Shaking the Dirt Off My Roots

“Unfortunately, we never knew Grandma Surovec. She was an alcoholic who died in a ditch somewhere in town. At least that’s what people say,” my 85 year old Aunt responded matter-of-factly to to my proud announcement that I had found my great grandmother’s death certificate online. Well, I thought, I guess I’ll cancel those plans I’ve been making to attend the next royal wedding because it doesn’t look like I’ll be discovering any previously unknown genetic ties to the Windsors.

My interest in my ancestors was sparked by my husband’s birthday gift to me, a trip to Slovakia to to explore my family’s history. However, what started as a journey “to the old country” to learn about the family that my great grandfather left behind has turned into treasure trove of stories about life in central Pennsylvania in the twentieth century and female bonding for my sisters and childhood girlfriend. “Shaking the Dirt off My Roots” is the story of our small town and our search to understand our Slavic roots.

A picture of great grandmother Suzanna Orlowsky, dated 1894, shows her wearing her babushka, sitting next to her husband, my great grandfather, Joannes Szurovecz. This picture was taken after their arrival in the United States, but before the birth of their first child. Her face is smooth and unlined as she gazes straight into the camera.

Suzanna came to the US likely via Bremen German in 1892, as her husband did a year before. Beyond that, her origins, like her death, are a mystery. Unlike Joannes, who left behind naturalization papers with dates and ship details, I have found no trace of Suzanna’s entry other than conflicting 1910 and 1930 census records which note her year of immigration.

Joannes and Suzanna made their way to Clarence, Pennsylvania, from Ellis Island. Joannes may have heard of the remote coal town in the mountains from letters sent back to Slovakia by townspeople who left before him. Or, maybe he was one of the immigrants “scooped up” and brought to Clarence by the town designee. Through the collection of coins, the townspeople routinely sent a designee via train to greet ships with Slovakian immigrants and bring them to Clarence. Exactly how the Surovecs ended up in Clarence is lost to history.

When I fired off my new information to my friend and fellow local girl, Chrissy, I quickly heard back. “Wait a minute,” she wrote, “Grandma Betty’s mother or grandmother was also an alcoholic who I think died in a ditch. Or, maybe was frequently laying in a ditch. Are you related?” Without going into detail, I wasn’t looking forward to being related to Grandma Betty. I scoured my family tree — it turns out that I am related to Grandma Betty but on my grandmother’s side. This was my grandfather’s family.

Two women drunk in ditches in one small town? Were women lying all around town in ditches my sisters, my friend and I wondered? What in the world was going on? Were there other “ditch grannies” as we dubbed them?

Good Catholics, together Joannes and Suzanna had 10 children: Mary, Joseph, John, Anna, Catherine, Michael (my grandfather), Susan, Stephen, Agnes, and Emery. The last was born in 1914 when Suzanna was 42. Agnes died at 5 during the 1918 Influenza epidemic. Joseph, the eldest son, was murdered in 1922. Maybe raising ten children drove her to drink and to die in a ditch at 60. In 2015, the thought of raising ten children is hard to wrap my head around. Maybe she was broken-hearted by the loss of two children. Maybe she missed her home.

We’re still digging for more of Suzanna’s story, and for the stories of other women who made their lives raising small armies of children, often far from their homelands, speaking little or no English. These women, the good, the bad, and the tragic, are part of who we are and are largely forgotten to history.

In 1939 my great grandfather died at the age of 70 years, 5 months and 25 days. His obituary declared him a long time resident and respected member of the community. With respect to Suzanna, it stated only that “His wife passed away a number of years ago.”