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.
Henry Snyder, 1918-2004
Henry, you are loved and greatly missed, and your life’s work has a special place in my heart and my bookcase.