By CNN's Ellen Van de Mark Follow @EllenVdM
My grandfather’s pocketwatch is one of my favorite possessions. It dates back to the turn of the 20th century. My dad kept it in an old cigar box for many years. A forgotten artifact of another time. It no longer winds and the initials that were engraved once have been rubbed down from use. But I love it. It has a history and story that is intertwined with my own.
A few years ago I started on a journey back through time and the origins of my family. It was prompted in large part due to my father's waning health and a fear that his story might be lost if I didn't start recording it. I had no idea where that journey would lead and how grateful I would be to have started the trek.
I grew up knowing little of my family history. I knew there was Dutch on my dad’s side (the Van de Mark is a bit of a giveaway) and some German. There was some German, English and hints that I might be a wee bit Irish on my mom’s. Most of it though was a mystery. Then a distant relative on my mother’s side put together a family history that involved some fascinating tidbits.
Amusing tidbits: the idea for feather duster originated at the Hoag Duster Company in a small Iowa town and that my great great aunt married the company’s heir. Political tidbits: my maternal grandmother was a Hayes, and family lore has it that we’re related somehow to President Rutherford B. Hayes. Despite references to it dating back to the late 19th century, I haven’t been able to prove the connection. For now it just remains a family legend, a fun one at that.
Delving into family history research turns up fun stories like these, but it also involves a lot of time – painstakingly combing through records and cross-checking bits and pieces you thought you knew. The recent advent of a plethora of online genealogy sites have made research easier in many respects, but it also means extra time scouring through fact and fiction. Those Ancestry.com commercials make it look so simple!
This summer, my mom and I spent a few days looking through dusty records at the Jones County Courthouse in Iowa, where much of her family had settled. Each discovery was a small victory – confirming details we already had or unearthing new revelations. Turns out we’re a lot more Irish than we ever knew. “Erin go bragh.” We walked through local cemeteries searching for names on headstones of past generations – Hayes, Morrison, Doyle, Annis, Golden and Lundon.
We never knew them, but their lives and choices have undoubtedly shaped the course of ours. Many were pioneers or settled right as Iowa became a state. The old pioneer cemeteries where they were laid to rest, are on the edges of modern cornfields. Their headstones tell of a life and a death far from their origins in Ireland, Germany, Holland or England. What made them decide to come to this new land – this Iowa? I like the thought of these trailblazers – making a life not only in a new country, but cutting out a piece of land and putting down roots. Roots that would become my own.
Their things – day to day items and treasured possessions – dishes and lamps – hammers and shovels – now artifacts of past generations were spread among family and distant relatives or simply thrown out over time. The few photos and relics that remain are precious commodities – hints to a life so far removed from my own. There are sepia toned pictures of ancestors standing in front of their sod home on the prairie and of my great great great grandfather in his Civil War uniform. The wagon that brought my paternal grandmother’s family West still sits on the Iowa property of my great aunt.
But more than anything what I love most are the photos and remnants of my parents and my grandparents. There’s the photo of my grandfather tinkering in his workshop. The picture with the patched tear of the grandmother who died too young. The snapshot of my mom with paint on her pants in Paris because she didn’t understand the sign on the bench, warning of "wet paint” in French. They all tell a story that's part of my history.
He grew up in a family that moved constantly, attending 13 different schools before graduating from high school. But with those moves he gained an amazing knack for meeting people. When I asked him about family vacations as a kid, he told me: "Moving to a new house was as close as we got to a family vacation."
My dad loved to tell stories about his life and had a story to fit every occasion. When my sister and I were young we’d sometimes ask for him to retell our favorite stories of his adventures and listen wide-eyed to his grand tales. As we grew we realized that these fantastic tales all seemed to have one thing in common, embellishments that grew with each telling or new listener. His ability as a storyteller – and those mythical embellishments – meant it was rare that he didn’t have his captive audience in stitches. When he would launch into one we’d heard so many times before we knew it by heart, we would simply roll our eyes and settle in.
Those stories – and the moments in between – are the narratives that formed his life.
As his health began to precipitously fail in the Spring a new urgency took hold to map out his life, and somehow catalog where he came from – and by extension – me. I began to record our conversations whenever he was up to it. I was trying to paint a fuller picture of my father – this man with the amazing stories and booming laugh. I needed to know so many things that I had never thought to ask before and there never seemed to be enough time. Three months ago he lost his battle. But because we talked so much and because I peppered him with so many questions, I now have the pieces of his history – and mine – that I hadn’t known before.
I recently started to listen to one of recordings and had to stop. I’m so happy my Dad and I took the time to talk and the time to listen. And someday – maybe soon – I will listen again – to hear his booming laugh as I laugh along with him.