One winter afternoon, when it was too miserable to go outdoors,
I snuck up the stairs to the attic of our old house in Wisconsin.
The attic was strictly off-limits for us kids, so it was all the more
The first thing I spIed in the near darkness was a huge steamer trunk.
A real antique. In my child imagination- a veritable pirate's chest!
So very mysterious and full of intrigue!
With effort, I lifted the heavy lid just enough to peer inside.
A scent of far-off places escaped from within.
My curiosity was sharply aroused.
I HAD to know what was inside!
It took a mighty heave to open the lid all the way.
Alas! No buried treasure, but I did find a tray on top that was lined in ornate paper. It held all sorts of fancy papers and treasured old family photos.
Little did I know what intrigue it held...
I wasted no time in sorting through the stacks of official looking documents.
It wasn't long before I made an exciting discovery-my birth certificate!
I pored over the details...born in January in sunny California to Gilbert
and DeLores.... Nearby was their marriage certificate. How exciting!
While poring over the details, I was confused by the date of their marriage
in relation to my birth date. Someone had made a big mistake!
My parents were married just 2 months before I was born.
Not that I knew much about such matters...I was only 7 at the time,
but it looked like somebody had messed up the numbers.
At the risk of getting punished for snooping, I gathered up the evidence
and marched downstairs to set the record straight.
I stood on tiptoe and spread everything out on the kitchen table
and then called my parents in to look at what I had discovered.
"LOOK!" I exclaimed, as I made my case as convincingly as possible.
"These numbers are all wrong!" I had gone over them again and again
to make sure I had gotten them right.
"What are we gonna do?! Which ones are right and which ones are wrong?!"
My parents sat down across the table from each other
and gave each other the LOOK.
The look that said 'which one of us is going to go first?'
They swallowed hard and braced themselves for a conversation that they said they fully intended to have with me some years in the future.
But the Future had butted in way ahead of schedule...
My friend Randy and I were strolling in Central Park in NYC.
It was a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon ….a perfect day for people-watching!
I was 27.
From somewhere in the distance, we heard the strains of strange, exotic music.
It sounded like scratchy, old recordings...
“What on earth is that?!” we wondered.
The music was compelling...unfamiliar. We went off in search of its source.
We followed our ears until we stumbled upon a clearing.
In that clearing, we saw a circle of people holding hands doing a very unusual dance. Then we saw a circle within the circle... everyone dancing in unison.
We stared uncomprehending.
There was something about that music, so unlike anything I'd ever heard.
Mysterious, haunting, near eastern, old world...
It struck a chord somewhere deep inside me...
Then it struck once more...this time, like lightning.
I suddenly burst into tears. Moments later, I was doubled over in great, engulfing sobs that came out of nowhere...unexpected and lightning fast.
My friend was alarmed and tried to help. She jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow, saying “Debbie! Debbie! Are you alright? What’s happening?!
Come back!! Please!”
I had no control over what was happening. I was so overwhelmed.
I cried for an embarrassingly long time, completely unable to stop.
It was as if that strange music had reached in and grabbed me by the heart...
I had no idea why I was so deeply moved.
Finally it started to let up a bit and I was able to stand upright again
and take a breath. Randy was at my side as I came around.
"What HAPPENED?! Are you alright?! Talk to me!!"
In reply, the most unexpected words flew out of my mouth...
I blurted it out faster than I could think!
Why on earth would I say something like that?
I was shocked at the words...uncomprehending.
In some inexplicable way, however, I WAS home!
I could feel it in my bones…though it made no real sense to me.
It shook me to the core...
Though my 3 younger sisters and I shared the same mother,
I was not like the other girls...not at all.
I always felt separate...in so many ways.
I was quiet, studious, devout, a sensitive.
The others were noisy, gregarious, regular kids.
When my folks finally broke down and revealed that I had
a different father, it actually gave me a great sense of relief.
For one, I was wildly at odds with the man that raised me.
He was vain, repressive, brutal...and more, but at the risk of injuring
the reader, I will stop there.
We were all so different. I just KNEW that I belonged somewhere else....
As the story had been conveyed to me, my mother was engaged to a man
in Chicago by whom she became pregnant. When she told him of her pregnancy,
he gave her an ultimatum...get an abortion or he would leave her.
I was that child...
She wouldn't consider an abortion, so she chose her child over him.
Soon after, she met Gilbert, they fell in love and they married.
She was 7 months pregnant with me.
That explained the paperwork...
"What was he like?" I wanted to know.
She was sparing with the details.
"He was French-Canadian, just like your dad...you have his mouth.
Oh...and he was secretive..."
Then she caught herself, not wanting to say more.
"But why are you bothering me with this?!
I told you, he doesn't want you!! Now LEAVE it alone!!!"
That was as far as we got for many years.
I wanted to find him many times over the years, but that seemed
out of the question. Mom wouldn't even tell me his name.
I don't know which was greater-my curiosity or my fear.
I wanted, no- needed the connection.
I needed a point of sanity and safety.
She was determined to hinder me at all costs-him, as well, perhaps.
I would wait a few years and try again when I felt the moment
was right, but she never changed her stance.
She was a stubborn, sometimes mean-spirited German.
I went back and forth in my mind so many times during those
"Why should I care? He doesn't want you... Just get over it!
You'll never find him, anyway. She's blocking you!
Maybe it's for your own good."
"But maybe I would understand myself better.
Maybe I could make some sense of myself.
Maybe he would rescue me from this crazy family!"
Round and round I went.
Finally, in despair and some hopelessness, feeling unwanted
and unloved, I decided to not want him, either.
It was a sad state of affairs.
The problem was that I didn't feel wanted where I was, either.
Oh, I was useful for housework and raising my 3 younger sisters,
but I felt somehow unwelcome, as though I was taking up space and food
that my folks could ill afford.
I spent most of my growing-up years waiting for the time when I could escape.
the misfit child
My growing up years were hard in many ways.
Without going into sad and tiresome detail, our home life was miserable.
But there was an added element of stress.
In the same way that a small deviation in 2 lines drawn side by side
will be magnified over distance, the things that made me different
from the family were, over time, becoming more and more obvious.
It made everything increasingly difficult.
As time went on, it was apparent to them as well.
It was the cause of growing friction.
My values, my personality-even my presence became a nuisance.
I became a virtual hermit in an effort to simply survive.
If my nose wasn't in a book, I was volunteering or working...
anything to get out of the house.
These were NOT my people!
I found that I was a misfit in the larger world, as well.
My personal culture was at odds with the mainstream.
But even misfits can get along with other misfits, right?
Not so for me...
Though I tried to fit in, there was something indefinably
different about me.
I was too serious, too quiet, too reserved, too alien...
perpetually at odds with the prevailing overculture.
Strangers were forever interrupting me to ask "Why so serious?"
and telling me that I needed to smile more.
My thought in response was "What is wrong with the way I am feeling?!"
I cannot tell you how many times complete strangers
would approach me
to inquire where in Europe I was from.
I was that different!
As I got older, I would sometimes ask people why they would assume
such a thing.
"It is your manners" or "It is the way you carry yourself."
To this day, in all my travels, I have not properly visited Europe. Yet it persists. People still think I am foreign born...a European.
So I am a mystery to myself.
When the first Yugo automobiles rolled off the boat in 1985, I was so excited!
I loved the idea of something basic and affordable, but the fact that it came from Yugoslavia made it positively enchanting to me!
Why I was so crazy in love with all things Yugoslavian, I could not say.
I just was inordinately excited by that part of the world!
On the ledger side of the equation, I would be able to buy a brand new car
for the 1st time.
It was so affordable that I put the whole purchase on a credit card...all $3990!
Despite all the late night talk show jokes and xenophobic criticism,
it suited me perfectly. I found it to be quite a dependable workhorse.
I loaded it up weekly for trade shows and traipsed all through the mountains
of northeast Pennsylvania with never a worry or mishap.
It was basic, no-frills and so sensible. I loved my Yugo!
After several good years, I gifted it to a young man as his 1st car.
I was sorry to see the Yugo leave our shores...
Americans craved their luxury cars, I suppose.
When the factory closed in 2008, I wrote them a heartfelt thank you letter.
It took me a long time to piece my history together, but I realize that I have always been attracted to the region and its people.
When I think about it, I had been drawn since I was a child.
My grade school pen pals were all from Yugoslavia.
I would stare for hours at photos of the people...often taken in war-time.
I was deeply drawn to them.
They were not beautiful or classically handsome people by our standards,
but I found their faces compelling, haunting...beautiful to me.
The dancer continued...
A few minutes after I regained my composure, a couple of big, friendly
Jewish guys took us by the hands and coaxed us into the learner’s circle.
We were completely incompetent. It was mystifying to try to match our movements to theirs. We fumbled around hopelessly, tripping over our own feet, as well as entangling our feet with those of the real dancers.
Thankfully, our teachers were endlessly patient.
But just when it seemed completely hopeless, at an unexpected moment, something inside me just clicked and I was astonished to find myself dancing the strange steps to this beautiful old world music.
I wondered how it was possible...
It was a surreal experience...
I felt a deep familiarity and connection with this culture.
My heart opened and my blood somehow came alive!
I felt transported to another place and time.
I was half in trance as I danced.
I breathed the sweet mountain air, felt the rhythms of simple village life.
I experienced the deepest longing to go back in time...to touch that world again.
It was dizzying to keep a foot in both worlds.
That point of contact rocked my world…
From that moment on, I have always needed that connection.
It gave shape and expression to who I was deep inside.
It gave me a sense of sanity in the misfit world and I felt the need
for its sanctuary.
I had found my passion in the most unexpected place...
I was overjoyed to find its remnants kept alive and preserved
in the folk dance culture.
It wasn't long before I found that I could I could folk dance
nearly every night of the week somewhere in New York.
I began to rearrange my life around folk dance. It was the most compelling thing I had ever encountered among my many interests.
Soon every other interest paled by comparison or went by the wayside.
But there was a fly in the ointment...
I had recently started seeing a man from Pennsylvania.
We were friends, but we were becoming closer.
I would see him a just a few times a month so I thought little of the changes
I was making. Maybe he would like to try the dance, I thought.
But as soon as he got a whiff of my enthusiasm, he became withdrawn….
then critical. He felt threatened and a bit insecure around my new friends. Before long, it was either him or the dance.
I knew he had a place in my life, but I didn’t know that it would come
at such a price. With huge sadness in my heart, I let my new connections go.
But not a day went by over the next 9 yrs. that I spent with him that I didn’t feel torn, sad and strangely guilty over letting the dance go.
It haunted me daily...
We eventually married and moved to Pennsylvania, but 3 years later
we parted ways-at my request.
Though we rarely fought, we were never going to be happy together.
I was living his life...a far cry from my own.
He left on a Sunday morning. After watching his car leave for the last time,
I sat quietly for awhile.
I took a deep breath and wondered what my life would be like now.
My life was finally back in my own hands again after nearly 10 yrs.
I got in my car to take a drive and breathe in the new and much- needed freedom. I had no particular destination in mind.
I just drove aimlessly...or so I thought.
A couple of hours later, I found myself on the outskirts of Manhattan.
An inner nudging brought me to the realization that I was almost
in New York…on a Sunday afternoon...Central Park...folk dancing!!
My life’s blood...my joy!
I was free now for the 1st time in so many years to do what I loved
I reconnected! I could not have planned it better.
I picked up exactly where I left off all those years ago.
I have seen over the years that Life has a way of making us pick up
where we left off on our true path.
This time I did not miss the significance...
After all the pain of separation, I knew I would never let myself
be disconnected from the dance again, nor would I ever be so foolish and weak
as to let someone come between me and the source of my joy.
I could not explain to anyone how or why it is so potent and life giving.
It was a mystery that would be many more years in the unfolding...
the massage therapist
In the years that followed, I became a manufacturer, designer, philanthropist and day trader. I eventually retired from the business world with the feeling that chapter of life was complete.
My business travels had taken me around the Orient.
Eventually, I made my way to Thailand where I discovered Traditional Thai Massage. I was deeply drawn to the place, the people and the work.
My fascination grew and I began to make frequent trips back to Thailand
to learn and experience more. Eventually I took up the practice and set up
a studio in the Midwest.
It was a complete life change that evolved into
a valuable new chapter of life...one of inner learning and helping others
as I had been helped.
While I loved my new situation, the people and the work,
something in me was reaching for something more serious and substantive.
There was more potential in me and in Thai massage than I could give expression to in such a mundane setting.
I was drawn toward trauma-related work and more serious needs.
I couldn't be satisfied with the norm, no matter how hard I tried.
Cut from different cloth...once again.
The spiritual and metaphysical levels of working with people were
naturally part of my work. "When you touch a body, you touch a soul."
Various aspects of energy healing, body-oriented psychiatry
and the shamanic were emerging.
I needed a more challenging and fitting setting.
I continued to outgrow my circumstances. I longed for something 'more.'
As I worked, I mused about what I might do.
I slowly began to have a sense of working with refugees...yet that wasn't
quite accurate. The idea was slowly refining itself in my awareness.
Perhaps 'displaced' people...
That felt right, though I hardly understood the relevance of the term
at that time.
"But where?" I asked myself...
By a slow inward process of elimination that went something like this:
'Not Africa, not Haiti, not South America', etc., I tried to feel my way toward the target.
Finally, the only region that remained was the Balkans.
However that made no sense to me...
All I knew about the Balkans was that it was the home of the folk dances
that I cherished. I had been given to understand that life there was idyllic, joyful and simple. I reviewed my list a couple more times to make sure,
but I came to the same unlikely conclusion each time.
At that point, I couldn't take time away from my practice due to my heavy schedule, so I languished for a couple of years, frustrated and feeling stuck. The dream of doing better work elsewhere began to die...
the dancer continued...
As I resettled in the Midwest, I was reminded that the next order
of business was to connect with folk dance.
I began in Indianapolis, where I made a wonderful new circle of friends.
From there I branched out to Chicago, Dayton, Columbus, Lexington,
Madison and points between and beyond, dancing everywhere I could.
My passion was re-ignited!
The intensity of my interest was a continuing mystery to me...
To be sure, the community of people drawn to folk dance is kindly, animated and diverse. The dancing itself is great exercise for body and mind,
but I was inordinately obsessed. I danced as often as opportunity afforded. Soon my schedule filled.
Much of the time, however, I felt like an interloper...a wannabe.
I had no roots in those cultures.
When the ethnic dancers held the floor, I felt acutely like an outsider.
But the larger community was welcoming of all.
I satisfied myself with my 'wannabe' role.
I bought the costumes, reveled in the music and let my imagination
play around the edges...
In effect, I led a kind of secret double life...
I have always been on the move...if not in body, then in mind.
I was infamous as a child for breaking out of the house before daybreak
to go exploring. I was unstoppable.
Running away from home is still an important-and accepted-part of my character!
There is always a suitcase by the door... (http://gypsyashram.blogspot.com/2015/03/suitcase-by-door.html)
Fortunately, this chapter of intense work had been preceded by a round-the-world trip. I went solo, which opens a place and a people to you in a way that travelling as a couple or in a group can rarely do.
For me, it loosens the mind and lends fresh insights into the family of man.
The time had come once again to strike out in search of the next meaningful destination. I started to become slowly and surely obsessed with the Balkans.
It was a growing hunger...intruding on my mind throughout the days and eventually invading my sleeping hours.
At first I treated it as mere curiosity and an amusement to get me through
the daily grind, but it gradually forged its way to the forefront of my awareness.
The Balkans began to haunt me. I researched every kind of journey
through the region. I wanted to live there...Before long, every spare moment was devoted to hunting for properties
in the Balkans.
Then some strange things began to occur...
I was awakened from a deep sleep in the middle of the night on several occasions.
With each occurrence, I was suddenly wide awake with a certainty that
there would be no more sleep that night.
I wandered downstairs wondering what to do with my time.
I turned on the TV for company and stumbled onto an obscure documentary travelogue depicting the exact journey I had been researching that week.
On another night, the very same thing happened.
Another obscure travel piece on my destination.
These trips were well off the beaten path... It seemed something was up!
While all of that was unfolding, I received an invitation to a gathering
of European Thai therapists in Croatia...eastern Europe...part of the old Yugoslavia...the area I wanted so much to visit.
How I even received the invitation was a bit of a mystery to me.
I wasn't affiliated with any groups and had no online presence.
It was tempting, but I dismissed the invitation initially, thinking I could not leave my practice for that length of time.
But on further thought, a recession was on and my practice was less demanding, so I decided "I'm GOING!"
Everything was beginning to fall into place inwardly and outwardly.
Once I arrived, apart from being a harried American at the outset,
I felt curiously at home...familiar...comfortable.
And why not, I surmised?
I had 'travelled' there in my mind so many times in recent years...
I chalked it up to my obsession.
My first few days were spent acclimating to the place...feeling it and soaking in the atmosphere. The food, the relaxed pace of life, the simplicity of outlook and lifestyle drew me in. I found myself wanting to stay...
I instinctively LIKED the people.
These were not a smiling people. They were serious-bordering on dour-types.
They struck me as quiet, introspective, solid-real...
They were possessed of a temperament similar to my own.
Somehow, they made sense to me.
I found myself relaxing on a very deep level.
I could be myself here.
No effort was needed.
In their midst, I was freed from having to keep a happy smile on my face
at all times, like we Americans try to do.
There was no happy fakery...no pretense...just an honest response
to their reality.
The gathering of Thai practitioners was largely eastern European
and, as I had hoped, they were serious and devoted to the work.
They were more authentic and less ego-driven than many westerners.
It was a different mindset...one that again matched my own.
It was a valuable experience in so many ways...
After the conference, I was eager to see more of the former Yugoslavia.
I had just 5 days left and wanted to make the most of my time.
One of my new friends who knew the countryside well, suggested that I take
a bus to Istria, which is considered to be one of the most mystical places
in Europe. Feeling pressed for time, however, I took the first local bus to anywhere. "Anywhere" turned out to be Sarajevo. The trip would take me through the areas I had been dreaming of all those years.
Taking the local bus put me closer to the people and the villages than the tourist bus. As it turned out, I was the only 'outsider' on the bus for the entire trip. I was unprepared for what I was about to see...
As we left the city of Zadar and entered the countryside, people chatted softly and shared food as they settled in for the trip.
As we travelled onward, however, the mood of the passengers became more somber and withdrawn.
I was excited and eager to finally see the quaint villages I had imagined,
but as we drove through each one, what I saw instead, were bombed-out buildings, charred remains of churches and mosques and the general destruction of much of each town. Homes were shelled to rubble.
Dotting the beautiful countryside were signs warning of landmines.
I was seeing war up close for the first time...
I could feel the pain of the people in each place... It was deep beyond description. The presence of an outsider seemed to make things worse
for my fellow passengers as I was a fresh witness to their ruined country.
They were acutely embarrassed at their condition and relative poverty.
People turned inward as if to shelter each other from the memories.
Everyone seemed to be enveloped in their personal tragedy.
Any hope of discussion was cut off.
I, too, was embarrassed...at my ignorance of their situation.
How could I have been so unaware?
I was, unfortunately, like most Americans to this day, who had heard little
or nothing about the conflict. It had been so downplayed in the American media.
Even the folk dance community which is largely based on eastern European culture had never made mention of the conflict and preferred
to depict a happy and idyllic scene for its participants.
I felt abysmally ignorant of the true state of this part of the world.
I vowed to myself that I would learn all I could at the first opportunity.
Sarajevo at last...
The bullet and shell-riddled city loomed ahead.
I disembarked and settled into a modest hotel near the center square.
Then I began to explore the city on foot in ever-widening circles.
Sarajevo presented a panoply of impressions.
The central tourist area was prosperous and attractive, but only a block or two beyond the trendy, polished avenue yielded a vastly different scene.
There were buildings cratered by shells, half-standing, still filled with rubble from the war 14 years prior.
The contrast was stark...shocking...a bold testimony to what had happened there.
The people could be described similarly...
Many were smartly dressed, but they seemed frozen not only in time,
but in trauma.
Stoic, still broken, still suffering.
As I walked, I was immersed in the atmosphere of corroded civilization,
of life gone horribly wrong.
I felt a kind of madness lurking in the shadowed doorways.
A lingering threat...
That day a guard had been shot in front of the US Embassy.
I had been strangely drawn there.
I was beginning to understand the recent years of wanting to do
more meaningful and substantive work...with displaced people.
THIS was that place...
I thought back to all that had conspired to land me there.
This was indeed the place that had been seeded in me.
I felt a deep, inner urging to help. But how would I be allowed in?
I had never seen people in so much pain, yet, in equal measure,
they struck me as too stoic and proud to accept assistance.
They were understandably hard...'stony people', as they call themselves.
I spent only a few days there before leaving for home.
But 'home' would not feel the same again.
It was as if my center had shifted.
My awareness was heightened and I resolved to find a way to do my work there. I was 59.
6 weeks later, I was on a return flight to Sarajevo, having arranged 2 weeks volunteer work doing massage for the survivors of the concentration and rape camps. A way was made for me to spend my spare time working with a village women's group.
(That story is told in "Dancing with the Dead".)
I had been taken closer to the heart of this part of the world.
It was a deeply moving array of encounters.
It is truly said that when you touch a body, you touch a soul.
Theirs had been torn open and what lay underneath was many times incomparably humble and loving.
The complexities of the conflict were mind-boggling.
Reaching any kind of resolution, given the temperament of the cultures,
may be generations in the making.
Listening to the stories of people on all sides of the war left one's heart
torn for all...
The Easter following my 2nd trip to the Balkans, I was led to forgo
holiday plans in favor of taking the long weekend for writing.
"Gather up all your notes, spread them out and get to work!
Time to write about those experiences."
I made my way downstairs with a full armload of notebooks,
folders and various stacks of papers...a precarious load, to be sure.
I managed to get myself and all my work downstairs intact.
A good omen...
Truth be told, I was happy to tuck myself away for a few days of peace
and quiet. A private, serene space awaited. No phones, TV or visitors.
It would be good to think my own thoughts for a few days.
As I maneuvered the first stack of assorted notes to the desk,
a small torn scrap of paper fluttered to the floor. Where had that come from?
I picked it up and saw a name and a town...Joe Drobec-West Des Moines.
Who was Joe Drobec? This was not my handwriting.
I was about to set it aside and get on with things, but it had caught
my attention in a funny way.
What was it doing in my in my collection of writings?
I studied it for a minute and then suddenly, I gave a shiver of recognition.
This was my FATHER'S name...
When I was 45 years old, I tried one more time to glean a little information about my father. I caught my mother by surprise when, without preamble,
I casually asked about her early years. She finally opened up a little.
But the story she told me this time was quite the opposite of the childhood version.
In the later telling, she and Joe were in love and he was excited to welcome his 1st child. But there were complications. He had a secretive streak and, for some unknown reason, was reluctant to take her home to meet his mother. Mom was hurt and offended.
In retaliation, she began to see another man named Gilbert.
Tensions rose, of course. Finally she picked a fight with Joe and manipulated him into a jealous break-up so she could marry Gilbert.
Then she and Gilbert moved to Los Angeles and married.
I was born a few months later.
It took my breath away to hear her speak so nonchalantly about what
had really happened. I realized she had forgotten her earlier story.
This later version had the ring of truth about it.
My mother finally relented and gave me his name and the town his family resided in. Though she cloaked the act in benevolence, she knew, as well as I, that he was probably dead by then.
I experienced a whirlwind of emotions as the truth emerged.
I had been wanted after all...
She had deliberately hidden us from each other all these years!
Though it was probably too late to find him, he might have
welcomed the meeting.
Everything was the opposite of what I had been led to believe!
She took no interest in the effect her lies had on my life.
No awareness or concern of the toll it took on my heart.
Rather, she took a dark satisfaction in achieving her goals.
A complete reversal... I would have to rewrite my own history...
With a mixture of sadness, grief, anger and frustration,
I began to deal with this new information.
All sorts of fantasies sprang up. I imagined gathering the courage to find him, hiring a detective, what our meeting would be like after all these years...
So many possible scenarios...
My old fears and insecurities emerged, along with the stern commonsense thought that he was almost certainly deceased or too infirm to know or care.
"The man that raised you was not your biological father."
So offered the woman I was giving a massage to on her second visit.
I froze, wondering how she could say that with such conviction.
"Well...yes, that's true, but how do you know this?"
"It's in your chart," she replied.
"What chart?" I asked, uncomprehending.
"Your birth chart."
I then remembered that she had casually asked where I was from during
our first session. A little later, she expressed curiosity about my birthday.
I had no idea that I was working with a very gifted, self-taught astrologer.
A few months later, she offered another bit of information.
"It was very difficult with the man that raised you, but it most likely kept you from a far worse fate at the hands of your biological father."
I looked at her sharply. "Why would you think that?! It was really bad!
In fact, it couldn't have been much worse !"
"It appears to me that he was an alcoholic-likely a drug problem, as well."
"My chart again, eh?"
On another occasion, while vacationing in Florida, I attended church at Cassadaga (a Spiritualist community). After the service, as I was walking
up the hill toward my car, an attractive older woman caught up with me,
asking if she could have a brief word with me. She introduced herself as one of the ministers of the Camp. I had watched her at the podium giving messages to individuals in the congregation. She was real...
She said that she had a message for me, but she wanted to share it privately
so as not to embarrass me. She said that there was an older man hovering
near me and that he had been around me for a long time.
"He is someone close to you. He has had a problem with alcohol.
Just be aware. Be careful of any harmful influence."
What a curious thing to say! But she was right about one thing...
I had struggled with alcohol. It was a stubborn habit to shake.
Her gentle warning struck a chord...
the writer continued...
As I studied the scrap of paper that had fluttered to the floor,
I recalled the details of my mother's various stories in a new light.
I doubted most of the elements of her early story now.
Suddenly everything about her dealings was questionable.
Mom had always insisted that my real dad was French-Canadian,
like Gilbert, the man she married.
As I related early on, we were completely at odds with each other.
It seemed impossible that we shared any heritage.
Underscoring that aspect, I had spent several years living in an Acadian French village in Canada somewhat by chance, but also with an eye to understanding myself and my heritage. I came to understand him, but I was alien no matter how I tried to fit in.
Now, as I studied the name, it seemed that the surname might not be French at all. My recent introduction to the Balkans made me wonder if the name,
in fact, was Slavic.
Wishful thinking, I mused.
I searched online and found that his name was not French by any stretch
of the imagination.
Why would she have lied about that, too, I wondered?
My search appeared to indicate more of a Slavic origin, if anything.
I consulted one of my new Croatian friends. He soon sent a response.
Yes...it was Slavic and the family had historically resided in Istria...
the place that he had urged me to visit!
It seemed so fantastic that, after all those years, the answers were beginning
to emerge. But I was far from sure about any of it.
I would have to do the actual legwork now.
There was little hope of finding him alive-he would be in his 80s-
but who knew?
I began to try to find the family through all the conventional means.
It wasn't going to prove as easy as I'd hoped. There was very little to be found. Of the few available leads, each one proved to be erroneous or yet another
I finally gave up, not knowing what else to do.
Something about this would not let me go, however...
After a few months, I would take up the search again.
It proved to be an emotional effort, as well as a mental one.
I would pursue things as far as possible only to hit the wall again.
Several times I let it go in frustration.
It was too late to do any good by now, barring some miracle.
Strangely, however, something was pushing me to keep trying.
Each time I failed, I tried to let it go, but now it would not let me go.
Time and again, I would rally and work at it some more.
Many times I wondered why I was pursuing this so late in life.
I was nearly 60. Why should it matter now?
I had put it to rest decades ago and had lived around the absence
of my biological father pretty successfully.
But the need to find him, though he must surely be gone, surged through me.
I felt haunted by the desire to find him...
the cemetery plot
There wasn't much use searching among the living, so I began to venture among the dead.
Eventually I stumbled on a website that allowed one to see actual cemeteries. One could search for particular family plots and gravestones.
My search turned up a small cluster of Drobecs in a cemetery in Iowa.
Perhaps I had finally made a breakthrough!
My heart started pounding...
"Relax!" I told myself. "It's probably just another dead end."
It was a curious little group.
I found parents, 4 or 5 grown sons and a daughter.
There was a Joseph who was about the right age.
There were no spouses...no children in the plot.
It seemed like a lonely little gathering of souls...
There was a sense of sadness and tragedy about this family.
The troubling thing was that they felt like the people I was searching for.
Deep inside, I felt a sense of connection along those emotional lines...
like I somehow belonged.
I took a chance and called the cemetery office. They didn't have much to go on. But as I was hanging up, the man who had been trying to help asked me
to wait a moment. He came back to me with the phone number of the relative who had purchased the last gravestone. He didn't know if the number
was any good or not.
I tried it a couple of times without success. I finally left a message with my name and number hoping that someone would return the call.
It was February. Nearly a year had passed.
Days, then weeks, then months went by without a response.
Another fruitless effort...
That one had felt so 'right'. I was thoroughly discouraged.
I didn't have it in me to try any further.
It was time to lay the whole thing to rest....
I made several more trips to the Balkans for both personal and professional reasons. I was so 'at home' there that it became increasingly harder
to re-connect with American life on my return.
I was back to work in body, but my heart and mind were still in the Balkans.
I tried to keep a foot in both worlds for as long as possible.
I missed the ambience, the food, the manners, the pace of life.
It felt comfortingly familiar.
To extend the feeling of being in eastern Europe, I would keep the
daily rituals going.
I would savor their rich coffee as I did my morning reading.
Afterward I would enjoy a breakfast of hearty bread, white goat cheese,
sliced meats and sausage, cucumbers, tomatoes and olives.
At noon, I would prepare the same salata and soups that I had enjoyed there.
Suppers were late in the day...stuffed cabbage rolls, roasted peppers, eggplant and the like.
After a couple of weeks spent in that way, I would slowly re-enter American life.
On my last return, I did the usual slow re-orientation.
But this time, it didn't stick. After a couple of weeks, I was fretful and restless. I wanted Balkan food again. I tried to hold onto the atmosphere of the place.
I wanted that lifestyle...
Soon, I found myself traveling for hours in search of the roasted peppers, cheeses and breads. I couldn't get enough, it seemed.
I couldn't resist the pull...I found myself becoming quite obsessed.
What seemed like a harmless fascination at first began to concern me
as the weeks went by. I started to gain weight.
It was Balkan food morning, noon and night.
Then I began to crave rakia-the homemade brandy that is enjoyed
from morning till evening.
That was harder to conjure up, but I managed to find reasonable substitutes.
My appetites were not becoming satisfied, as I'd hoped, but were growing beyond bounds.
Gradually my concern was turning to alarm.
I couldn't account for what was happening!
Finally the day came when I determined to confront myself over
what was growing out of control.
I exclaimed out loud to myself "Debbie, what is happening here?!
You are eating...and drinking...like a Balkan..."
And here is where I hesitated...
I realized how out of character this binging was.
I was struck by the realization that came...
I finished the sentence.
"I swear! You are eating...AND drinking...like a Balkan...MAN!!"
There! I'd said it!
A little mortifying, but that's exactly what had been going on!
It was the truth! I had hit the nail on the head...
Strangely, in the days that followed that statement, the obsession eased.
It seemed that once I'd said the words out loud, that I was liberated.
The obsession subsided and I felt more like myself for the first time
in 2 months. I was so relieved...
That is, until one day a couple of weeks later...
I began to feel like I was being shadowed.
I found myself jumping as if someone was near me.
Or jerking my head around to see who was there, but there was never
anyone. I felt like I was seeing things...almost.
It started to make me nervous. I was getting a bit spooked.
Slowly, it dawned on me that those were not idle words.
"Oh dear", I thought.
I put two and two together and realized that I had been feeling something...no, some ONE...over my left shoulder for days.
Well...actually for about 2 weeks...roughly the time since I made the remark about eating and drinking like a Balkan man.
It was time to pay attention, although my first instinct was to try to ignore it.
I knew that wouldn't be possible. This was persistent, whatever it was.
It hovered day and night...over my left shoulder....
not too heavy, but never leaving.
I started to sit quietly with this presence...that is, once I got my nerve up.
I acknowledged the presence to begin with.
Then I started to pay attention to what I had been feeling.
Was this a female or male presence? Male, I felt.
Old? Young? Known to me? Unknown?
Was it friendly? Warning? Trying to communicate?
It felt sad mostly... Quiet, serious.
Then I had a sense of high intelligence...
then regret...maybe a lingering depression.
He was just there...week by week.
Steady. Somber. Familiar.
I wondered if I was fabricating the details...in part, because it felt like me.
I couldn't tell.
I rested with the questions. The answers might come in time.
I began to have a renewed interest in finding my father.
Though I had no new leads, I felt a resurgence of energy...
like a wind at my back, pushing me along.
To my mind, it was useless...too late. I didn't know what else to do..
But something compelled me again.
I reviewed all that I had done over the past year.
In the final analysis, I was still drawn to the cemetery plot
with its few family members.
I had last tried them in February. They had not responded. It was now August.
As I sat at my computer, I searched the records and soon had their phone number in hand.
But I sat there, immobilized with shyness and fear.
I wished that I had the courage to pick up the phone and try again,
but I just couldn't. My emotions were strained after painfully re-opening
the subject after all those years.
Talking with strangers only to find myself wide of the mark each time
I wanted to. My heart was in my throat. But I just couldn't do it...
As I sat there, mute and feeling hopeless, the phone rang.
Just another business call, I assumed. But the callers' prefix wasn't local.
I picked up the receiver and found an older woman on the other end.
She began questioning me about a call I had made to her number
several months earlier.
She was just clearing her phone log and had found an unfamiliar number.
"I'm sorry....what is your name?" I asked.
When she told her last name was Drobec, I sat stunned.
Though I had carefully rehearsed a delicate response to the family in case
I ever heard from them, the moment caught me so off-guard that I blurted out the unthinkable..."I think I'm Joe's daughter."
No one was expecting me...
She became understandably cautious and she took a bit of time to establish
my identity. Soon that was confirmed.
Then I told her what little I could and she began to share the story
of my father and his family.
Betty was the widow of the brother who bought the last gravestone.
In fact, she is the last surviving member of that generation.
It was sometimes painful for her to recount aspects of the story...
She had married into this Serbian family but had suffered throughout
her marriage due to the parents' refusal to accept her.
Though she cared for her immigrant parents-in-law to their deaths
in advanced old age, she never achieved acceptance.
She never understood their stance toward her and though she loved
her husband very much, she endured a painful existence in the family.
She, like my mother, was German.
We spoke for hours. To her credit, she shared the good, the bad and the ugly
in a simple and straightforward manner. No sugar coating, no pretense.
She told the story of my father's youth intermingled with other family stories. She spoke of his early achievements and successes prior to his later descent into alcoholism. She imparted an understanding of the events that gave rise
to his struggles.
As she shared the remarkable and, at times, shocking and tragic account
of his life, I realized that she was describing the person over my shoulder.
The puzzle pieces were quickly falling into place.
This was the person I had been feeling.
There were so many aspects of his early life that paralleled mine.
We had similar aspirations and talents, but our lives had veered into business rather than literature and academia.
We had a similar path in life, even moving to New York City at the same time.
He had a daughter, my half-sister who lived about 50 miles from my place
in Canada (I moved there in my early twenties from Oregon).
There was a startling amount of synchronicity, though our lives played out very differently.
I could not have imagined or anticipated the similarities in our makeup.
More telling than that, however, was the inner person.
As I listened to the stories, I recognized elements of my own temperament.
All of the things that had set me so apart in my family were mirrored in his personality.
The brightness of mind, interest in literature and writing, the ambitious nature...so much.
A certain indefinable sadness, a distinct demeanor, various private struggles
...all were emanations from him.
Echoing through the life of the child he never met.
I began to understand the deep sense of familiarity I had been feeling
with the presence over my shoulder.
It was my father...
I felt like I had finally found my place in the world...
Strangely, even though it came so late in life, finding him...
or was it the other way around?...
has had a fascinating impact on my life in ways I couldn't have foreseen.
After I got off the phone with Betty, it occurred to me that I should seek
out Serbian church festivals in Chicago, the place where my parents met
and where I was conceived.
I was excited to find were 2 festival in the upcoming weekend.
I wanted to get a feel for the people and the community.
Perhaps I would find a church record yielding another clue.
The first things I noticed as I walked the grounds were their physical characteristics...so similar to my own. High cheekbones, broad shoulders,
narrow hips and long legs. They carried themselves well...a handsome people.
I finally understood my mom's cryptic remark: "You have his mouth."
But it was their manner that fascinated me even more. They were reserved
and observant with strangers, even formal at times, but quite open-hearted, considerate and warm with those they knew. It was such a different culture.
It was very appealing...
I was guided by one of the women to a historical exhibit tracing their roots
in the old country and their various migrations to America.
It was there that I discovered an important piece of the puzzle... both for my mother and for Betty. The year before Joseph and my mother became involved and around the time of Betty's entrance into the family, Germans had decimated some 52% of Serbian males. Though research showed that our families on both sides had immigrated to America to avoid conflict around the early 1900s, fierce prejudice was attached to the Germans by my Serbian grandparents. No wonder my father could not take a German woman home
to his mother. And that is why Betty suffered throughout her marriage...
After that, I attended a tour of the church, which is Eastern Orthodox.
A few more surprises awaited!
The priest (who was married) explained that traditionally these churches
had no pews.
One stood before the Almighty, he explained.
At that, my hair stood on end!
I had been raised Catholic, later turned to Protestantism in frustration,
but found the Protestant way pretty intolerable after a short time.
It was too divisive, puritanical, there was a distinct lack of mysticism which allowed one to grow beyond the beginning form of faith and observance,
but the thing I could never tolerate or understand was all that sitting!
I felt that if people had any real experience of the Divine, that they would stand in the Presence. It was the sitting I could not bear...
The sitting, church-as-entertainment and the overeating...
One should be stirred to action, not sloth and self-indulgence, I felt...
Here was a church that had fasting. It was a real community that knew how to deal with the whole person- earthy, sometimes stumbling, but always family.
There was a complete lack of falseness. A startling contrast.
In the bookstore, I found some rather simple-looking booklets containing
the teachings of the early church fathers. In those pages, I discovered myself
and the curious progression of spiritual life that I had been experiencing all these years. The path of the mystic...
This was a home-coming on so many levels...
I had berated myself and struggled throughout the years over my failure
to conform to this culture's Christianity. Unable and increasingly unwilling.
It had felt damaging and wrong to try to go their way.
It was just not my way...
Eventually, I took my experience out of their clutches and forged a lonelier
but more authentic path.
Here, I found that my understanding had a foundation in an earlier chapter
of the Faith. My experience was normative...not strange at all.
And then there was the dancing...
After church, which was attended freely rather than compulsorily,
there was simple, but delicious food...and drink...beer, wine and šljivovica (plum brandy). The band began to play and the dancers gathered for the traditional dances. People of all ages joined hands and soon the circle was full. This was hearty dancing, full-spirited! I joined in and soon discovered that all of my favorite refrains and dances over the years were Serbian!
I was home...
In the end, this was a mystery that was 40 years in the unfolding...
When I look at the weaving together of all of the various elements,
I stand in awe...
I consider the early years with the need to find my father, the search that was denied, confronted, repeated, given up on, taken up again...wondering why it even mattered so late in life?
Now driven the distance to the full and happy ending...
My father's presence pressed me to discover the answers.
That journey has come nearly full circle.
Not only do I understand myself in the life chain of events and a people
but he has helped in other, very personal ways.
For instance, from the time of these revelations, I have not suffered writer's block. (My father had graduated 1st in his class in English literature.)
I feel more settled in my particular personality, which has unleashed so much good energy. I also have a better feel for managing the various elements
of who I am. I experience enormous benefit from understanding and working with both the strengths and the challenges of my heritage.
From my father, I feel a protective love and oversight.
It was just such an unexpected way to meet...
I am learning that when a person in spirit returns or draws near, it is generally to help or to make up for past failings, intended or not...
Then it seems that they recede a bit so as not to interfere with our life path. But they continue to lend support, understanding and help, if called on.
Two more years passed. During that time, a DNA test was developed that provides information to a woman of both sides of the parental lines.
It confirmed the things that I had been feeling since childhood...
including some improbable things that I had kept very privately to myself.
Suffice it to say, that every place I have felt strongly drawn to and that felt like home to me on an inner level is represented in my DNA.
I began to feel whole....of a piece.
More able to fully and more confidently express my unique self in the family
of Man. More able to work with the differences and to inter-relate more intelligently. It has been an altogether good experience...
On a final note....
To parents of split families or adoptive and foster families, please know
that if a child expresses a desire or need to know about the missing parent...
and most, if not all, do, whether they verbalize it or not...please take a deep breath and have the courage, the kindness or whatever it may take, to listen and respond to that child's need. Whether or not it is important or useful
or "good" to you, it may be of great importance to the child.
We ARE our parents and we need to know...
It really hobbles a child to go through life when that huge hole exists or when shame, anger and resentment color the other half of their self-concept.
Truth, communicated with sensitivity, is always preferable and sane-making
to a child or young person.
It may matter more than you know...