Since I was a freshman in high school, I’ve had an interest in genealogy. Maybe it was an English paper or maybe a history paper, or knowing Mrs. Cook, it was a Current Events assignment gone awry. Whatever the subject, I remember picking my Granny’s brain about how she grew up, how her family “dealt with” the depression and how astonished I was that she and granddaddy each had about 15 aunts and uncles and they all lived in the same small town. I remember pouring over photographs and Polaroids and being thoroughly entertained by the anecdotes and stories held tight in those monochrome images.
My grandmother has since passed and my interest in my own family history has waned as time after time I hit the genealogical equivalent of a “brick wall” due in no small part to the Civil War. Without courthouse records or firsthand accounts, it has been difficult to move my lineage backwards beyond the mid-1800s. Anecdotal evidence has us deeply embedded in the Southeastern US since at least the early 1800s, save the unverifiable story of “Little Granny” being sent back “east” by wagon train in the late 1800’s from Texas as a teenager. She was a story-teller, but there are shards of evidence that she may have been telling the truth!
So I was happy to tackle a family tree challenge presented by a dear friend last spring. Someone who had no real working knowledge or shared history of his grandparents beyond names and birthdays. Being from the south and blessed with long-living grand and great-grandparents, I was intrigued and saddened at the same time that someone could be my age and not know their family history. Within hours of digging in to the known facts about Grandpa Bergen, I was excited at the prospects of genealogy research outside the Southeastern US. It didn’t take long for me to click my way into online databases that lured me to Connecticut and New York and has me dreaming of a trip to Norway. I’d never researched ships manifests or immigration logs. This was fun and exciting and so….relevant. Important.
I had no idea where I needed to go, but I knew exactly what I was looking for and where to start. I just needed to get to Norwalk, Connecticut. Finally, the opportunity came last October. I had eight days to get answers that I hadn’t been able to find online. I had one week plus a few hours to solve the problem of Bergen. Where was he born, where did he grow up, what did he do for a living, why did he pass at such a relatively young age? Who were his parents, what was their life? So many questions that we take for granted about our family. So many things that make us who we are, yet we don’t ask the living. Here I was trying to build the life of an unknown man who was ultimately responsible for placing such a precious person into my path. Who was Bergen? I needed to find this out. I wanted to give the gift of his story to his grandson.
More than once on this wild roots chase, I found myself talking to Bergen, asking for help and guidance. And each time I pulled that tiny random string of a lead, I found out even more information than I could have hoped for. I found myself referring to him in general conversation as “my grandpa Bergen.” He took me on an awesome six-day tour of the towns of Norwalk and Hartford, Connecticut, New Rochelle and Manhattan, NY, and even a crazy day trip to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He introduced me to awesome librarians, pizza shop owners and funeral home directors. Serendipity placed me in the exact spot at the right time for a walking tour of New Rochelle, NY given by the town historian. I learned about the history of the French Huguenots, the origins of Mighty Mouse, and the home of Jay Leno and countless others that called New Rochelle their home – including Bergen.
And just when I thought I was done, thought I’d found all I could find in the time I had to find it, I decided at the last minute to take that exit not yet taken and followed that one lead not yet followed. I pulled into the parking lot of the library that had a microfiche copy of the last edition of the one newspaper with that one obituary that had that one tidbit of information I’d not yet found. I laughed. I thanked Bergen. Then I went to the cemetery and just walked. I passed by the lone headstones of so many forgotten grandparents, uncles, cousins, nieces, mothers, and brothers. I said a silent hello. I assured them that someone cared. Someone, somewhere was looking for them. Someone somewhere was doing awesome things in the world because they existed. I didn’t find Bergen’s parents…but I will. He’ll make sure of it!