Let them speak once more:
Nothing brings back the voice of a long-gone immigrant, whose DNA you may be sharing, like a letter written by that person's hand. It affords an instant, poignant look into the circumstances, time, and relationships of that life. The immigrant letters speak of longing for far-away loved ones, of hardships and want, of transforming a wilderness and of splendid successes.
The 19th-century immigrant experience shaped our nation. It also changed the lives of those who stayed behind in the Old World.
"Letter from America" [Brief aus Amerika]
Painting by Berthold Woltze, German, 1860
Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin (used with permission)
A Touch of Immortality
What will your grandchildren remember about you? Will their children even know your name? Even if you have not hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety or solved the mystery of dark matter, your descendant will be very interested in you. I translate mostly 18th and 19th-century letters and diaries that are often thrilling in their detail about life in those times. Imagine your descendants in the 22nd century reading how you lived before the Internet and how you celebrated the new millennium. So let them know. Leave them a letter or two.
In my work of transliteration, transcription and translation of documents in the Old German handwriting, I have the privilege of meeting my clients' ancestors and learning about their lives. The oldest letters I have translated date back to 1658, the most recent to post-World War II Germany. Over and over the writers of the old letters asked their loved ones, "Keep me in your hearts and don't forget me." One letter I translated was from a young Union soldier of German descent. In late June of 1863, while his regiment took a short rest on its march through Maryland, he wrote to his family in beautiful Old German script, "And now the bugle is calling us to go on, so I have to close my letter. I send you all my love, farewell and don't forget me." Three days later he died at Gettysburg. His family never forgot him. Because of the letter, even his present-day descendants remember him with affection and pride.
Our tweets, texts and emails are as short-lived as mayflies. But personal letters can have a kind of immortality, especially when handwritten. The writer Ruth Ozeki observed, "Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction with the reader's eye. Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin." It's possible of course that your descendants will not be able to read cursive, since many schools no longer teach it, but being your descendants they'll be bright and will hire someone like me to transcribe.
The Plains Indians had a saying: "A people who forgets its past is like the wind in the buffalo grass." The same can be said of families. So write a letter to your children, your grandchildren, your niece and nephew. Tell them about a day in your life, how you met your spouse or partner, who was president at the time. Tell them about your first car, if you raised bees, and the kindest thing you ever did. Ask them to save your letter for their children. And tell them to write their own letters. It's a little like being immortal.Irene McDonald
A case in point is the following letter from a client:
"Irene, thank you for opening this window into the past! Your translation of the letter written by my German ancestor in the mid 1800s allowed us to determine exactly how he fits on the family tree. This letter had been passed down through the family until there was no one left who could read it. It also gave us insight into his personality and a snapshot of history. Thank you for your helpfulness and suggestions and doing such a great job."
L. Dorschell, Ontario, Canada
The "Ancestor Effect"
Regardless if our ancestors were emigrants or immigrants, or if they stayed put all their lives, thinking about them may have unexpected benefits for us, their descendants. Does thinking about our ancestors make us smarter? Could it help us land a better job? Farfetched as it may seem, a recent study conducted by Austrian and German scientists indicates just that. The scientists' findings are presented in the article "The Ancestor effect: Thinking about our genetic origin enhances intellectual performance." (European Journal of Social Psychology, 41: 11–16)
The article makes interesting reading for anyone but particularly for genealogists. As genealogists we already knew that getting to know our forbears is intriguing and enjoyable. Now we also know that it's good for our brains.