Over the weekend I was working on a project which involved watching a lot of old home movies. My dad’s wife is heading to Slovakia to visit her/our family, and we have a bunch of old footage that I think they might enjoy. So, I am attempting to put together a DVD of all the gatherings, weddings and enormous parties from my family’s past.

My relatives? They knew how to party. I’m talking about my dad’s side. The Slovaks.

My grandparents had a modest house in my hometown of Leonia, NJ – the kicker was they also owned the lot adjacent to it. This was their yard; a wonderland filled with trees, gladiolas, hydrangeas and grape vines. They even had a fake wishing well, which to us kids was magical addition to this suburban oasis.

Nana by the Well

My true grandmother, shown above with some unknown friend or relative, died before I was born. All of my 47 years I’ve  heard what an absolute brick she was – the best of the best – nobody finer in the state of Caroliner. She’d have to be to throw some of the bashes depicted in these movies.

Every late summer/early fall my grandparents would host the Hody – a dance/party meant to celebrate the harvest.

My dad would tell me stories of the Hodys back in Czechoslovakia. They were celebrations that the entire village would partake in and they would last for days. Moving to the USA did not stop my grandparents from continuing this tradition. Plus, half the village of Gajary had moved to northern New Jersey by this point, so their guest list was always a long one.

The gangs all here or getting more beer.

As I watched the movies from a few of the parties held in that wonderful yard, I yearned to be there. I saw the dancing women, and the men stripped down to their undershirts holding a label-less bottle up in a toast. Platters of food were passed around, and everyone was laughing and drinking and enjoying the day.

I especially loved watching my grandfather. As a child Pop-Pop could be a formidable figure – he was large, and dark, and rarely smiled. His accent was thick and he had a no-nonsense attitude. I can remember sweeping the front walk once as a small child. He had come over to visit, and upon walking up the path saw the small, tentative strokes I was making with my broom. He grabbed the broom from me, said “Tracinka, look!” and made large, broad strokes with the broom as he quickly walked up the path. The entire front walk was spotless in seconds. He said, “Next time, you do!” and walked into the house.

I didn’t know whether I was given advice or a good scolding. It felt the same either way.

But to see my Pop-Pop in these movies was like seeing a different man. He danced his way through the crowd with a smile and a pitcher of wine. He was swinging on a hammock with Nana, and when the hammock turned over and they both fell to the ground, they both got up and laughed it off. And he would bring out his accordion, and the old songs would be sung with arms draped over shoulders and classes clinking with a “Na zdravie!”

Damn! Right there and then I wanted to hop into a Delorean, punch it to 88 and McFly my ass back to 1950 to attend one of these parties. I want to sit in the painted wooden adirondack chairs I used to have on my porch until I moved from Jersey in 1995. I want to drink some of Pop-Pop’s wine and hear him play a tune on that Slovak squeezebox. I want to try all that wonderful Bohemian-style food. I want to meet my Nana to see if she’s as wonderful as everyone tells me she was. And I want to sink my feet into the plush grass of that magical yard.

After my Pop-Pop died in the late 70’s, my father sold that side lot to help finance 3 college educations and take us on a trip to see his hometown in Slovakia and to meet the family we still had living there. It had to be a hard decision for him to make – so many memories were attached to that piece of land. The house that was built there was a new fangled monstrosity; it lacked any charm and stood out sorely from the other homes on the block. But, land in my hometown could bring a bunch of pretty pennies, and Dad had a family to think of.

At least we have the movies. I don’t know half the people in them, but I can point out the ones I do know to my kids and tell them the role they played in my life. Perhaps they might watch these movies years from now, and get a kick out of their mommy’s crazy family that knew how to party hearty.