Climbing Family Trees: Letters Link This Family by Kelly J. Watkins

Climbing Family Trees

More great stories, poems, and helpful hints about genealogy and searching for your family's roots from the twin authors of "Climbing Family Trees: Whispers In The Leaves"

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Letters Link This Family by Kelly J. Watkins

“Letters Link this Family”

Kelly J. Watkins


In 1870, my great great grandfather, Conrad, came to America from Germany. He was 18 years old and alone. Letters provided the only contact he had with his family. He wrote to the them faithfully. As the years went by, Conrad encouraged his children to keep contact with their family in Germany. Eventually, letters were no longer from brother to brother, but rather, from cousin to cousin and then to ever-more-distant cousin.

Correspondence became more challenging during the wars. When World War II came to an end, my grandmother in the U.S. sent care packages to our relatives in Germany. One of our cousins was dying of a stomach ailment. The only thing that gave him relief from pain was cocoa. As you can imagine, in post-war Germany, everything was rationed. There was no cocoa to be found. My grandmother wanted to help, but she knew she couldn’t just mail off a tin of chocolate and expect it to arrive. It would be confiscated long before it ever reached our family.

My grandmother was a smart woman. She finally hatched a plan to remove the lining from a coat, hide the cocoa there, and re-sew the lining. She included the coat with other items and mailed the package. Later, we discovered that the precious cocoa she sent cocoa provided the only relief from pain my cousin had until he died.

Even as a young child, I knew the importance of a letter from Germany. I still remember the excitement that filled the air when we received a thin, fragile envelope with red and blue slash marks on the edges and the word “Luftpost” stamped on the front. My mother would stop whatever she was doing and read the letter.

In 1970, my mother and I went to Germany. It was the first time the two branches of the family had been together since Conrad came to America 100 years before. When Mom and I arrived in the tiny Bavarian village of Weickenbach, we were greeted by our cousin Adolf and his wife Hannelore. Herzliche Wilkommen! Welcome!

Our ancestral home was built in the late 1600’s and has been in our family ever since. Over time, it has been expanded and renovated. I was delighted to discover it had indoor plumbing!
The staircase in the foyer stood as a testament to time. Each wooden step had an indentation in the middle. You could almost see the tiny feet of children running up the stairs and the weary feet of their parents following behind. Three centuries of feet – fast, slow, happy, sad, healthy, ill – had all made an impact on the wooden steps and the lives of those who lived in the house.

At the top of those stairs, on the left, is a bedroom. But, it’s not just any bedroom. My great, great grandfather, Conrad, was born in this room, and, his father before him, and his father before him! Yes, I have slept in the room where my fourth great grandfather was born!

Charcoal renderings of these ancestors hung on the wall. You could almost feel their spirits, as they smiled down on us from heaven. Back in the house’s main room, Adolf showed us a small box. He opened it with care. Inside was every letter my mother and grandmother had ever written to him. He begged us to never stop writing.

When I returned for my fourth visit in 1987, I was older and wiser, and I understood more. You see, a road ran beside the village of Weickenbach, and on the other side of the road was . . . the East German fence. The communist border came right to the edge of the town.

After World War II, all the neighbors on the other side of the road ended up in the East. They were removed from their homes and sent far into the interior of the country. The Communists were afraid the neighbors in the West would be tempted to help them escape. My family never saw their friends again.

I stood on the side of the road. In front of me was a fence, then, a field. It was called “no man’s land.” Since there were land minds buried in the field, no man wanted to walk on it. Beyond that were small houses for the dogs. Beyond that were towers. Inside a tower, one guard was watching me through binoculars. Another guard was watching me through the scope of a gun.

As I stood there, I realized how close my family had come to being on the other side of that fence, field, land mines, dogs, guards, and guns. If so, they would’ve been moved away, and I would have never seen them again. Instead, I’m able to stay connected with my family and my heritage and sleep in my ancestral home that’s over 300 years old – all because of where somebody drew a little bitty line on a map.

Since that initial trip in 1970, our cousins have visited us in America four times. They attended my wedding and my sister’s. I’ve also managed to return to Germany for several visits. The last trip was for my cousin Peter’s wedding. During that trip, I noticed that my elder cousins were beginning to age. At some point, it will be up to me and the next generation of my German cousins to keep up the traditions. We must maintain the family ties and continue to write. Who knows? Maybe next time, they will be sending me clothing, or food, or money.

What a huge responsibility we have. Yet, what a phenomenal opportunity it is also. It is such a comfort to know they will always be there for me, and I will always be there for them. After all, we are family.

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