When I was bitten by the “family history bug” I made a pest of myself. I visited relatives, I called them, I wrote to them asking for any scrap of information about grandma and grandpa. When they understood that I was researching family history with an eye toward printing the family history book, everyone was very helpful and cooperative. I found that I could best gather information if I visited with kinfolk in their own homes.
On one such visit to a maternal uncle, I asked if I might look through his old photographs. He gladly obliged. Most of the persons pictured were just faces to me; there were no names or labels to identify the people, places, or time when the photos had been taken. I selected twenty photos or so and asked to take them with me on my visits with relatives. Maybe someone could help me put identities to those faces.
Uncle Fidelis Tischmak said, “Sure, use them as long as you want. I don’t know them people either. I think Pa got some of them after World War II from relatives in Germany or maybe some from Russia. He never told us who they were or who he got them from.”
So, I carried the pictures with me on my travels. Once in a while someone would say, “I think that is so-an-so, but I’m not sure.” I wasn’t having much luck identifying those faces looking out at me from the past, faces begging to be remembered, to tell their stories.
One day I took my tape recorder, a list of questions, and my pictures on a visit with my Great-aunt Susanna “Susie” (Harsche) Gross, who lived in Bismarck, North Dakota, USA. I had found out earlier that she had come to the North Dakota with her parents from Krasna, Bessarabia, Russia, in 1908, when she was twelve years old. Great-aunt Susie proved to be a charming and elegant lady of ninety-one years with a memory, which was precise, accurate, and filled with details. As we visited and reminisced for over three hours, I recorded every word. Each question I asked triggered another memory for her! She remembered distinctly her childhood days in Krasna, her school and home, even the floor plans of houses and location of wells, buildings, and gardens. She recalled the names of long-dead aunts and uncles and laid out their kinship relationships for me. Her family’s long trip from South Russia to the USA, their arrival at and processing through Ellis Island, memories of working in Emmons County, North Dakota, as a frightened 13-year old, and so much more were poured into the tape recorder. I had found the wellspring for which I had been seeking. She was a walking family history book.
I could see that she was tiring. There was so much I still wanted to talk about concerning life in Krasna before 1900, but that would have to wait for another time. I carefully pulled out the pictures I had been carrying with me and began handing them to here one at a time. I felt that once again that my poor luck with trying to identify the people in them would hold.
Great-aunt Susie took out her magnifying glass, which she used when reading from her German prayer book. With an unsteady hand she focused carefully on the first picture. To my astonishment she began reeling off names so quickly that my pen struggled to keep up. I couldn’t stop to think of how most of them might be related as I scrambled to catch each name. There would be time to figure out relationships later.
Great-aunt Susie paused as I finished writing down the names. I then handed her a picture of eleven people who appeared to be a family group – a husband and wife, eight younger children or relatives, and an older lady who must have been about seventy years old. When Great-aunt Susie looked at the photo, she immediately reeled off the names of the people one by one. When the glass focused on the old lady, her hand trembled more noticeably than usual. She held the glass and picture close to her face for a long time, not saying a word. I waited with my pen and pad to give her memory time to recall. I did not want to rush her. She slowly lifted her head. With tears welling in her eyes, she whispered, “Mein Grossmutter.”
I said, “Aunt Susie, I didn’t hear what you said.”
She whispered with more strength, “Mein Grossmutter, mein Grossmutter!”
When I finally understood, I said, “Which is your grandmother?”
She pointed to the old lady in the picture. “This is Mein Grossmutter from Krasna. When I was a little girl, I played in her house. I spent so much time with her that my mother often said I was not her girl but Grandma’s girl. Pa’s house and mein Grossmutter’s house joined together. I would sit at the corner of her table eating her chicken noodle soup. I saw her last on the day we left to go to America when I was 12 years old, over 80 years ago. I wanted to stay with her. I cried so much when we left.”
The tears were flowing down her cheeks now as she recalled that sad moment.
“Is this the first time you’ve seen a picture of her?” I asked.
“I never saw her or a picture of her after we left Krasna. Since eighty years I never seen her!” she said.
The tears didn’t stop. She lowered her eyes again to the picture and whispered over and over, “Grossmutter, mein Grossmutter.”
I fell silent. Great-aunt Susie was back with her Grossmutter in Krasna, sitting at her table.
The following week I returned to present her with a framed copy of the photograph. She thanked me repeatedly, and the tears of loving memory and gratitude came again into her eyes.
But what was that in my eyes? Through my flowing tears I saw her once again sitting at her Grossmutter’s kitchen table, just as I once had sat as a young boy at the corner of my grandma’s kitchen table .... eating chicken noodle soup.
Ya, and so it goes!
Ted J Becker.