In December I began digging around in my family tree. My Aunt Jan left many binders before she died from interviews with my grandparents and great grandparents. I decided I wanted to try to weave these stories together into a read-aloud for my kids. That quickly morphed into something more like an actual novel in order to tell the story well.
But the moment I started writing, I realized how many holes I had in my understanding. Wait, how long did he work in the coal mine? Where did they come from in Sweden, again? How many of their siblings came to America, how many stayed back?
All of these questions had me calling my relatives all over the country. I called my mom’s cousin in Utah, “Hi Becky, this is Becca, Paul and Margaret’s youngest daughter. I was 8 at the last reunion, but now I’m 39 and doing some family research…” And now Becky is a dear friend who I have called many times and feel so blessed by all the years of history she has preserved for our family—back to 1600! Each day it seems I have another relative to track down with specific questions. I have a text-thread with my aunts, “can anyone tell me if Augusta was a boy or a girl? The records say male, but I just can’t imagine…but maybe?” And then everyone weighs in. My Aunt Annie is 80 and gets texts from me all the time, “Could you draw a map of the homestead bedroom Jennie and Andrew lived in? I need to know where the wood stove was, his rocker, the sewing machine, the windows, the bed. If you could just draw it out and take a picture with your phone that would be great.” And then she does, including the years that different rooms were added on to the original house. Bless her heart!
Another thing happened when word got out that I was interested in our family history: gifts beyond value began to pour in. My mom brought boxes from her house and more from my Uncle Don. My Aunt Judy in Alaska said, “Oh great! You want this stuff! I’ll bring a whole box this summer.” Three days before Christmas, I met my Aunt Annie and Uncle Ed in Albert Lea, because she said she had audio tapes with interviews of my great-grandma Ida. We knew we couldn’t mail something so priceless. So on a windy, freezing day, we met with masks on in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was one of the very best parts of this research: them willing to make a 90-minute drive for a super-special 20-minute visit.
I write all of this to encourage everyone to start digging. I think you’ll find it’s more social than solitary, which was such a surprise to me, and a total delight. The first step would be to call your folks or aunt or cousins and find out who, in your family, is the family historian. My Aunt Jan wrote in the intro’s of her family history books, “Every generation has at least one family historian.” And as word gets out that you’re interested, boxes and envelopes will appear with more and more fascinating information. And it may not be fascinating to anyone else, but these are your people, and there are clues to be found for why you are who you are, why your folks are who they are, why you value the things you do. The thing is, it’s awkward to call people you don’t know with nothing to say. But it is a joy to call someone you don’t know and say, “what can you tell me about great, great grandpa Andrew?”
It is remarkable to learn about the people who crossed the ocean never to see their parents again, with the dream of land or freedom in their hearts, and to know that is why you live here. Because they made the bold move. It’s one thing to read about this period in a history book. It’s quite another to know their names, what their family life was like in the motherland, and all the hardships they endured as they worked toward a better life.
Lately, my kids will often catch me in a daze. I tell them, “Sorry. Can you repeat that? I was thinking about your great, great, great grandparents again.”