Saturday, February 12, 2011

Treasures from Ancestral Hometown Visit

Snowed in, I guess you’ve heard that a lot of the country had a blizzard. So this gave me an opportunity to get some things done that I normally think I don’t have time to do. One of these things was to wash the dishes that I keep in my dish buffet. As I replaced some of them, my dishes from France took me back to my first trip to Europe and memories of my mom and our trip to her grandfather’s hometown.

I recently did an audio clip describing my ancestral hometown visit for our newly re-designed website (see and then seeing the dishes really took me back. I was a novice genealogist, way back then and this was way before internet and emails, I learned the ropes the old fashioned way. Anyway, my mom knew her grandfather came from France but nothing else. Don’t we all have these facts? We got some information from a cousin of my mom, with an address of some relatives she thought, that her father visited in 1931. Well this was almost 50 years later; this seemed like a dead end. But my mother was a bull dog genealogist, no stone unturned. She wrote them. Surprise, surprise, they answered! Some of the family still lived there. We did a genealogy dance that day.

Through the ongoing correspondence we had with them they translated, “We would like to visit someday” to “We are coming” and we were deluged with letters from other cousins to visit them too. So my mom, aunt and I decided to go.

I suggested since we were going all the way to Europe we should see some other things too, so did one of those “if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium tours”. Nice overview of lots of countries but nothing in depth and too rushed. When this was over we took a train from Paris to Metz, France where our elderly “cousin” had planned to meet us with a rose and a newspaper under his arm. This reminded me of something out of a 1940’s spy movie but was very endearing.

We were whisked away to meet about 100 cousins (well maybe 30) all with tables laden with food. French pastries are very hard to resist. We had a wonderful time, learning about our family, meeting relatives and sharing stories. Poor translators were working overtime.

After a few days in the city, we then were driven to the small village my great-grandfather was born. This is very small village near the border of France-Germany called Loutzviller. (I find it interesting he ended up in Louisville, KY)
He had been a blacksmith as his father and grandfather before him. The home he was born in was still there and three generations of the family lived there. They showed us a photo taken around 1900 of the home with the blacksmith shop attached, of course now it had been remodeled.

They showed us the room that the grandfather was most likely born in. Amazing. We walked through the village to the centuries old church, saw where the family had been baptized, married and buried from. The altar had a large canopy over it, something like what is over the altar at St. Peter’s in Rome. The story we were told then was how during WWII, the canopy was taken down and hidden in a nearby cave, they were afraid it would be damaged during the war. As this village was near the border of Germany it did suffer much damage and the church was pretty demolished, but they rebuilt using as much of the old material as they could and they were able to replace the canopy.

As I walked through this town and looked over the landscape that I know had not changed much in the century or so since my gr-grandfather left, I was filled with such emotion. He probably looked over this scenery one last time before he said goodbye to his mother. Was he excited to leave or sad? You who obsessively search for these elusive ancestors can understand how I felt. We know intimate details of these people’s lives, we’ve dug up every document of every important event in their life and to stand, finally, in his place, see the landscape he saw, walk his village streets, brings tears to your eyes and an emotion that is hard to describe. I felt him smiling down on us and for some silly reason, I felt at home too.

So, what do dishes have to do with this? While visiting this village we went to a local restaurant for a delicious regional lunch and the dishes they served it on contained scenes of village life from this part of Alsace-Lorraine. I had to have them. So we found out we could buy some and I promptly bought 8 plates and my mom bought 8 dessert plates.

For the rest of the trip I hand carried my precious cargo and although the memory of how it was to get through the airport way back then has faded, did we go through any kind of security in 1978? I do remember luggage with no rollers and bags packed with enough clothes for 2 months and my dishes that I had to get home. They made it and I still use them on special occasions. Every time I bring them out they remind me of our first ancestral trip, relatives that are now gone, the many years of joy I spent doing genealogy with my mom and the feeling of home I got in a very small village in France. I wish you all that feeling!

Have you had a feeling of home in an ancestor’s town, I would love to hear about it.

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