Omaha, Nebraska

Grandfather Jacob, his wine glass raised, as if standing for communion at his Lutheran church stood addressing the Mengelder family on Thanksgiving Day. Forty-eight of us crowded together at my grandparents’ home for the annual family reunion.

“Does this sound familiar?” Jeremy quipped, whispering to me.

“You think? Yes, just a little.” I said, whispering back. “But let him have his moment. It is important to him. He only wants to remind us of the virtues of family values, our beginnings and rich heritage, all of the above we have been taught growing up.” I said. We all bunched together, anxiously waiting for him to finish while he delivered his speech, “embracing family, country, and freedom” once again.

“When our family came here in 1889 they earned the right and privilege of American citizenship. They embraced a new world, a new country. They could vote, go to church, worship God openly, without fear. They could attain an education, exercise free speech, without persecution or imprisonment.  They could visit  friends and not worry about spying eyes, or listening ears. No opportunities were taken for granted.  They were patriots. Today, we are Americans in a free world that will one day seek to return to all once gained, that is now all but lost.”

Winding it up, he said, “At such times as we live in, there might be intervention by the evil one to take our most esteemed privileges from us and place in its stead the works of men with ruinous strife and hatred. But we will fight for our rights and with dignity we will stand before our flag and God, and declare our country, built with pride, perseverance, and respect for all. To God, our flag, our family, and our freedoms.”

At that point, grandfather took a sip from the wine glass in his right hand, while holding a little American flag in his left hand marking the occasion and the day of ‘thanks’ as we raised our glasses, the younger ones their soft drinks, and my uncles their beers, pronouncing a toast to, “freedom, democracy and liberty of one nation, and its people.”

“Hip, hip, hooray! To our flag, freedom, and the grand old U.S.A.”, shouted Chad  with a smart mouthed smirk, gulping down his Coke.

“Here, here! Let us pilgrims march forth into victory. And dinner.” declared John.

“Cheers to the red, white and blue. Cheers to me, and you.” Ben said, rhyming.

My cousins, even uncles enjoyed a good laugh, not meant to be at the expense of grandfather Jacob. It was just that he tended to be a bit overly dramatic, and long-winded when they stood waiting to load up their plates with mounds of homemade German dishes, roast turkey, strudel and pies.

When he was done and the prayer said we raced to our seats at crowded tables spilling out of the dining room, living room and kitchen. It was enough to freak out a fire marshal. Diving into dinner, attacking our food with gusto, we made a noisy bunch, laughing, joking, everyone talking at once in true Mengelder style.

Grandfather Jacob sat at the head of the dining room table in his chair looking every bit the dignified, suited patriarch of the family clan. His once thick silver-gray locks now ringed his pink crown like a soft white halo that glowed in the sunlight pouring through the dining room window. His wire rimmed glasses framing his dark brown eyes twinkled with merriment for the festive occasion. But, when the mood was somber one saw the eyes of a passionate, intense man who masked nothing. High cheekbones with creased wrinkles on ivory skin bore the years of time and age. He worked on the mounds of mashed potatoes, dressing, and corn custard beside a half eaten turkey leg, beaming his approval to the family cooks.  Another small plate with salad and rolls lay beside it disappearing just as fast. While eating he contributed to everyone else’s conversation, not missing a single moment to offer respectfully, his insight and thought on matters.

Grandmother Lisle sat beside him, eating daintily her smaller helpings of the same with the exception of a slice of white meat instead of a turkey leg. She and aunt Libby sat together, both discussing the ingredients in grandma’s Roasted Pecan Sweet Potato Pie sitting on the desert table, and the secret to a “flakier crust.”

Sitting beside my uncle Heinrich at the other end of the table I listened and nodded politely in agreement to all his ramblings about the “things wrong with our government, and all that needs to be fixed in Washington (DC).”

Except for looking a little tired and confessing to some indigestion after dinner grandfather Jacob seemed himself, enjoying the day and all the activity. Everyone else relaxed, watching football games on TV,  playing pool in the basement, or card games, eating pie with coffee. It was typical of all our past family gatherings, for a while.

The day was warm for late November. When grandfather walked outside for, “some fresh air” to watch my young cousins play kickball he claimed he needed, “a little exercise to work off the calories.” We joked about his shirt looking a “little tighter.”

“Can I join your game, for a while?” he asked the boys.

“Sure, grandpa.” Ben said, kicking the ball his direction.

Grandfather had a harder time keeping up with the ones he once bounced on his knees proclaiming them his “little patriots”. He jostled around, returning the ball a few times when suddenly he clutched his chest, collapsing to the ground.

Seeing it all from a kitchen window above the sink I raced through the back door, yelling at my father to come.

My aunt wasted no time calling an ambulance. We prayed he would be OK. But, he looked winded, his face red, perspiring as he struggled to breathe.

His words came slowly, his eyes turning to grandmother Lisle now sitting on the ground, as she lifted his head gently onto her lap.  “Tell them the truth. Make them…. proud….of… their heritage. My dear Lisle,… love. I will…see you, one day. Tell… Monica….”

Grandmother Lisle shook her head.“No, Jacob! You cannot leave me. There is no time for you to be sick.” she said, her voice breaking. She sobbed, imploring our help, praying for mercy.

My uncle and cousin tried CPR, not waiting for the paramedics to arrive. It was no use. A final breath, and he lay quiet. A white cloud moved across the midday sun as his eyes stared upward. A strange calm came over me as I looked down at his still form, realizing we had just lost him. In my mind I had an image of grandfather Jacob soaring through clouds, into the heavens, enlightening all the angels carrying him. And God smiling, while he “went on, and on,” his speech to all who would listen.

When the paramedics arrived their attempt to revive him was futile.  He was rushed to ER, but was pronounced dead from a “massive coronary,” turning our day of “thanks” into one of mourning.

A week later bouquets of flowers draped his coffin, as his Lutheran minister delivered the eulogy. The family gathered again in Omaha, Nebraska for his funeral, wept and mourned, then went home returning once again to busy lives, their jobs, all except me. It was grandfather Jacob’s wish to make me the “keeper” of our records, archive our history, and “preserve it for the coming generations.”

“Moni, – he always called me that – do not memorialize me when I am gone.  Learn the truth of our family’s history.  My grave will be but a stone to the quarry you will come to find. Learn our heritage. Write our story that it may be remembered. The patriotism to our country will live on in the hearts of the descendants that carry the banner of our beliefs. Those who value the words honored in our constitution will uphold the principles our nation’s founders swore to live by,” he wrote in his letter to me, saved and kept with his old German Bible, passport, photos and naturalization papers.

Known jokingly as the ‘reporter’ in the family I did not disappoint them, receiving my BA degree in journalism from UN, Lincoln, Nebraska. My father once told me, “Monica, develop your rapport with people instead of the report on them. Be sensitive to those whose lives and stories are subjected to someone else’s disclosure.”

As the creator of the literary press research paper, THE QUILL AND QUEST while in college I developed a web site and blog, enhancing it with new features.  By updating our site daily our readers could read articles, post and blog on political issues at home and abroad. Our newest feature; genealogy and archival research on diverse ethnic groups became a special project promoting interest, inquiries and questions from people wanting to research their ‘family tree,’ many of them becoming regular contributors or bloggers. Its success drew the interest of other professors and students majoring in history and genealogy studies in other schools. German, Russian and East European Jewish ethnic history became the most popular of our research project. And my obsession.

After earning my Master’s degree in history and genealogy studies I began assessing what I had on my own family history. Grandmother Lisle and I went through old documents, files and photos during our coffee talks, always with a plate of her “fresh from the oven,” Oatmeal Raisin cookies, my favorite.

Carefully turning pages of grandfather Jacob’s German Bible, I read the scrawled names, birth and death dates on family record pages, personal notes, mementos and bookmarks stuffed inside, even favorite scriptures underlined and noted.

The worn, antiquated passport of my great-grandfather with pages as fine as tissue spilled loosely into my hands, well over a hundred years old now. Names and dates of family members’ immigration were scribbled on lines in Old Russian Cyrillic script.

Then she brought out another box. A kind of reverence settled over it like the dust collected as she explained their historical significance and importance to the family. With awe I watched as she pulled things out, and it was then I learned a secret kept, like a hidden piece to a puzzle needed to complete the picture. And I realized the reason for grandfather Jacob’s fanatical patriotism.

Months later grandmother Lisle became weak and frail after suffering the flu the previous winter. Unable to regain her strength and recover she died peacefully in her sleep. Our family once again came together to mourn their loss. Like grandfather Jacob she believed anyone could be, “an American forging paths with a spirit of adventure and greatness,” like the first patriots and immigrants who came to shore pioneering the way.

We buried her a week later, laying her to rest beside grandfather Jacob. Their adjoining grave site now held another fresh bouquet of yellow daffodils, her favorite. It was Memorial Day.

While applying for a current passport and visa papers to travel abroad I received a call from the U.S. Genealogy Department of History and Research in Washington, D.C. wanting to interview me for a job. Three weeks later I was hired. Another four months of training and I was sent on assignment to Europe with a team of archivists. Then into Russia.



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