What do retired people do all day long?
Stuart and I have been answering that question a little differently every year for the last eighteen years. Stuart retired from Goshen College in 2004. I left my last full-time position in 2010. For 28 years we both worked at Goshen College, changing jobs (I had nine offices in 28 years) but not institution. What is the through-line for us? Faith, family, and friends are our anchors. Reading and writing, learning and teaching are our callings, our gifts to give and receive.
Stuart started developing an interest in genealogy almost forty years ago. He knew that his mother’s mother was named Showalter which made it likely that his parents were related to each other. He consulted the one genealogy book in his family’s home, about the Brenneman family. He discovered that his parents were third cousins. Soon after we got our first home (floppy disc) computer, he created a numerical system for tracing ancestry. Then he transferred his data to two charts he purchased from the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society.
Of course, he found common family lines between the two of us, also. Like many Mennonites, we are distant cousins to each other and to the members of each other’s families. This is what happens when a religious group strongly encourages marriage from within the group (endogamy). (Endogamy led to many jokes about cousins on Mennonite college campuses at a time when almost all the students were Mennonite.)
From the beginning, Stuart was not just interested in the Showalter family. He also traced my family history — the Hersheys. He began to think about telling a story for our children that traced their roots as far back as possible. And, of course, although both sides of his family had lived in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia for more than two centuries, both had originally lived in Lancaster County, PA, where we now live and where most Swiss-German Mennonites settled first after arriving from Germany in the 18th century.
Over the years, Stuart spent much time in the historical libraries in Lancaster, PA; Goshen, IN, and Harrisonburg, VA. He also read and used many family histories. Generally speaking, these were focused on who “begat” whom. They seldom contained stories about personalities.
If we think about family history from a child’s perspective, what would they want to know? What kind of information would benefit them most?
Stories, of course.
Here’s where our interests began to converge and continue to converge — mine in stories and Stuart’s in systems and data. After I wrote my memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World, Stuart realized that the profiles of my parents in that book could be included in a special kind of gift for our grandchildren. I am now interested in writing an introduction to the Hershey family stories that will include some notable Hersheys in the colonial era and as much as we can learn of their origins in Switzerland, sojourn in Germany, and then the migration to America. Both the Hersheys and the Showalters go back to the Emmental region of Switzerland in the Canton of Bern, so Stuart and I are doing a trip with a family historian and some other Showalters next summer. We also have a well-researched historical novel on the bed stand, Furgge, written by a Swiss woman Katharina Zimmermann, which tells the story of the sufferings of the Anabaptists in the 17th century.
During the pandemic Stuart began to collect biographical information about four generations, starting with our parents, then grandparents, and great-grandparents. He used databases such as Ancestry.com, newspapers.com, and findagrave.com. He requested stories from siblings and cousins. He’s got a manuscript now of more than 40,000 words. He would love to have a finished product, text and photos, by Christmas. But if it takes longer, that’s okay too.
We’re retired. No one is breathing down our necks. This project will keep us absorbed for years to come. And we hope it will be a permanent legacy to leave to our families.
The name Stuart means steward. It fits my dear husband as does this description: “he always rises to the challenge.” He is our family steward.
Do you have a family steward or historian? What do you know about your family as a result? Is there anyone collecting stories about your ancestors? Have any advice for us as we finish this project?