Growing up, I always saw this silver pocket watch at my grandparents’ house. Sitting in a small glass case on display on a side table in their living room. When I was 13-years old, they passed away and the watch came to sit on a shelf in our house. Though it was dented in the back, it still worked. My Dad didn’t know much about it, except that he believed it had belonged to his father’s grandfather. He didn’t remember his name. He remembered hearing somewhere that the dent came to be after it was stepped on by a horse, but he wasn’t sure where he had heard that or even if it was true. It sat on the shelf, largely ignored. A family heirloom that didn’t really have much meaning to us because its story had been lost over time.
I had always been interested in family trees and wanted to chart my own. But, like a lot of things I want to do, I just never got around to it. My mother’s mother passed away a few years ago leaving me with no grandparents left. I remember hearing about how her mother, Mary, came to the United States from Poland at age 18 and settled in Chicago. She died in her 80s, never having learned English. She didn’t have to, living in one of Chicago’s many Polish neighborhoods. The last time I saw my grandma, she told me about the street she grew up on. She remembered her address. I realized that it was only a few blocks from where I was living at the time, with my cousin, ironically. She told me about how she used to push her baby sister in her “pram” down Chicago Avenue to go to Goldblatt’s Brothers department store. That building was literally across the street from my cousin’s and my apartment, still standing, now housing various offices. I couldn’t believe that we were living mere blocks from where my great-grandmother settled over 80 years prior.
I remember my grandma also telling me while Mary immigrated from Poland to the US, her brother immigrated from Poland to Argentina. He settled there and raised a family. Having lived in South America and visited Argentina numerous times myself, I was fascinated. What was his name? I asked her. Where did he go? She didn’t know.
After my grandma passed away in 2010, I really felt this desire to find out as much as I could about my family roots. When my daughter was born in 2011, that feeling amplified.
My parents also had a couple of boxes filled with old photos. I’m talking old. There were even a few daguerreotype photos, faded images of children printed on ancient pieces of mirror-like metal. How old were these? Who were these people? No one knew. They were obviously family members, but like the watch, their names and stories had also been lost with time. And that just seemed so very sad to me. I decided I wanted to try to fix that. I wanted to try to find out who these people were. At the very least, I wanted to record who we were now, so that my daughter and her predecessors might have answers to their heritage questions one day.
One of the photos stuck out to me:
It was in a box from my father’s side of the family. On the back was written “July 4, 1913 – Chicago.” Who were these people, celebrating Independence Day? None of them looked familiar, but that guy in the middle sure did look a lot like Daniel Craig! Were we somehow related to Daniel Craig? Doubtful. But just look at these people! Look at their clothes! And that car! And all those kids! Those haircuts! And that man, the one in a dark suit with that amazing mustache, looking rather severe and holding a baby on his lap. Was it his son? His grandson? It just seemed like such a shame that I might never know any of their stories. At least their names.
As a start, I joined Ancestry.com and started plugging in info. While I’m not a paid spokesperson for Ancestry.com, I cannot say enough good things about it. It is so easy to use and with just a little info, I was able to trace my family back to my great-great-grandparents on my father’s side and my great-grandparents on my mother’s. I uploaded several photos of people who’s stories I did know.
This is Emil and Gertrude. They are my father’s grandparents and this photo was taken on their wedding day on November 18, 1911. He was 23 and she was 17. Emil died when my Dad was a kid, but Gertie, as everyone called her, lived to be 97-years old. She died when I was 13-years old and I have so many memories of her. She was hilarious and a practical joker and I adored her. My Dad remembers a story that they would tell of how every night, Gertie would go to bed first and Emil would later join her in bed, reach over and give her a kiss on the cheek before going to sleep. One night when she heard him coming, she flipped upside down, pulled down her pants and covered her legs with the pillow. When he kissed her, he landed one right on her bare bottom. Sassy! It’s hard to see that in these serious photos, but these people had soul. They did, in fact, smile and laugh and were goofy and full of life.
One day while plugging along on Ancestry.com, I got an email from a woman named Deb. Turns out, she is the daughter of a man who is the son of Emil’s sister, Elsie. Got that? Confusing, I know. She lived in Chicago, too. It was so great to find a living relative who was on the same mission to piece together our now shared family history. We began emailing photographs to each other to see if we could identify anyone and help crack through some of the walls we had both hit.
Turns out, the 4th of July photo was our Rosetta Stone.
Deb had never seen the photo before, but she immediately recognized her grandparents as the couple sitting on top of the car to the right of the second pom-pom. She recognized a few of her great-aunts and uncles, too. Through a process of elimination and comparing other photos, we were able to spot Emil and Gertie, too (she’s woman on top of the car wearing a white shirt and black tie below the man in the black suit and bowler hat, and you can just see Emil’s head peering out next to him).
And the stern-looking man with the mustache in the black suit was my great-great-grandfather, Carl.
He was born in 1849, most probably in Oranienburg, Germany. He left Germany for the US on the S.S. Baltimore in 1872 at the age of 23. We even found an engraving of the actual ship that brought him to the US.
There, he settled in Chicago and married a woman named Alvina (the woman in a dark dress on top of the car), who was also born in Germany and had also come to the US in 1872. Were they sweethearts in Germany and come together, determined to make a new life in the United States? Or did they perhaps meet on the ship, two immigrants bonding over their shared past and unknown future? Or did they meet soon after in Chicago, discovering that they were both from the same homeland? This I don’t think we’ll ever know. Together, they had ten children, one of whom was my father’s grandfather, Emil, and another was Deb’s grandmother, Elsie.
Carl went by the name “Charles” in Chicago. He also lived only a few miles from my apartment. And one more interesting thing about him. The 1900 census lists his occupation as “Veterinary Surgeon.”
Charles worked with horses.
I remembered the pocket watch.
The watch that had sat on our shelf for years now had a story. A face. My great-great grandfather, Charles the Veterinarian, may have dropped it on the ground where it quite probably was stepped on by a horse.
What a cool story. What a fantasitc, special heirloom that I can pass down to my daughter.
If that wasn’t cool enough, my Dad remembered another story. After getting emails and photos from Deb, I’d share them with him and see what he could remember. He remembered Deb’s father, Dick, from when he was a child. He has hazy memories of going to visit some family members at their home once in awhile and playing outside by a big tree. He thought it might have been someone called “Aunt Elsie.” This makes sense with what we now knew. Suddenly, he perked up.
“Oh man, I haven’t thought of this in years,” he said. “I had to be really young. Maybe five, six years old? I remember when you walked into Aunt Elsie’s house there was a staircase. And Dick would run up the stairs and hide. And my brother and I would yell up at him. We’d yell, ‘Connect Rubeck! Connect Rubeck!’ And he would throw candy down on us!”
“‘Connect Rubeck?’” I said. “What does that mean?”
“I have no idea!” my Dad said, laughing. “But it’s what we would yell! That’s what we had to yell to get Dick to throw candy down to us. I have no idea where it came from. I can’t believe I remember that. Or how much of it is even true. Maybe I dreamt it.”
I emailed Deb with my Dad’s input to our shared photos. I told her the story as well, asking her if she had ever heard of this or what “Connect Rubeck” might mean. In her email back, Deb was shocked and said that growing up, it was something her father said to them, too. He would hide in the house and they would have to yell “Connect Rubek!” in order for him to come out and give them candy. She had no idea where it came from and she hadn’t thought of it in many years.
A few days passed and I received another email from Deb:
“I asked one of my cousins - another of Elsie’s granddaughters - if she ever heard of ‘Connect.’ She told me that he was a German Christmas character and sent me the following link. She added that although he was supposed to be a Christmas character, he could show up at their house anytime! I’d have to say the same thing — according to my dad, he hid in the house!”
I turned to the Internet. Turns out, “Connect Rubeck” was really “Knecht Ruprecht,” one of St. Nicolas’ helpers. According to Wikipedia, in the old, old tradition, Knect Ruprect “asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If they cannot, he beats the children with his bag of ashes.” Holy crap!!
“In other (presumably more modern) versions of the story, Knecht Ruprecht gives naughty children useless, ugly gifts such as lumps of coal, sticks, and stones, while well-behaving children receive sweets from Saint Nicholas. He also can be known to give naughty children a switch (stick) in their shoes for their parents to beat them with, instead of candy, fruit and nuts, in the German tradition.”
A few thoughts came to mind. One, there was a lot of beating going on back in the day, yuck. Two, and more importantly, how amazing is it that this old German children’s tradition had been passed down through my family? My great-great grandparents Charles and Alvina probably did it with their children who did it with theirs, and Dick continued it on with his daughter and my father, who barely remembered it, but it was there.
My Dad and I were pretty blown away.
Looking at these photos now have new meaning to me. I do feel a deeper sense of who I am and where I come from. I’ve always joked that Chicago was such a big part of me that if you cut me, I would bleed some form of sausage. But it is incredible how deeply my family roots are embedded into the city of Chicago, and yet how some old-world traditions have endured generations later.
I turn the watch over in my hands, running my fingers over the dent, just as my great-great-grandfather must have over one-hundred years ago. I can’t wait to tell my daughter its story and hide throughout the house hearing her yells of “Knect Ruprecht!,” laughing as candy rains down on her.