Posts Tagged ‘genealogy’

My grandfather took his place beside his own father, his legs far apart for balance as the ship leapt and surged, cutting through the raging open sea. A few feet away, the captain’s muttered prayer was lost to the creaking of the masts as the sails strained against the howling midnight wind. His frozen hands clutched the German bible, its pages flapping madly, but his darting eyes never saw the words. It was his first burial at sea, and bad luck for the ship and her crew.

SS Lessing

The crewmen’s eyes were filled with apprehension as they tipped the coffin headfirst over the rail. For a moment, my 16 year-old grandfather watched in horror as his mother splashed into the waves then he and Uncle Pete broke file, rushing aft to watch the box slide under as the ship hurried by to outrun the bad fortune that would surely follow them across the ocean. It felt like doom. Below decks, the younger ones were huddled two and three to their beds, the stinking wool blankets pulled up past their chins despite the strangling heat. In the dark their eyes were wide open. Their ears strained for the sound of their mama’s coffin as it hit the water.

They would remember the dark and the smell and the fear for the rest of their lives, but when they thought of moder, they remembered love.


Dear Anna, you could never know that your photograph would someday grace the wall of a distant daughter who would fly like a bird over the sea that swallowed you. That over a hundred years into the future, a child of your children’s children would find you on a yellowed ship’s manifest where the captain’s shaky handwriting survived the years to tell the story: You died from a fall one day into the voyage that would keep your sons safe from Kaiser Wilhelm’s war.



Your name was Anna. And you had a face like mine.

I need to tell you they made it to America. The SS Lessing arrived in New Jersey without another disaster. Peter and the children found shelter with other immigrants, and like them, set off to roam America in search of a home. Nearly a year later a letter from your eldest son found them in Chicago – all of them as gray and spent as the coal soot that rained down from the dirty city sky.

“Come to Nebraska where the soil is good and the land is free for the asking,” Erich wrote. It could not get worse, Peter decided.



In December of 1885 he packed up the children and their few belongings and headed west in an emigrant car. They rattled their way across Illinois and Iowa, until they came to Nebraska.

They dreamed of you, Anna, tending the hearth in the old family home they’d left behind. Each one wished for your warm and loving arms around them as they hunkered down for a wet winter in Chappell.

All around them the rivers, creeks, and gullies swelled from the snowmelt, overrunning the banks and taking all the newly established seedlings with it when it washed back into the downstream flow. With no firewood, Peter and the children filled gunnysacks with buffalo chips and bits of coal that blew off the passing trains.

They trudged along the track through the winter and spring, against battering snow and wind that whirled over the land and whistled eerily through the North Platte canyons. Then one July day, Peter rose restlessly before dawn, intending to hunt rabbit and prairie chickens. And he just kept going.

He rode south all the way to the Colorado farmlands that surrounded the South Platte.

Peter Jensen, SrHe let his horse lead the way up a rise, closer and closer to the clear blue Julesburg sky. Planting his feet on solid ground and turning in a slow circle, Peter saw forever across the golden grass. With his hat in his hand and his heart in his throat he spoke to the wind. Anna, he said, this is the place. I found America.

He thought of you as he raised your sons and daughters in a sod house near other Danish families whose mothers opened their arms wide to seven motherless children. He witched for water, planted beets, and healed the sick. He learned to speak English and argue American politics, and he got on a boat again in 1902 and went back across the sea, wondering where, in its vastness, you lay. Had he passed over the place?

They all survived but Erich, and I promise, Anna: Someday I will know what happened to your brave elder son who sailed alone across the dangerous sea to pave the way to freedom for his younger brothers.

Grandfather and Uncle Pete helped build the farmhouse you would have called home. The younger girls went to a one-room farm school with the little boys they would someday marry. Peter lived a long life on the prairie, free from war. He died a naturalized citizen in 1929, your children and grandchildren surrounding him in the hillside cemetery. A lone gravesite where I stood by him some seventy-five years later. I’d found him. I’d found you all.

You wonder who I am.

Grandfather Americanized his name. He built the first Post Office in a settlement called Sedgwick, where the Union Pacific train stopped for water on its way across northeastern Colorado. He married the schoolmistress and together they raised four sons who all looked a little like you.

Around 1920 they set out across Colorado toward the lush, green forests of the Pacific Northwest. Grandfather’s reckless second son logged the old growth forests, and would be remembered for running across the floating log booms, dancing and shouting his way from one spinning log to the other, a beer in each hand and his arms outstretched for balance – much as his only child reaches across time, searching for a balance of her own.

So when you finally meet someone with a slightly crooked smile that seems oddly familiar, and she wraps herself around you and calls you by name, it’s just me, reaching the end of my own journey across the great divide.

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