Who am I? Where did I come from? Why? How?
These questions have puzzling mankind since our brains swelled and we began to think. The frustrating thing about these queries is that they cannot be definitively answered. Philosophers, theologians, anthropologists and biologists will all give different explanations, and they all seem to make sense. (Brief shout out to a liberal arts education for teaching me this.)
I have recently become fascinated with figuring out the story of my life thus far. So, like the inquisitive human being I am, I tried to answer these questions, particularly in the context of my ancestry. I picked up the phone and called the experts on my heritage: my grandparents and parents.
I am fortunate to know all four of my grandparents. While I knew the basics of my background, they shed some light on where my forefathers lived. I am mostly German, with some Prussian and English thrown in.
Growing up, the only cultural remains were mere vestiges of holiday traditions. My grandmother makes crunchy spice cookies at Christmastime, called Peppernuts. These traditional German cookies are actually called pfeffernüsse.
Why do I look like I do?
With no sense of this historical culture, I decided to look at physicalities associated with my ancestors. I hoped to find the “why,” as in why do I look like I do, tall with light skin and hair, prominent eyebrows and slight spine curvature. This was a big mistake. Turns out there is a fine line between researching general German physical characteristics and radical Nazism and the Aryan race.
Where did I come from?
After striking out with physical attributes, I began to ask questions about my ancestors. I tried to see them as individuals with life stories rather than a faceless immigrant. This is harder than it seems. When is the last time you thought about the ambitions and agonies of your great-great grandparents?
One great-great grandfather was a German in Russia who fled the turmoil of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and traveled to many countries before settling in the states.
Some of my German ancestors can be traced back to the very farmhouse they grew up in. Others, like the man who is responsible for perpetuating my surname of “Brandt,” are simply mysteries, untraceable before their immigration paperwork was filed.
I learned how an ancestor and his cousin have different last names because workers at Ellis Island thought there were too many Asmuses in the world.
I was surprised to discover that I have relatives who fought in the American Revolution, as well as on both sides of the Civil War. My great-great grandmother went to college, an incredibly rare feat for the time.
I am fascinated with who I call “the Germans.” Why did they decide to pick up and move? How long did they hold on to their traditions? (I am assuming a long time, as they named their American born children traditional names like Meta, Wilhelmina, Hertha, Edwin and Hulda.) Mostly, I am fascinated with their timing.
My father likes to say that the Germans timed their journey right, arriving in the United States between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of German aggression in the WWI. I have so many questions for them. Did they face discrimination during the world wars? Did they ever feel at home here? How was farming different here than back home? Would they do it again?
Why am I the way that I am?
Next, I decided to look at learned behaviors I have seemingly inherited from my family, since they are easier to recognize.
I got a lot from my dad, like a love for museums and dark blue eyes. My mom taught me a love of sale shopping and how to see the good in things.
My love of the TV show “Murder, She Wrote” comes from my granny. She also gave me a love of learning, which she inherited from her mother. I have grandpa’s ability to talk with people and laugh, laugh, laugh. My grandma first taught me how to play the piano and sew, and grandpa helped me ask questions and taught me to fish and feed squirrels.
Am I more than the sum of my parts?
How could the parts of my family be so vastly different? Some literally helped shape America in two of its most significant wars, while others fled turmoil or landed in a country with open arms and plenty of land to farm.
I can only imagine the differences between these people, had they ever met: college-trained professionals and agrarian farmers. They spoke different languages. They lived in different places. It would be an almost comical scene, I think.
There is only so much we can learn about our ancestors—hazy memories, scraps of papers, faded photographs.
After much discussion and brain-busting thinking, I have decided that everyone should call their relatives and talk with them about these matters. It is fascinating.
One of my favorite memories is interviewing my Great-Grandma Leona before she died. It was fascinating, and gave us a chance to bond. More importantly, she shared her story with me. (We also took a selfie!)
I can’t explain the feeling behind the desire to ask these questions. My best guess is that it has something to do with the stage in life I am at. Right now the world is my oyster, and it is terrifying. The notion that I can be whoever I want to be is scary and maybe I am looking for a blueprint for the future.
Who am I?
Am I just a random collection of DNA? A walking human genome? Who, what, why?
My father summed it up after I kept pestering him to hear the story of my life, to know who I am, to put myself in a neat little box.
In a soft and slow tone, he told me what I am.
“You’re just a person,” he said.
And, like most dads across the world, he was completely correct.