How It Begins
The other day my eldest son, William, pointed to a photograph hanging on the wall and asked, “Daddy, what is this picture of?”
The photo he was referencing was taken during the summer of 2002 when I was living in Keene, New Hampshire. I had an internship with Florentine Films, Ken Burns’ film company. One Saturday, I wandered the trails around Keene and found myself gazing across a sandy, open area. I snapped a picture—on 35mm film of course. Digital photography was still in its infancy.
I explained the history of the image to William. He pondered this for a moment and replied, “Where was Mommy?”
That was a good question. Automatically, I responded that she was at home, only to later realize that he probably envisioned her in our home, not in the home where she grew up. (Sara later clarified that, yes, she was living at home with her parents and was working a summer job at Dairy Queen.)
Suddenly, I realized—this is how it begins.
I don’t believe that we are born with an intrinsic sense of time: the past, the present, and the future. Rather, time is something we develop to organize and understand our perception of events. Some scientists have gone as far as to say that time is simply an illusion, albeit a convincing one.
What I realize now is that William, at three years old, is starting to place himself on the timeline of our family history. By discussing objects in our home, hearing stories about people and places, and experiencing each new day, he is learning that our family exists on a continuum of events stretching generations into the past.
Children, by their nature, are inquisitive and family history is just one way to pique their curiosity. As my father explained in a recent article, his home is filled with numerous items that are full of stories. Not surprisingly, so is mine, although my collection is significantly smaller!
In my home, a certain photograph hangs above the baby changing table. William and his younger brother, Henry, have spent countless hours receiving clean diapers here, all the while gazing up at the image on the wall.
The picture in question is from August of 1945 and depicts the men of the 1st Armored Replacement Battalion, Company D, at Fort Knox, Kentucky. They had finished training for an invasion of Japan that never came. On the right side of the photograph, in the third row from the top, stands a man of some importance to our family—my grandfather Homer S. Hagenbuch (b. 1916, d. 2012). Countless times, when changing diapers, I have discussed with William and Henry the significance of the image.
William calls it the “war picture.” While he doesn’t yet grasp who his great-grandfather was or why he was in that photo, I am certain that one day he will, if we keep talking about it! Herein lies the tough part. All that talking takes time, energy, and deliberate effort.
I am not really sure I appreciated my place in our Hagenbuch family until I was in my 20s. Though my father had explained it many times over the years, I had little interest. Yes, I knew my parents and grandparents, as well as my aunts, uncles, and cousins. They had been with me my whole life. Yet, the generations before them were murky and mysterious. That changed, however, when I relocated to California in 2008. Far away from my immediate family, I wanted to know more about them and our ancestors. My journey towards creating Hagenbuch.org and Beechroots had begun.
I accept that my sons may never develop the same interest in genealogy and, even if they do, it will almost certainly be decades before this occurs. Nevertheless, I can already see in William the first inkling to know his relatives and place himself within our family tree.
Recently, while speaking to a neighbor about his trip, William blurted out, “My great great great grandfather took a plane to New Jersey!”
Confused, the neighbor looked at me. Then he asked, “When was his great great great grandfather born?”
“1847,” I explained. “But he died in 1897.”
Knowing that the first airplane flew in the 20th century, we both laughed. William’s great great great grandfather, Hiram Hagenbuch, could never have been on a plane! All joking aside, I was proud of William. He was remembering a discussion we had had about his Hagenbuch ancestors, and somewhere in his mind he was trying to make sense of it.
Although it will take many years and while there is no guarantee his interest in family history will materialize, I am convinced that this is, perhaps, how it begins.
Thank you Andrew . This is one of your best ! I have always loved that photo with my Dad in it . In fact there are maybe more than one of those in our local Cracker Barrel . Different soldiers of course ! But I checked them out , thinking how cool it would be if his photo were actually there .
William has the great advantage of his Daddy and Grandpa doing all the work of finding our roots !Thank you for this and many others , of the family story .
Thanks, Aunt Barb! It’s a great photo 🙂