Trenton, Princeton, Philadelphia, New York, Valley Forge
Through the years, my husband and I have acquired possessions that have both a function and a history. For example, the tall case clock in our dining room not only informs us of the time in fifteen minute intervals, but also reminds us of my father-in-law who built the clock in his workshop. Even small items have a large capacity to resurrect special memories. That’s true of one of my favorite kitchen tools—a microplane grater. Each time I hold it in my hand to grate nutmeg or chocolate, treasured memories return to me.
As a highly curious ten-year-old, I wondered what country my mother’s family originated from. Neither my mother nor grandmother knew the answer. But it was a question I couldn’t forget, and I knew that someday, somehow I would find the answer.
Twenty-five years later, my husband and I moved our family to a new city, and I had an abundance of free time on my hands—time to search for the answer to my long-held ancestral question. Although it wasn’t easy acquiring information about people no longer living, genealogy became my passion, and my inquisitiveness expanded from learning my family’s origination to when and why they immigrated to America.
On a historical society website, I found a query from a man named Henry who had genealogical information on Philip and Sarah Snyder, my great-great-grandparents—whose information I couldn’t find. I quickly penned a letter to Henry that explained my relationship to Philip and Sarah and offered to swap research.
He wrote back and asked me to phone. I called and learned that not only were we distant cousins, but Henry had known my long-deceased maternal grandparents, Alice and Ed, whose farm near Muncy, Pennsylvania had been near his parents’ farm. We’d only talked for several minutes when he paused and said that my voice sounded like my grandmother’s.
My heart caught in my throat. No one had ever told me that.
Henry confided a great concern. For over 40 years, he’d spent every vacation traveling to court houses, historical societies, churches, and cemeteries to locate important but hard-to-find genealogical information, and he had recorded all of it in meticulous, highly detailed handwritten notes. Now in his eighties and in poor health, Henry knew his children saw no value in their father’s painstaking research—information that proved their family history back to the 1600s in Europe. Henry believed his children would throw away his papers once he passed.
He asked if I had any suggestions as to how his research could be preserved and enjoyed by others. Having recently compiled and printed several genealogical books, I offered to record his information and have it printed. Henry asked what I would charge.
“Ten dollars per hour.”
A long silence followed. “I’m not sure I can afford that.”
“I can work with you on the price.”
I could hear the whistle in Henry’s breath as he thought it over. “Well, all right. This is my life’s work, and I know if it’s not printed in a book, my kids will just throw it out once I’m dead. The thought of that happening is more than I can bear.”
I told Henry that I’d keep track of the hours I spent typing his work into my computer program. We’d settle the bill when I completed the project.
A week later, I received a box that contained 300 research pages, information in tiny print covering the front and back of each page. I assumed this was Henry’s entire collection. I shuffled through the papers like they were a long-awaited Christmas gift, squealing with delight as I perused the family history that my cousin had uncovered. Henry had no formal education beyond high school, but he researched like an accomplished academician.
I began typing Henry’s brilliant research into my genealogy program. After two long days spent tapping the keyboard as fast as I could, my fingertips were inflamed; I’d only recorded twenty pages.
The following week, a second box containing an additional 400 pages arrived. As I looked through the research, tears pricked my eyes. My third cousin once removed had found the answers to my questions. The papers shook in my hands as the lives of relatives who had lived before me unfolded—ancestors who as young adults in their teens and early twenties had left their parents in Germany’s Palatinate to escape the ravages of war.
They survived treacherous ocean crossings on small disease-ridden ships only to arrive in Philadelphia to discover that they were despised because they could not “Englisch sprechen.”
These young people were forced to claim and clear forests on Pennsylvania’s dangerous frontier because there was no other land available. They married and had families—only to have their wives and children massacred by Indians or killed by wild animals. Some lost all of their children in less than a week to illness.
But they persevered, thanks to their deep faith in God and the fact that they had no financial means to move elsewhere. These were my ancestors—people who, generation by generation, paved the way for my children and me to have a better life.
I almost cried when additional boxes containing hundreds of new pages arrived weekly for the next six weeks. Now I understood why Henry was so worried about his research.
Because I wanted to be certain that I was accurately reading Henry’s handwriting, we spoke almost daily on the phone for many months. Each call furnished glimpses into family members and ancestors.
Henry told me that he used to visit my maternal grandparents’ farm when he was a young man. Because I had grown up in another state and wasn’t able to spend more than a week or two each year with my grandparents, Henry provided a precious perspective of them.
I learned that Grandpa Ed had been a godly man who treated everyone respectfully and had always been quick to help someone in need. Grandma Alice made visitors to the farm feel welcome and special. “Visit often and stay long,” Henry said she would say.
Each time we spoke, Henry asked if I had finished. The disappointment in his voice was palpable when I explained that many more hours were required. As the weeks stretched into months, I heard something else in Henry’s voice, something I couldn’t identify.
One day, Henry told me that he and his father had owned the only threshing machine in the rural area during the 1930s. Local farmers paid them to bring the machine to their farms to thresh their grain crops so they wouldn’t have to thresh by hand, a slow and labor-intensive process.
He went on to tell me about a summer during the Great Depression when my grandparents didn’t have enough money to pay for threshing, but Henry and his dad threshed anyway, knowing that Ed and Alice risked losing the farm if they couldn’t thresh their grain.
As we got to know each other, Henry talked about himself. After serving in the Army during World War II, he’d worked as a laborer, never earning much, but providing for his family the best he could. And always, always seeking answers to his burning questions of who had come before him and what were they like.
Finally, after ten months, I completed recording Henry’s research and printed several books.
It was time for Henry to pay me. Listening to his voice as he asked what he owed, I finally understood what I’d heard each time I’d explained that many more hours were needed to complete his project: fear. The same fear he must have heard in my grandparents’ voices that long ago summer.
I crumpled the three thousand dollar invoice in my hand. “Henry, you owe me nothing. You’ve already paid me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, it’s simple. Your research answered my questions about my mother’s ancestors and gave me the heritage that I never knew. My throat tight, my voice came out in a whisper. “Without you, I wouldn’t know my voice sounds just like Grandma Alice’s.”
“It truly does.” Henry replied with that distinctive whistle in his voice.
“And had you and your dad not threshed my grandparents’ grain without pay that one summer, they probably would have lost their farm.”
I could hear Henry breathe hard through his mouth.
“I have a saying that I tell my children: ‘Be kind to others and that kindness will be returned to you.’ Henry, your kindness to my grandparents sixty-seven years ago just came back to you. It’s been a privilege to help you finish your life’s work. And I’m really glad I’ve gotten to know you.”
Henry tried to say something, but couldn’t. Sometimes, it’s just hard for a man to speak.
A week later, a check for fourteen dollars arrived in the mail. Henry’s handwritten note said it was all he could afford, but he wanted to pay me something for my work. I knew I would insult Henry by returning his payment, so, because I love to cook, I went to the cooking store and bought a tool that I really needed—a microplane grater. Every time I use it, I like to think it helps make the food I’m preparing extra special. But more than its function, it has a history—and it always makes me think of Henry and what he did for me.
Through the years, my grandparents and their children encountered many difficult and sometimes overwhelming situations, but God never failed to provide for their family’s basic needs. It’s an eternal promise that God makes to all believers.
Perhaps you’re in the midst of a tough time and unable to see anything good in your life. Maybe you’re wondering what you have to be thankful for. If you’re reading this, I can immediately think of one thing God is blessing you with this very moment: you are breathing. Sometimes our thankfulness has to begin with something as basic as recognizing that we are alive. And as long as we’re alive, there is always hope for better times.
Television, newspapers, and social media try hard to convince us that Thanksgiving is a time set aside for parades, football games, and shopping. May you and your family gather together on Thanksgiving Day, remembering the real reason for celebrating this special holiday: give thanks to the Lord for all of the innumerable blessings He has bestowed upon each of us during this past year.
Come, join my family and me as we remember and celebrate the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
With Thanksgiving just days away, I’d love to share several of my family’s favorite recipes with you:
After dining at one of Colonial Williamsburg’s taverns many years ago, my mother arrived home with a new turkey dressing recipe. It’s been a family favorite ever since.
Williamsburg Oyster Dressing
1 cup butter
1½ cups onion, chopped
1½ cups celery, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons poultry seasoning
16 cups stale white bread cubes, lightly toasted
1 quart oysters
Melt the butter in a large, heavy skillet. Add onion, celery, and parsley; sauté over medium heat until vegetables are tender. Do not brown. Add salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Place the bread cubes in a large bowl. Add the sautéed vegetables, and mix well. Drain the oysters, reserving the liquid. Chop the oysters coarsely, and add to the bread cube mixture, tossing gently to mix well. Add a little of the reserved oyster liquid if the dressing seems dry. Taste for seasoning. Stuff and truss the turkey. Place any leftover dressing in a buttered casserole. Bake in the oven during the last 30 minutes of the turkey’s roasting time.
Yield: makes about 12 cups – enough for a 20-25 pound turkey.
Nearly ninety years ago, my Grandma Alice began a family tradition when she prepared several Thanksgiving desserts for her large family on their Pennsylvania farm. Grandma Alice’s tradition continues three generations later! Along with pecan and pumpkin pies, we sometimes serve this swirled pumpkin bread.
Pumpkin Swirl Bread
¼ cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 large egg
2 2/3 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup water
1 16-ounce can pumpkin
4 large eggs
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9×5-inch loaf pans and set aside.
In a small mixing bowl, combine all filling ingredients. Beat at medium speed, scraping bowl often, until well mixed (1 to 2 minutes); set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine sugar, oil, water, pumpkin, and eggs. Beat at low speed, scrapping bowl often, until mixture is smooth (1 to 2 minutes). Continue beating at medium speed, gradually adding all remaining bread ingredients and scraping bowl often, until well mixed (1 to 2 minutes). Place about 1 cup of the pumpkin batter into the bottom of each of the two greased and floured loaf pans. Carefully spread half of the filling mixture over the batter in each pan; top each pan with half of the remaining pumpkin batter. Pull knife or spatula through the batter and filling to create a swirl effect. Bake for 65 to 70 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool bread for 10 minutes before removing from the pans. Cool completely.
What is your heart’s desire? Everyone has one. It’s something you would love to have, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Come find out how God fulfilled Grandma Alice’s heart’s desire one special Christmas.
For my mother’s family, Christmas during the Great Depression was non-existent. By the time my mother was six years old, she and her siblings had never received a Christmas gift nor had a Christmas tree stood in their house. It wasn’t that Mother’s parents didn’t believe in celebrating Christmas. Rather, a severe lack of finances prohibited it.
As Alice went about her chores in the days following Thanksgiving, the celebration of Christmas weighed on her. She knew all too well that there was no money to buy a Christmas tree at the lot in town, so she didn’t bother to speak with her husband about that. No sense making Ed feel worse than he already did that he couldn’t purchase a tree let alone gifts for his wife and children. But there was someone whom Alice could speak with and she earnestly confided in Him.
All she wanted was to buy a Christmas tree for her children to enjoy and maybe a small gift for her husband and her children. It was alright if there was no money for a gift for herself. It was her family that she wanted to bless in a small way.
For days, Alice prayed for a miracle – for extra money to come to her and Ed. But now it was the week before Christmas and her prayers were unanswered. She knew that God hears and answers all prayers, sometimes saying “yes,” other times “no” and at times “wait.” She wiped a tear and resigned herself that the answer to her request was a no, and she asked God to give her the grace to accept His Will.
As she worked in her kitchen, a thought came to her. Their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Martin, had a grove of pine trees on her farm. Fresh pine trees! And some of those pine trees would make perfect Christmas trees. Alice spoke to the Lord about those pines and her heart’s desire.
The next morning, she hurried into the kitchen and after mixing some yeast dough, she set it aside to rise. By the time breakfast was over and the kitchen cleaned, Alice worked her magic with the risen dough. Before her marriage, she had been a cook at a local hotel and was known far and wide for her excellent culinary skills.
When the cinnamon rolls were cool, Alice covered them with a cloth and put them in her market basket along with several dozen sugar cookies shaped like stars and a hatchet. Alice quickly glanced out the window. It was beginning to snow. She filled the cookstove with wood so the kitchen would be warm for her little ones, then gave the children some books to look at with the admonition to stay inside and away from the stove while she was gone. Ed was working inside the barn and wouldn’t be able to see her leave.
Pulling her worn coat around her, Alice hurried down the lane to the dirt road. Lowering her head against the biting wind, she realized that she’d forgotten her gloves but she was too far in the journey to go back.
Mrs. Martin opened her door and invited a snow-covered Alice to step inside, happy for the company. Alice handed the cinnamon buns and cookies to Mrs. Martin and asked if they could serve as payment for a small pine in the grove. Her four little ones had never had a Christmas tree, she explained.
Mrs. Martin looked at Alice in amazement. A recent widow, she, too, was suffering the effects of the Depression and was out of flour and sugar. The rolls and cookies were an answer to her prayer for some baked goods for Christmas.
It wasn’t easy chopping down a fresh pine with a hatchet, especially with the snow making the ground slippery, but God gave Alice a determined spirit. By the time she arrived back in their lane, the heavy snow was deepening and weighing down the pine. Alice’s fingers were numb and her stockings were in shreds as she prayed for strength to finish her task. It came in the form of her husband who rushed to her and took over pulling the heavy tree as four little faces, pressed against the kitchen window, watched.
After Ed shook the snow from the tree and carried it into the kitchen, he and the children filled the air with squeals of excitement.
That afternoon, Alice and the children sat at the table and made paper ornaments and strings of popcorn. Ed joined in, too, once the chores were finished. As Ed lifted the children to the top of the tree so they could hang the last of the decorations, Alice realized that even though life was difficult, God could be counted on to provide for them. And even a little extra like a heart’s desire.