By Katherine Bell
The stories of our forefathers can be powerful, identity-shaping narratives—especially as Americans. It’s the reason why more than 26 million people mail cotton swabs full of DNA to commercial databases, join heritage societies and pass down family recipes. For local dance teacher Judy Mandeville, a recent trip to Europe brought her lineage to life in an extraordinary and immersive experience.
Judy’s story began years ago when after her cousin returned from a trip to Slovenia. Her cousin returned from his journey to the family homeland with photographic proof that he had been to the house his Grampie grew up in. Judy had long admired a collection of mementos from her grandfather’s life, including the suitcase that arrived with him to Ellis Island, and the photo made a great addition to her cherished collection.
Grampie left Slovenia in 1906. He entered the U.S. through Ellis Island as Philip Yaklich, anglicized from “Filip Jaklic,” with only $0.25 in his pocket. Eventually, he found himself in Crested Butte, CO, where he built a multi-faceted career as a coal miner, a dairy farmer, a Coloradan homesteader and a union organizer. He was an exceptionally hard-worker — a machine, Judy said — but to his family, he was just Grampie.
Like many immigrants of his era, none of Grampie’s children learned his native tongue. Judy recalled the language barrier as a huge obstacle to their relationship. Even still, he was irreplaceable figure in her life. She first began to understand how “articulate, poetic and intelligent he was” after reading a translation of the eulogy he’d written for his mother-in-law’s funeral.
“It was this grandfather I longed to know, but never could because his English was so limited. And yet his heart, I fed off of his heart for decades,” she said.
This longing to know more about Grampie and her Slovenian heritage led Judy to Lake Bled, just one stop on a celebratory tour of Europe for her 40th anniversary with husband, Richard. When Judy realized Grampie’s hometown was less than a two hour’s drive from their hotel in Lake Bled, making the extra trip seemed like a no-brainer.
“Something in me jumped. It was a visceral reaction from me. And I thought, ‘whoa. Maybe I want to go more than I realized,’” she said.
While sitting in a traffic jam on their way to Lake Bled, Judy’s desire to find the town deepened from casual interest to what felt like a calling. It happened while she was reading aloud from a copy of a letter her grandmother wrote to own children nearly 84 years ago to the day when Grammie (Judy’s grandmother) and Grampie were on their way from Ljubljana to Lake Bled visiting family. Judy said, it felt like a sign.
From that point forward, the Mandevilles encountered sign after sign encouraging them onward in their familial quest. At the hotel, Judy said the hostess had the same “sparkling blue eyes” as Grampie. They ate potica, klobasa and sauerkraut – the cultural foods of Judy’s childhood – and stayed at hotel built in 1906, the same year Grampie left Slovenia.
“In my heart, it felt like something was growing. There was this emotion I didn’t even know was coming,” Judy said. “Something was pulling and something was feeding: hunger and nourishment all happening at the same time.”
After a few days in Lake Bled, the Mandevilles set out for the town. During the drive, the four-lane highway narrowed into two lanes and suddenly the couple was driving down a single-track dirt road winding through a forest. At this point, Judy said their hopes were just as lost as the GPS signial. Then, the tiny rental car emerged from the woods and in front of them hung a small, wooden sign telling them they’d arrived.
Judy recalled this Tolkien-like moment feeling utterly unbelievable.
“It was like we were ushered,” Judy said. “We weren’t going that way to begin with and we have no idea how we got there.”
Whether it was Lady Luck or God himself, something had led the Mandevilles to the town, and it was evident something spectacular was building.
The car rolled to a stop in front of a small house and a woman appeared on the porch. Armed with photos of the house and the correct spelling of Grampie’s name, Judy hopped out of the car and asked, using the pictures and signing, whether the woman knew which house was Grampie’s.
“Yes, but you disappoint,” Judy recalled the woman answering in broken English. (Judy found out later, the disappointment referred to the house’s poor condition.) The woman left Judy, approaching a delivery truck that had just pulled up. Twelve bells sounded in secession to ring out the hour, and Judy realized she was standing in front of Grampie’s church.
This is where the story takes a turn from astounding to simply miraculous: someone in the village still had the key to Grampie’s house. The church bells had just stopped ringing when the woman dealing with the courier approached Judy again, this time with an elderly gentleman in tow. As they spoke, he started to name each of Grampie’s siblings. Judy realized he had known Grampie’s entire family more than eighty years prior. He said to her (in Slovenian), “I have a key.”
Judy said, remembering that moment, “To hear Slovenian in Grampie’s village was like continued church bells for me. It was music for me. I’m thinking, “You have the key to his house?”
The man led them down the street and around the back of Grampie’s house to the door, which he unlocked. The woman appeared again, this time with her English-speaking son. The group, now a total of five people — two Americans and three Slovenians — walked in through the living room.
“There are the shoes, there’s the wardrobe still full of clothes. There are things still on the bed, still hanging on the wall. There’s a three-dimensional plaque of the pope with a rosary on it. There are Virgin Mary statues, there are whiskey bottles and ladles hanging. It was in disarray, but they and just left it,” Judy said. It was like walking through a museum of family history.
The elderly gentleman, the one with the key, began to recount the Yaklich family history right there in the middle of Grampie’s living room. The young man translated and Judy stood there listening, simply in awe.
“I’m sure this elderly gentleman was thinking, ‘surely in this town of 25 there must be some mental health consultant that we could get to take care of this woman who’s just in a heap everywhere she goes,’” she said.
In this moment, the young man started to rifle through the stacks of long-forgotten items. He tossed things behind him as he dug — some underwear, an apron – and then at the bottom of the pile, he uncovered a stack of photos.
Judy calls this moment unforgettable. There she was, standing in her grandfather’s childhood living room in the middle-of-nowhere Slovenia, watching this young man hand her picture after picture of her own relatives. Then, he handed Judy a picture of herself as a girl.
“That’s when it breaks open for me. That’s when that deep need to be found — that deep need to belong that we all have, the deep need for connection that we were created for — that’s when it just barreled into me with such force it was almost devastating, had it not been so beautiful,” she said.
Judy’s best guess as to the presence of the photos in that house is that Grammie must have sent them from America as proof that life was better — Grampie’s sacrifice was not in vain.
Selecting items carefully, so as to not overload the carry-on luggage she and Dick had packed, Judy returned home with the stack of photos, a hand-made lace table runner and the rosary, which she gave to her father, Grampie’s youngest son, who is almost 99.
When her father held the rosary in his hands, Judy says, he wept. For her, the tactile connection bound her more firmly to her family than she had ever before experienced.
“To get down to the root of our roots, I think, is the real pilgrimage,” Judy said. “Not just to find them, but to be found in them and to know that we are incomplete without them.”