into the public school system without a word of English between them.
My mother married my father in 1974, and I came along two years later. My mother once told me that she wasn’t supposed to be able to have children, so I was a surprise.
Two years later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Two years after that, she had my brother.
When my mother was 38, she spent several months in a hospital. Her MS went into a tailspin and there were numerous complications from her medication. Her oldest child–me–graduated from high school while she was lying in a hospital bed. A few days before my mother turned 39, she had a stroke.
As I examine the lives of the women before me I am realizing that I came from some tough stock. These women were determined and strong and kept pushing forward even as life threw obstacle after obstacle in their paths.
I was lucky enough to grow up in the U.S. in a good home at a time when opportunities were truly improving for women. I never once worried about whether or not there would be food on the table or shoes that fit or a safe place to play. Access to education or medical care was never once in question.
When I gave my speech at our high school graduation–a speech my mother never got to hear–I sagely told my classmates that our lives might change paths, that we might not become what we thought we wanted to be, and that that was okay. It turned out my speech was prophetic. I did not grow up to be an engineer. I did not stay as far away from Kansas as I could possibly get. But I became something so much better for me: a true Kansan who writes and learns and is amazed by a world that grows bigger and bigger as I explore it.
Every morning I get up and stand on my own two feet and know my world is full of possibilities. I have a great husband, a safe and cozy home, happy pets, and dreams to pursue.
I have the luxury to think about the things I want to do, not just the things I have to do.
But the very best part is that all of this wonder is only part of my story. Because today, I’m only 38.