About a year ago, Olivier Blanchard wrote a post called Social Media 1918. It’s an amazing post (obviously, if it is still on my mind a year later), but upon reading it I became reacquainted with a sad fact. Whereas Olivier can easily trace his lineage back along some of the “stuff” his ancestors carried around, I am not so lucky. Geoff Livingston’s recent (equally amazing) post, called Antisemitism in the United States, again stamped a single fact into my head. Although Geoff’s family history is sad, he knows it and it impacts how he views the world. I don’t really know my family’s story. I don’t know about the triumphs and pain that resulted in well, me.
I wonder if this lack of connection with my roots is in part because most branches of my family haven’t been in the US for very long. On my mom’s side, I have a great-grandfather from Switzerland and a great-great grandmother from Ireland. My dad’s side of the family has only been here a short time. My great-grandparents were all born in Russia.
I am left with tantalizing tidbits that don’t make sense. I know that my grandfather fought in WWII because I have a picture of him in uniform with his parents, but I have no idea what branch he fought in, where he went, or what he did. I know that two of my great-grandparents came from Odessa, Russia, and the other two came from Berditchev. Why did they leave? Did they suffer from pogram-related violence? Did we lose family members due to anti-semitism? Or maybe they just saw the tide was turning.
Why did both sets of my great-grandparents change their names immediately upon arriving here in the US? The Kupcinets became Claymans. Why? The Bendisheets changed their surname to Bendis. Did my great-grandparents know family who were here already who had adopted those names? How do you get “Clayman” from “Kupcinet” anyway?
I do have pictures in some case, but this leads to only more mystery. Take this picture, for example:
The woman on the left is my great-grandmother, Lena Bendis. The woman in the middle is my grandmother. Who is the woman on the right though? I have no idea. One would assume it might be my great-great grandmother, but I don’t know. I find this heart-breaking.
Or consider this picture:
The baby in this picture is my great-grandfather Alfred Fuhrur, who was from Switzerland. I don’t know, off the top of my head, what his parents’ names were. I don’t really know his siblings’ names, either. I don’t know what made them come to the US from Switzerland. I don’t know why we have cousins from that side of the family who spoke French (my grandmother was fluent enough to write letters in French) yet the surname is German. I don’t know why my great-grandfather returned to Switzerland and then came back to Pennsylvania.
I don’t know why my great-great grandmother left Ireland all by herself as a young girl. Did she leave any relatives behind or was she the last remaining member of her family?
There are branches of my family who have been here in the US for a long time, but I still only have tidbits. We allegedly had people on the Mayflower. One of my ancestors apparently knew George Washington. In the Civil War, our Tennessee branch of the family was torn apart, but I don’t know any of the names of the players.
Maybe they were the sons of this woman, whose name was apparently Sophronia Potter:
I have an ancestor with the improbable name of King David Russell. My great-great grandparents were known as Old Pap and Mammy Sally, and I think it was Mammy Sally who had Cherokee blood. How does that root travel through the soil of my past? I have no idea.
I wonder if a lot of Americans have this kind of experience. A recipe here, a photo there, some doodads over there, but nothing solid. No real stories, because everything was left behind, and it was too painful to talk about what had been lost.
Do you know your family’s story? How far can you go back? Do we need to emphasize our ancestry more? Is this a cultural thing?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/papaleo/2543814431/ via Creative Commons