“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from.”
— Alex Haley
A few days ago, I time-traveled on a sidewalk in Findlay, Ohio. This was my sixth, maybe seventh, stop of the day. I had spent the majority of the day lurking. There was also a fair amount of loitering. I have this to say about the good people of Findlay: they are either the most trusting souls or the worst neighborhood watch group ever.
My great-grandmother, Jeannette, was born in Findlay in 1902. She would live there until she went off to college — a feat for a female in 1920. She later married, and all of us descended from her would grow up elsewhere.
Nonetheless, Findlay loomed large in memories and stories. It is where her extended family remained. Some of them I haven’t “known” in any real capacity since I was a teenager. Most I never met at all.
My mother and I made a trip — a pilgrimage really — to visit Findlay, Ohio. We wanted to visit the various homes where our ancestors had once lived. We had a plethora of addresses and family photos spanning more than a century.
We stood in front of a home that had been in the possession of some member of the family for well over a century up until recently. It now stood empty, having been purchased by a local university, in that way that progress often swallows up neighborhoods.
The vacancy is why I felt comfortable traipsing around the yard as if I did, in fact, own the place. I suppose that explaining that my great-great-grandfather had purchased it fair and square in 1914 wouldn’t hold much water with the law, but I was willing to argue my case if necessary.
I had never set foot inside 203 Trenton Ave., but it somehow felt like a homecoming. What I felt standing on that sidewalk was a connection. It suddenly clicked. A whole plethora of family photos — many memorized by me over the years as I marveled at 1918 fashions or 1920s hairstyles — were taken in THIS yard. THIS is the house glimpsed in the background. This place. My people. They lived. They were here.
A sweet second, possibly third, cousin texted, “Grandpa was very proud of his home.” I felt this bond with a man who, being house proud over a century ago, laid landscaping that remains to this day.
Her “Grandpa” was my great-great-grandfather. He died nearly three decades before I was born. The lovely Myrtle, his wife, stood proudly in front of a glorious cascade of rose bushes in a photo taken decades earlier. My mother dutifully stood in the same spot for a snapshot.
The rose bush is a stub barely breaking through the ground. The fence is gone. The background, a neighboring house, remains unchanged.
I freely and of my own free will admit that I embarked on my first-ever foray into a life of crime: I took a rock. I have no way of knowing if my grandparents had that exact stone during their time there, but I would like to think they did. It’s at my home now.
For the record, I have my eye on that rosebush too. I hope I didn’t just make all of my readers an accessory to a crime.
Across town, on another sidewalk, I pulled out a photo I have enjoyed over the years. Young Jeannette, perhaps 5 years old, being pulled in a wagon by her Aunt Mollie.
We know they lived at both 605 and 609 Cherry St. I stood in front of 609 and held up that 1907 photo and knew. Instantly, I was in the right place. The view was the same, with a few more houses and a different sidewalk, but still, it was undeniable. This was the spot where they had stood 116 years earlier on another sunny day.
What drew me to this place? What is this pull to stand where they stood? To see the sunlight slant across the landscape in the way they did? Their existence lives on with us. We feel bonded in a way that is bigger than the limit of geography and time.
Although I’ve never met George J., George E. or George R., respectively (and in that order), Myrtle, Edith or Henry, I love them. I belong to them. Peering into the many family photos and clippings, I feel like I know them.
I believe we have our ancestors threaded through our blood and bones: a cowlick here, a dimple there. Boywonder’s jaw. Girlwonder’s eyes. Sometimes it feels like I still have pieces of my childhood — and those of my ancestors — embedded in my soul.
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