All my life I was close to my paternal grandfather, especially as I got older. As a matter of fact, for the last six or seven years of his life I talked to him almost every night. My grandmother had dementia and was unable to carry on a conversation with my grandfather, who was an extremely sociable person, so he had grown terribly lonely. Though I have to admit that he was terribly racist and conservative in ways that often made me cringe, at the time he was also the one person in my family who I was certain loved me unconditionally. Every time I saw him he hugged me with wild abandon. In fact, though I never let on because I loved it, he often hugged me so hard that it hurt a little. One day when I was visiting, I asked him why I was fat; physically I seemed to resemble the people on my paternal side, but none of them are large. My grandfather said, “Wait here.” He went into another room and returned with an old battered picture. There sat a man who looked very much like my grandfather sitting next to a woman whose belly hung over the tops of her legs and whose torso was bound so tightly into a Victorian dress that she looked as though she struggled to breathe. My grandfather told me that those were his grandparents – his father’s parents. I took that picture home with me and framed it. For many years, I have kept that photo visible as a constant reminder that I am a complicated mix of DNA influenced by generations of people about whom I know almost nothing.
I have recently returned to a project I started many years ago: family genealogy. Honestly, I don’t have much interest in thinking about my “family line”; what interests me about genealogy are the stories. When I see photographs of my own distant relatives – the ones who are so physically similar to family members I have known all my life. I am struck by things like the fact that the men on the paternal side of my family have looked strikingly similar for generations. Their height, their posture, and even the way they lean forward and rest their right elbows on their right knees are characteristics that can be seen in pictures of my 4th great-grandfather, my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father.
I found one reference to a couple in my family who died in the poorhouse in St. Louis. They are listed as paupers. I am struck by their story because these are some of the immigrants. They came to this country from Germany probably around 1840; they settled in St. Louis and the man (Valentine Schmidt) served in the Union Army, as did all of his contemporaries in my family. I suspect that the stresses of immigration might have been the force that tipped them toward poverty and made it impossible for them to recover, though I have no idea. I have read much about poor houses, but my suspicion is that none of it quite captures what it must’ve been like to live in abject poverty in the mid-19th century in the middle of a city. As we all know, at that time cities were dirty and overcrowded even in the best of circumstances; add poverty to the mix and one can only imagine the horror of the experience. Besides that, poverty tends to erase people whose lives it engulfs. The fiction I’m telling myself is that there’s something important and beautiful and real about making my ancestors’ lives visible even though they were probably invisible to everyone around them.
Besides that couple, it seems pretty clear that most of the people on my paternal side were relatively well-to-do financially. I am struck by the fact that on my paternal side there seem to be pictures that go back to the mid-19th century. The indication of that is that my family had plenty of disposable income if they could spend money on portraits when the technology was so new. I have one photo album that contains an entire collection of photographs – some of them tintypes, some of them daguerreotypes, some of them just early photographs on thick cardboard, but all of them were carefully labeled by someone who didn’t want the people pictured in them to be forgotten. I feel so lucky to have those carefully labeled photos as I work on the genealogy.
Though I had always believed that my family on both sides had emigrated from Germany, the time I’ve spent doing this genealogy has taught me that part of my father’s line originates in Nova Scotia. For some reason, the idea that a group of ancestors came from Nova Scotia – a place that Deb and I have visited and loved immensely – deeply pleases me. We remember our trip to Bay of Fundy with extraordinary fondness; much to my surprise and delight I discovered this morning that my ancestors lived only a few hours from where we were a couple of years ago when we visited Canada. We have always talked about returning to that area; now my desire for that return is even greater.
At some point, we will all be generations gone, but if we’re lucky someone might wonder about our lives – what our stories were, where we lived, who lived with us, who we loved, and what was important to us. In other words, someone might be moved to do our genealogy. Essentially, what that means is that our lives will be interpreted through the lens of someone else’s desire to explain their own lives. As I look through the pictures I have and explore the material on genealogy sites, I am aware that I am looking particularly for information that seems connected to my own experiences. I have looked for indications that people in my family line had progressive neurological diseases like MS, that they’ve chosen divergent paths when it comes to politics or sexuality, that they made some kind of unusual or interesting choice about how to live their lives, or that they shared my love of a particular climate or landscape. If someone is inclined to look back and think about how we lived it won’t be about us; it will be about them, just as the genealogy I’m doing now is about me. I think of these people and their lives in relation to myself and as a kind of puzzle because I can never know them. They are forever gone.