by Sarah Albrecht
Fourteen months ago I opened the olive-green paint box my dad left to me, searching for a charcoal pencil. The long-closeted scent of turpentine rocked me with it a wave of memory so powerful I had to sit back and close my eyes.
In that instant of reconnection, I knew I had to write--not my dad’s story, but his father’s. In spite of good intentions, I had never written a life story and wasn’t sure why the urge to start this one felt so strong.
All I knew about my paternal grandfather was that he came to Wisconsin, a German from the Ukraine, at age four. Years later he met my grandmother at the county asylum where they both worked, nursed her through the influenza of 1918, married her in 1920 and had five children, then died of complications from diabetes in 1933. Because of the hardship my grandmother experienced after his loss, he hovered through my life simply as the grandfather who died. I knew even less about his parents and the rest of his family. Based on that knowledge, his story would have been about two pages.
Despite lack of research experience, I started hunting for more information: interviews, books, internet sites, historical societies, chronologies, timetables. I found recipes, songs, postcards, broken legs, weddings and babies and deaths. Distilled from the mass of new information was the fact that the family sailed from Bremen aboard the Braunschweig, together with the family story that one child died aboard that ship.
No one knows the child’s name or age. They think she was a girl. My mom has been searching for her for forty years.
By accident one Sunday afternoon, I stumbled onto a site quoting a BYU professor on finding immigrant ancestors. He listed the German archives that held records for deaths aboard ship. It took a minute to realize the significance of what was on the screen: We might find the child.
Like so many families, my grandfather’s family resonates with struggle and perseverance, and I have learned and grown through my connection to them.
And above all, we might find the child.