Posted August 4, 2014 (From 7-25-14 edition of The Herald)
By COLE BENZ | Herald Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week my wife and I had the pleasure of meeting a distant relative of hers from Norway. Bjorg Marit and her husband Leif traveled to the United States from Stavanger, Norway.
The trip was two years in the making, and they spent about four days in area researching some of her family lineage. Bjorg is the distant cousin of my wife’s grandmother, and shares the surname ‘Oakland.’
I don’t have any experience with traveling abroad (with the exception of Canada), so anytime I am given the opportunity to converse with people from around the globe I try to take full advantage.
Now, I’m sure most of the questions we asked were standard ones they hear every time they talk with a new group of Americans. What’s the food like? What’s the weather like? Do you have McDonalds? How about Pizza Hut or Dominoes?
But after navigating through some of those questions and discussing some of the cultural differences, the conversation moved to the purpose of their trip. Connecting with family.
After we had been talking for a while two things in the conversation stuck out to me.
The first was how families from Europe often were divided after one sibling decided to pick up and move to America, leaving behind friends, family and the culture in the hopes of finding success in the United States.
I can’t begin to imagine what that may have been like. Sailing halfway across the globe, knowing that communicating with your relatives would not be easy, and sometimes would be near impossible.
Now, I don’t like the cliche’ “they didn’t have Facebook or the Internet back then,” when referring to the communication obstacles they faced. No, I like to consider other luxuries they didn’t have, that we today consider outdated and archaic.
A simple hand written letter could take weeks to make it across the ocean and into the hands of relatives they left behind. So staying connected proved to be a struggle along the way.
My second thought as we sat there listening was just how incredible it was that even in the 21st century, many of us are only three or four generations removed from our immigrant relatives. I was just amazed at how things unfolded for the Oakland family as I listened to ‘how this relative left’, ‘this relative stayed’, and now to see how both families unfolded to the people they are today.
It also speaks to the wonders of humanity. Here we have two sets of families, separated by culture and geography, that at one time broke bread with each other every day of their lives.
It’s in part to today’s wonderful leaps of technology and we are able to close the gap. Reconnecting with long lost relatives is no longer a cost draining activity and can be done from the comfort of an office chair. Though Bjorg and her husband will return to Norway, the bridge of communication has been built, and it’s sturdier then ever.
I’d be lying to you if I said this experience didn’t give me a little inspiration to research my own family heritage. Past my grandparents, I’m not sure how things unfolded, and I’d be very interested to see the pathway the Benz family name took to get to the plains of North Dakota.
There is something to the saying ‘how can you know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’ve been?’ I feel like I would appreciate where I am today if I knew what my relatives had to overcome then in order make a life here in the United States.
Each of us has a story of how our families came to be. Most people in the area have ancestors that endured harsh winters, drought, sickness, and bouts of solitude.
But it’s because of them, and their enduring desire to survive and succeed, that we sit here today.
Do you have an interesting story about your heritage? Please, tell us on our Facebook page or through a letter to the editor.