google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html The Moment I Knew - Linda's Story | The Armchair Genealogist

The Moment I Knew - Linda's Story

Fred and Lil Gartz 11-8-42
My brothers and I scoured the corners and cobwebs of my parents’ attic shortly after my mother died in 1994. We had one week, before my brothers had to return to their jobs in Seattle, to clear out the Victorian home my parents had lived in for the previous thirty years.

After my uncle died in 1990, our job had been to clear out his house as well. He had lived with my grandparents his entire life, so when we found my grandmother’s cedar chest in their basement, full of old letters and photographs, we had simply moved it to my parents’ attic. We were all young adults at that time, devoted to our emerging careers, and had no time to mess around pondering the relics they’d left behind. Still, we had been raised to value our family’s history, so we never considered throwing it out.

Now the day of reckoning had come. All the older generations were gone, and we had both my grandparents’ and my parents’ stuff to contend with. We simply hadn’t known how much they had saved.

We came across a large box labelled in my mother’s smooth, even handwriting: “Lil’s and Fred’s journals and letters.” They had kept journals? In the box we found my mother’s child-like, but still impeccable script penning her thoughts and opinions starting at the age of ten. She wrote regularly for the next sixty plus years. Dad kept diaries from 1933-1935, from ages of eighteen to twenty-one. Then again from 1950-1956. After that he kept quick notes on a calendar, the highlights or interests of his day.

My parents had saved all the letters they had received from friends, dating back to the 1920s, as well as the letters they wrote to each other from 1949-1962, when my Dad traveled extensively. These letters recreated our lives and the history of our emerging rooming house from a time when we were too young to form memories or know the hidden world of man and wife.

In my grandmother’s cedar chest we discovered a trove of nearly 300 World War II letters between my Uncle Frank, Dad’s younger brother, and his friends and family. Taken together they comprised a history of the War Years. The letters revealed the lives of my parents, grandparents, and their neighbors from 1943-1945, as well as the evolution of a young eighteen year old from a neighborhood kid into a seasoned navigator, charged, along with his peers, of saving the world.

Woschkeruscha Family 1901
We found birth certificates and report cards, diplomas and class pictures; century-old resumes and my mother’s stories published in the Chicago Daily News; photographs from Romania as far back as the 1890s and piles of letters from the Old Country, now Romania, then Austro-Hungary, written in an unreadable ancient German script.

I felt like Howard Carter, peering through a chink in King Tut’s tomb. When asked if he could see anything, he responded, “Yes! Wonderful things!”

I knew then that I had to pursue learning about the lives of my family, to discover what lay hidden in their words, but I couldn’t do it just then. I had little children to raise--helping with homework, volunteering to make our schools a better place, taking on the occasional freelance job. But someday.I swore I would.

That someday came in 2002, when both my boys were older and more independent. I wanted to get to know the uncle whom I’d never met, so I first hauled out the box of World War II letters. Uncle Frank’s letters revealed a sweet, rascally, funny, and generous fellow. The biggest surprise was my grandmother’s letters to him. Instead of the distant and aloof grandmother I had known, her letters revealed a devoted, prayerful mother, desperate for her son’s safety.

Since that day, I’ve pored over thousands of pages of letters and diaries, learning first- hand about my parents’ and grandparents’ struggles and triumphs, my parents’ courtship through Mom’s ebullient, emotional journal entries of falling in love with my Dad.

In 2009 I found my Rosetta Stone, ninety-year old Meta, through an ad my cousin placed for me in a newspaper for ethnic Germans from Romania. I sent Meta copies of the old, unreadable letters and documents my grandmother had saved since 1910, and she deciphered them into readable German, which I could then translate to English. Maybe this was the fateful reason I had chosen German as a major in college, although I had no clue at the time.

Meta’s decoding opened a shuttered window, and the past came blowing in: love letters between my grandparents; my grandfather and grandmother’s diaries of their journeys to America, after two devastating wars, the fate of their homeland and relatives they had left behind.

Josef and Lisi Gartz Oct 13,1911 
The insights I discovered into our family members’ lives and the universal nature of their stories led me to start my blog, Family Archaeologist. I wanted to share not only what I had discovered, but to relate it to the thrill so many of us share when we learn the details of our family’s past. This summer, my blog is revisiting the earliest posts, from the oldest missive I found (a 1910 love letter) to the story of my grandparents’ bold and, at times, harrowing journey to America.

I heard their call when I first laid eyes on those old letters and diaries back in 1994. It’s been ten years now since I was able to answer that call. With a century’s worth of treasures, I feel I’ll never run out of discoveries. The payoff is getting to know my parents and grandparents in their youth, as if restored from dusty death. 

Meet The Storyteller Linda Gartz

Linda cut her journalistic teeth in the television business—researching, producing, and writing documentaries that have aired nationally on CBS, ABC, NBC, and PBS and have been syndicated on cable nation-wide.
Linda has published article in magazines, literary journals, and newspapers nationwide.
Linda is the Family Archaeologist, digging deep into twentieth century history as unearthed through her family’s letters, diaries, photos, and artifacts spanning more than a hundred years.  Join her on a quest to uncover the joy, struggle, loss, and resilience her ancestors experienced—and the secrets revealed along the way. You may recognize some of your own family’s past in hers and learn techniques for investigating, organizing, preserving, and enjoying a genealogical treasure trove. 
Linda's experience clearly displays she understands the power of storytelling. You can find her at her webpage Linda Gartz and her blog, Family Archaeologist.

If you would like to have your story published on the Armchair Genealogist for our feature The Moment I Knew, click Everyone Has a Story  for all the details. 


Peg said...

Lynn, I'm really enjoying these stories.

Debra Newton-Carter said...

So fantastic to have so much of a record left behind! I am gradually receiving from my mother the letters she had saved from family in her lifetime; however, my husband's family left very little trace of their lives in preceding generations. Since my family's history is more available, I've spent my research time searching for his history. Thanks for sharing these stories!

Anne Gillespie Mitchell said...

Lovely post! Thanks for sharing.

Linda Gartz said...

Thank you all for your interest. I enjoyed writing this essay, and am grateful to Lynn for posting it along with the many other fascinating stories of becoming hooked on family history.

Unknown said...

Wonderful essay and wonderful introduction to your family. I'm going to share with this with other writers who are also wrangling the family papers and have been designated the family storyteller. Thanks for this terrific piece!

Mariann Regan said...

Linda, your story is filled with the joy of discovery. Your parents and grandparents and other relatives left you the equivalent of many books about themselves in all those letters and diaries. The longer we live, the more important those memories become--and yours are manifest in so many records, so well documented. I love the part about Meta translating the German for you. I can relate to your experience. Back in the early 90s I discovered my grandparents' courtship letters from the late 1890s, volumes of them, and also my parent's 4-year correspondence after my dad left for World War II, before I was born. Those letters, for you and for me, are a way of making the past concrete and real. Sometimes I wonder what people will have in the future. Emails? Tweets? Web Pages? No, I'm not anti-tech. But letters are especially precious.

Shirley Showalter, memoir writer said...

I love knowing the backstory to your incredible archeological work in the present. I agree with Mariann that these documents are treasures of the type that may become almost unknown in the future and therefore are all the more precious. On the other hand, when you publish your story, you can make the work of documentation and discovery so exciting that you might inspire thousands of people to continue writing letters the old fashioned way!

Paul Ebner Gartz said...

Dear Sister and all, brother Bill and I are lucky the motivation came to you for this incredible work you are doing and that you have the high skills to make the stories universal. I want to mention what you didn’t. None of our parents’ children (i.e., we three siblings) had birth children we raised…even though we each raised others’ birth children. And we have no 1st cousins or surviving uncles or aunts. So the US branch of our family gene pool and our mother’s whole side, the cultural upbringing and stories all end with us. I always thought this strange that all our family's rich history dies when we though our whole lineage was being erased from the cosmic books and we all become no more along with our ancestors. I often wondered why? Then this mini-miracle happens…you...and instead we get a much richer understanding and global sharing of who we were, who we are and where we came from than normally happens. At our human core, we share stories and heritage…it is fundamental and greatly precedes writing by 10,000 years+. I hope your story above encourages others to share theirs. Much love, Paul

Liz said...

What a wonderful story. I particularly enjoyed it because my grandmother's family were Germans from Russia - a culture I am just learning about.

Lynn Palermo said...

It was an honour to have Linda's story as part of this series. She is a talented writer and I look forward to the day her family story becomes a book.
@Paul, I did not know that interesting bit of information thank you for sharing. Makes your family story all that more intriguing. Thanks for stopping by.

John Paul Godges said...

Linda, your book IS your birth child. And I'm sure Paul will be right there in the delivery room with you when the big day arrives!

Lynn Palermo said...

Hi John, thanks for stopping by and supporting Linda and her story. Always a pleasure to hear from you.