People are sometimes surprised to hear that I love spending time on family research. Some of them are showing interest in what I’m doing and are asking questions, some smile incredulously and frankly say that they don’t understand why I’m spending so much time with this, that the past is over and done with and that it is more important to live in the present and to look at the future rather than wasting time dwelling on the past. I don’t discuss this subject any more. There’s no doubt that we should live in the present and enjoy what we have now, but we must not forget that the good life most of us have today is the result of our parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ hard work and struggles. That’s what our ancestors wanted for us, that’s what they struggled for, to get ahead and create a better life for us, and for that we owe them respect, gratitude, and remembrance. Like a tree that is blossoming and producing fruit because it is well connected to its roots, most of us have a good life and are doing fine, not because we are separated from the past, but because we are connected to our roots and to the roots of past generations.
When I think about my character and how I turned into the person I am today, I sometimes wonder where my stubbornness and persistence comes from, my need for independence, my love for animals and the simple life, why learning languages always came easy to me, while I have no feeling for numbers. When I got to know my biological father, I discovered that I have a lot from him, I see traits and characteristics in myself that are known to run on the maternal side of my family, and I see others that I don’t know where they come from. I’ll never know. I just know they must come from the past, from genes passed on to me from my ancestors, and that ignoring the past and the relationship between the past and the present would be ignoring what has shaped me into the person I am today.
While I seriously began researching my family history in 1999, my personal journey to the past began much earlier, in spring of 1983, when I began to search for my American birth father. I grew up in Germany, predominantly with my mother’s parents, and knew nothing about my father except for his name, that he was from Chicago, and that he had been an American soldier in Germany after World War II. I was in my late thirties when I finally found him and talked to him on the phone for the first time. I can’t describe what it meant to me to hear my father’s voice for the first time after all the years of not knowing who and where he was. It was as if a whole new world opened up to me, a new world of hope, love, and forgiveness.
I couldn’t wait to meet him in person, however, it took six more years until it was possible. In the meantime, we exchanged letters and photos and told each other about our past and present life. In 1989 we finally met for the first time and spent three weeks together that year, one week in Germany, where my parents saw each other again after 44 years, and two weeks in Chicago, where my father introduced me into his family and friends. He was a warm-hearted person, easy to get along with, and friendly with everyone. We got along well right away and felt like we had known each other forever.
Of course I was curious to learn more about his side of the family. When I asked him to tell me a little more about his childhood and parents, he took me to the house he and his siblings had grown up in and told me about their life when he was a child. He and his nine siblings that had survived to adulthood were raised under conditions of hunger and poverty. I could tell from his voice that it wasn’t easy for him to talk about the poor conditions he had grown up in, but he tried. He told me that his mother was from Poland, he didn’t know where exactly from, and that they had never found out where his father originally came from.
One day during my stay in Chicago we went to St. Adalbert Cemetery in Niles, a near suburb of Chicago, where my father’s parents are buried. We walked around the big cemetery for quite a while until we found the headstones. I didn’t bring a camera this day to take pictures, but I quickly scribbled down the dates of birth and death that were on the headstones before we left the cemetery — Frank Roll, 1890-1940, Julia Roll, 1888-1973 — not sure yet what I would do with it.
When my father and I said goodbye at O’Hare Airport when I boarded my flight back to Germany we were full of hope that we would meet again soon, in spite of thousands of miles between us, but we never saw each other again. Soon afterwards his health began to deteriorate, his letters became less and less frequent, and finally ceased altogether. I tried in vain to find out how he was doing, my letters remained unanswered. Finally, one day, I received a letter from his family telling me that they had moved and that my father had passed away a month ago. Not to know how he was doing had been hell for me, the news about his death broke my heart into pieces. Getting to know him and to spend some time with him was one of the happiest experiences in my life, but there was also a lot of pain associated with the experience, times of deep sadness and despair that I lost him again so soon.
The thoughts about my father and of how it could have been if I had met him earlier in my life occupied me for a long time afterwards. Many years have gone by now, I have had good years and not so good years, good and not so good experiences with people I cared about. Thinking about my father still hurts, like a wound that doesn’t want to heal and starts to bleed when you touch it. I still cannot look at his picture without tears coming to my eyes. But my life had to go on, and I had to learn to accept that things went the way they went, that I have to let go my “if onlys”, and be grateful that I had the opportunity to get to know him and to learn more about my paternal heritage. And, in spite of all the scars it left behind, it was a healing process for myself. Knowing where I come from makes me feel complete and fills that empty space inside of me that I lived with for many many years.
Ute H. Wyatt,