My parents were not immigrants, so my ancestral home is actually very close to where I grew up, yet it was a mystery to me for much of my life. I was raised in an upper-class home defined by abuse, dysfunction and unchecked mental illness. As a result, I am estranged from my father and stepmother. My real mother died when I was eight. My brother and I are the last surviving members of her side of the family.
Growing up, I saw my friends have loving relationships with their parents and other family members. The contrast between them and my own family forced me to examine what family really means. Is it mere blood ties? Is it obligation, a set of traditions, a shared culture? My own experience of family engendered none of these things.
I decided to seek a different definition. If I could not find what I was seeking in the present, perhaps I could find it by researching the past. Although my father was knowledgeable of his origins, he refused to share what he knows me with me, so instead I decided to take what little I knew and conduct my own investigation into our shared past.
I sojourned from St. Paul, Minnesota to Southwest State University, where I examined historical platte maps and other records that identified the rural, isolated farm that my father was raised on and my grandparents called home until their retirement. Along the way, I discovered some interesting things about my Belgian roots, and why my great-great grandfather Julius and other Flemish-speaking Belgians emigrated to southern Minnesota in the late 1800’s. I also learned that the family farm had been in my families’ name for over a hundred years, until the late 70’s when my grandparents sold it and moved on.
With a good road atlas and a bit of luck, I found the family farm, near Ghent, Minnesota. Possessing the midwestern value of minding my own business, I was wary of disturbing the current owner, but then I thought, this may be as close as I get to my heritage. What could it hurt to at least drive down the quarter-mile long gravel driveway and see the farm from the outside?
When I knocked on the door the elderly owner smiled and said I wasn’t the first Teerlinck to want to see the place. My uncle Paul had been by several years previous to my visit. She very graciously gave me a complete tour of the ancient farmhouse. I saw the rooms where my father and his four other siblings slept, the kitchen where my grandmother had cooked, the fields my grandfather, and his father, and his father’s father had all worked and made a living from. I could imagine all of it. The owner showed my apple orchards planted by my grandfather that still bore fruit, and massive cottonwood trees down by the creek that my great grandfather Julius probably planted while he was still a tenant farmer. After I bid my farewells, I drove another mile down the road and happened upon the small, well-kept St. Elois cemetery. I recalled hearing the name growing up, so I decided to poke around and see if I could find any family members.
I found them all, even my great grandfather Julius, buried beneath a monolith with the family name across. Here were my ancestors, at least the ones who came to America. Seeing the farm and the gravesite didn’t give me the sense of family I was looking for, but it made the past—and my connection to it—tangible and real. It gave me a solid foundation to stand on through providing me with an understanding of the people, the values and the land that helped shape me. I realized that I could keep looking if I wanted to. I could search family records from Belgium or elsewhere, but looking deeper into my European lineage was merely academic. There was no cohesive cultural influence left. My family was adrift, bound by nothing except the American ideal of leave-me-alone individualism. I did not feel any more Belgian than anyone else born and raised in Minnesota.
I realized that my father and his siblings had had a difficult, dysfunctional upbringing as well. My families’ past includes prejudice, abuse and rejection of children. It dawned on me that in addition to lack of access or religious proscriptions against of birth control, having a large family was something farmers often did not simply for any great love of children, but as a means to breed ones’ own labor supply. I have no idea what circumstances—altruistic, utilitarian or pure chance—related to my father and his siblings’ sireage, but on the very rare occasions my dad talked about his childhood, the thought often crossed my mind that there was no love in his family of origin either.
In any case, I was not looking for or imagining an idealized, bucolic past. I merely wanted truth, and I clung to every nugget of information I gleaned through a process that at time felt like wringing water from a stone. I now have the names, birth and death dates of many of my ancestors. I have touched the land on which they lived and died. I have seen their final resting place. I have entered their home, and stood beneath the trees they planted, living monuments to their existence.
Having seen the past, I could now be free of it, and free to look forward to the future. I was grateful to my ancestors for the toil it took to blaze the path that lead to me and my brothers’ eventual existence. I could remake and redefine a concept of family that was right for me, not shackled by chance or blood ties, but by the relationships I choose to cultivate, by mutual love and respect as well as obligation. Through my brother’s child, we have now become just another link in the great chain that binds us all.