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.
Sue October 18, 2010 at 8:18 am
Sometimes we have to go very far to come home.
Myla October 18, 2010 at 2:32 pm
I loved this post! I am adopted and got to meet a lot of my biological family years ago. How you described meeting family you never knew before is so perfect. You look for all the reasons that you are related and keep a score card of all the similarities, and it’s definitely a unique experience.
I also do genealogy, and have 2 separate family trees, one biological, and the other my adopted family. I’ve done the same thing finding similarities with both of my lines.
Again, I really enjoyed this post 🙂
Trish October 18, 2010 at 4:04 pm
About 5 yrs ago I met my mom’s first cousins in Ireland. and you’re right, you search their faces, you should know them. One of the cousins looks so much like my grandmother. They were all really lovely people, and I am proud to be related to them
Riding random thoughts on a semi-rainy day « BikingInLA October 19, 2010 at 6:46 pm
[…] biking can do more than just get you from here to there, it can also lead you home to a family you’ve never known. Or it can provide the path to true love — or not, as the case […]
Susan Margot Ecker October 21, 2010 at 10:36 am
Laura, I am so sad I won’t be able to come to your talk at Bikes Not Bombs. My husband and I will be traveling from Boston MA to the Philadelphia PA for the Philly Bike Expo that evening, but I feel we have much in common and I hope that our paths will cross at some point.I too have never met most of my family. My mom is a German Jew and my dad was a Hungarian Jew and due to the Nazi invasions my family members were either killed or scattered across the globe escaping to whatever country that would accept them. Recently I have been employed by an educational travel company, and have been given the amazing opportunity to travel to many countries and meet family members for the first time. It has been a very emotionally-charged experience for me as well. My husband, Matt O’Keefe, and I are also avid cyclists, commuters and touring, and we’ve brought our bikes along to explore each country we’ve visited. So far we have been to Chile, Australia and Switzerland and I have many more countries on my future travels list and family to meet. We hope that if you are ever in the Boston area again that we would be able to host you and Russ. I would like to give you our contact info if you would care to be in touch. Safe travels! Susi
Susan Margot Ecker October 21, 2010 at 12:24 pm
ps I emailed my letter above to my husband, Matt, as well and found out he also contacted the two of you and invited you both for a tour of Seven Cycles.
Arlene Koenig Atkinson October 30, 2011 at 7:04 pm
Hi, Laura! Louise put me onto your site shortly after you visited her in New Jersey. It got lost an an avalance of corespondance but I often thought of you and your odyssey. Today I was culling and tossing items from my in box and went back to this entry. There they were, my much younger littlest sister, Louise, and my bit older big sister, Rosalie.
I can’t remember what year it was that you visited us in El Cajon for Thanksgiving. Earlier you had come to see us with your family when you were visiting San Diego probably in 1992. You and Matt went swiming – with whatever I could come up with as a substitute for a bathing suit. At Thanksgiving you were, perhaps, starting your first job for the Girls’ Club after graduating from college. I believe that I gave you a little peek into the family history you didn’t know. You’re right – when we grow up with that history it just is reality, good or bad. Next time you are in the San Diego area I’d love to meet you again. My husband and I got a chance to visit with your mother at the Koenig reunion in Wyoming in 2009. That was a good thing. Your journeying is remarkable and admirable.
First cousin once removed, Arlene
Leave a Reply to Riding random thoughts on a semi-rainy day « BikingInLA
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.
Join Team Supple on Patreon
Your taking off on this trip is in ways similar to your great-grandfather’s jumping ship.