52 Ancestors In 52 Weeks: Colorful

Maybe it was winning an art poster contest with a free trip to Topeka when she was in 8th grade…maybe that is when her journey into painting and creating began. Maybe it was that McCall’s magazine ad for correspondence courses in acrylic painting. No matter how and when, the artist turned a hobby into a much loved craft business…painting with lots of primary colors…colorful.

It was the late 1960s, and a young housewife wanted to expand her horizons. Setting up a makeshift studio in her basement, she first learned to paint leaves and roses. She practiced on wax paper so if she made too many mistakes, her papers would land in the trash. My goodness, she had a knack with the painting! Then, she practiced on bottles so if she made too many mistakes, her bottles would land in the trash. As her experience and expertise with the paints and patterns grew, she knew it was time to pick a medium on which to create her version of colorful kitchen decor.

Having grown up as a Kansas farm girl, she never stopped loving old kitchen utensils, coffeepots, wash boilers, and such. This would be her medium…she would be a tole painter. (Tole is the decorative painting of tin and wood.) She determined that she could find loads of old utensils at farm sales in the Pennsylvania countryside where she now lived with her family. Auctioneers would sell boxes of utensils for a quarter which she scarfed up. Her favorite auctioneer would call out at a sale, “Hey, Merna, here is a box with your kind of stuff!” In her own way, her paintings were becoming popular with the locals.

The time came when she wanted to set up a craft business and needed a name. Being a Kansas girl and loving  college basketball, she decided to call it The Jayhawker. (Jayhawker is a nickname for Kansas plus the mascot for University of Kansas.) She began setting up at craft fairs and gaining loyal customers. She set up a shop in her basement with hours by chance or appointment. She loved meeting people and making new friends. Credit for the success of her business also extended to her husband Ed who primed tin items for painting and accompanied her to craft shows.

She joined the National Tole Painters Association, an organization that she truly enjoyed. Each spring, a national convention was held in a major city…a chance to take daily lessons with nationally known artists. The conventions also featured tours and outings in the cities with travel right up Merna’s alley. When she returned home, she brought along fresh and colorful ideas. She flourished in her talent and craft.

The Jayhawker was in business for 30 years. She painted each day until midnight so she could have inventory for her next show. She estimated that she earned about a quarter an hour! But…she was ecstatic about her colorful creativity. She had found her artistic niche…Merna Mae (Storer) Slabik, tole painter!

That colorful painter was my mother. When we talked on the phone, she spent most of the conversation telling in details what her new pieces looked like. One day while on the phone, she said, “I have decided to put my paintbrushes away and retire…I am going to be a socialite!” Thus, began another chapter in her colorful life.


52 Ancestors In 52 Weeks: Music



“Music is the soundtrack of your life,” touted Dick Clark. And so its lyrics and melodies resonated through her girlhood with its changing cadences and nuances. Her beloved songs changed and evolved as she grew and became her own person. Her playlist would become varied and expand with the times and culture.

In kindergarten, her little record player played “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” (Patti Page) and “A Teddy Bear’s Picnic” (Rosemary Clooney). She sang and danced as she played the songs over and over. She often threw in “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (Gene Autry), no matter the season. She listened to songs played by her dad on the stereo and radio, and she sang right along with him while in the bigger company of Nat “King” Cole, Keely Smith, and Frank Sinatra.

In grade school, she had other music mentors. Her babysitter introduced her to Elvis. Her friend’s big sister welcomed her to the world of Maria and Tony in “West Side Story”. A good friend had a stack of 45s that would be played so an older neighbor boy could teach them to dance… Dion, Little Richard, Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp helped the girls learn to do the Mashed Potatoes, Twist, and Pony.

42d75efc40efc1d4b4d10a145b3ed689  Then, her music world really opened wide…a rite of passage would take her there. One Christmas, she received the ultimate teen gift…a transistor radio. This gift signified that she could be connected to any teen radio station on the East Coast. Nighttime was the best part of the day! Why, she could party with Cousin Bruce Morrow on WABC in New York. She could listen to the Top 40 with Dick Biondi on WLS, Chicago. She could follow Jack Kelly on WKBW in Buffalo, New York. Those AM stations were rockin’ and rollin’ with hit after hit along with teen talk. She was in teenage music heaven. When nightly reception was poor and could not draw in the stations, she tuned in to the local station WINC with DJ Joe Pasquale…why he took requests and dedications. Maybe, a secret someone would send a special song her way.

Life for her was dismal after the assassination of her beloved President Kennedy. She moped, she fretted, she mourned. Then, one midwinter day all those emotions were replaced by the sound of screaming teenage girls at an airport in New York City. Some British group named The Beatles was invading American shores. Their music brought along other Brits who stole her heart and freed her from some of that grief. Her musical taste was changing once again.

4821c417ae8bc13a7ea876e4f9f4dfefOther cultural changes influenced the songs that were sung from her lips and mirrored her teenage emotions. She absolutely adored soul: the Temptations, the Four Tops, Mary Wells, the Supremes. Her teenage dating woes and loss of first love were matched to the songs belted out by Miss Aretha Franklin, whom she revered and loved. The British songstress Dusty Springfield also sang for her.

During her late teen years, America was taking another turn into war protests, hippies, psychedelics which changed the music scene…but none of that was for her. She gravitated to the raspy, bluesy voice and emotional style of Janis Joplin. She grooved on Creedence Clearwater Revival, Three Dog Night, and Chicago Transit Authority (later name changed to Chicago).

Now 50-60 years later, she has an iPod. What music is on her playlist, and whose songs invite her to sing and dance with them today? Of course, her beloved artists from her girlhood!

“Call me a relic…call me what you will…say I’m old-fashioned…say I’m over the hill…today’s music ain’t got the same soul…I like that old time rock’n’roll.”                               ~Bob Seger




52 Ancestors In 52 Weeks: Travel



She would not keep a diary about the trip as she could not read nor write. She would not leave behind parents with tears running down their cheeks when she departed as she was an orphan. She would not daydream about returning to this village one day as she was never going back. It was spring 1906, and she was walking to a train station. That train would lead her to a ship. That ship would lead her to her brother and to her new home in America.

There would be four girls from her Polish village who would be traveling together. She was named Anna, and her three girl friends all had the first name of Franciszka. One man named Jan, age 23, traveled with them. The girls claimed to be 16 years old, but Anna was actually 14 years old. Who had paid the $10 each for their tickets? Had Anna’s older brother Antoni sent it to her from America?

From their village, the quintet traveled to a train station to head for Trieste, Italy. They carried their belongings. Perhaps, they walked the part of the way to the station. Perhaps, they went by wagon. Perhaps… How many days were they on the road, so to speak? Train schedules did not coordinate with ship schedules so waiting and praying must have been part of their journey…there would be much waiting.

Once they arrived in Trieste, they would be subject to two weeks of medical and mental examinations…two weeks of observation…two weeks of waiting and praying. Shipping companies were required to look after their future passengers during that time. Meals could be bought along with bunk spaces for the nights. They would handle their money wisely. As part of their preparation, the shipping company would list each person on a manifest (list). Each would be asked 31 questions: sex, age, marital status, literacy, occupation, former residence, quality of physical condition, mother county and tongue, cost of ticket along with the name of the person who would meet them in America. My Anna stated that she was a labourer, and she was illiterate. She was listed as being in good physical condition.


On Monday, 30 April 1906, Anna and her friends boarded the S.S. Georgia to take their place in steerage. They would be crowded into unsanitary, foul-smelling, cramped, noisy quarters. Bunks provided little room on which to sleep. Food was distributed from large kettles. There was no privacy. The journey would take 25 days…25 days of waiting and praying. Did the girls talk among themselves to dispel each other’s homesickness and anxiety? Did they stay close together for protection and safety? My Anna, only 14 years old, must have clung to her beliefs in God to remain resilient.

On Thursday, May 24, 1906, she and her friends saw Lady Liberty in New York harbor for the first time. What this lady sacred to her? Did she cry knowing that she would soon see her older brother? Did she fear what lie ahead in the great halls of Ellis Island?b3ef8d57ff01e833e8abd4dab35545ad

As the girls entered the great hall of Ellis Island, their ears would be bombarded by many voices and many languages. Many hands would examine and prod them. Many strangers would look into their eyes to determine if they could leave or be detained. Were their hearts pounding as they waited and prayed? Did they fear being separated from one another as they met family members?

At last, Anna would depart for the final part of her travels: her brother Antoni would claim her. She would be traveling with him to a strange place called Connecticut. For this time, her waiting and praying were over. What lie ahead for my dear Anna?


Anna Mroz would become my father’s mother and my grandmother. I have searched the 1910 census for evidence of her time spent with her older brother in Greenville, Connecticut, before her marriage. I have found no hint of her for that time period. I have searched immigration records and census records in looking for Antoni…no trace of him. No family members heard Anna speak about a brother or know of his contacting her. Perhaps…after waiting and praying…he will travel through time to me.



52 Ancestors In 52 Weeks: Independence


6436309381_292e3fda1f_b.jpgIn January, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a State of the Union speech in which he enumerated four freedoms that complemented our Constitution. These four freedoms reminded all Americans that these ideals defined independence in different ways and on different levels. FDR reminded us that we have the inalienable rights to freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Later that year, America and her citizens were tested to safeguard those freedoms for themselves and for the world…independence and its richness for all. Much earlier in our nation’s history, we had sought and obtained independence and freedom.

As we celebrate our country’s birth-day, let us remember and revere those members of our families who won us that independence. Some were born here…some came here…all gave every ounce of their beings so we could become the independent United States of America. Also, let us celebrate our four freedoms.