Whispers from the Past Led Me to My Future
I never imagined that losing a family recipe would change my life’s course. It sounds silly, but it actually happened. It all started in the spring of 2012 when I couldn’t find the recipe for stuffed cabbages that my mom had perfected over decades of cooking. I searched my kitchen cabinets, leafed through a dozen cookbooks, hoping the index card was stuck in one of the pages, and tried calling my mom numerous times. After an hour of tearing my kitchen apart with no success, I had no choice but to turn to Google for alternatives to my mom’s delicious holubky.
I don’t know how I found the time—I had two young children who were in constant need of attention—but I went down the proverbial Internet rabbit hole and ended up on several Slovak and Hungarian culture websites. I then took a trip over to Ancestry.com where I quickly became a genealogy addict.
Researching my family’s history had never been terribly high on my priority list, but I found so many fascinating documents on Ancestry.com that ignited my curiosity about my immigrant ancestors. I located the ship manifesto for my Slovak great-grandparents who traveled to Ellis Island from Austria-Hungary in 1905 and was shocked to discover that my last name was originally Pastirik. I also found the World War II draft registration card for my Lithuanian great-grandfather, who was in early fifties at the time he signed it. I was immediately in awe of his bravery, as his advanced age exempted him from the draft.
These interesting discoveries prompted me to visit my ninety-year-old grandmother to learn more about our family’s history. She rarely spoke of her childhood, so I was quite surprised when stories started pouring out of her. I was even more stunned when she presented me with a scrapbook and a shoebox of old family photos. I was under the impression that my grandparents didn’t even own a camera until after my dad entered high school. All the photos on the walls and in the frames at my grandma’s house were from after 1960.
I have no idea why Grandma Pearl had never shown me these treasures until the final months of her life, but I am grateful nonetheless. She reminisced about her childhood that day and showed me photos of her Lithuanian parents as well as her Slovak in-laws. She recalled the days of running moonshine for her mother during the Prohibition era and mentioned a young Polish friend of hers who went by the name of Pole. I was fascinated by Grandma Pearl’s stories and grateful to learn new details about her early life, but I yearned to know more about my great-grandparents. Their images in the old, faded photographs had captured my imagination. What was it like to immigrate to America in the early 1900s to work in the steel mills of Pittsburgh? What sort of challenges did they face? These imaginings inspired me to recreate their world in a novel and pay tribute to their sacrifices.
It took me two and a half years to write the first draft of my novel. I spent another two and a half years querying literary agents and revising my story. It was a long and frustrating process, but a valuable one. Several of the literary agents who read and rejected my manuscript provided helpful feedback, which helped me become a better writer and improve my novel. When it became clear that my lack of a social media platform was hindering my efforts at traditional publishing, I decided to explore options outside the traditional model. I signed with She Writes Press in early 2020 and discovered the many wonderful advantages of hybrid publishing. Higher royalties, greater control over the editorial process, and the option for authors to be involved in the cover design are just a few. I’ve also become part of an amazing community of authors who share ideas and support each other.
Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash is now available, and I’m so excited that readers are experiencing 1910s Pittsburgh where hopeful immigrants risked their lives in the steel mills and coal mines in pursuit of the American dream. The sacrifices of people like my great-grandparents are often overlooked, and I sincerely hope my novel gives readers a new appreciation for the bravery of immigrants, both past and present. As for me, I’m thankful my genealogy project helped me connect with my grandmother and revealed my hidden talent for writing. I never imagined that researching my ancestors would put me on a new career path, but I think those whispers from the past showed me exactly where I needed to be.
© 2022 Tammy Pasterick
A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy Pasterick began her career as an investigator with the National Labor Relations Board and later worked as a paralegal and German teacher. Her debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is available now. Visit www.tammypasterick.com to learn more.