Keepers of Golden Dreams
by Theresa Philips Sirawsky
Authors Press

"'We will have to wait until the baby is old enough to travel before we can all go to America.'"

With the passage of time, generations of families often get lost throughout history, their trials and tribulations forgotten. Sirawsky’s memoir immortalizes the life journey of her mother, Helen Golias Filip, and grandmother Anna Golias Paulik. Passing stories from generation to generation not only keeps the memory of the individuals alive, but it also acts as the glue that holds the entire lineage united. Sirawsky’s chronicling of her mother’s family is primarily derived from Helen’s own stories of life in Dravce, a small Slovakian village. Comprehensive in nature, the memoir captures many elements of nineteenth-century culture and communication with a fluid simplicity that allows the audience to fit right into the customs of that time.

Many themes exist here as they should when an entire biography of a family is being written. However, the late nineteenth century is well known for the pursuit of the American dream, cloaked in the hope that hard work and perseverance could yield a bright future for an entire family. It is with this same hope that John, Anna’s husband, toiled away at the mines in Philadelphia, his aim as sharp as a laser: to bring his three kids and wife to America with him and solidify their future. The patriarchs of families of that period often sacrificed years away from their families. Nevertheless, what made this time beautiful was the genuine effort to find happiness, no matter how small, and their reliance on heritage and tradition to push them through the tough times.

The story opens up casually with the slow, melodious church bells sounding off in St. Katherine’s village church. The scenic terrain the author describes as “lush rolling, green hills,” is directly juxtaposed with the hard work done in the fields. But all the workers are in the same boat, and it is this camaraderie that keeps the town tight-knit and content. In contrast with modern society, where education is as good as a birthright for most citizens, children of the nineteenth century only went to school for six years before boys were relegated to working in the fields. Young girls were needed to tend the home and care for their younger siblings. Gender norms were also apparent in the dress code of women working in the fields, and as the women collectively congregated at the stream to wash their clothes. In the opening scenes, for example, Anna is donning a bib and apron that fully covers her body. Later, the author describes in immaculate detail the bundle of clothes, the rush to find an empty space along the stream, and the soap made from animal fat.

When John returns home to surprise Anna and his family, a budding romance is resurrected, with a conviction that their family’s future will be in the United States. Despite being parents to two daughters, Clara and Veronica, as well as a son, Wendell, the news that they are expecting almost represents a rejuvenation or rebirth of their marital relationship. While Sirawsky’s memoir focuses on her grandmother, she paints a vivid portrait rooted in the reality of the times. Most families consisted of many children, and, typically, the father would be at work and would miss most of his kids’ childhood. Another undeniable reality was that during these times, most families hung their hat on tradition, whether it was for guidance or a means of entertainment and congregation. In particular, this tradition is most evident in the author’s description of the harvest dance, where a lightheaded and definitely pregnant Anna tries to make the most of her polka dance with John. Events like these and the customary cleaning, baking, and tree trimming during the week before Christmas provide respite from a difficult life.

John’s quest to buy a new horse changes the trajectory of the family, igniting plotlines where Wendell focuses on his duty. Meanwhile, Veronica and Clara grow into beautiful women with their own households. Helen, the author’s mother, is the young child that is in Anna’s womb. Interestingly, she seems to have been born with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, an edge that stems from her fierce love for her father, John, and a steadfast desire to continue living in the past. As Helen gets older, she displays an independence unlike anything seen by the other children. Covering the lifespan of Anna and her entire family, the author touches on the highs and lows, from love and loss to stigmas, broken families, and undying dreams. These make for a meaningful glimpse into the life and ways of a nineteenth-century family.

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