Notional Visit to my Grandmothers

Posted for the blog meme Genealogy Blog Party hosted by Elizabeth O’Neal of Little Bytes of Life. April’s theme is “Time Travel to an Ancestor.” Questions posed for this challenge include (1) Who is the ancestor you will meet? (2) What question(s) do you need him/her to answer? (3) Is there a problem you can help your ancestor solve? (4) Will you reveal your true identity to your ancestor? If so, how will your visit impact the future? (4) Will you bring your ancestor to the future to meet his/her descendants? What will be the outcome if you do?

My dream time travel adventure is to Stark and Dunn counties in North Dakota in late summer 1930. The different counties are necessary because I want to meet both my grandmothers. The timeframe is dictated by my paternal grandmother’s death in November 1930 due to complications of childbirth.

The advantage of this time period for meeting my paternal grandmother, Magdalena Wehner Arnold (1897-1930), is that all but one of Magdalena’s 11 children were already born. Of these, all but one survived to adulthood. By that time, the family was living in the modest 3-bedroom home I remember from my childhood (1950s-1960s), and I have mental images of the house and its outbuildings as well as family lore about the youthful antics of my dad, aunt, and uncles who lived there as children and young adults. And, of course, I would be thrilled to meet the 5-year-old version of my own father (William Henry Arnold, 1925-2003).

Similarly, visiting my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Jaeger Armbrust (1906-1946), at that point in time would almost certainly provide me the opportunity to meet the toddler version of my mother (Irene Agnes Armbrust Arnold, 1929-1970), who would have then been about 18 months old. Irene was an “only” at that point; younger sister Dolores and baby brother Elmer were born in 1933 and 1934 respectively. Sadly, I doubt Irene was the center of her parents’ attention in mid- to late-1930—I have documents indicating that in November 1930 Elizabeth and husband, Daniel Armbrust (1895/96-1936), defaulted on a mortgage for Daniel’s homestead in rural Dunn County, North Dakota (the area was so “rural” that it was marked as “No population” for the 1930 U.S. Census).

With both women, I would be more interested in general “getting to know you” conversation and observing relationships and lifestyle than answers to specific questions. It does occur to me, however, that conversation with Magdalena might be hindered by a language barrier. According to my dad and his brothers, they spoke only German until they started school, so I’m hoping one of Magdalena’s older children is available to interpret during my visit.

I doubt I would reveal my identity to my grandmothers. It seems to me that informing either woman about my time or place in relation to them would be so sensational and disruptive that it would probably ruin (for me at least) the purpose of the visit. I think it would be fairly difficult for me to help either one solve a problem, given my very limited understanding of their time period compared to the present. For both, however, I would try to encourage them by telling them what a good job they are doing (based on my time-advantaged knowledge of how their children turned out). Likewise, I doubt I would suggest a visit to the future for either of my grandmothers, though I’m sure they would be delighted to learn about the 10 grandchildren that resulted from the union of their offspring and absolutely amazed by the conveniences their children enjoyed compared to their circumstances in the early 1930s.

5 thoughts on “Notional Visit to my Grandmothers

  1. Have you ever seen an isochronic map? It shows how long it takes to get to places separated by space. I would like to record how long memories last in family history against people’s death dates. Why is it I know nothing about my grandmother (died 1980) and heaps about her mother and grandmother? Some relatives slip through the cracks or you feel you have all the data for them but no insights.

    • Thanks for stopping by…I’m not familiar with an isochronic map, but I’ll check it out on your recommendation.

      As far as how long memories last in a family, I have a vague recollection that the limit of oral tradition is three generations: the original persons, followed by their children and grandchildren. If the memories are written, their lifespan is considerably lengthened–that was the excuse I used over the weekend to spend $75 on a centennial history of Stark County, North Dakota. I copied several entries when I was in North Dakota last summer so I’m familiar with its contents–and I’m sure there are histories of people I don’t yet know are part of our family tree. I can hardly wait for it to arrive!

      If your grandmother died as recently as 1980, are there surviving relatives you could interview to learn more about her life? Good luck with your quest–it is indeed frustrating not to know the details of our ancestors.

  2. Oh, yes, wouldn’t our ancestors be amazed at the conveniences we have these days! And probably consider some things — computers and the internet, for instance — some kind of magic. It would be delightful if we could see our parents as toddlers.

  3. Like you, I so would like to talk to my grandfathers. My maternal grandfather died when my mom was still a toddler. My paternal grandparents were separated and we didn’t meet our grandfather until we were in our early teens. He died soon afterwards.

    I really enjoyed your story.

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