What seems like many years ago, and of course it was, I began to believe that I needed to understand how I came to be so that I could understand how I am part of the world, in what way I, as an individual, am connected to places and people.
Perhaps to some extent where I was born, where I lived my first 18 or so years, contributed to this belief. Rochelle was not a tiny town, but it was farming country, surrounded by farms that were inhabited by families that had, in some cases, lived on this land for generations. Most of my friends were related in one way or another to others in the community. But I was not. My parents had moved here from elsewhere; my family connections, my family events, were still in that elsewhere. The history of Rochelle spoke of my friends’ ancestors, but not of mine. I was from Rochelle, but only in some ways of Rochelle, and my connections, I came to feel, lay beyond.
This feeling fostered a quest, one that has from time to time consumed more of my energy than I should have allowed — who were the ancestors, and how did their lives lead to me?
General Stanley: … I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.
Frederic: But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco in your baronial hall is scarcely dry.
General Stanley: Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors the are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.
— Gilbert & Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance
I like very much General Stanley’s phrase “descendant by purchase”, with its image of ancestry that includes the place one currently inhabits. But unlike General Stanley’s ancestors, the ancestors I was seeking to understand were not purchased by the chapel-load and could not be found where I then was; I inherited these ancestors from my mother and father, and they had lived far away. From my parents as well I inherited a small collection of myths and stories, but not very much real information about who these people were or how they lived their lives. Some names, many of them exotic and strange, were spoken from time to time with some hint of relationships, but besides the kin that I actually knew — aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents — most was mystery. In boxes and albums were photographs of people I had never seen, whose names I did not know. And there was talk of places far away where ancestors had lived, and where unknown and unnamed kin might still be found.
My father, foreign born but Chicago bred, sometimes told stories about the place of his birth, a mysterious place that he called Greater Saint Nicholas, that was then in Hungary but was now in Romania. His distant ancestors, he said, were once a powerful noble family of Schlesvig-Holstein but, impoverished by a series of misfortunes, they had through necessity drifted southward, finally into this corner of southern Hungary called the Banat of Temesvár; his own father, he said, had fled that land with his family in 1912, perhaps abandoning some great wealth, perhaps to escape being drafted into the Emperor’s army for the impending Great War — the stories were vague despite occasional vivid details. My father, only 2 years old when his family left Europe, built his memories of this place and distant family from stories his parents and older siblings told. But it seems that stories told by parents and siblings often conflicted.
My mother, Chicago born and bred, told only that her parents had come from a less mysterious place called Norway — her mother from a farm on an island in the Hardanger Fjord, her father from the southern sea coast, a small city called Arendal. She told simple stories of growing up in Chicago, but no grand tales of wealth, power, or military traditions in foreign lands, except perhaps partly remembered yarns her Uncle Enoch, a sailor on Norwegian merchant ships, had told of voyages around the world by sail.
These were the starting points. I wanted to know more.