When I was a kid and we’d get stuck in the begats in the Bible, I’d find my attention wandering and sometimes I’d wonder why they even bothered to keep track of who was born to whom. But lately I’ve been wandering there myself.
On a whim a few weeks ago I checked out Ancestry.com. When I found out it was a monthly subscription kind of thing, I decided to spend a month plowing through and finding everything I could, with the tightwad plan to unsubscribe as soon as I got done. Except– hah– it turns out ‘done’ takes longer than you think when you’re doing genealogy. One rabbit trail uncovers three more leads, and each of those uncovers a few more. And far be it from me to leave a stone unturned.
I started with my own family, most of whom were fairly easy to track for five generations or so. But beyond that, around the late 1800’s, is when most of my clan came from Germany, Norway and Sweden, some of them straight through Ellis Island. There’s where the tracking starts to get hard. Names and dates get muddled. Similar confusion seemed to happen around that era when I tracked down John’s family tree, many of whom came from Germany, Ireland and Belgium.
It’s easy to imagine how exhausted mothers standing in long lines at Ellis Island with cranky children might not quibble with the guy behind the desk who’s just spelled their name wrong or transposed the numbers in someone’s birth date. Half of them are afraid they’ll get sent back to where they came. Some of them might not have read well enough to correct anyone’s spelling anyway.
Ancestry.com is great about giving lots of hints, and you can make guesses about who begat whom. But certainty seems to go out the window after a few generations. It doesn’t help that both sides of the family share a dizzying array of ancestors named Anna Marie, Sophie, Mary, Elizabeth, and John– very funny to me, especially since I have a husband named John, a brother named Jonathan, and sisters named Anna Marie and Sophie Elizabeth.
For awhile I honestly wondered if the Anna Maria Wessling on my side of the family might actually be the same person as the Anna Maria Wessing on John’s side– both from Prussia, both born in the same decade. Except John’s relative was baptized in the Catholic church and mine in the Lutheran. Ah. Nevermind.
But one branch of John’s family- through his paternal grandmother– is much less confusing. They’ve been in America literally from the beginning. One hosted George Washington in his home. Later that same home was part of the underground railroad. Others fought in the Revolution. One ancestor helped scope out the Plymouth colony the year before the actual colonists arrived. (Yes, really.) Others were some of the first settlers born in the new country, their parents literally having arrived on the Mayflower. Wow.
Back in England they were born in castles and fought alongside kings of England, and married other people from other castles. I’ve got a whole list of castles that Erika and Jared might want to visit when their European travel sends them toward Great Britain. Fascinating sounding names like Raby Castle, Leicester Castle, Wolveton House and Ravensworth Castle. I’ve never in my life really been interested in seeing Great Britain, but John has always loved castles, and this obsessive little hunt has me thinking it might be fun to see some of these places too. Someday, maybe.
It’s not all grand and exciting though, even in castle-land. Judging by John’s relatives, people back then were lucky to make it to age 50. Adulthood began young too. In timeline after timeline girls were married at 12, 13, or 14. Some were even as young as 10 years old, though the ones that young made me hope the birthdates listed were wrong. Who could stand to marry a daughter off at age 10? My heart breaks. They were still babies.
And then speaking of babies. so many mothers died of childbirth. Many babies didn’t live past the age of two. One girl married at 12 and was widowed at 18, at which time she was already a mother of two. So very sad.
And then there were the life-changes immigrants must have experienced moving to the New World. One ancestor living in the Plymouth Colony married 5 times in 10 years, with husband after husband dying off, leaving her with an ever-growing number of children to feed.
One young guy was born in a castle in Ireland, immigrated to America, and ended up working at the train station in Chicago where he held the ignoble title of alternate snow shoveler. He wasn’t even the main snow shoveler. He was the alternate. Hopefully he was born with a lot of spunk and was able to withstand that dramatic change in circumstances with fortitude. Or who knows– maybe he shoveled snow at the castle in Ireland too?
Censuses taken in America showed people living together with other families in one house. (I wonder how big the houses were?) There were widows living with many children after husbands died young. There were mortgages on farms, and homes that were worth $1100 owned free and clear. My mother in law tells the story of her dad’s family, with so many children of so many different ages that (with people going to school and jobs) that the only time they ever remembered being all together was once, for a single photo.
Of course this genealogy adventure gave me only the barest snippet of a view into the lives of all these relatives of ours. It was just a flyover. But I was left with an overwhelming admiration for those souls who went before us, and a feeling that — whether we live in a castle with servants or a tiny house with two other families– we’re all just doing our best through the struggle to take care of the ones we love.
For all our different circumstances and beliefs and life stories, we’re all so much the same, aren’t we?
Toddler tantrums and baby diapers and feuding relatives and illness and moves and ever-changing life circumstances — those are the things that make life challenging no matter the size of your house.
And the things we long for most as humans don’t change at their core either: happiness and health and freedom and opportunity and unity with the ones we love. And hope for a brighter future.
One opportunity in particular felt very clear in my mind. Though much in life can be out of our control– where we were born, or who we get for our family, or what joys and heartbreaks we will experience– we all have a choice as to how to respond to those things.
No matter how restrictive or free our government. No matter who gets voted into office. Whether our job in life is to make pizzas or to shovel snow or to mow lawns. Whether we’re programming computers or helping people have babies or cleaning their teeth or teaching their children, or ‘simply’ raising our own children to be people of honor and character— we get to choose our attitudes and our responses to it all.
The guy shoveling snow at the train station could have been bitter at what he perceived as downward mobility in his life. Or, shovel in hand, he could have opened doors for struggling mothers, and whistled as he worked, and been a friend to the people around him, then gone home to love his family, secure in the belief that God has his future mapped out. And it was all good.
Every person has that choice.
The man sitting in the photo above was on John’s side of the family, an ancestor of his maternal grandmother. In his obituary he was described as ‘kind, considerate, and lively to the end.’ What an inspiration he must have been for those who follow. That’s the kind of person I want to be too, no matter what the future brings. I want to be an encourager. A doer. A life-bringer. Following in the footsteps of ancestors before me. With the hope that our children will see that in me, and want that spirit of faith and courage for themselves as well.
It’s a wonderful life.