Growing Up to the Sound of an Accordion
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
I often wish Pap Pap were still alive. There's so much I'd like to ask him—so much I'd like to tell him. He was a constant presence when I was a child, but I didn't fully appreciate his influence on me until years after his death when I started a family of my own. Memories of him visit me at the most unexpected times—like when I walk past the cantaloupes at the grocery store. My grandfather had an impressive garden and provided my family with an endless supply of tomatoes, cucumbers, snap beans, and melons every summer. His greenhouse was just as special as his garden, and I think of him every time I see a colorful row of zinnias, azaleas, or canna lilies. However, the strongest and most emotional memories of Pap Pap flood my mind whenever I hear the lively sound of an accordion.
My grandfather was an accomplished musician who played the harmonica, guitar, and accordion. He was in a band before my mother was born and often played on Pittsburgh's radio stations. It was not unusual for me to step outside on a warm summer evening and hear Pap Pap serenading the entire neighborhood from his back porch. He played energetic songs on his accordion like "Beer Barrel Polka" and sad, sweet tunes like "Twilight Time." I never thought it strange that my cousin and I often caught lightning bugs near Pap Pap's pond to the sound of Lawrence Welk, Frankie Yankovic, or even the Beatles. Music was at the center of my grandfather's life, and I am so thankful it spilled over into mine.
Now that I'm in middle age, I spend just as much time looking back as I do looking forward. Living six hours from the town where I grew up has given me a perspective I would probably lack had I stayed in Western Pennsylvania. I've come to appreciate the uniqueness of my hometown with its many steelworkers, coal miners, and farmers. But more importantly, I've fully embraced my Slovak heritage and my family's traditions. As a child, I knew that most of my friends did not eat holubky (stuffed cabbages) or halušky (cabbage and noodles) for dinner and did not have grandparents who spoke another language. It did not bother me in the least bit until ... I had to read the results of my genealogy project aloud to my fifth grade classmates. A particularly ignorant boy—whose name I won't reveal—actually burst into laughter when I mentioned my family was Slovak. I was mortified. I had no idea this was something to be ashamed of. It's quite possible this boy didn't know either—maybe he just thought the word "Slovak" sounded funny. At any rate, it was the first time I'd felt embarrassed about my heritage. In the years that followed, I learned many other reasons people made fun of "Hunkies."
Maybe it's because of this ridicule that my family did not go to great lengths to preserve its language and culture. We continued to go to a Roman Catholic church, listen to polkas, and eat the wonderful dishes from the "old country" as my grandfather liked to call it. But for some reason, he made little effort to pass the language or stories of his Slovak parents on to me. Sometimes I wonder if it's simply because I did not ask. How I wish I could go back in time and ask Pap Pap all the questions that have been swirling around in my head since I began researching our genealogy almost nine years ago. Where in Slovakia did your parents come from? Why did they immigrate to America? What was their journey to Ellis Island like? Sadly, I'll never get the answers to these questions.
My great grandparents' history may be lost to me, but I can certainly pass my memories of Pap Pap on to my children. He was an incredibly talented and industrious man given that his schooling ended after the eighth grade. He worked as a steelworker, a coal miner, and a janitor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but most remember him as a talented musician, a skilled farmer and gardener, a devout Catholic, and a devoted father and grandfather. As for me, I remember him as the loving man who brought me cantaloupes, gave me enormous bear hugs, and filled my childhood with the sweet sound of accordion music.
I now have Pap Pap's beloved accordion in my attic and desperately wish I could play it, but I can barely get my arms around it. Luckily, my son and daughter both take after their father and are on track to be rather tall. Their arms should be able to handle that beast of an instrument. And by the grace of God—or maybe just luck of the gene pool—my children inherited Pap Pap's musical talent. I'm patiently waiting for the day when they put down their saxophone and flute and pick up the accordion. Pap Pap would be so proud.
My Slovak great grandparents, Joseph and Anna Tomicek, with their children, Andrew, John (my Pap Pap), Joseph Jr., Ann, Irene, Paul, Thomas, and Frank. Their daughter, Mary, is behind the camera.
Pap Pap's accordion and sheet music.
For a taste of my Slovak childhood, please see my mom's recipe for holubky below. And while you're preparing it, click on the following link to hear a lovely rendition of "Twilight Time."
Nana's Stuffed Cabbages
1 large head of cabbage
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
1 cup cooked rice
1 cup ketchup
2 cans tomato soup
1-2 cans water (use soup can to measure)
dash of brown sugar
Boil the cabbage for at least one hour. Let it cool. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the ground beef, egg, and cooked rice in a large bowl. Roll the beef mixture into little logs and place each log in the center of a cabbage leaf. Roll the cabbage leaves and place them in a casserole dish with the seam on the bottom. Mix the ketchup, tomato soup, and water to make a sauce. Add brown sugar to taste. Pour the sauce over over the stuffed cabbages and bake in the oven for an hour.
(Courtesy of Linda Tomicek Pasterick)
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 www.tammypasterick.com to learn more.