One thing I’ve always envied about descendants of pioneer families is that those descendants had easy access to their roots from the past one to three centuries. Naturally, everyone in Canada is or is a descendant of an immigrant (save for the First Nations peoples), but my envy was about knowing how your family lived in ages gone by. Descendants of pioneer families could go to a special room at a local library and research to their heart’s content. Not only that, much of it was in English.
My path to understanding where I came from was harder: the information lay overseas and in German (and Hungarian, Romanian, and even Latin). The outcome: I knew very little.
Changing Borders and Forbidden Education
My sense of the world was also very naive.
So, when I learned that my grandmother had been tutored in secret because new laws prohibited her from going to school, I wondered why anyone would want to go to school if you didn’t have to.
When my great grandfather talked about living in different countries depending on where the borders were, I couldn’t understand how the borders of a country changed and thought that maybe something in his story had gotten lost in translation.
My grandparents tried to share some of these stories with me, but they seemed so surreal that I couldn’t comprehend them.
Why Care About the Past?
And then my grandparents began to die, and with them, their biographies. I only have one grandfather left now, and when he takes me to a corner of the room at a family get-together to tell me something, I listen. But I regret no longer hearing the voices of the other six I knew.
I study my family history for a few reasons. One of them is out of a sense of gratitude: When you think about it, if one person didn’t get into bed at the right time on a given night, I quite possibly might not be here. There’s something bizarrely awe-inspiring about the timing involved: all those people had sex at the perfect time that allowed for my creation generations later.
Less bizarre but just as awesome is being here despite all the infants and children who died. One ancestor had five children and I descend from the single surviving one. Again, one person out of whack and boom! I wouldn’t even have Marty McFly’s chance to go back and reconnect those two.
And the third is to understand the stories that contributed to my own life, to understand what kind of “stock” I come from, as it were. What hardships did my ancestors face? What courageous actions did they take? (Less courageous ones are rarely recorded or passed down.) How did history affect my family?
The Language Connection
By the time I was in university, an opportunity to dance in Germany led me to take a full-year university German language course. I’d tried learning the language in the past, but long story short, I didn’t gain too much at that time. Now, with three classes a week instead of a crash course every Saturday morning, everything began to mesh. By the end of university, I was fluent.
Learning German finally unlocked my family history to me and gave me roots. Although the German I speak is not the one my grandparents spoke, I still feel a connection. In a sense, I feel like I’m reconnecting the Germanness I grew up with back to the Germanness that is contemporary German and Austrian culture (minus all that right-wing shit).
What I couldn’t know then was that I would eventually coordinate an oral history project that included participants from my grandparents’ background. One woman, who was in her 90s, was the first and only voice I’ve heard talk about Yugoslavia’s civil war that took place during WWII. She spoke in German. My grandmother never mentioned it, and after listening to this participant, I can understand why: it was horrific, and my grandmother would have been around 10 or 12 when it happened.
I was 24 when she died after living with cancer for several years. I don’t know if I would have ever understood what she saw, and she may very well have not wanted to share it with me.
Speaking more than one language can open up a lot of doors. There are the usual economic and practical reasons, for example. Some studies show benefits towards fending off Alzheimer’s, others about how bilingual kids tend to perform better on intelligence tests.
But for me, learning another language helped me find out more about who I am, and that in turn finally gave me food for my writing: instead of my writing from my teen years, when I had little sense of who I was, being nothing more than bad copies of pop culture, I finally felt a cornerstone form inside of me, giving me the starting point for my own stories, both real and imagined.
And, to use the language of my youth, that’s pretty cool.