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This quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies
and lads and girls.
Was laughter and ability and sighing,
And frocks and curls. --Emily Dickinson,

Becoming an Ancestor

--by Natalie Zett, Jul 30, 2021

Did you know that we're all on our way to becoming someone's ancestor? It's true. We're all future dead people, and 100 years from now, someone like me will come looking for you. I know this for a fact because that's what I do. I'm a family historian. A family storyteller. Families usually have at least one in each generation, much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We're a bit obsessive about what we do.  

You say you have no interest in family history or genealogy? Perhaps you never knew your biological family. Maybe you're estranged from them. Or you have zero interest in learning about your ethnic heritage. 

Regardless, on your way to becoming an ancestor, you have lived, yes? You have stories about the paths you've forged, the roads taken--and not taken-- and your dreams. In the future, someone like me will want to know you. My life might be changed knowing that you existed. I might be empowered by knowing that you and I once had the same dreams. It happens. 

What if my story can help get your story underway? Let's give it a try:

My interest in family history began at a literal dead end: Grandview Cemetery in Johnstown, Pennsylvania where I first learned to talk to the dead.

Located in the Laurel Mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania, Johnstown's scenic location belies its tragic history as the site of one of the worst catastrophes on American soil. On May 31, 1889, the Great Flood tore through Johnstown, destroying the city and killing 2,209.

My life is intertwined with this tragedy. Not only was I born there, but all four of my grandparents immigrated to Johnstown from Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most survived the Flood and got on with their lives. They owned stores, worked in the coal mines, raised families, and died. Many rest in Grandview, near the 777 unknown people who perished in the Flood.

Visiting the graves of our departed at Grandview is a significant part of the mosaic of my earliest memories. This ritual always included my parents recounting their relatives' stories, and I heard the stories so often throughout the years that I could repeat them verbatim. Maybe that was my parents' idea all along. 

Set high on a hill overlooking the city, Grandview was an outdoor museum of ornate monuments, sculptures, and humble headstones. Once inside its gates, the outside world evaporated. We now were in a world where we --the living--were the minority.  

As a child, I loved zigzagging between the graves and pausing trace the engraved lettering etched in the headstones with my finger. While running near the markers of the Flood's unknown dead, I stopped. These white stones had no writing on them. Why were they different? 

"No one knows who they are," replied my mother, when I asked about the stones with no names.

I was about four years old and trying to understand this anomaly.

"Were they people like us? Were they moms, dads, boys, and girls?" I asked.

"Yes," said my mother, who added, "No one will ever know their names or their stories." 

"Oh no!" I thought and began a one-sided conversation with the stones.  

"What is your name? How old are you now? Are you a boy or a girl?"

If I asked the right questions, I thought I might get an answer. 

Someone should do something about these unknown people, I thought. The Dead with no names from the Flood remained with me, just beneath the surface of my life.

"When I grew up, I put away childish things," 1 Corinthians 13:11.

Grandview recollections, along with other memories, eventually took a backseat. Our family left Johnstown for Cleveland, and my heart broke since I ached for the living and dead relatives we left behind. That loss gave birth to a deep restlessness, and while I understood that my Dad had to take a job in Cleveland to support our family, this new place never felt like home. 

My restlessness eventually morphed into wanderlust. At 18, I left Cleveland for school in Ann Arbor. The Johnstown family who remained discouraged me from returning since the employment situation had worsened since our family left. My favorite cousin challenged me to "explore the world until your restlessness calms down."

No matter how hard I tried, no matter where I lived– Ann Arbor, Detroit, or even the UK – finding my place in the world seemed out of reach.

Until Minnesota! 

As I was finishing college in Cleveland, a friend invited me on a road trip to Minnesota. Why not? I'd never been to the upper Midwest and thought it would be fun. I will forever remember that bend in the road on I94 where I first saw downtown Saint Paul. I had a visceral reaction—feeling imaginary butterflies in my stomach.  In tandem, my heart fluttered and flip-flopped. I'd never seen Saint Paul and, yet I was responding to it. 

"This is it!" I said to my friend, "I'm moving here!"

"What? You haven't even seen it yet! What's gotten into you? You're never this impulsive!" she said.

"I know it's right," I said. 

That impulse paid off. I relocated to the Twin Cities to attend grad school one year after that fateful trip. I needed to reboot my young adult life, so moving over 700 miles from family and old friends was liberating. Also, as a freelance journalist, I became enmeshed in the Twin Cities' vibrant arts scene and loved every second of that. On my journey to reinventing myself, I met others who became like a family. I also built a solid IT career and continued working as a freelance journalist.  I lacked for nothing.

I especially cherished writing for community newspapers where I profiled local "ordinary" people with amazing life stories. I once got a thank-you note from a daughter of a woman I’d 

interviewed. "My Mom just passed away, " she wrote. "And you will never know how much your article about her meant to her and to us."

In 1996, the Dead were finally talking back to me--that year, my Dad died. I should mention that my relationship with my family strengthened after I moved to Minnesota. I'd visit a few times a year and found that absence really did make the heart grow fonder for all of us.

The night before he died, I called him in hospital and said, "I love you, Dad." For the first time, he said, "I love you too." Several hours later, he was gone. 

That following year, I was broken, filled with grief and regret. As that first year of mourning concluded, I received a bulging 10 x 13 envelope in the mail from my Mom's older half-sister from Chicago, who I thought was dead. Now in her mid-eighties, Aunt Pearl was briefly a reporter for a Chicago paper in the 1930s and soon she would demonstrate her journalistic chops. While trying to wrestle a large manuscript from the envelope, a yellowed newspaper clipping also fell and cascaded toward the kitchen floor.

The clipping showed images of four young people. I recognized one surname--Pfeiffer--since that was my maternal grandmother's maiden name. But this young woman was not my grandmother. She was Martha Pfeiffer, and the word "missing" was written above her name. This clipping was from the July 25, 1915, Chicago Herald. Although the headline was partially hidden, I could make out the words "the Eastland Tragedy." 

What on earth

I read the note my aunt had attached to the 38-page typewritten manuscript. She told me that she knew I was also a writer, and it was time to pass on her life’s work—the history of my grandmother’s family-- to someone “who will doing something with it.”  She never said what.

I grew transfixed on the yellowed newspaper clipping and manuscript and stayed up all night, examining the documents for the meaning--and the meaning behind the meaning.

I learned that after the Flood, my grandmother's parents and siblings left Johnstown for Chicago. Later, my grandmother returned to Johnstown,  married my grandfather and had my mother. My mother was just three when her mom died. My mother remained in Johnstown and only kept in occasional contact with my grandmother's Chicago family. 

Growing up, I met Aunt Pearl once but didn't understand how we were related. 

At 2:00 AM, I learned the details about my grandmother's sister and the ship that killed her.  My great-aunt Martha died at age 19 while aboard The Eastland, which capsized while moored in the Chicago River, killing 884. Chartered for Western Electric's annual picnic on July 24, 1915, The Eastland never left Chicago.

I alternated between reading Pearl's manuscript and searching the internet for anything on the Eastland (and prayed the AOL online dial-up wouldn't disconnect). This was 1997, and the internet was not the vast repository it is now. I found very little.  

How can there be next to nothing about "Chicago's Titanic"? I promised my Great-Aunt Martha that I would correct that in the only way I knew how: I'd write it to right it. And I began adding my paltry findings to a legal pad, hoping I could eventually weave these scraps and shards into a full-blown story. I had to. I promised Martha.

By 3:00 AM, I was scouring Pearl’s manuscript and saw more names, dates, locations—and vignettes that she added. I was so over-the-moon to know my great-great-grandparents names that I glossed over their immigration details. They immigrated from what is now Poland to a places I knew well. How could I not? They were just across the border in western Wisconsin, near Eau Claire, where I'd often visited college friends. Eau Claire was just over an hour away from Saint Paul. It sunk in that I had returned to ancestral lands without trying. And I also learned that another branch from that family relocated to northern Minnesota.

By 4:00 AM, my brain felt like scrambled eggs. My blood knew what my mind never learned and led me to the mothership. How was that possible? 

Epilogue: There's more to the story but it’s time to stop I at an interesting place and return to you. Oh, if you're wondering, I kept my promise. I virtually dredged the Eastland tragedy from the murky Chicago River via several articles and one book that's being finished. I also met many descendants of my great-great grandmother's children in Western Wisconsin and Minnesota. They welcomed me as if they were waiting for me. Have you ever been to a family reunion of over 300 people where you knew next to no one? I recommend it since it will blow your mind!

Don’t be inspired by my story. Instead, please take action. Will you create a family tree or maybe take a DNA test? If not, then promise that you'll record your life stories (using whatever mechanism/media you like). Have them ready for that relative, that descendent, who is not yet born. Give her a chance to know you because she will come to love and care for your stories after you’re gone. Give her something, please, but make it just slightly out of her reach, so she sharpens her research skills. She's going to need them!  


For more inspiration from Natalie, tune into this in-depth conversarsationwith her: Family Stories, Timeless Connections

Natalie Zett is an award-winning journalist and genealogy researcher with a passion for finding family stories and making lost relatives come to life.


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