redux: Churchbells in Horni Lomna

7 years ago yesterday, I saw the house where my grandmother was born, grew up, was married from, and perhaps even lived in with her first husband before they left for a new life in Canada. I’m writing about her now and was reading the old post this morning.

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On February 24, Petr and Lenka took us from Ostrava to my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomna in the Beskydy Mountains near the Slovak border. I have such scanty information about her life before my father was born to her and her second husband in Drumheller in 1926 but I’ve always known where she came from, and when she was born — 1881, though her naturalization papers say 1883; I will believe her birth certificate which accords with my father’s memory… When my father died in the fall of 2009, my mother gave me a small bundle of papers which included these things and after her death in 2010, I found a few little bits and pieces, including this photograph of my grandmother, Anna Klus (or Anna Klusova as she would have been here), with her first husband, Joseph Yopek.

Petr had been calling the office of the mayor of Horni Lomna for a week to find out about accessibility. Last week there was a severe snowfall — 2 metres — so we couldn’t have gone then. On Friday the mayor’s assistant said that yes, there was snow, but people were getting through, so Petr was willing to give it a try. Bless him. As we got closer to the village in its narrow valley, the snow was astonishing, high drifts on either side of the road. But then we were there:

Horni Lomna is a village of fewer than 500 people. At the village office, the mayor’s assistant explained to Petr where the house, number 26, was located. We couldn’t drive — the road was deep with snow. So we left the car and began to walk. The village was strangely familiar with its wooden houses and tall conifers, mostly spruce, and a skittering of small birds. We’d been told to take a road that veered off the main one and we were to watch for a bridge over the Lomna River (Horni means “upper”; there is also a Dolni, or “lower” Lomna, nearby). We wouldn’t be able to get right up to the house (no longer occupied), the woman had explained, because of the snow, but we would be able to see it from a neighbouring house.

I thought of my grandmother walking this road — to school, to church, to her wedding to Joseph Yopek, and perhaps even after saying goodbye to her parents in 1911 before she left with Joseph and their five children (four more would follow) for Antwerp where they boarded a boat for North America.

And then we saw her house.

Every winter it would have looked like this, tucked below its hill in the narrow valley of the Lomna River, not far from its headwaters. Those are fruit trees around it, but what kind? Plums? Apples? Her birth certificate tells me her father was a farmer so there would have been crops of some sort and this is sheep country so no doubt they would have raised sheep and maybe a pig or two. So much I don’t know, and perhaps never will. But seeing this house, in snow, gives me a sense of where she began, and in a way it’s where I began too.

Walking back, we heard churchbells announcing noon. The same churchbells, the same road, the deep snow carrying the sound as far as the heart can travel.

a woman dead for five decades (from a work-in-progress)

The dream was as natural as life. She was there, sitting in a big chair, and I sat with her, my daughter (about fifteen) at my other side. I held her hands with their long cool fingers. She had almost no accent. If the dream had been real life, she’d have been about 120.

We talked. I can’t really remember what we talked about but I was sorry I’d left it so long. I didn’t say this to her but I felt it intensely: if I’d known she was still alive, I’d have visited much sooner.

Holding her hand, I turned my face close to hers. I went to Horni Lomna, I told her, and tears ran down her cheeks. I should have brought you a picture. But those trees…

She said, not as an interruption, but as a memory: those were plum trees. The tears coursed their way down her wrinkled cheeks, water finding a route across dry land.

And spruce? I asked. Spruce, on the road leading to the church?

She nodded.

And is it the Lomna River that passes just in front of the house, with the little bridge over it?

She didn’t say anything.

I put my daughter’s hand in hers. This is your great-granddaughter, I said. But she was thinking about something else, her thin hair pulled into a bun and her house-dress faded. Or perhaps couldn’t see us there in the room where none of the dates fit together – her birth, the trees covered with snow in February in Horni Lomna, the age she was when I was born, my own age when she died, and what would a woman dead for five decades be thinking about in a room with two strangers sitting beside her? Maybe the plum trees by that small house, maybe the weather, maybe the years and what they’d brought, and taken.

my grandmother's house