Call it Serendipity or fate but whatever it is, sometimes life has a way of coming full circle in a wonderful way. My recent trip to Macedonia and search for my ancestors was successful thanks to many chance encounters and to helpful people along the way. And Tempe Sister Cities played a big role in it all. I guess my story really begins over 90 years ago. My paternal grandparents, Spiro and Vaska Bektesh with their three sons, Peter, Dimitre and Milan (my father) immigrated to America from Prilep, Macedonia in 1921.
They settled in Gary, Indiana, where a large Bulgarian/Macedonian community was forming due to the work opportunities with US Steel. It was a wonderful way to grow up as this community continued to practice their Macedonian traditions and religious beliefs. And of course their delicious cuisine! I have wonderful memories of that time. One vivid memory was my mother showing me a photo of an elegant home that had my maiden name carved in the front facing, saying it was our “family” home. I’ve carried that photo with me for many years through many moves and each time I saw it, I said, “Someday I’m going to Macedonia to find that house
.”One of the other Macedonian families who also settled in Gary, Indiana, were the Choncoffs. Although Mary Choncoff was older than me, we did become acquainted at the many dances, weddings and picnics that brought all the Macedonians together and our fathers were friends.
In 1991 my husband and I moved to Phoenix but when I returned to Gary for my mother’s funeral in 1994, a mutual friend told me that Mary Choncoff lived in Tempe. I got in touch and was able to experience some of the wonderful events she hosted and co-coordinated for the Macedonian community in Arizona. Sadly, she passed shortly after that and I regretted that I did not have more time with this amazing lady.
Fast forward to 2013. I meet Monica Araneta through a mutual friend playing Mahjong. It was only by chance that I mentioned that my husband and I were traveling to Macedonia this summer and I was so surprised to hear that she had been there the previous year through the Tempe Sister City program of Tempe and Skopje. She also introduced me to Dobrin and Tina Nedelkov who travel to Prilep each year to visit their family.
I told Monica of my search for the “house” and thought perhaps they could tell me how and where to begin. Thanks to modern technology, I emailed the photo to Monica who forwarded it to Dobrin and to my amazement, they replied that they knew exactly where the house was in Prilep–“next to the high school by the river”. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was finally going to see my ancestors’ home.
My husband and I met with Dobrin and Tina who were so kind to give us a detailed map of the city and the location of the house. Shortly after, they sent me an article that had just appeared in the Macedonian paper showing the home restored under the project of the Ministry of Culture for restoration and conservation of the more significant facades in urban cores. The current owner and resident was Trajce Bektesh. (my maiden name) Tina phoned her mother in Prilep who called the current residents and told them “relatives from America” were hoping to meet them on our visit.
The first week of June we knocked on their door and Trajce Bektesh and his wife, Donka embraced us with open arms. As we discussed our family stories, the pieces fell into place and we learned that Trajce’s father, Peter, and my grandfather Spiro were first cousins. They came to America at the turn of the century to “earn their fortune”. We believe they worked on the transcontinental railroad. When they returned to Macedonia, Peter invested in property consisting of hotels and retail shops and built this beautiful home. My grandfather took his “fortune” and brought his family to America.
Our new-found ancestors insisted we spend the night and we shared several meals and stories. They were the most gracious hosts to five people they had never met. (We were traveling with Bulgarian friends from Chicago—another serendipity story I’ll save for another time).
This was a wonderful trip to Macedonia and it makes my heart sing when I think of the fortuitous events and kind people who helped me reach my destination: Mary Choncoff for being a member of Sister Cities which in turn led to meeting Monica and then Dobrin and Tina. How rewarding to think that the friendship of my father and Mary’s father has come full circle. This was not only a journey of many miles but of many generations who value their heritage. I am so proud to be a Macedonian…a rich culture of loving, ambitious and hospitable people