Family lost, family found

May 21st, 2008

I grew up not knowing much about my extended family. My paternal grandfather and my maternal grandmother died before I was born. My maternal grandfather died shortly after I turned four. I have a few memories of him, the sort of memories a three-year old would have: brief flashes, an image of a living room, a face – memories reinforced by photographs so that it is hard to be certain if they are truly my memories at all. My paternal grandmother moved across the country when I was eight, perhaps younger. There were short visits after that – she and my mother did not get along – and she died when I was fourteen. One set of cousins was a dozen states away; another set – my mother’s brother – lived nearby and we used to get together when I was young but for some reason contact ended abruptly. I imagine some sort of falling out between my mother and uncle, but I don’t really know.

But beyond these deaths and absences, these fallings-out and strained relationships, it was the general atmosphere of silence and secrets in my house that kept me from knowing my family. We were not a family of stories, we were not a family of family histories. That’s not uncommon in an alcoholic household. My mother did not like telling stories – at least, she did not like telling stories she could not control; she did not like revealing information that she, for whatever reason, deemed dangerous – and I quickly learned not to ask questions. It was a good survival technique for a young girl, but I regret it now.

I do not know how my parents met. I do not know why they waited so long to have children. I do not know my maternal grandmother’s maiden name and I’m not entirely sure how she died. I don’t know when her family arrived in the US. I don’t know how she and my grandfather met. I don’t know if she had siblings. I don’t know what any of my cousins – those four children of my mother’s brother with whom I used to play – are doing today or where they are living or if they have children of their own. I do know that my maternal grandfather was Swedish, but I do not know where his family came from or when they emigrated to the US, or why. And with both my parents dead there is nobody to ask even if I belonged to the kind of family that talked about this sort of thing.

After my parents died and before I married I often felt rootless. There’s a line from a Shawn Colvin song, “I’ve given nobody life, I am nobody’s wife, and I seem to be nobody’s daughter” that sums up how I felt for many years. I had no family history to connect me to the past, and I had no offspring to drive me into the future. Even after I married, married into a Swiss family that could trace its family tree back about 400 years, I felt like a jigsaw puzzle piece that had fallen out of the box. When my first son was born, my family, my blood family, suddenly had two generations. A doubling of my connections, but still my history was a blurry mystery.

Until Sunday.

Sunday, out of curiosity, I googled my maternal grandfather. He was quite an amateur photographer in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s; I have some prints of his that still bear the ribbons they were awarded in local showings. I was looking through family snapshots. I got curious and typed in his name. The first result that popped up was a link to a family tree website hosted by somebody with my maternal grandfather’s last name. I clicked through to the site, and it appears that his father and my grandfather were brothers – my grandfather had four siblings who lived to adulthood. I had only known about one. I spent the afternoon looking through his family tree; there is information there that matches what I know; many of the sources he used to verify his findings are foot-noted. I have a feeling that it’s reliable.

It traces the Swedish branch of my family back to before 1730. I have gone from rootless to seven Swedish generations in the blink of an eye. And that’s just my grandfather’s paternal line. I haven’t even begun to dig around his maternal line. There are people out there with my grandfather’s name, with my blood, with my son’s funny ears and high smooth forehead. There are people out there, my people. I have people.

My how I love the internet.