Story by Global Gal Deborah Gregich
Sometimes I think if I just turn my head quick enough I will catch a glimpse of one of my deceased ancestors. I have always been intrigued with my father’s heritage, so on one of my recent trips to Croatia, I decided to venture out to the rural area where their ancestral home had been.
Riding a bicycle I pedaled 12 kilometers to the village where my grandfather had lived before emigrating to America in 1913. A two lane highway turned into a one lane paved road as I turned off into the village Ribnik. Thick green foliage with ferns and trees lined the roadside with small clusters of homes followed by a break of open space and field then another cluster of homes. It was late July, the sun high in the sky as it pelted down on the dark asphalt.
Days before I had been in the tourist office in Gospic Croatia where I was living for the summer, working in the Velebit Mountains. Rummaging around in the local office’s brochures I found a small leaflet advertising, “Grguric Ranch in Ribnik” (photo). Intrigued, being that the name Grguric happened to be my surname, I was now on my way to see if these people were in anyway related to me.
It was about one in the afternoon. The seat on my bike was not comfortable. I was hot and exhausted. What was I thinking just riding into Ribnik with no plan or idea of how I was going to find these people. I couldn’t take it anymore so I stopped in front of a cluster of three to four houses and started screaming, Hello!!
From the side of one of the houses a young woman, in her thirties, started walking towards me asking if she could help. She was speaking English! To run into someone in the smaller villages that speaks English is a rarity. I asked her if she knew anything about this, Grguric Horse Ranch. “Yes, she said, The owner is my brother-in-law. He owns the ranch and is coming here later today. Why don’t you come up to the house and wait for him?”
That became the beginning of the rest of one amazing day. I sat at a long picnic table that had been taken over by flies. Fruit sat on a platter under a mesh see thru screen. Children flocked around and an elderly woman dressed in black, speaking no English came out to see me. Snjezana, the young woman informed me she was a Grguric by marriage, her next door neighbors were Grgurics’ and there was an elderly woman down the lane who was a Grguric before marrying.
I stayed for lunch, which included children, the elderly woman, a couple of thirty aged women and visiting neighbors. Over fried chicken, pork, salad and lots of homemade bread, everyone was busy trying to figure out if I might be related to them and how. Then Snjezana’s brother-inlaw, Bozo, the owner of the horse ranch and his wife, Ivana, showed up. It was decided that Bozo and Ivana were not direct relatives of mine. However, Bozo remembered a story of how the Catholic priest in the village had encouraged his relatives to name his grandfather, Franjo Grguric, after this old man who lived alone in the village. His name was Franjo Grguric, my great grandfather! Bozo also went on to say that he had personally known a man by the name of Martin Grguric. He said my mannerisms reminded him of Martin. He also indicated that this man had living older children in the village.
Lunch over, Snjezana, bundled up her youngest child, put her in a stroller and we walked down the lane to meet this Martin Grguric’s elderly living daughter. As we entered her yard, I saw a woman about 75-78 years old, dressed in black. My heart did a little flip! A middle-aged man sat across from her eating as a young couple in their early thirties emerged from the kitchen. They spoke English! Thru translation, I found out her father, grandfather and great grandfather’s names. She insisted that she was not related to me. The names of her grandfather and great grandfather were different than those in my family lineage. But what about that flutter in my chest? What was that all about? A bit disappointed, I went back to Snjezana’s house where Bozo, her brother-in-law, was ready to take me to his horse ranch up in the mountains nearby.
Bozo, Ivana and I drove in the jeep to the ranch, where their 27 horses roamed freely around. Bozo had built a corral so rides could be given on the horses to special needs children. We took a hike through the foliage to the river where Ivana, told me stories of how an old Turkish mill had existed and she had found a piece from the mill. We came back to the birch house they were building on the property and ate deserts and drank slijivovica, homemade plum brandy. We discussed current social events, telling stories that became bigger and more colorful as the afternoon wore on.
Soon it was time to go. Ivana and I left Bozo to tend to the horses and we headed back in the jeep. We rode across lush fields with the Velebit Mountains creating a majestic backdrop. I felt so close to my ancestors in this moment. I wanted to stay longer and soak up the essence of this place. This is where five generations of my ancestors had come to settle after the Ottoman Turkish occupation began to wane in the early 1700’s. I felt like I could almost touch what had existed here in this place hundreds of years before me.
We arrived back at the house in Ribnik and Ivana offered me a ride with my bike back to Gospic. I declined, saying, that I would enjoy the return ride now that it was early evening and not so hot. Although we were not directly related, I felt lucky to have had such an amazing day. I felt so close to these people I had barely met.
I walked my bike onto the one lane road, enjoying the time of day when I heard someone calling my name. I turned to look across the open field and saw the young couple from Zagreb that had been at the older woman’s house. They were with a few other men in the middle of the field butchering a sheep. With an unsettled stomach, I walked to the fence to meet the young man that had been at the elderly woman’s house. He stated that the elderly woman I had met was related to me. After I had left her house, he said she was nervous. She sensed that I could be related to her. He stated that this woman and I had come from the same original house number in the village and that she also had an elderly brother that lived in the village.
The next day I went to the Arhivs in Gospic and carefully traced her ancestral lineage with the names she had given me. As I made all the connections, I realized that her great grandfather Ivan and my great grandfather Franjo, were brothers!! I was so excited! The last of my living family in Ribnik had been discovered. What were the chances on that hot July day I would find living relatives when I stopped in the middle of the road to yell, Hello!!