It turns out that my great-uncle Herman rode a bicycle too. “All over New Jersey,” I’m told.
When my great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to start a new life in America, he literally jumped off his merchant marine ship in New York harbor and swam ashore.
In many ways, this bicycle trip has been a journey of discovery. For me, there has also been the discovery of family, of people with whom I share a mysterious history, of roots which partially explain why I am what I am.
Meeting cousins doesn’t sound particularly dramatic, unless you know that this is entirely new to me. I grew up in Oregon while most of my relatives lived on the east coast, so the idea of extended family is foreign to me. A school project many years ago had me researching my family history and drawing a family tree – and, with only a few exceptions, this was the extent of my connection to relatives.
Until we found ourselves on the east coast, and these names from a school project suddenly became actual people with whom I was drinking beers.
If you have never met relatives that you don’t know, trust me when I say that it is an odd and emotionally-charged experience. It’s just like meeting anyone else that you don’t know, except that you feel like you should know them. You search faces and words for some sense of connection, some feeling of relation, some understanding of what it’s like to be a part of a big family. You try to not feel like you missed out on something as a kid, and try to not make one simple bbq mean the entire world. It’s like stepping inside a huge jigsaw puzzle of stories that are hard to piece together. A million questions flood to the surface, but feel strangely inappropriate to ask – I want to know what happened fifty years ago between my grandparents, but shouldn’t I already know this story?
We spend a few days with my cousin in New Jersey, sharing stories and photos. I am so thrilled to make this connection, to get to know this woman, to start to feel like a part of a larger whole. Russ laughs and says that he can tell we’re related because we both talk a lot and we seem to look at the world in the same way. It’s strange to hear that you have mannerisms in common with someone you hardly know, and yet it’s also comforting beyond words.
It turns out that there is mystery and drama in my family history, and some of it reads like an incredible novel. I can’t help but wonder what to do with all of these stories that I am learning; I want to make sure they don’t get lost again.
There is a house in Princeton, New Jersey that my grandfather built, and in which he lived with my grandmother before being stationed in Turkey. I never knew about this place or that they had been happy once, but I have heard the stories of my grandmother seeing Einstein walking around campus, as if he was just anyone else. The pieces of the puzzle are slowly starting to make sense.
My great-grandparents are buried outside of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and we stumble into the cemetery on a gray day. I have never met these people and I’m not sure what to feel when I stand at their grave. All I know is what I have just learned, that they were the heads of the American side of this family, that they were migrant farm workers at one point.
I have finally come to understand the lingo that designates someone a “first cousin, once-removed,” but I am still learning what it means to actually know such a person. It’s a daunting task to learn all of this now, from scratch, instead of gently growing up with it all. But I feel fortunate to be able to learn it at all, to look at this family tree I have recently been gifted and watch it come to life, to see traits in these people that I also find in myself, to become anchored in such a rich history.
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