Tuesday, October 08, 2013

When Family History Isn't Pretty

My mom has one of those big flat plastic tubs (the kind that can fit under a bed) that is full of family history stuff. My wife and I (OK, mostly my wife) have of late been helping to sort through this collection.

Some of what we have found is pretty mundane. Most of it is not new to us. The volumes of pedigree charts and family group sheets (Why in the world are there six or seven copies of each?) have long since been digitized.

Then there are the documents and copies of documents. Many of them aren't as legible as I would like. I'd like for all of that stuff to be scanned and digitized. But if that's going to happen, it's going to be me that does it. We're talking months of work. Unless I suddenly develop more free time and more motivation, the documents will probably still languish in that box a decade from now. Undigitized.

Still, there have been some surprises in the box. We found several sheets of paper in my German grandmother's handwriting, dated the year before she passed away. I can get by reading the German, but Oma's handwriting isn't easy to read. Thankfully, we also found pages where my mom transcribed Oma's writing into typewritten English. On these sheets are some stories I had never heard and names of people I had never heard of.

For example, Oma wrote about how her father-in-law (my great-grandfather) met his demise on the way home from a funeral at a time when my Opa was still a baby. (I don't know whose funeral it was.)

Urgroβvater was on a ferry boat with friends. The way Oma tells it, Urgroβvater usually didn't drink much. (Which, judging from common German practices, might mean that he usually didn't drain an entire keg by himself.) But in this case, his friends succeeded in prevailing on him to imbibe.

After a while, the well lubricated men began taking bets on who could jump into the November chilled fjord waters and successfully swim to shore. In what was assuredly a "hold my beer and watch me do this" moment, Urgroβvater was among the men that took the bet and jumped overboard.

Per Oma's telling, Urgroβvater's heart failed to withstand the shock of the cold. It seems far more likely that a fully clothed drunk man jumping into the icy ocean simply drowned. Although he had life insurance, the insurance company ruled his death a suicide; a condition not covered by the policy. So his widow received no insurance benefit.

I also recently learned of a Gypsy ancestor that came to New England in the early days of  European settlement. Unable to find a bride among the Puritan settlers, he married a native girl. Her ancestry has been traced back another five generations. There appears to be a good deal of inbreeding in that line, something that might have been quite normal for the native peoples of that region.

When I showed my oldest son the pedigree chart and indicated the inbreeding, he noted that a bit further back in our British and European ancestry there was also plenty of inbreeding, especially among the nobility. This was apparently one of the methods commonly used to keep ownership of land, and therefore power, in the family.

Well, you don't get to pick your ancestors. But regardless of ancestral practices of which our modern sensibilities may cause us to be less than proud, we ought to be grateful that our ancestors are the means by which we have life today. That gratitude is part of why I do family history work. Like others, I also crave to know from whence I came. Perhaps understanding our past help us understand where we are headed.

1 comment:

jullita said...

Congratuations for have started.I'm planning to do the same odecember when i come home!
Thank you for sharing!