I have no recollection of my maternal grandfather. Not one glimmer of a memory of him is in my noggin. We were living in Kansas or Nebraska or somewhere away from North Dakota when I was little. Grandpa died when I was about 18 months old. All I have to remember him by are old photos that appear to be originally done in Sepia, stories told by my mother, and now and then stories told by my father or brother.
Grandpa was an immigrant from the area of Danzig, Germany. Born in 1873 to a German mother and a Polish father he came to America around the age of 12. My brother thinks Grandpa came through Ellis Island, but I’m not finding records there. He might have come through a port of entry in Maine or even Canada and then made the trip to Chicago to apprentice in the shoe business with an uncle.
My mother told me a lovely story about how he was raised Lutheran. The story goes that when he came to America he wanted to be an American and he decided that the grandest churches would be the heart of America. He went around Chicago and settled on Catholicism because of the great Cathedral.
Having done genealogical research it appears he was always Catholic. Poles are Catholic and his father was Polish. Perhaps this is a case of playing the game of “telephone” through the generations.
My late uncle by marriage created a book on his wife’s family complete with a huge wall chart and it is riddled with errors. In 2010 I worked for the Census and learned how easy it is to introduce errors into the system. Consequently, I think conversion story is enchanting, but suspect.
There are other parts to the story. Allegedly, having settled on Catholicism the priests in Chicago determined he’d be a fantastic religious cleric and sent him to seminary for a good education. Allegedly, he took his first, but not final vows as a priest before he left the church during a pay dispute. He later married my grandmother. Yet, when we scratch the surface, he was a Catholic Brother in some order. So unless being a Catholic Brother was a precursor to becoming a priest that wasn’t quite right, either. Still, he was in the same seminary as a man who later became a Bishop and then an Archbishop, and who remained a friend of the family long after Grandpa died.
All I know for sure is that he was not only Catholic, but a dedicated Catholic. After he left the religious life to marry Grandma he founded a weekly Catholic newspaper in North Dakota that ended up being international in distribution. It was a German/English paper and he was the writer, producer, and editor. I’d heard about his work, of course, but had no idea he’d been so successful – and out of such a tiny building using such primitive tools compared to what we have today!
Years later in Idaho we lived outside of any town and had to pay to use a library or go without books to read unless I could afford to buy them. During the school year we children got our books from a bookmobile that swung by the school once a month. Although I played outside a lot, or was busy with chores, or riding horses, I read often and widely, especially during the summer.
My folks bought me a World Book Encyclopedia for children and that was great for as long as it lasted. We had a closet in the little dining area that was turned into a bookshelf. There resided all our reference works – encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.
One day I dug out the ancient World Book Encyclopedias that belonged to my Grandma and Grandpa and started reading them. I’d read from front to back and bookmark my place, going through a few articles a day and thinking about them. The writing was from another century and the maps were completely out of date, but it was interesting.In time my parents got me a set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, the collected works of Keats, Shakespear, Lord Byron, and others. At least I never lacked for reading material. I suppose this also gave me somewhat of a classical education.
One day Dad commented that I reminded him of Grandpa. Despite having a rough start in reading, or perhaps because of it, I loved the written word. And I loved to both read and write.
Dad recounted that my Grandpa astounded him because he used to read that very set of 19th Century encyclopedias and bookmark his place. Dad related watching that bookmark march through a book, jump to another and keep on going. Legend has it that Grandpa said, “Every time I read these I realize how much I’ve forgotten.” Dad took that to mean Grandpa didn’t learn anything new – he just refreshed his memory. I have to laugh at that thought, because we learn something new every day.
One day Dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wasn’t sure what it to call it, but I wanted to know everything. He allowed that even Plato and Aristotle didn’t know everything, but it was a good goal. He said I was just like Grandpa and Grandpa would be proud of me.
I still don’t know everything, although I ended up becoming a polymath simply because my interests are so divergent. I’m still learning and loving it. It is amazing how much we were able to learn before computers and the Internet came to be. Now I carry in my pocket a computer/phone that contains access to almost all the world’s knowledge. Grandpa would have loved it.
Can’t you just see it? Grandpa and me, sitting side by side, reading encyclopedias. Have to be hard covers, though. However, I do admit to having an entire library on my Kindle. And another, smaller, library in my iBook app. I’ve now determined that I have about 16 years of amassed reading waiting for me on just that one Kindle. Wow! Grandpa would be amazed.