A reflection on how getting to know your family history can make you feel more connected to your relatives and where you come from.
I just received a book I ordered. It’s a pretty old book – printed in 1921. I got a tip from a newly found relative that there was a story about my great grandfather in it. As I am looking into my family history and finding it increasingly interesting, I decided to have go at finding a copy.
It didn’t take long, but I think I was lucky as well. I found the book online, in an ok condition, and ordered it straight away. It’s kind of a travel record, from the early 1900s, where a newspaperman, interested in missionary activities in Africa and Asia, decides to go on a tour, visiting countless missionary stations, talking to the missionaries and describing every day life as well as a life on the road, travelling by donkey carriages and rackety boats on the Yellow River.
And then there is this chapter which is totally dedicated to my great grandfather and his missionary station in Shensi. He was known for curing people who had become addicted to opium. While helping them get over the worst parts of withdrawal by medicating with morphine, he also saw to it that they got educated about christianity and participated in prayers and mass. Allthough I think there is much to say about this method, he did his job and turned many Chinese around and could write home about how successful he was in saving souls. This, I already knew, but I was so happy to find a lost photo reprinted in the book. It’s a photo of my great grandfather administering medicine to a line of waiting patients at his missionary station.
I remember seeing this picture in my grandmothers’ photo album when I was younger, but I haven’t been able to relocate it since then. And then suddenly – sitting on the book page, giving me that same feeling of family ties, that I had back then – there it is. I can even detect that little smile playing in my great grandfathers’ eyes.
I always imagined my great grandfather as a man with a sense of humour. Someone to laugh with. I know my great grandmother was a happy person, always spreading a good mood, and thus I imagined my great grandfather to be a bit like that as well. To me, this photo is part of that feeling.
He is posing, of course, but he does it with a twist. He is no doctor, but he is the only one in that area who can help out with different ailments, and he has painkillers to give out.
Reading the chapter, allows me to revisit history and rekindle myself with my family. A family that I can’t meet or get to know personally, but that I have heard so much about. I used to live with my grandmother, and she would tell me all about growing up in China, her own parents and my grandfathers’ parents being pioneers within the missionary movement.
To me, the story about saving souls was never that interesting. Instead, I was fascinated by what it was that made these people travel across the world to a country where they had no knowledge about the culture, didn’t know the language and had to live in a rural setting with everything that entailed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I was fascinated by their courage, their eagerness to leave Sweden and be part of the world.
My other great grandfather emigrated to America and found his way into the missionary community over there. He then left for China and met my great grandmother at a missionary station. She was a poor maid, who grew up in the Stockholm archipelago, but decided to leave home and study in Glasgow at the age of 18. Both families – my grandfathers’ and my grandmothers’ got to know each other working for the same missionary society in China. My grandparents met for the first time, when they were only babys in China, and they stayed together for their entire life. Now, if that is not a love story…
Perhaps my fascination for these relatives come from the fact that I have always been travelling myself. I have spent several years living in other countries, and I’m always curious to meet new people, new languages and new cultural settings.
My forefathers certainly led a very different life from mine, but they were courageous and driven people and they decided what they wanted their life to be. They overcame all obstacles and pulled themselves out of a difficult life in Sweden, to a not less difficult, but to them more meaningful life in China.
Each part of their story that I unveil in my search for family history, makes me feel closer to them, and that is kind of amazing when it comes to people who were born over a hundred years ago.
And it certainly is a joy to finally see this lovely photo again.