Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Search for a Long-Lost Ancestor Reveals the Tree of Life

Like the old riddle about the man who is his own grandfather, I recently became the self-appointed guardian of my great-grandmother’s 7-year-old son.

Spurred by my new membership in, I became curious about what happened to my grandfather’s younger brother, who died at age 7 after being hit by a wagon, according to the story my grandfather had always told me. Having assumed responsibility several years ago for the Waldheim Cemetery graves of my mother’s four grandparents, it bothered me that little Paul was not buried near his parents, and I started wondering where he was.

I had heard, and been disturbed by, Paul’s story all my life. He was skipping bottle caps in front of their home on the West Side one day in 1914 when a horse-drawn wagon jumped the curb and crushed his leg. After five weeks in the hospital, he was about to be released when the doctors told his parents that the leg had been badly set, and he would be crippled for life unless they reset it. Paul never came out of the anesthetic they used. He died in mid-December. The little coffin was set across two chairs in the living room of their home.

I once referred to “Uncle Paul” when speaking of him to my grandfather and he immediately corrected me. “Paul,” he said, as if the concept of Paul being an uncle didn’t compute.

So last time I was at Waldheim, I inquired about Paul, and discovered a record of his grave. The cemetery provided me a guide who drove me over and helped me locate the grave. The Hebrew and English engraving on young Paul’s grave stone is barely legible now, but even before we figured out for certain that it was his, I found myself planted in front of a worn monument in the shape of a tree trunk. It was, indeed, Paul’s.

I have known Paul’s story all my life. Now I’m part of it. I love the idea that Paul will have a visitor again after so many years, and that I can “care for” the son of the woman for whom I was named. If our spirits live on through our children’s children and our namesakes, and in the hearts of those who cherish our memory, then little Paul really does belong to me, in a way. And I’m more than happy to tell his story and carry his spirit into future generations.

Janet Reed

1 comment:

Ellen Blum Barish said...

Janet: Thank you for this poignant and beautifully told story from your Jewish journey. It's a wonderful reminder of the riches we can find
in our own family story.