Then I understood ….
I really love the adage I saw on a calendar once: “I used to have a life. Then I started doing genealogy.” However, for me it was almost the polar opposite. “I used to not understand my life, but then I started doing my family history and genealogy.”
As a youngster, I pretty much grew up thinking that I was just who I was. No mystery to it. Scott was simply Scott. Not much time spent on introspection. After all, I had my buddies and there was way too much sandlot baseball, kick-the-can, freeze tag, and outdoor exploring to do. Why wonder about psychological mumbo-jumbo when I could be building a dam across the creek in my own backyard!
Then I began to mature. I think it was when I was off at college that I started to notice a few things about myself that, at times, made me wonder. Again, not much and not often, since between studies and let’s just say all those things that make the college years such an experience (especially in the 1960’s and ‘70’s), I thought I had better things to do. It wasn’t long before I was married and working the traditional 9 to 5. Then we had two children. Suddenly there didn’t seem to be anything more important than figuring out why I was the way I was …. I didn’t want to confuse them up as I tried to lend a hand raising them. While I looked a lot, read a lot, and studied a bit, I still came away with precious few answers.
When I discovered genealogy, it was as if by magic that I started to unravel the mysteries of my ancestors and began to learn about their lives and their cultures. I learned of their trials, tribulations, successes, and, failures. Most of all, I began to see a set of patterns that were like huge red arrows all pointing directly at me – complete with the neon sign flashing “Hey, Scott, this is who you are.”
I came to believe those messages hidden deep in my genes weren’t just random, but part of a grand line that twisted and turned, split and merged, and came to rest in the very core of my being.
Some of these discoveries were significant. Some were not. Some were important. Some, I’ll admit, were simply hilarious. All were great fun to learn and understand. Every single one has been appreciated and tucked away for future reference.
While not every documentation and discovery in my family tree has been an item of personal growth, I certainly have been blessed with my share. For example:
When I want to kick back and relax a bit, I prefer to drink a cold beer and I am happiest when it is a Pilsner. My wife, on the other hand, much prefers a glass of wine. So was one ‘right’ and one ‘wrong’? Heck no! One of us grew up in a family of Bohemian ancestry. Many of my ancestors were coopers, brewers, and beer lovers. Two of my great Uncles made their living brewing beer in Cleveland. No wonder they were passionate about it. On the other hand, and about 1,200 miles away, my wife grew up in a family of pure Italian ancestry. Dinner included wine. Not just any wine, but wine made in the basement of her Grandparents’ home, on a press brought from Italy and with grapes sent by rail to her BisNonno by none other than Charles Mondavi, the great California vintner. Who had come from Italy and had stayed with him in Northern Minnesota before he left for California … and there after annually sent a railcar of grapes out to his dear friend, my wife’s BisNonno. Should she have grown up appreciating a fine wine? Yes, I think so! Then I understood the difference.
I always wondered why my dad never wanted to go to see ‘war movies’ with me and why he never spoke about his service in World War II. Then I became the family historian. One night we were visiting him in Florida. It was a lovely, warm night in January and I said I was going to go walk on the beach. To my shock, my dad said ‘I’ll come with you’. He had never said that before and I knew he did not particularly like to walk in the dark as he got older. Then he shocked me more and said ‘go get your kids too’. I ran upstairs and said to my son and daughter ‘your grandfather wants to go for a walk. I don’t care what you are doing, you are going with us!’ We got to the beach, were marveling at the stars and the surf’s murmur, when he said ‘I want to tell you all what it was like for me in the war. I want you to listen so you will know, first hand from me, what it was like and how horrid war is’. For the first time ever I heard him tell his stories. He came ashore in Europe on Omaha Beach. For the next nine months he was the Graves Registration Officer for his Regiment. He explained how horrific it was to not only lose his buddies, but also have to do things like go into a burnt out tank and retrieve their bodies. He told of the time he undertook a daring rescue of one of his men against overwhelming enemy odds because he knew his man was Jewish and pledged to God not to let him fall into the hands of the Nazis. He cried as he told us of being part of the first troops into Langenstein Concentration Camp as a liberator. He spoke of the stench, the death, the barely recognizable human beings, and how the men cried, but were so ill they had no tears. Then I understood his reluctance to speak of his war years and I admired his service to our country even more.
I always loved my home and thought I understood the phrase ‘home is where the heart is’, but then one day I was actually walking down the street in my grandfather’s hometown in Cornwall. We turned a corner and looked up the street. There, at the top of the hill was the home my grandfather was born and raised in. It was exactly as he had told me in his myriad stories, right down to the color of the shutters. People on the streets greeted us as if we were the long-lost resident of that home, not merely visitors from overseas. No matter, we were blood and to them, that was all that mattered. My Gramps’ stories rang in my ears and raced through my memory. Then I understoodwhat love of home really meant and more deeply appreciated my Gramps’ love for his homeland.
I was truly blessed when I was growing up. One of my Grandmothers lived with us almost all of my single life. Two doors away were an Aunt, Uncle, and Cousin. My other grandparents lived just a couple blocks away. Across town were more Aunts and Uncles and in my high school class was a Cousin. My mother always insisted that every special day required a family gathering at our home. Birthdays, Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, even sometimes just because it was Saturday. We had so many family members for these gatherings that we had to scrounge card tables and chairs from very neighbor and would even dismantle our Ping-Pong table and turn it into two extra dining tables. To be honest, sometimes as a kid I was not exactly thrilled at the prospect of these gatherings, but my mother insisted on them. Plus she insisted that our attendance, participation, and a happy demeanor were all mandatory! It wasn’t until decades later that I came to realize the power, value, strength, and love that were present at these gatherings. Just recently my mother told me that the year after we had to move out of state for my dad’s new job that those family gatherings ceased. Then I understood the powerful love of family my mother has always possessed and how precious these gatherings were, how important, and how blessed our family was that the glue of blood was so strong.
When I was growing up, I had a tendency to be a little bit of a complainer. OK, maybe more than a little …. When something or someone bothered me or I did not feel 100%, I made sure everyone knew. One day we were at a family gathering that included my Uncle Jim. Uncle Jim was a big man of few words. Well, lots of words, actually, but most of them were in Czech to his fellow Czech family members. On this occasion, I happened to complain about something. I don’t recall about what, but Uncle Jim called my name. Now this was a rarity for sure. When I got over to him, he looked me square in the eyes and said in his low, heavy voice ‘sit down boy. Listen and listen well because I will only tell you this once’. He held out his huge left hand. He asked me if I had ever noticed the tattoo of the large ring on this finger. I told him I had. He then turned his hand over and showed me that the tattoo was not complete. It was missing about a quarter inch. He then explained. At a very young age when he was in the Navy he was shipwrecked. He and a few of his mates made their way to a small island. They were marooned there on that island for almost two months. Afraid to make a fire for fear of enemy detection, all they were reduced to eating raw horse meat and coconuts. Finally they were rescued and brought aboard a new ship. They were so dirty that each man was made to strip down, had his body shaved, washed with lye, and then rinsed with saltwater. He said nothing had ever hurt quite like that! He then went to sleep in a bunk. He slept for days. He slept so soundly that his mates thought it would be fun to wake him by giving him a tattoo. So they began to tattoo the ring. He didn’t wake up until they were almost done. He exploded and never let them finish. He then went on to tell me that when they docked sometime later, their ship was moored next to another sailing ship. One of his men (he was the Chief Bo’ son) fell in between the two ships. Everyone said he was a dead man. Uncle Jim explained that he simply could not let that happen. So he jumped in. He held the two ships apart with his arms until they dropped a line to bring his man up from the sea. Then he stayed there until they did the same for him. I am sure he could see the expression of awe and amazement on my face. He then told me to get up and go read what was in a small, dusty frame on the wall in the back hall and come back. I dutifully went over and read a Citation for Merit signed by the President of the United States. I was dumbfounded. I came back to Uncle Jim’s side and he simply looked at me and said ‘don’t complain and don’t brag’. Then I understood what it meant to be content and the need to be humble in life.
I grew up in a family were you ‘ate to live’. Food was for eating. To my dad the only difference between filet mignon and a hamburger was that some silly fool paid way too much for that filet. So our food was good, wholesome, but fairly plain. Then I visited my in-laws for the first time. My future wife and I walked into the kitchen of her 100% Italian family’s home and the smells were like absolutely nothing I had ever experienced before in my life! Then we turned the corner and saw the table. Laden with the most wonderful spread I had ever seen! I asked my wife, ‘what are we having?’ She replied ‘ravioli’. I said, but what about that roast beef in the middle of the table? She just smiled and said, oh that goes with the ravioli. That night I ate the most magnificent meal of my life. We ended the night by ‘laying some soldiers down’ as my mother-in-law liked to say as we emptied each bottle of wine. I learned to love all the Italian specialties that my wife’s family could cook …. So much so that her Aunt nicknamed me ‘The Garbage Man’ since I would eat anything she cooked and I would always eat all of it! Then I understood that there were so many wonderful differences between cultures and I could embrace, celebrate, and enjoy each!
I was also a lucky kid growing up, but as with many children, there always seemed to be something out there that someone else had, or that I saw in a store or catalog, that I wanted. It wasn’t too long into my early genealogy work that I came across some life-changing facts in my family tree. My great Uncle lost his life in World War I. He now sleeps eternal in a small church graveyard in Houyet, Belgium. Shortly after this I discovered that a cousin was shot down in a helicopter during the Vietnam War. The Air Force still lists him as ‘KIA/Body Not Recovered’. Then my next discovery was that yet another cousin gave his live in the Service, this time in the Korean War. He was killed in the horrific battle of Chosin Reservoir. To this day, he, too, is still listed by the US Army as ‘KIA/Body Not Recovered’. The magnitude of these losses and the void left in these families became apparent the more I studied and learned about the sacrifice each of these family members made. Then I understood the meaning of true personal loss and emptiness and vowed not to be so materialistic in my life.
Like many of you, often as I work on my genealogy, I am alone at my computer in the early morning hours or in some quite, remote archive or library. It can get to feeling pretty lonely and alone. That is until the voices in my memory chime in. They have a wonderful tendency to echo some of the comments I have received from family members in response to my Family Updates on our MyHeritage.com website. Their voices say: ‘I thought I was a part of just a small family. Thanks for showing me how many more there are’; ‘I often miss those old days of family gatherings at your Mom’s house. Thanks for bringing family back to us, even if we are 1,000 miles away now’; ‘Here is the family news from down south. Please pass it on to everyone. It’s so great to be in touch’; and ‘thank you for educating us on who we are’. Then I understood that I was not working alone, but with everyone right there with me. I was working and writing with my ancestors all looking over my shoulder helping and my family was on the other side waiting for my words.
How blessed can I be that I found genealogy?