Part One

With our ancestors we are linked by blood,

and that blood is memory without language.

                            – Joyce Carol Oates

Kazanlak, Bulgaria

I sat forward in the narrow, wooden theater chair, gravitating toward the stage. My mother next to me, oblivious to the hard seat beneath her arthritic legs, was entranced. The driving, Bulgarian folk rhythms shook the floor beneath us, intensified by the young dancers stomping in unison on stage. Their energy was addictive, stirring all of our senses at once. I watched the vibrant, teen-aged girls bouncing to the vigorous rhythms, dark pony-tails swirling and short skirts flying high. I was struck by their beauty, plain and understated, yet captivating. It was finally sinking in … I was in Bulgaria, my grandparents’ homeland, and my mother was here with me! The same woman who one month earlier was convinced she could never board the plane, content to accept that she would never make the trip abroad. The struggle was all worthwhile. And for the first time since our arrival I realized how enormous this was. And what it meant to my mom. Seeing the smile on her face and tears welling up in her eyes was all I needed, to understand.

Intricate accordion riffs accompanied by the clear timbre of a lone clarinet flowed from the speakers high above us. Brightly colored costumes blurred together as the dancers abruptly changed direction to the syncopated music. They danced in a circle, hands linked across their embroidered aprons. The end dancer swung her handkerchief high above her head, accentuating the beat and shouting a high-pitched “Yee-iiip!”

    Applause rang out as the audience enthusiastically cheered. The crowd’s admiration and respect was obvious. They could see how dedicated these performers were, and recognized each young girl’s training, conditioning and passion. Just as the applause died down, Anita tapped my shoulder. I turned to see my wife pointing to the back of the auditorium. I did a double-take, but sure enough, it was Yordanka with her sister, Violetta, and a couple of other family members. We had only met Yordanka the previous day. She was the mayor of Resen, Bulgaria, the small village near where Mom’s parents were born. This kind stranger spent the entire day proudly showing us around and helping us search for information about our ancestors. My first thought was that treacherous three-hour drive across Shipka Pass. They must have driven the slick mountain road in the dark, during that thunderous storm. But why? Earlier that morning, more than a hundred miles away, we had said our good-byes.

    Although the folk performance was in full swing again, Mom, Anita, my cousin Estella May and I excused ourselves to slip to the back of the room and greet our visitors. Before we could utter a word, Yordanka addressed our questioning eyes by pulling an old photograph from her purse. She held up the glossy eight-by-ten, black-and-white print, now yellowed with age. I immediately recognized it. So did Anita and Estella May. Our mouths must have dropped open as we looked at my mom for her reaction. Unaware, she was rummaging through her purse in search of her glasses to bring the picture into focus.

    “Just a minute, just a minute,” she said, sifting through crumpled bits of Kleenex.

    The goosebumps were already surfacing on my arms when she raised the bifocals to her face and realized she was looking at her own wedding photo. Yordanka was holding my mother and father’s wedding photo—the very same framed photo collecting dust back home on my mother’s dresser, for as long as I can remember.

    “We found this in our attic,” Yordanka said, “and I thought you should have it.”

    Any doubts in my mind were at that moment put to rest. We had found family.

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