Friday, March 15, 2013


Remember being a kid––a teenager old enough to remember things?  Remember how your mom or dad told you stories about the past, and being a teenager you automatically dismissed their stories because… well just because. They were your parents after all, ancient as far as you were concerned, and befuddled by all that was new. You figured they must have dreamed up these stories about the past. 

Growing up near Detroit our family often crossed the Candian border to visit my mother's family near Windsor, Ontario. We always passed a certain house on the road. My grandparents had lived there… eons before, but Mom always told me the same story about that house. My Irish Great Grandfather, his  American wife and three daughters, lived in that home for a time, when he worked for a salt mine nearby. 

One day a horse drawn wagon loaded with vegetables passed by that house, headed for the ferry boat and the farmer's market in Detroit. The youngest daughter flagged down the driver hoping to buy some vegetables. She ended up married to that French Canadian farmer and they had three daughters of their own. The oldest was my Mother. 

It was the story of how I might have been a Canadian, but my mind was only concerned with the Beatles song playing on the car radio. 

When Mom said my French Grandfather's ancestors were farming along the Detroit River three hundred years ago, that they lived there with the Indians, I laughed.

There was the story of how Mom became a replacement blind date. It was an outing set up by a mutual friend of my father. Her sister was supposed to go but she fell ill at the last minute. It was the Great Depression and few people had phones, so Mom was recruited to fill out the quartet. My mother went along in her sister's stead to meet the young stranger waiting at the other end of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. A year later they were married, and I was born an American.

There were other stories––a cousin who worked at the Pentagon for many years, my paternal Grandfather's successful upholstery business. And there were babies –– babies that died of Diphtheria and influenza, of food poisoning due to lack of refrigeration, a sister killed by an accidental gunshot. I heard the stories but they did not penetrate my frivolous teen aged heart. 

It wasn't until I threw a high school graduation party for my own daughter, that I gave a second thought to Mom's stories. My daughter asked me who all those well wishers were at our house. I could name the first even the second cousins, but then she wanted to know more. At eighteen, her mind was far more curious than mine and we began to gather family information.  

My parents were gone by then. My mother and grandmother's photo albums contained people I did not recognize. I recalled the many names Mom mentioned over the years but I'd no idea how or if we were related. 

We had the internet though, and we began to research, amazed at how many others were seeking their family too.  Our family website was contacted by my mother's cousin––the man who worked at the Pentagon. We met with him, and this time I listened to the stories––Stories about that Irish Great Grandfather, stories about the fun times he'd had visiting my mother's farm as a child. Even at ninety years old he could identify many of our old photos. He was in several of them. 

Then a kindly Canadian saw our family website. My 5th cousin, he sent me a database of 1500 names gleaned from church records in Windsor and Quebec. I sat up all that night totally spooked as generation after generation clicked by on the computer screen.  My mother was right, her French Canadian family not only went back to the beginning of Detroit, they went back to the first settlers in North America. One of them was an interpreter of Indian languages. 

Historical research proved that yes there was a Windsor Salt company near Windsor at the turn of the 20th century. And a business card in my mom's things confirmed my grandfather's Detroit upholstery business. 

I told the story of my parent's accidental blind date to my cousins (children of the ill sister) and our minds boggled with what ifs. 

I stared at the headstones of children lost in infancy, of a sister lost to a misfired gun, and felt my ancestor's loss, as I thanked God for the life we have today. 

My mother was right, right about everything. In my mind I've apologized many times for dismissing her stories. I just wish she was here now. There are still so many questions.