It all began with a fairly simple question from an old and dear friend who had inquired as to what my family linage was. Yes, I had a vague notion that my father's ancestors for sure came from Germany and England, and that my mother's ancestors also came from England and perhaps Germany, but beyond that I had very little knowledge. However, my lame ability to adequately respond to that question lit a spark in me to find out more about where I came from, which led me to digging into boxes of old family files and pictures that had lain dormant for years to find the answer. Little did I know when I started this journey that a totally disconnected study of three books of the Old Testament would interject itself into this process, but more about that later.
One of the first surprises to come to my attention was the fact that the English ancestors from both my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather's families came to America from England in the early 1600's. Sure, I had seen the same old family photographs now in my possession of all great-grandparents taken at various times during the 19th century, but I had just assumed that for practical purposes that was where my history began. To learn that there was traceable evidence that confirmed the existence of ancestors on our shores 200 years earlier was a huge revelation to me. Unfortunately, I was not so fortunate with my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother's families, as the early 1800's were as far back as I could find any written record in my files of their existence on this continent. However, in the case of my paternal grandfather, the records were much more comprehensive and detailed, thanks to the writing prowess of an elderly great aunt, thus giving me greater insight into my father's history. Consequently, in the interest of time and space, I will concentrate solely on my paternal heritage up to the beginning of the 20th century for this first of what may become many chapters to answer that simple question posed above.
It all began in Friedelsheim, Bavaria, Germany where my great-grandfather, Jacob Lichty, one of eight children was born on May 6, 1826, to John, a watchmaker, and Elizabeth, a homemaker. Like most immigrants coming to our shores in the 1800's seeking more freedom, the entire family made it to America in 1833, traveling up the Hudson River to Albany, New York, thence through the Erie Canal, completed just eight years earlier, to Buffalo, New York and finally across Lake Erie to Cleveland, Ohio, home of several family friends from Germany who had previously settled there. Unfortunately, John fell ill early on and died shortly after making it to Ohio at the age of 42. But like most immigrant families at the time, the surviving family began farming which eventually led my great-grandfather, Jacob, to purchase some rich bottom land in Gnadenhutten, the second oldest city in Ohio. But also like many individuals of that era, Jacob's life was not without tragedy, losing two of his seven children to diphtheria and later his young wife, Christena at age 36 to unknown causes. But as was also common back then, he soon remarried and he and his second wife, another Elizabeth, interestingly Christena's sister, had five more children, among whom was my grandfather, Ernest, and his sister, Bertha, who was the author mentioned above of this history.
By Bertha's account, Jacob was a kind and thoughtful person, always remembering the birthdays of all ten children, comforting them through their many illnesses and ferrying them when necessary to and from school during those many cold and snowy Ohio winters in either a large farm wagon or bob sled pulled by a double team of horses. It was also during these cold wintry days that he would "grease the shoes" of his children who often made that two mile walk to school to make the shoes softer and more pliable, as well as to make them last longer. To accomplish this task he had the village tin maker fabricate him a small copper can with a spout in which he would warm a mixture of grease and tallow with which he covered the shoes. Then they would be placed near the coal stove at night to make them even more comfortable for the children the next day. As a side note, years ago my father gave me that very can, which I treasure to this day. But all of this love and affection for his family could not spare him further tragedy in almost losing my grandfather, Ernest, to inflammatory rheumatism. In fact it was Ernest's deteriorating health that eventually led the Lichty family to Arkansas in the early 1900's to seek relief in the warm baths of Hot Springs. And then there was, Anna, his and Elizabeth's first-born daughter who moved to Alaska as a religious missionary, a long distance separation that brought much sorrow to them both with, in their own words, "the distance being so great and the traveling so uncertain".
While not a highly educated man in the formal sense, Jacob was a self-taught man who prided himself on conversation and never lacked for expressive words and sentences when visiting with the educated clergymen who would come to the village to take charge of the Moravian church which he faithfully attended. As a deeply religious man he would conduct family worship twice a day, always saying the prayers in his native German regardless of who might be visiting in his home at the time. He died on January 26, 1909, as he had lived, "easily and gently". To quote from his obituary, "Mr. Lichty was a good citizen and neighbor, an honor to his community and, in so far as mortals may be, to his God. To a rare degree he was genial, kind and helpful. His virtues were positive, unmarred by glaring faults. He weighed his words as if each were a precious jewel. He was a modest man never seeking to push himself into the public eye. He lived a quiet life. Nevertheless, he lived as if conscious that the scrutiny of the World was upon him, reminding one of him who prayed for grace to do all the good he could do without knowing it."
Now, just what does all of this have to do with the Old Testament, with particular emphasis on Ecclesiastes, as well as the title of this blog? While the exact authorship of Ecclesiastes is not known, it is thought by many to have been at the very least influenced by King Solomon, the wisest of all ancient biblical kings. And like many books of scripture, it is open to various interpretations, one of which is that our time on earth is much like mist or vapor, very temporary and not very meaningful. As such, our beginning and our end have no great significance in the larger scheme of things, so one should not be consumed by them. Rather, we should just eat, drink and be merry and enjoy the life which we have been given whatever its length. I've always thought that to be a fairly limited and hedonistic interpretation, filled with risk and danger not only to one's existence on earth but to one's soul if there is any rationale for an afterlife. But the thought did occur to me as I began this genealogical journey of why bother investing all of this time and energy exploring history and heredity if in the end our existence does not matter. Ultimately, I decided it does matter, and it matters a lot. For one thing, an exploration of our past forces us to understand and appreciate the many sacrifices our forefathers paid to get us where we are today. In so doing it also goes a long way to explain why we are who we are. And, finally, it might just give us insight into some principles which we all could apply to today's living and experiences. A clear example of the latter for me was the life of my great-grandfather, Jacob, and how his deep faith in the Moravian Church played such an important part in his enduring the many, many heartbreaks and challenges of life in the 19th century. In fact his church's motto, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love" would seem to serve as an excellent guide for our national leaders to follow as they struggle to build a consensus to address the many problems facing our country in this 21st century.