“You might want to look through Dad’s stuff, the boxes in the spare room,” my brother Craig said to me over the phone. I was visiting his house in Cincinnati in early May. He had left for work earlier that morning. “I’m not sure what’s in there.”
The rest of the afternoon found me sitting on the floor of my brother’s living room, pictures and documents spread around me, as I took photo after photo of family genealogy documents, histories, and old photographs.
The material I’d pulled out of storage had been sorted into 9 x 12 manila envelopes. The outsides were labelled with names — PATTERSON — HOPPENSACK — MCINTOSH — GRESSLE — but I soon discovered the contents did not match the labels. In my dad’s dotage (he passed away in 2009), I remembered how he used to mix everything up. I had a clear vision of him sitting in his assisted living room, through a drugged haze of Parkinson’s, anti-depressants, and other meds, attempting to compose his “autobiography.” These materials had no doubt been spilled across his coffee table to jog his memory, then stuffed back in confused disarray.
It amazed me that I had none of this stuff when I was writing my novel The Last of the Blacksmiths. I had letters, tin-types and other photos, a family tree, plenty of other paraphernalia, but this material I had not seen.
One document in particular took my breath away: an 1858 confirmation certificate for “Elisabeth Crolli,” Michael Harm’s future wife.
I had guessed Elizabeth Crolly was religious. Here was impressive evidence — from a church I’d guessed her family had attended — Zum Schifflein Christi (The Little Boat of Christ) German Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Somehow, through DNA? or instinct?, I’d also guessed my great-great grandmother was very devoted to her faith. Now, I beheld the evidence of her confirmation, carefully pasted to a stiff backing and preserved, a message to descendants five generations later regarding what this German American held dear.