July 23, 2010

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Who we are, where we came from and where we are going

Cynthia DewesLots of people are interested in genealogy these days. Although their numbers are dwindling as new immigrants pour into the U.S., most Americans still are far enough removed from their immigrant beginnings to be curious about them.

Like most of us, they have neglected to ask questions of the older folks in their families while they were alive about their past, why they came here, who their ancestors were and what they did in the old country. They are ignorant of these things, and now must look them up on www.ancestry.com or access the Mormon records.

This may sound pretty boring, especially to young people who have places to go and people to see, and for whom the past doesn’t seem nearly as important as the present, if not the future. But, in fact, this kind of research can be very amusing as well as informative and even educational. That is because you can find a lot of nuts hanging from family trees.

We have all heard about the guy who has discovered a great patriot or some other celebrated ancestor in his family’s past. And also the person who was embarrassed to find a Nazi or a notorious slaveholder in his family. Most of us fall somewhere in between, and that is probably a relief.

People carry their beliefs with them when they emigrate, but what follows may change them. My maternal great-grandfather came from Germany to the U.S. as a Catholic, but later his entire family became Free Thinkers! Looks to me like the ornery Catholics who left religious oppression behind carried their rebellious attitudes with them.

Some of our immigrant ancestors left the old country to make a better living. My dad’s family came over from Norway around 1900 because they were impoverished workers living in an impoverished country. My great-uncle, who arrived here at age 17, remembered that.

So when he returned to Norway as an old man for the first time since he left, he brought along money to distribute to his relatives. It was a generous gesture, but also a kind of vindication for his leaving. Imagine his chagrin when he found out that the Norwegians were now living a comfortably middle-class life!

There can be other surprises. We know a German whose parents emigrated originally from Czechoslovakia to Germany. Recently, he discovered that his mom had been married before she married his dad, but where and to whom? This occurred during World War II so perhaps her youthful marriage was with a soldier who died.

Scrolling down the histories of families, we sometimes find that those who were prominent citizens early on have become the people living on “the other side of the tracks” as the years go on.

Two such families in my hometown come to mind. They started out as pioneers and community leaders in the 19th century, but by the time they got to my generation they were reduced to scraping along as small-time farmers and handymen who received little respect.

The reverse is true, too. A fellow that we knew in high school who belonged to one of those “poor” immigrant families now lives in a gorgeous estate that overlooks Lake Minnetonka. I don’t know what he did to get there, but he owns half of the towns surrounding it!

We’re not a homogeneous nation like Germany or Sweden. Our entire population is made up of immigrants, including Native Americans. So I think it is interesting, both personally and as a society, to reflect on our spiritual journey as Americans.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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