Things can change quickly, even in your 60s and beyond. I was surprised how my looming 60th birthday stood tall, faced me and asked,
‘What’s the deepest, most heartfelt thing on your Bucket List?’
For me, it was to explore our family mysteries. I grabbed the chance. It was life-changing. The lesson: Seize the Day!
My best, most unexpected birthday gift for my 60th? Eight new cousins, I never knew before – and we actually like each other.
I had wanted to research my Hungarian granddad since I was a small child. I wanted answers to a million questions because my family had a million mysteries. My dad, born in New York, did not want to say a single word about his dad, born in Budapest. The more Dad kept secrets, the more I asked, and the more he said to shut up.
This went on for decades.
A few years ago, when both my parents were dead and gone, there was no one to object. But, I was working – I couldn’t just pack up and go to Budapest, could I? Actually, I could.
It took some transition time, but I changed all my face-to-face teaching to online teaching. These students don’t care where I am, as long as I show up onscreen as agreed.
This allows me to travel.
I travelled to Budapest, to explore The Family Mystery.
I felt bold booking a whole month. I didn’t know it would turn into five months, several returns over several years, and eventually establishing residency. My research uncovered far more than I expected. I’d become a genealogy research maniac with a mission to find the real story.
Why the secrecy?
Dad never accepted his parents were from two different religions – his mother Catholic, his father Jewish. He sided with her and wanted to hide him. Our age group is much more open-hearted, by the way.
There was a lot of basic information on the internet, but eventually, I had to follow the trail to Budapest. I am so happy I did. I fell in love with the place.
As for the story, I found so much drama, so many characters, so many ups, downs and surprises, it became the basis of my second published book.
I call my travel memoir series Noodle Trails because although my plans might be straight as an arrow, the actual route looks more like a bowl of noodles.
I was fortunate my ancestry search took me to Budapest, a cool destination in any case, with a groovy international ex-pat world and plenty to eat, drink and see.
I’d encourage readers to consider their own map of ‘ancestry tourism’. This idea grabs more people all the time. I can attest, it’s a beautiful theme to a trip, wherever your tree leads you.
I was thrilled to see the actual buildings where my family lived, worked, shopped, prayed, got married and where they were buried.
When I saw my great-grandparents’ gravestone, with my same name, my whole body shook.
Many of these sites gave me a shiver of excitement, like electricity, head to toe, like the communal DNA was fizzing.
It’s a deep experience, to walk near the roots of your tree, or to answer some lifelong question.
Surprises and deep feelings are almost guaranteed.
My most exciting result was meeting real cousins! After WW2, Auschwitz-survivor Andreas Weiss went to live in Vienna, where today he is 91 years old and his family is nearby.
I never knew he existed, until recently.
When I found his 1928 birth record, I could only hope he was still alive.
Next, I found a 1944 document saying he and his parents were sent to the death camp at Auschwitz, so I was upset but did not want to believe it. I kept searching. I wanted proof if he lived or died there, and those Nazis often kept good records.
Soon I found his name on a list of survivors from the camp at Dachau. He survived the war!
I went jumping and dancing all over the room, calling out, ‘I have a cousin! He survived the war! One of us got through!’ Oh, I cried for joy.
But, was he still alive? If so, where was he? I did not find out for many months. I just kept hunting. The lesson: Keep Going!
I only found him because he left a trail. He wrote some articles, memoirs for a history magazine from his home town Szombatheley.
The magazine helped me contact him and his family. We met. Then we met again and again until we lost count, over the last few years. We plan to meet again, in March 2020. Now it’s routine and normal, to meet whenever we can. We’re friends now.
Our two branches feuded over a hundred years ago and haven’t spoken since, but we just built a bridge.
Leave a trail, build a bridge, find new friends – not bad advice.
Even if you don’t find living cousins or a great saga, you’ll find history, connections and gossip. I wholeheartedly recommend ‘ancestry tourism’. Go walk where your people walked before you. And if you can, eat accordingly.
The more you research beforehand, the better. Much can be researched for free. If I can advise, I will – please just ask.
Travel with purpose, and happy trails to you.