Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Grandmothers
Part One: “His”

It's fun to look back a few generations in the family line to compare and contrast. In doing so, some familiesespecially those who remained in the same town or vicinitycan find many similarities. In our case, though, contrast was more likely. My grandmother and my husband’s grandmother were worlds apart.

I don’t have too many pictures of family members from generations long past. There are two childhood pictures I do have, though. One is for Bertha, my husband Chris’s maternal grandmother. The other is for Sophie, my own paternal grandmother. While each of these is great-grandmother to our own daughter, the two couldn’t have come from more different circumstances.

Shortly after Chris and I got married, I wanted to start researching his family tree. One day, he was on the phone with his mom (who lived halfway across the country from us), so I took the opportunity to get her parents’ information. I just wanted the simple name-and-date type of answer, but the question prompted a flood of information.

Keeping in mind my own father’s response to my very first such question, I should have been grateful. While the names, dates and locations gave me a start, there was one thing my mother-in-law said that disappointed me. After discussing her parents’ information and what she knew of her grandmother’s name (“she was a Gordon”), all she could tell me of previous generations was, “Oh, they probably just got off the boat!”

“From where?” my mind was shrieking. But I kept up the grateful face. No sense in alienating someone over what, regardless, is not known.

So I started work on my mother-in-law’s line. “Mother” was Bertha Genevieve Metzger, born into a farm family near the coal mines of eastern Ohio. She was born just after the turn of the last century, and had lived a lifestyle that probably hadn’t changed in that family for a century. Even at her daughter’s wedding, things remained pretty much the same. My husband’s Chicago-born aunt remembered that even then, staying at the Metzger homestead involved braving the midnight trip to the outhouse. It wasn’t the concept of the outhouse that bothered this citified aunt, though—it was the thought of running into all those hairy spiders on the way.

Bertha lived almost her whole lifetime in Perry County, Ohio, the place of her birth. She wed a Perry County man—like my own mother, marrying a man nearly twenty years her elder. But there the inter-family similarities ended. Bertha stayed at home, raising her family in Perry County. Though for a time in her older years, she lived with relatives in other places, even in death she didn’t wander far. She died, at age 86, just one county away from home.

Life for Bertha seems a universe away from the urban surroundings of my own childhood, or even my mother’s constantly on-the-move younger years. My parents’ two-child-only heritage was no match for life in the county of large families which boasts, "If you go back far enough, you'll find everyone in Perry County, Ohio, is related to everyone else."

Hot on the trail of that hint, “She was a Gordon,” I found out much later that Perry County was home to Ohio’s first Catholic church, erected in Somerset in 1818. Many of Chris’s ancestors—mostly Catholics—came to Ohio with that first band of travelers following the trails from Maryland through western Pennsylvania. Most of those generations included sizable families in the custom of their faith and forebears. And though each of those families was large, after several generations in that isolated outpost of paradise, everyone did seem to be related to everyone else!

As I worked my way backwards through Bertha’s family history, I found out that she did not, in fact, have parents who had just stepped “off the boat.” Unlike my own grandmother who did, in fact, "step off the boat," Bertha's was a heritage well-documented through several generations of New World residence. To find the exact source of her Metzger and Gordon European roots is a task I’ve yet to accomplish. But for all I don’t know about her origins, I have multiple details of pioneer American life to make up for it.

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