By Annie Zidek
One hour from Vienna and my dad and I drive through the Slovakian countryside, hugged on either side by withering sunflower fields. Eventually we snake through the small blue collar towns of what used to be Czechoslovakia, each looking like the other with yellow weeds growing like hair out of the sidewalks, small houses with faded window panes and peeling paint, and the occassional shirtless, wrinkly old man on a bike. The only thing setting the towns apart are dinky, worn out road signs.
"VYSOKÁ PRI MORAVE." The village where my great-grandfather was from, the town name that's been thrown around the family for years is finally tangible, and a white sign memorializes it.
My eleven year old great-grandfather left Vysoká Pri Morave with his family and immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. Following Ellis Island, his family stayed in New York City for awhile where he and his older brother John sold wire brushes on street corners; later in his teens, Stephan and his family moved to Chicago, where eventually Stephan and John started their own business, Midland Metal, on the south side of Chicago. The business flourished, and Stephan grew into a happy and successful family with a wife and two children. His life in Czechoslovakia was in the past.
We scour the town for our family. We start at the church—St. Andrews—which serves as a divine fortress with its three foot wall encompassing the building and the gates barred with a twisted wire serving as a lock. Without finding a "Zidek" enscripted on the monument in front of the church for Vysoká soldiers who died in World War I, we drive six blocks to the cemetery—marble graves graced with flowers and a profound respect for the dead. We pace through headstones and relay names. "Cermak." "Wonzova." "Višvaderovi." But we can't find any "Zideks." Considering the town doesn't have a town hall and with over 100 years since our family has been there, it's safe to assume we won't find anything of our family in Vysoká.
This scattered Bohemian ghost town offers no remnants of the Zidek family, and the only signs of life are dark haired boys in alleyways and children playing in an abandoned, rusty car by the river. There's a stark contrast between our origins and how far our family has come: the small Czech town watches the world pass by and she ages, and Stephan left and started a life wherein he chased down opportunities a small town encased in fields could not give him.
born with eyes of moonstone,
the whole village comes from their Mothers
eyes wide open—soft and watery.
nursing from the morava
and riddled with doubt,
they suckle on bygones.
as children they pick at their palms
and rip off the end of life lines.
they build houses out of gnashing teeth
and paint them the colors of wine.
their skin fades to brown
from the sun's and soil's kisses
and promises of new tomorrows.
they have nervous habits—
peeling the skin off poplar trees
and eating bohemian wildflowers—
as they wait to be bailed out.
under marble slabs and their lovers' remorse,
with stripped throats and calloused knuckles,
they plunder cities they haven't seen
because they never made it past