Back Story, Life Lessons

Know Thy Roots

lucy-and-sisters-1896-croppedNo one who knows me will be the least surprised by my 23andMe profile: 99% Northwestern European, specifically 55.3% British & Irish, 16.4% French & German. With the wonder that is Ancestry.com, I’ve traced at least one branch of the family tree back to the mid 1500s. I know my roots.

The last two months have been devoted to learning about my mother-in-law’s. She barely knew her biological father. She had an unsettling combination of vivid memories and “fake news” from a maternal uncle. She knew, at least, of his Russian background; absolutely nothing of what became of him after her parents divorced. She went on with her life, but the wound was deep and weepy. A hole. No roots.

Earlier this fall, J. did some research to see what she could find. She picked up threads: parents, a ship’s manifest, a US census report, enlistment papers, a grave marker, a mysterious new name. He was a New York Jew, how did he end up in Kentucky? Did he – is this even the right guy?

In October, we took what little we had to my mother-in-law. She was thrilled.  Beyond thrilled. In the desert, we celebrate scant drops. She remembered the uniform, uncle’s names, had a vague memory of visiting what must have been grandparents.

And that was enough. Working two different computers, D. and I were off. For three days we did virtually nothing else. We found some half-baked family trees on other genealogy sites, stalked social media, and Googled endlessly. S. sat beside us, baffled by our wizardry, breathless. By the end of Day One, she was on the phone with a long-lost cousin. By Day Three, she was talking with the widow of a new-found half-brother.

Her father went to war and came back with a different name. He remarried, had a son, was active in the local church. He and his son both smoked and died too soon. But there are pictures, and stories, and people who knew them who seem delighted to have been found. The reception has been enthusiastic. I can’t imagine what we’d have done had it not been…

S. cries easily about all of this. Painful, joyful tears well-up in her hazel eyes and rush down her face in soothing torrents. She looks deeply into the grainy photographs, hoping to see something of her father’s soul in his eyes. She aches to touch his arm. The promise of a possible extant recorded message home from the war is an exquisite agony.

Today I’m working on putting all these new-found photos into a picture book, the first family album she’s ever had. I want to include not just the pictures, but the other detritus accumulated in one file cabinet or another over the years. Thank goodness for bureaucracies and the nameless, faceless, most marvelous folk who scan all those files and take pictures of graves.

And I want to include maps. Those “Russian” roots are actually in Warsaw – national identity, morphed along geopolitical lines. The family spoke Russian, but mostly they spoke Yiddish. D.’s own 96% Ashkenazi Jewish profile tells the real story.

S. knew all that. It was the particulars that were missing.

No more.

I’m not sure we can top this for her next birthday…

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