I’m a big proponent of writing your life story; I often think about the phrase that when we die, our words die with us.
My husband and I recently took a trip to Minnesota near where my paternal grandparents had lived. I never met them, or my aunt or uncle. On our trip, we were visiting my husband’s family when my relatives came up in conversation. It turned out they were buried near the summer cottage of one of my husband’s brothers. To my surprise, the next week, they emailed photos of my relatives’ gravestones. They’d had to clear them of grassy overgrowth to read them.
I am so thankful for the photos. I don’t know these people, yet they are next of kin. My folks took me to that cemetery once about sixty years ago, so I knew they were there, but I’ve never known much about these people.
My maiden name was Hoitenga. My dad’s line is almost gone. I only had one brother, who only had one son, and most of the women have married and assumed their husbands’ names.
Years ago, I envisioned the line diminishing, and so my husband and I gave our son the middle name of Hoitenga in an attempt to carry on my dad’s line a bit longer.
So now getting the photo of the Hoitenga family headstone, seeing my maiden name carved in stone, brought deep feelings of nostalgia for a past I’ll never know.
You see, my dad, who died in 1994, would talk about himself as an orphan. He rarely talked about his family. My mother would explain it was too painful for him. His parishioners–he was a minister–would often remark on his comforting and enduring empathy at their times of loss.
Well, no wonder. His first great loss was his brother, James, who died at 16 of a ruptured appendix.
Now, I see the photo of James’s gravestone and want to know more about him. About his relationship with my dad. What kind of kid was he? Just a sentence or two would do. All I know is that my dad said he had to take the train home from school for the funeral, and when he was supposed to go back to school, he begged his dad to stay home and help on the farm. But his dad, an auctioneer, insisted he return to school. I can only imagine how lonely my dad was. He later assumed the name James as his middle name.
My dad lost the rest of his family in a car/truck accident just eight years later. His parents were taking his 20-year-old sister back to school at the McPhail School of Music in Minneapolis when the accident occurred on icy roads. He never talked about it; the little I know came from my mother and frightening newspaper clippings.
So now I see the gravestone of my grandfather. I want to hear him say something.
I want to tell my grandma and Aunt Elizabeth that my folks named my oldest sister after them–Kathleen Elizabeth; I want to tell them my husband and I named our daughter after them, too. And I want to tell Elizabeth that I have the purse she was carrying when she was killed, and I have the bracelet, engraved Elizabeth, she was wearing.
I want to tell them how The Accident was the elephant in the room when I was growing up, a tragedy we could never talk about that hung over our lives. The reason I’ve been afraid of winter driving all these years.
But also the reason that I’ve felt compelled to write some of my life’s stories, brought home so clearly again when I received these photos. If only I had a few of their words written down, I would cherish them. They are my kin, and I want to know them.
And then, adding to my surprise, I got photos of gravestones I didn’t know existed: babies, two of them. Now I want to know what caused their probable stillbirths. I want my grandmother to tell me her story over tea. I want to know what health care was like at that time. I want to know what support she got over losing two children. I want to know…I want to know….
This has to be my maternal great-grandmother: Elizabeth DeSota. I know absolutely nothing about her. When did she emigrate? Did she emigrate? Was she French? I have heard that my grandmother was, but maybe my great-grandmother’s husband was, but my great-grandmother wasn’t; I don’t know her maiden name.
Oh my, oh my, I want to sit down and have tea with all of them. I want to tell them I wish they’d written me a letter! Just a little something to the kids yet unborn in my dad’s line. Oh, how I’d love having just a few words that I could read now at age 73 on this rainy day in Chicago in 2015.
And, if they could come for tea, I’d want to tell my Great-grandma Elizabeth that my sister and my daughter have carried on her name as well.