Pleasant surprise in my mailbox (the real one, not the e-one): a package from home. Considering my home is Bratislava, Slovakia, but I live in Rhinelander, WI, a package from home is a precious rarity for me.

The package contained two things: A copy of Slovenka magazine (it can be translated as "Slovak woman", or "Slovak girl", or just "Slovak" but with the understanding it is the feminine gender of the noun), and a CD, published by ista, my brother's indie label.

On the cover of the magazine was the picture of a beautiful young woman. Another picture of hers was on the cover of the CD. The CD contains 10 songs in Slovak, plus three "bonus" songs, two in English (Somewhere from West Side Story, and Mack the Knife from The Threepenny Opera), one in German - Heimatlied (Largo) by the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak.

While I did not recognize her picture, I did recognize her name: She is my niece, my brother's daughter. I have not seen her since late April of 1990, when I was able to visit home and celebrate my 40th birthday with my family and friends. She was 12 then. She is 23 now. Quite a difference!

I went to the grocery store and showed the CD to several people. They all commented on how pretty she was and wanted to know who she was. So, I told them: "My niece!"

Then came the hard part. I had to listen to the CD and wonder if she was a good singer. Please understand, my mother was an opera star. She taught me how to sing (and, naturally, my older brother, my niece's father). My mother was a perfectionist when it came to music and singing: You either were absolutely perfect or you had to shut up. Thus, she was a merciless critic. And some of that has rubbed off on me.

For some reason, I felt I had to be twice as strict a critic when it comes to my niece. I mean she shares the family name with me and my mother. I listened to the first song, one she wrote the lyrics for herself. I thought it was OK. But it was a typical modern rock song, while a nice song, not really challenging for the singer.

I then skipped straight through to Somewhere. Let's see how she can handle Leonard Bernstein!

I was overwhelmed. Her voice is beautiful, and she sings well. My mother--her grandmother--would approve (she died long time ago). Yes, my niece deserves her family name. I am proud of her!

BTW, her name is Denisa Stanislavova. It will not surprise me if you hear her sing in your own corner of the world some day.