Genealogy and Technology: Episode 204 <<

Megan's Story: Dusty Memories

One of Megan Smolenyak's most prized possessions is a transparent red key chain from an auto repair shop. That may sound a little peculiar, but there is an explanation.

When she was about five years old, Megan went on a trip with her grandparents to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. On the way, they passed an auto shop with "Smolenyak's Auto Body" painted on one wall. Excited to see her own name, she asked her grandparents about it, but they quickly dismissed it.

Over the years, that memory became increasingly faint to the point that Megan almost thought she had made it up. But a part of her persisted in believing it, and it was this part that kept her looking for other Smolenyaks for 22 years. She had tried all the other usual tactics - vital, church, census, newspaper, military, ethnic and other records- but still had nothing to show for it. Still, that dusty childhood memory lingered in the back of her mind and wouldn't let her give up the hunt.

When the Social Security Death Index finally became available online, she was thrilled to be able to search it herself. She typed in "Smolenyak" and was almost delirious to find two "hits" for names she didn't recognize. She noted the zip codes and found them both to be in the Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania area. Taking advantage of having an unusual name, she called Information in this area and got several listings for Smolenyaks and Smolenaks. On her second call, she reached Mike Smolenak, who had also been researching his family for years with limited results. Megan now had a distant cousin and genealogical playmate!

Finding each other opened the floodgates in their research efforts. They discovered that the Smolenyak line came from Osturna, a small town in Slovakia. Because they found so much information, they started the Osturna Family Association and a newsletter to share the findings. More recently, they started a web site to make it still easier for Osturnites to share news and photos.

The most remarkable experience, though, was in 1996 when a gang of boisterous Americans took a reunion trip to Osturna in Slovakia. Thirty-seven Americans whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had come from this village went back to meet their cousins for the first time. They were genealogically blessed as they discovered that the mayor was a Smolenak who was delighted with the onslaught of American cousins - and even made Mike and Megan honorary citizens. They were entranced to find that the village had been historically preserved and looked just as it had when their ancestors emigrated. And it didn't hurt that the village was nestled in the picturesque foothills of the Tatra Mountains and was wonderfully quaint. In fact, they liked it so much that they're going back for another reunion!

So what does all this have to do with a key chain? On the reunion, one of Megan's fellow travelers was none other than Andrew Smolenyak, the man who had owned the auto shop that had kept her looking for all those years. He told her that she had great timing as he had closed the shop shortly after she spotted it as a youngster. Andy gifted Megan with a "Smolenyak's Auto Body" key chain, which she considers to be symbolically appropriate as it opened the door for her to hundreds of cousins! And that is why a red rubber key chain is one of her most treasured possessions.