Bezdekov. It was a name I had heard all of my life. We didn’t know how to spell it, but after my Grandfather died, my Grams said it often enough that forgetting the name was not a possibility. When the family got our records from Ellis Island we found out that it wasn’t just Bezdekov, it was Dolni Bezdekov.
My body is full of Bohemian DNA twice removed from its source. I’m a part Bohemian diluted by one generation of German-American that makes up my personal gene pool. What does it mean to be a mixed-up Boho descended from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, sprouted in America, looking for roots that were long ago dug up and thrown onto the genetic compost heap?
Chasing my DNA started when I landed in Prague but the story really began a few days later with my birthday. On this cool spring day, over a century after my Grandpap Bures was born here as little Vaclav, a century after he emigrated to America with his parents, where he became known only as James, married my Grandmother, had my Uncles and my Mother, watched me being born, and died while I was still a child, on this day, my birthday, I gave myself a present. I made the journey twenty-two kilometers, with a friend, outside the city of Prague to the tiny village in the fields and rolling hills of Bohemia where my roots sprang forth, or died, I do not know which.
My Grandpap was born into this village in 1896 and only lived here for seven years before beginning his emigration with the rest of the family to Western Pennsylvania, to a wooded, rolling, rural, landscape that looked very much like the one now underneath my feet. I tried to imagine what this place was like a hundred years ago and I decided on exactly the same.
Walking the narrow roads and paths of this quiet village, looking at the buildings and the gardens, the barns and the horses, I couldn’t help but remember, piece by little piece, of what my grandfather had told me about this place on all those evenings that we sat in his barcalounger together eating sausages and drinking beer. There was much about this place that was familiar – the way the fences lined the roads, the hills, the houses, the layout of the town, the smell of the woodfires burning, the green of spring. As I walked I would remember little tidbits of things my Grandpap had told me, markers in the town that made me know it was mine.
The streets and paths, some paved, some not, of the village were quiet. The trees were not yet budding for spring. The sky was grey and the air cool as we walked towards the cemetery. The old houses were made of stone and brick. Firewood was piled high. Even though I had no idea what to expect before I got here, I thought the place was exactly as it should be. As we walked along the road, we came upon some people working in a garden. A woman smiled and came to talk to me when I got her attention. In my own version of sign language mixed with my badly spoken German we had a conversation. I obtained two pieces of information from her: that she was gardening in the village’s community garden and that the cemetery was just a few more yards up the road.
Finding the local cemetery always seems to be high on the list of starting points for chasing DNA. Even though there is no one to speak to, the stones talk, in their own fashion. The stones in this cemetery jumped out at me as I walked through the gate. The first stone I saw had my family name on it – Rodina Bures. Across from it was a bench and I sat down and stared at it. The earliest dates corresponded to the time my family lived and left here, to another man named Vaclav Bures, 1862 – 1940.
My thoughts turned to this family that I did not know, whose generational dates carved on the stone followed those of my own family line. We emigrated. These Uncles and Aunts and Cousins did not. Our lives and our histories were so different, yet we carried the same DNA. We had the same source. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, hearing stories of Bohemia and castles and stones. These people grew up within my grandfather’s stories, lived through the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, through Communism, through the Velvet Revolution. What were their lives like? Were they happy? Why should I care? I do for some reason. We left this village a hundred years ago and created our own place in a new country. My great-grandfather had sold his house and land before he left so I had no ties to this place in that way. But my string of DNA goes beyond my own existence. My string comes out of the very ground here, tethered here, in the last old place that it was known to live.
As I sat on the bench in the cemetery, I spoke these observations and asked these questions in quiet whispers to a silent village.
We walked along the short roads in the village. It was not long before I found the field and the springhouse exactly where my grandfather said they would be. Across the road were only two or three houses, one of which could have been the one where he was born.
As we made our way back to the meeting point for the taxi, I noticed an old woman in a window. Her hair was gray and covered with a scarf tied under her chin. She smiled and waved as we passed her house.
I know now that my grandfather told me his stories to keep this place alive, not only for me, but for himself.
Chasing M DNA: Part I: Prague