Tracing ancestors makes history come alive Print
Grand Mom
Thursday, Apr. 21, 2011 -- 12:00 AM

grand mom

Must we live through a lot of history before we love history? Must we be an antique before we appreciate antiques?

My fascination with ancestors just took off this year when Janine, my daughter-in-law, discovered a Luxembourg Museum in her Wisconsin territory. For Christmas she and my son John bought me a year’s membership and took me for a visit soon after. What an exciting adventure!

The Luxembourg American Cultural Society (LACS) is a beautifully restored museum located in Belgium, Wis.

A place filled with history

The first thing to greet us as we enter is the massive, two-story tree in the center on which hang beautiful brass leaves engraved with Luxembourg family names, most of which I had repeatedly heard growing up in Aurora, Il.

The main room opens on to several other rooms filled with historical photographs, posters, and objects that tell the story of this tiny country tough enough to survive the bullying of generations of nations 10 times their size.

Suddenly my mind was flooded with memories of Bob’s and my trip to Luxembourg in 1984, where we found pages of Fixmers in the phone book, but not many Mettels. We argued about whether his family had been tough enough to stay there? Or my family had been smart enough to all come to America?

We were soon greeted by an energetic young man who introduced himself as Kevin Wester, the organizer and director of the museum. On hearing I was from Aurora, Ill., he promptly asked, “So how are things at Annunciation Church?”

I was amazed that he knew about my father’s home parish.

Ancestors build memories

Within minutes he had me poring through old anniversary issues of the Annunciation parish books. There I found, much to my delight, portraits of my great grandfather, Johann Mettel, who, along with two other men, was responsible for building the first Catholic church in Big Woods, the north east part of Aurora, where my parents and dozens of my relatives are buried in the church property.

In another book entitled, Luxembourgers in Aurora, by Fr. Joseph J. Lies, I read that the Mettels were given credit for bringing dramatic arts and music to the community. (Is that where my generation and my children’s get their artistic talents?)

The search is on

This information fueled my fire. (And, of course, watching the stimulating television series, Who Do You Think You Are? where celebrities unearth their ancestral background, also helped). I wanted to learn more about my paternal ancestors, the Mettels, so I started by consulting my friend, Bruce, who has been studying genealogy for years.

He showed me how easy it is to go online to In no time at all we came up with census reports, marriage and death records, and best of all, the location of a Web site of a fifth generation who had already done most of the research on the Mettel family all the way up to my older siblings.

All I had to do was add my younger sister, myself, our children, grandchildren, and great- grandchildren, and those of my three older siblings. Come to think of it, that’s a daunting task in itself, isn’t it?

Learning the stories

What we really care about, though, are the people. What brought my great-grandfather here in 1862? Lots of them were trying to escape conscription into the Prussian army, but we were in the midst of our own Civil War. Did that influence their choice of the Midwest?

We need to know their stories. When we get the facts, however, it’s easy to imagine some of the stories. Or better yet, ask for the stories!

Now that I have some names of fifth and sixth generations, maybe I can contact them and get them to write about a special relative they remember.

In 1992 a relative on my mother’s side of the family published a valuable book of the Brummels from 1795 to the present. It included more than 3,000 names with cross references that could locate families by current location as well as their lineage. The most cherished pages, however, were the prose stories about individual people.

Tracing ancestors makes history come alive and is a humbling experience.

My grandmother, Elizabeth Mettel, and my great-grandma, Johanna Mettel, also like me, each had 10 children. When I think about the conditions of their lives, the birthing at home, the lack of appliances, the hauling of water, the cooking on wood stoves, and the growing of their own food, I am ashamed to remember complaining about my hard life.

It makes me thankful for the easy life I have today, the education I was able to get, and the faith my ancestors fought to preserve.

And the computers we have today to keep their stories alive and preserve them for our descendants.

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