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When I am completely honest with myself, I have to admit that my interest in genealogy and family history came about not because of a talk or a program or even a commandment. These things are not what really motivated me. What really motivated me was a need to find out where I truly belonged. In other words, I wanted to find my home, and I have not been disappointed. If my experience is valid, doing genealogy and family research teaches us where home is not as well as where home is.
The Need for a Home
Before I graduated from college, my family moved sixteen times. We lived in four different states, five different cities, and six different school systems. When it came time, as a graduate student, to apply for student loans I had a voter’s registration card from South Carolina, a drivers’ license from Ohio, a license plate from Utah, a marriage license from California, and absolutely no hope of ever getting a dime from anyone. I was stuck in no man’s land, a citizen without a state, in a way, homeless.
I have felt homeless in other ways too: educationally, vocationally, even religiously on occasion. As the son of a Mormon mother and a non-Mormon father, I like to think of myself as having the appreciation of a convert and the heritage of a lifer, but sometimes I think I have it reversed.
Feeling homeless is not particularly unusual or bad. Most of us feel homeless in one way or another and learn to live with it. We make our homes wherever we are. This is what I did, but still I always wondered if there weren’t bunches of Brad Kramers somewhere with the same odd outlook, the same strange interests, the same offbeat sense of humor. That was why, when my employer offered me a chance to teach a class in Germany many years ago, I leapt at it. Perhaps there, in Germany, in the land of my father’s ancestors, I would find my home.
Home was not in Germany
So for nearly a year, as I prepared for this class, I made it a quest to find at least one German village that my ancestors had come from so that I could visit it during my trip. I ordered microfilm; I wrote letters to cemeteries; I requested certificates from state libraries; I telephoned relatives; I visited Family History Centers; I entered information into computer databases; I did everything I could to extend my family lines back to Germany. In addition, I also studied German—and Germans, reading books, taking classes, and interviewing returned missionaries, all so that I might know more about their personalities, their customs, and their history. I was looking for home. I even bought a German flag and hung it over my desk.
And eventually I did extend two of my family lines back to two villages: one in northern Germany, near Osnabrueck, and one in present day France, in the Lorraine area, near Strasbourg. And did I visit one of them? Yes. And did I find my home?
I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled, to learn that at least according to one person Germans were an abrupt, disciplined, unemotional lot with a penchant for serious discussion. They supposedly were extremely thoughtful, organized, always on time, and prone to rough teasing. I thought I had found my Brad Kramers. I honestly felt that I would walk off the plane into a crowd of dark-haired men looking and acting just like me. I did. I really did.
I cannot tell you how disappointed I was that the first German I met was a short, unshaven, blue-eyed man in jeans. He also wore a cowboy hat and boots, which he draped carelessly over the arm of his seat. He smiled lackadaisically at me, kind of open mouthed, and rummaged through a messy backpack, spilling old candy wrappers as he searched for a snack. My heart sunk. This was not at all what I had expected.
My disappointment continued. Not only were the Germans not at all what I expected, being an extremely varied people, but I was not nearly as German as I expected. For several months I had practiced doing everything like a German. I began swallowing my Rs (even when speaking English), I fixed dinners of bratwurst, sauerkraut, and potato pancakes for my puzzled family, I kept my fork in my left hand as I ate and pushed food onto it with my knife. I even practiced walking as Germans supposedly walk, taking long strides with my hands clasped stiffly behind me.
However, everywhere I went in Germany people would immediately begin speaking to me in English and would ask me questions about American customs and politics. It was as if they knew, simply by looking at me, that I was an American. It was very frustrating. And to make matters worse, I was always getting things wrong–crossing the street at the wrong time, passing cars at the wrong time, getting lost, saying “danke” when I should have said “bitte.” I was not a very good German and, in many ways, was relieved to return to the United States. I very much looked forward to continuing my quest on other, less foreign fronts.
Home was not in Cincinnati
My next front proved to be Cincinnati. Cincinnati was where my other German lines stopped. At that time, I knew the regions in Germany where these lines came from, but without the names of specific towns I could not follow them across the Atlantic. I needed to do more research in Cincinnati in order to progress.
I was excited. Cincinnati was the city I lived in the longest as a child, the city most likely to qualify as my home. I thought that if ever I was going to find where I belonged, this was the place to begin searching. And my efforts bore fruit. Even though I lived in North Carolina at the time, I did my best to learn more about Cincinnati from there, and as I pieced together the history of my family, reading various histories of Cincinnati that I had ordered and tracing its progress from a small fort from before the Revolutionary War to the metropolis it is today, I was amazed at the flood of memories that washed over me.
As I charted Cincinnati’s growth and attempted to figure out when my ancestors arrived and where they lived, I came across familiar place names like Ault Park, Columbia Parkway, Carew Tower, Mariemont High School, the Miami-Erie canal, Linwood, Oakley, Over-the-Rhine, and countless others. Instantly, my mind was flooded with many rich and incredibly deep memories. And they were good memories too–memories of hikes with friends, bus rides with girlfriends, tennis matches with enemies, get-togethers with relatives, walks with family, quiet times by myself. As a result, I began to wonder if Cincinnati was indeed my true home, and I would often fantasize about moving there so that I could bask in those memories and share them with my wife and children.
I confess I had over-romanticized Cincinnati and my childhood there. When my mother remarried in 1990 and I returned to Cincinnati for the occasion, I took off by myself after the festivities and visited many of the important places of my childhood. I drove around my old stomping grounds, found a few of my old houses, parked in my old high school parking lot, paused before my old ward building, walked the tree-lined sidewalks of the old neighborhoods I had lived in, sat in the old bleachers of the combined football/soccer field I had spent so much time on, and lingered in the old graveyard were my great-grandmother, one of my all-time heroes, was buried.
And as I did so, I was surprised how much these places had changed not only physically but emotionally as well. They were old, to be sure, but they no longer seemed to care for me. They were just empty buildings, quiet fields, deserted streets, cold stone. I felt like a fool. I discovered then that home was no more in Cincinnati than it was in Germany.
Home is a feeling
But if home was not to be found in places, where was it? Well, almost as an afterthought, as part of a program, a ward temple day, and a commandment, I submitted the nearly fifty names I had found to the Washington temple. Probably more out of duty than feeling, I attended the temple and did the temple work for my ancestors, and it was there that the true location of home began to dawn on me.
No, my great-great-grandfather did not appear to me nor did my great-grandmother whisper in my ear from the great beyond, but there in the temple I began having very quiet but very distinct feelings that not only did I remember my ancestors, but they remembered me–and loved me. These feelings continued quietly, subtly outside the temple and seemed to grow as I continued with my family history work. It was very strange. I kept wondering what these feelings meant. Was some great thing about to happen? Was some special calling coming? Was the Second Coming closer than I thought?
These feelings seemed unrelated to any specific event or action. I could not figure what I was supposed to do with them. But one thing I did know is that they made me feel very good, they made me feel optimistic about the future, they comforted me during a very difficult time, they caused me to value my children and my wife, they helped me devote the time and energy that my callings required, they made me feel appreciated and accepted and loved. They made me feel like I was home–or at least in the same neighborhood as home.
Perhaps what I felt was a kind of spiritual hug from my ancestors and my God–their way of turning their hearts to me as I turned my heart to them. I like to think so. When my father died unexpectedly in 1991, and I went for a walk in the woods near a lake in North Carolina, wandering near the shore, wrestling with the reality of it all, I felt alone, abandoned, deserted in a way. I guess I always thought my father would be around, not necessarily next-door or nearby, just around, and it shocked me to discover that he would not.
But as I walked, a feeling came over me that he was not gone, that he was still with me and continued to support and to love me. I felt that he was simply in another realm, and that he was there with my great-grandmother, my great-grandfather and all the other ancestors I had gotten to know through my research over the years, people who had become real to me, people who loved and cared about me. Rather than being separated from him, I felt that at last he understood me and that he and I and the rest of my family were somehow united in a way I cannot explain. In a very lonely moment all I felt was love.
Love, that is the reward and goal of family history and temple work; a love that transcends space and time; a love that spans generations and years of misunderstandings and mistakes; a love that unites us with our heavenly parents and spiritual brothers and sister; a truly transcendent love, limited by nothing, the kind of love epitomized by Jesus; a love that in the end and along the way welcomes us to our final, true, and everlasting home.