A navy blue suitcase

There’s an old suitcase that sits in the corner of my room. With the exception of a pocket watch and a small toolbox from my grandfather, and a grooming kit from my great-grandfather, it contains everything I own from my mother’s side of the family. Well, I use the word “own” loosely. I’ve actually borrowed it from my mother (semi-permanently – she hasn’t been around to ask for it back). It contains letters, postcards, unmarked photographs, obituaries, and an old slide rule (from my grandfather’s days at the GE lab). It’s a growing treasure of information, containing all the things I’ve found rooting around my parents’ house, looking for stuff my mother forgot about years ago.

This weekend I was finally getting around to going through the latest batch of stuff I found, sorting through dates and family relationships revealed in old obituaries, and doing online searches to connect the dots. That’s how I came across Uncle Charles’ obituary in his local newspaper last night. A few weeks ago I learned that my mother has a cousin that’s still alive, and my father sends her a Christmas card every year. That’s also when I learned my mother’s Uncle Charles, my grandmother’s brother, died earlier this year. (I’d thought he’d passed away years ago.)

It may not surprise you to learn that I’m the sentimental member of the immediate family. My wife’s the strong, independent one, while I’m the one that keeps things. Some of it’s odd, like the ticket stubs from movies, concerts, and sports events (including every college football game during my UF years). Some of it’s cherished and uniquely irreplaceable, like the letter my grandparents (paternal) wrote me when I was born, stored away in a safe deposit box with some savings bonds they bought, neither of which I knew existed until I graduated from college, years after their passing. Reading of their unconditional love so many years later, while knowing them and having fond memories of our time shared, is something I can’t adequately explain/express. It may not shock you to learn that although Uncle Charles was a man I never met, or if I did I was very young, I took the news of his passing hard.

Looking through the old family pictures, slowly piecing together who they were, discovering my roots in the process, has been both gratifying and saddening. All of them look like fascinating people, people I’ll never really know. I wish I could reach through time, talk to them, learn their stories, introduce myself, my kids, let them know someone still cares, let them know someone is grateful for the rich foundation they’ve laid.

That’s the part of genealogy I find hard. All of it seems so tantalizingly close, yet ultimately forever out of reach. That’s what I was thinking about when I read my great-uncle Charles’ obituary last night.

Another letter has gone out in the mail, to try and connect with his family. I just can’t get over the fact it’s a couple months too late. By all accounts it appears Uncle Charles had a large, loving family, so he probably didn’t need the affection of a distant nephew he didn’t know.

No, the loss* is all mine.

*Again, I use a word loosely. His loss is something I’m sure his wife, children, grandchildren, and friends feel deeply. I’m just some putz from across the country who’s prone to fits of self-pity.


  1. I’ve always really liked the graveyard tour of Boston. We rarely get the chance to visit the sites where family is buried though. We’ve toyed with the idea of making a trip out of visiting some of those places (little towns in Vermont and Maine mostly – for our closer relatives anyway). I’ve been trying to draw my daughter into some of the research – and perhaps later my son, so it’d be a trip we’d all want to take.

  2. Another poignant post. My father and I are genealogy nuts; he just emailed me to ask whether my mother’s cousin’s first name was Susanne or Suzanne.

    One aspect of the genealogy thing that no one but us seems to get is graveyard touring. If I’m in the vicinity of a graveyard that contains a relative, or anyone else I know for that matter, visiting it is my top priority. A grave is the end of a trail. No, not morbid, just sentimental.

  3. So far I haven’t had a lot of luck writing letters, but this is the closest relative reached out to. This time they probably at least know who I am (or might with a little poking and prodding), so I’m hopeful.

  4. John, you’re fortunate to have so much evidence of your lost relatives. (How I wish I did. I know very little about both sets of grandparents.)

    But the irony of losing your great uncle so recently when you didn’t even know he was still alive! I feel for you. I hope his family writes back. How could they not?


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