November 26, 2013

Connecting to the Past

I stumbled into my blog the other day, and was surprised to see that it had been two years since I had posted anything. I knew it had been a long time, but I thought it had only been about a year.

I reflected on why it had been such a long time, and I found myself spontaneously writing a post about the events of my life since that last posting in November 2011. That writing led to reflections on my time with my mother in what turned out to be the last year of her life, but it seemed too personal to post so publicly. Not that I have a large following, but I am still actively grieving her loss and dealing with the aftermath of her life.

The process of cleaning out her house has been tedious and discouraging, as expected. But what has been unexpected has been the unearthing of long hidden family treasures – photographs, letters, documents and all sorts of unexpected memorabilia from several generations of my family, especially my mother’s family. A cousin has come to help me on several occasions, and since we share half of this ancestry, we have both delighted in some of the things we found. We've also been dismayed that there are pictures of people and places we can’t identify, nor do we know some of the stories behind those people and places. Sadly, the people in those pictures, along with their descendants, are no longer around to tell us about any of them.

My cousin and I spent many hours going through stuff and talking about what we do remember of our extended family. Our mothers were sisters and lived in the same area, so we, as cousins, spent a lot of time together. There were even times we lived under the same roof. Best of all, we delighted in remembering that we often had holidays that included our mothers, our mutual grandparents, and our great-grandparents. And we have the pictures to prove it. What we also found were pictures of our great-grandparents as young adults and young parents to our grandmother, who was their only child. How delightful to see a picture or our 4 or 5 year-old grandmother sitting in a tree! And our great-grandmother, the rock of decorum and stability,  as a young woman peeking out from behind a bush with a mischievous look in her eyes!

I take comfort in the fact that, even as young as I was, I do have personal memories of my great-grandparents, my mother’s grandparents, and my grandparents, also on my mother’s side. I even remember trips to her native Connecticut and meeting many relatives long ago. Of my father’s side of the family, I know very little, but I did find pictures of those I did know when they were younger. My father’s parents both died before I was born, and his brother was 17 years his senior. My oldest cousin, his brother’s daughter, is closer in age to my mother than to the rest of us. We did visit my father’s two sisters fairly regularly, so I did know my other first cousins on my dad’s side. But I was the youngest, and those memories are hazy at best. My father was the youngest of his family, also, with six years separating him from his closest sibling.

Four generations, great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and the kids

Other distant relatives have traced Kabrich family origins for years. I remember my father corresponding with a relative in North Carolina, and in the early 2000’s someone contacted me by email to ask for information about my family. He generously shared his research, most of which coincided with what I already knew, but it was nice to have the information presented again. I also knew something of my great-grandmother’s genealogical research on my mother’s side of the family, but all of it was no more than a passing interest. It was not until my mother’s death that finding out more became vitally important to me.

Perhaps it is because I am older, perhaps it is because I watched my mother’s decline over the years as she aged. I’m sure losing my father unexpectedly nearly 20 years ago also played a part. Finding all of the pictures, documents, letters, even textbooks that belonged to my parents and grandparents, all of this sparked a desire to really know my familial roots, the heritage passed down to me from both my parents. So, I've become an avid, amateur genealogist, tracing family back as far as I can possibly go with the tools available to me today.

My great-grandmother, anxious to become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), did extensive research on her and my great-grandfather’s family back in the 1940’s or 1950’s. To be admitted to the DAR, one must trace one’s lineage directly to a family member who contributed either to the American Revolution or to the cause of freedom. I am completely in awe of my great-grandmother, who was able to find out that my great-grandfather’s family, Pike, arrived in Massachusetts in 1635, and her family arrived on the Mayflower. And she did all of that without the Internet. I have copious amounts of letters to attest to the diligence of her research efforts. The same cousin who helped me with my mother’s house also generously shared our great-grandmother’s research with me. I've expanded that research, and I find myself increasingly humbled by the fact that these people gave up everything, uprooted their families, and came to the harsh and primitive lands here in North America. They forged out new lives, and they thrived and lived on through the years. In fact, up until my great-grandfather, this family still had the same last name as the original settlers. His only child was a daughter, but her son and her daughter’s son were named to honor those ancestors and to keep the name alive in the family.

My father’s side of the family has equally interesting roots. Kabrich is, in many ways, an easier name to research in that it is not so common, but trying to track when the original immigrant came to North America has stymied researchers because of the variations of spelling of the German surname. Tracking my father’s maternal roots has been challenging because it is so common a name – Harris. Thanks to the Internet, I have had some success in tracing my paternal origins and was surprised to discover that there are Scottish and British roots on my father’s side of the family. I've long known of the British origins of my mother’s family, found evidence of Scottish roots that I’d heard of, but to discover the same on my father’s side was a surprise, although considering our country’s origins it probably shouldn't be.

I find that I truly enjoy digging into the past this way, discovering family connections, and taking note of the historical context in which our families lived and grew. My father’s family always conveyed a sense of pride in the Kabrich surname, just as my mother’s family was justifiably proud of its Pike heritage. Our family has never been particularly close, so I often wonder if my niece and nephew are aware of the rich heritage of their ancestral lines. I have no children of my own, so I think part of my motivation in so avidly researching family history is a way of leaving something behind for future generations. Both of my parents lived through some monumentally historic times, yet they never told stories about the history they had seen. I got my father to write down part of his own story, but he was never able to finish it. Most of my dealings with my mother were about the practical aspects of daily living – groceries, bills, doctor’s appointments and such. Talking about family history just didn't seem relevant or important at the time. I broached the subject a couple of times, but I could never quite find the right way to get her to talk about such things.

I've enjoyed the research so much that I have even taken on researching other families. Even though there is not the intense personal connection, I find satisfaction in piecing together families that are total mysteries to me. In fact, I enjoy this activity so much I have been considering making it into a business. I started reading a book, Start and Run a Personal History Business, by Janet Campbell, and in it she expresses many of the reasons I find myself compulsively researching family. She makes a distinction between a genealogist and a personal historian. The genealogist is concerned with the research, the data, the facts and figures, whereas the personal historian takes this sometimes overwhelming amount of information and weaves it together to preserve the personal story of an individual, a family, a community, or any other entity. I find that I want to do both. I like doing the research, but I also want to put the things I find – the documents, the pictures, the stories – into some type of coherent whole that tells the story of where I, or someone else, came from.

As the youngest of my generation on both sides of my family (well, some did come later on my mother’s side, but not until I was 10 or older), I've often felt disconnected and detached from my family. As an adult, age differences don’t really matter so much; there is enough common ground to permit emotional connections. As a child, however, a 3 to 10 year age gap makes a tremendous difference in how one relates to family members. So much of the time I really didn't understand what was going on. Conversations always seemed to be just beyond my understanding, but I could nod and fake it with the best of them, so family often didn't realize how clueless I was. I always felt so different, as if I didn't quite fit in my family.  That feeling persists as an adult because of the nature of our lives – we are spread out geographically, have completely different interests and approaches to life, and just don’t talk much. As Ms. Campbell says in her book, “Technology is speeding up communication but making us hungry for meaningful connections.” That sums up my feelings in a nutshell. Tracing my roots helps me feel connected to the bigger picture of my family’s history.  And I hope, one day, that it will help the next generations feel that connection, too.