top of page


  • Writer's pictureTammy Pasterick

My Lithuanian great-grandparents, Sylvester and Victoria Dudenas, with their children, Lillian, John, Pearl (my grandma), and Walter in May 1939.

In March 2010, NBC premiered the genealogy documentary series, Who Do You Think You Are?, which features celebrities who go on a journey to trace parts of their family trees. As someone with three sets of great-grandparents who immigrated to America at the turn of the twentieth century, I was immediately hooked. I was spellbound by the mystery and intrigue as famous actors and musicians traveled both domestically and internationally to trace the histories of their ancestors and uncover long-buried family secrets.

The revelations from these journeys ranged from peculiar to fascinating to shocking. For instance, Sarah Jessica Parker discovered that her tenth great-grandmother was condemned as a witch at the Salem Witch Trials. Brooke Shields investigated her father's royal past and learned that her paternal grandmother was an Italian princess whose brother married into the Spanish royal family. And Susan Sarandon was shocked to learn that her grandmother—who abandoned Sarandon's mother at the age of two—got married and had a baby in her early teens and later married both her second and third husbands while still married to her first. Sarandon's mother was a bigamist.

Another popular series, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., premiered on PBS two years later and followed a similar script. In each episode, celebrities are presented with a "book of life" that is compiled with information researched by professional genealogists, which often included the use of DNA testing. The findings were comical, ironic, and at times, disturbing. Bill Maher learned he is related to his political nemesis, Bill O'Reilly, Larry David discovered he is related to Bernie Sanders, Ginnifer Goodwin's grandmother developed a morphine addiction due to syphilis, and Ben Affleck's ancestors owned slaves.

My dad, Joseph, and his older brother, John, in 1946.

With such mixed findings, it's a wonder anyone—much less a celebrity—would want to go on a popular TV show and risk being presented with evidence that their great-grandparents were bank robbers, or worse yet, axe murderers. But what does all this information really mean in the greater scheme of things? Is Brooke Shields somehow superior to the rest of us because she's related to royalty? Is Ben Affleck suddenly a bad person because he descended from slave owners?

I took a deep dive into my own family's history in 2012 after I couldn't find my mom's recipe for stuffed cabbages. When I turned to Google to find a replacement for Nana's delicious holubky, I ended up on several different Slovak cultural websites, which ultimately led me to So began my months-long binge on the genealogy website where I found census records, draft registration cards, death certificates, and ship manifestos containing the names of my great-grandparents. I began to build my own family tree and studied the trees of distant relatives, who had shared theirs to the site. In doing so, I discovered that my best friend is actually my fifth cousin! Since sixth grade, Stacy and I had always wondered if we were related since her last name was the same as my grandmother's maiden one. Our families always assured us there was no connection, but little did they know, we share the same fifth great-grandfather who immigrated to America from Germany in the mid 1800s. Is this the reason we get along so well? Does our shared DNA explain why we can spend five hours on the phone talking about everything and nothing?

Stacy and I in Savannah, Georgia in May 2010.

I find genealogy both fascinating and fun. I was amazed when I saw the names of my great-grandparents, Stefan and Maria Pastirik on a ship manifesto from 1905. I had no idea they had changed their last name from Pastirik to Pasterick, although it was undoubtedly an attempt to hide their Eastern European ethnicity. Immigrants to America were often treated like second-class citizens at the turn of the twentieth century, so they were probably eager to assimilate. I was also surprised that my great-grandfather, Sylvester Dudenas, registered for the World War II draft even though his advanced age did not require it. It made me wonder about his motivation and gave me the impression that he must have been a dutiful man who deeply loved his adopted country.

I have had a very positive experience tracing my family's past, and there's still so much left to be discovered. I still don't know anything about the lives my great-grandparents led before they boarded a ship to America, and like Ben Affleck, I could someday discover that my ancestors had a dark past. The only way to find out is to hire a professional genealogist in Slovakia and Lithuania to continue my investigation. But do I need to? It's unlikely that my ancestors descended from Russian royalty or that my great-great-grandfather was a famous scientist who taught Marie Curie. And even if those facts came to light, they wouldn't have any impact on my current life or say something profound about my true potential. It's more probable that I descended from serfs, my great-great-grandmother was a prostitute, and I achieved my own measure of success in spite of it all.

My children, Ethan and Morgan, with Stacy's adorable girls, Reena and Maya, in July 2017.

I'm perfectly content knowing the names and origins of my great-grandparents and am grateful for all the family traditions they passed down to me, mostly in the form of delectable ethnic dishes like holubky, halušky, koláče, and potato pancakes. I still plan to travel to Slovakia and Lithuania one day and may even see if I can find out which villages my family came from, but I'm not interested in unearthing any long-buried family secrets. Whether I'm related to Catherine the Great, Boris Pasternak, or Attila the Hun makes no difference to me. The accomplishments or crimes of my distant ancestors don't say much about who I am today. The same is true of Brooke Shields and Ben Affleck. Sharing DNA with a particular person does not guarantee a life of greatness or failure. We are all unique individuals capable of charting our own courses and can choose to embrace or reject our family legacies.

As for me, I've embraced my Slovak and Lithuanian ethnicities and enjoy preparing my grandmothers' recipes for my own children—mostly because these food traditions remind me so much of the people who raised and loved me. And my months-long binge on was not only fascinating, it inspired me to write a novel where I imagined the lives of my great-grandparents who immigrated to America to work in the steel mills and coal mines of Western Pennsylvania. That deep dive into my family's past led me down a path I never expected and helped me uncover a hidden talent for writing. As for my long-lost fifth cousin, Stacy, knowing that we share the same DNA doesn't make me love her any more. Our friendship has deepened over the last thirty-five years, and I doubt our shared ancestors have anything to do with it. It's trust, respect, honesty, loyalty, and love that bind us together. We've celebrated each other's joys and cried on each other's shoulders more time than I can count. Stacy's always been family to me, and I don't need DNA evidence to prove it.

My debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is being released on September 21, 2021 and will be available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most major book retailers.


A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy Pasterick grew up in a family of steelworkers, coal miners, and Eastern European immigrants. Her debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is being released by She Writes Press in September 2021. Visit to learn more.

386 views4 comments
  • Writer's pictureTammy Pasterick

Updated: May 3, 2021

Graphic from Click on the link below to order a shirt.

The first time I got an indication that my English was different from the rest of Pennsylvania's was during a family vacation to Lancaster County. We had stopped at a gas station to fill our Buick's tank, and my parents thought I was old enough to wander into the convenience store alone to find something to quench my thirst. This was during the 1980s when gas stations did not resemble anything remotely close to Sheetz or Wawa, so all I saw were cartons of cigarettes and candy bars. When I shyly asked the cashier where all the pop was, the man looked at me like I had two heads. I repeated the word "pop" a few more times, thinking the old codger was deaf, but his bushy, furrowed brows and tilted head told me he'd heard me all right. The man was just confused. Finally, I said, "You know … Pepsi, Coke, Mountain Dew." The cashier's face instantly lit up as he said, "Soda! You want soda!" I think he might have slapped his leg and let out a huge belly laugh as he pointed to an old, rusty refrigerator. I was not amused.

Years later, when I was in college, I warned my friend Fawn that the steps outside the computer lab were slippy. She said, "You mean slippery." I said, "No. I mean slippy." She then proceeded to explain to me that slippy was not a word. Neither were gutchies, jagger bush, or nebby. (I believe I may have called my particularly nosy roommate nebby on more than one occasion.) Fawn and I had an interesting conversation that day about regional dialects, wherein I realized that people from Western Pennsylvania talk funny, while those from Harrisburg do not.

A view of dahntahn Pittsburgh from June 2016. My daughter and I had just finished a duck boat tour of the city.

When I moved to Philadelphia to work for the NLRB after graduating from Penn State, co-workers often asked me if I was from the South or Midwest. They couldn't quite place my accent. Well-meaning people often pointed out that I did not pronounce or use certain words correctly, so I grew a little self-conscious and made an effort to shake some of the colloquialisms I'd grown up with. It took some time, but I was mostly successful at softening my Pittsburgh accent and dialect. However, when I was teaching high school German several years later, a student named Kyle irritated me one day, and I shouted his name angrily. In my exasperation, I reverted to my Pittsburghese and pronounced his name as if there were no "e" on the end. What I yelled sounded more like "Kyl." One of my students immediately asked, "Where the heck are you from?" The whole class got a good laugh out of my slip-up, and we had an entertaining conversation about dialect, which was also very relevant to the study of German.

People who are not from Pittsburgh may wonder how our unique—and sometimes comical—dialect formed. The answer is simple—immigration. The Scottish and Irish were the first to arrive in Western Pennsylvania in the 1700s, and they brought with them the English second-person plural "you ones." Over time, the word evolved into the endearing pronoun "yinz," of which Pittsburghers are so proud. It is believed that words like slippy, nebby, and jagger bush also came from the Scots-Irish. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Eastern and Southern Europeans poured into the region to work in the steel and coal mining industries, they influenced the development of Pittsburghese as well. Since most of these workers were non-English speakers, they often had to learn their new language "on the street" through conversations with other non-English speakers. As these immigrants adopted each other's mistakes in pronunciation and word usage, a bastardized form of English formed, and accents blended in a way that didn't happen elsewhere.

When my kids were little, my dad often said, "Yinz better redd-up that mess you made and worsh your hands!"

These days, I don't hear much Pittsburghese as I spend most of my time with people from Maryland and Delaware. But I do get a kick out of visiting my friends and family in the Burgh and hearing my native tongue a few times each year. I especially enjoy the looks on my kids' faces whenever my dad says something to them in his Western Pennsylvania dialect. He often tells my daughter that her gutchies are showing, he warns my son not to throw a canipshun when the Stillers lose, and whenever the dog shreds a roll of toilet paper, he yells, "Linda, get the sweeper!" We all laugh when he complains that his latest construction project turned out cattywampus, but he always feels better after a few chipped ham sammitches and an Arn City.

Although I haven't lived in Western Pennsylvania for over twenty years, I am still a Yinzer at heart. Whenever I meet someone new here on the East Coast who has roots in the Burgh, it's so easy to strike up a conversation and reminisce about all the things we love and miss about our hometown. The Steelers and Penguins are always at the top of our list as are pierogies, Primanti Brothers sandwiches, and the Potato Patch fries at Kennywood. And when the conversation about sports and food ends, we laugh about all the quirky phrases we used as kids and share stories about playing in the crick, shooting our siblings with gumbands, and drinking lots of pop.

Glossary of common Pittsburghese terms.


A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy Pasterick grew up in a family of steelworkers, coal miners, and Eastern European immigrants. Her debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is being released by She Writes Press in September 2021. Visit to learn more.

2,303 views1 comment
  • Writer's pictureTammy Pasterick

It's no secret that I love books, especially historical fiction. I have always enjoyed escaping to another time and place and immersing myself in a new culture. When I was in middle school, my best friend and I often ventured into the woods to find a cozy reading nook under a tree or against a fallen log. We sometimes read for hours, pausing only to share the latest gossip about a particularly cute boy, gaze up at the clouds, or discuss a topic related to the books in our laps. We were unusually contemplative tweens who spent an inordinate amount of time pondering the world's troubles and searching for stories that would provide a much-needed respite from middle school drama.

One early spring day in sixth or seventh grade, we went into the woods armed with Gone with the Wind and The Last of the Mohicans. I honestly can't remember which book was mine because I ended up reading both novels multiple times. However, I do remember thinking there was no better way to pass a Sunday afternoon than to spend it in a desolate patch of woods with your best friend, swapping stories about the Civil War and the French and Indian War. (Yes, Melissa and I were strange!) We continued our love of reading throughout high school and often asked our school librarian, Ms. Schmid, for book recommendations. She never steered us in the wrong direction, introducing us to the historical romance novels of Kathleen Woodiwiss and the suspense novels of Mary Higgins Clark. We also read Stephen King, Sidney Sheldon, and the entire John Jakes Civil War trilogy. Who could forget North and South with George Hazard and Orry Main?

Reading has always been a huge part of my life, and I expect that will never change. The bookcases in my house are filled, and finding space for new titles is becoming quite a challenge. I've had to donate several books in the last few years—mostly my husband's—so the ones left on my shelves are very special to me. As I was cleaning last weekend, I stumbled across a few of my favorites and thought the world needed a reminder that these lovely stories are on a dusty bookshelf in a library or used bookstore somewhere waiting to be experienced. They're all historical fiction, and they're all masterpieces. They transported me back in time and showed me the world through a different lens. That's what I love most about good books—they open our minds and broaden our world view. Who doesn't need more of that?

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

When Nina Revskaya puts her remarkable jewelry collection up for auction, the former Bolshoi Ballet star finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her homeland, and of the events, both glorious and heartbreaking, that changed her life half a century earlier. It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of dance and fell in love, and where, faced with Stalinist aggression, a terrible discovery incited a deadly act of betrayal—and an ingenious escape to the West.

Nina has kept her secrets for half a lifetime. But now Drew Brooks, an inquisitive associate at a Boston auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor who believes Nina's jewels hold the key to unlocking his past, begin to unravel her story—setting in motion a series of revelations that will have life-altering consequences for them all.

In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden by Kathleen Cambor

In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden tells of a bittersweet romance set against the backdrop of the greatest industrial disaster in American history: the construction and subsequent collapse in 1889 of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania dam. It was a tragedy that cost 2,200 lives, implicated some of the most illustrious financiers of the day—Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon—whose carelessness contributed to the disaster and irreparably changed the lives of those who survived it.

This is the story of these men and of the families who lived in the shadow of the dam: the daughter of the lawyer who filed the charter for an exclusive club on the shore of the artificially created lake; the Quaker steel mill owner who tried to stop the dam's construction; a librarian, escaping to a bustling mountain city from a loveless life in Boston; a young man determined to expose and undermine the greed and carelessness that shaped the last years of the nineteenth century. A cautionary tale for our new century, In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden is a story of youthful promise and devastating loss, of power and its misuse, and of greed and the philanthropy that is too often a guilty by-product of it.

Pasadena by David Ebershoff

Pasadena, David Ebershoff’s sweeping, richly imagined novel, is set against the backdrop of Southern California during the first half of the twentieth century and charts its rapid transformation from frontier to suburb. At the story’s center is Linda Stamp, a fishergirl born in 1903 on a coastal onion farm in San Diego’s North County, and the three men who upend her life and vie for her affection: her pragmatic farming brother, Edmund; Captain Willis Poore, a Pasadena rancher with a heroic military past; and Bruder, the mysterious young man Linda’s father brings home from World War I.

Pasadena spans Linda’s adventurous and romantic life, weaving the tales of her Mexican mother and her German-born father with those of the rural Pacific Coast of her youth and of the small, affluent city, Pasadena, that becomes her home. When Linda’s father returns from the war to the fishing hamlet of Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea with the darkly handsome Bruder, she glimpses love and a world beyond her own. Linda follows Bruder to the seemingly greener pastures of Pasadena, where he is the foreman of a flourishing orange ranch, the homestead and inheritance of the charming bachelor Willis Poore. As Willis begins to woo her with the promise of money and stature, Linda is torn between the two men, unable to differentiate truth from appearance. Linda’s fateful decision alters the course of many lives and harbingers a sea change just on the horizon, for Pasadena and its inhabitants.

Infused with the rich sense of place for which Ebershoff’s work is known, Pasadena remembers a Southern California whose farms edged the Pacific, where citrus dominated the economy, and where America’s tycoons wintered in a vital city’s grand hotels. Recalling the California character of self-invention that informs the work of John Steinbeck and Joan Didion, Pasadena is a novel of passion and history about a woman and a place in perpetual transformation.

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

From the acclaimed author of Floating in My Mother’s Palm and Children and Fire, a stunning story about ordinary people living in extraordinary times—“epic, daring, magnificent, the product of a defining and mesmerizing vision” (Los Angeles Times).

Trudi Montag is a Zwerg—a dwarf—short, undesirable, different, the voice of anyone who has ever tried to fit in. Eventually she learns that being different is a secret that all humans share—from her mother who flees into madness, to her friend Georg whose parents pretend he's a girl, to the Jews Trudy harbors in her cellar.

Ursula Hegi brings us a timeless and unforgettable story in Trudi and a small town, weaving together a profound tapestry of emotional power, humanity, and truth.


A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy Pasterick grew up in a family of steelworkers, coal miners, and Eastern European immigrants. Her debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is being released by She Writes Press in September 2021. Visit to learn more.

82 views2 comments
bottom of page