After over three weeks on the road, I'm finally home in DC again. It's been a long trip--possibly the longest I've ever done--and both an enjoyable and a sometimes painful trip. I've collected a lot of counties I'd never been to before, and a lot of transit I'd never ridden before: I finally finished riding all the rail transit in New York that's not commuter rail, and I visited Cincinnati and Indianapolis for the first time and rode the Cincinnati "Bell Connector" streetcar and the soon-to-close Indianapolis hospitals monorail.
What's really sticking in my mind at the moment, though, is the second half of my trip: my drive through Appalachia to visit some of my dad's family in Columbus and Indianapolis. It's important to keep in mind that seeing my father's family is not a common occurrence: this was the first time in a decade I'd seen the relatives in Columbus, and the ones in Indianapolis I'd only met twice before in my whole life.
I don't know if the fact that I grew up over four hundred miles away from any extended family makes me unusual among Americans, but it certainly feels that way a lot of the time. I did see my extended family regularly--my parents and I drove to Detroit and Columbus to see relatives for Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July every year, and usually went to Detroit for Easter as well--but they only visited us in DC a couple of times during my childhood, and they were never that big a part of my life.
Furthermore, to the degree that I was close to extended family, it was always my mom's family. We went to visit them in Detroit more often and for longer, and my mom's four siblings in the Detroit area were always quite close to each other, and to my grandparents, who lived until I was in tenth grade.
With my dad's family, things were different. His parents both died before I was born, and he never got along with his step-mom, even though we stayed with her when we were in Columbus. (Which is maybe part of why we never spent much time there.) The only of his relatives I ever saw regularly besides her were his brother Steve and his husband Brad, and his great aunt Pearl, her daughter Jackie, and her two daughters, who were about my age. And somehow, I just never connected with them even in the weak way I did with my maternal grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.
So, given all that, getting to spend time with Steve and Brad and Jackie on this visit to Columbus, and hear a bit more about their childhoods on this trip was definitely interesting. It's something I wish I got to do a bit more frequently. At the same time, though, it probably says something about where my identity lies that when I cooked dinner from them, it was Polish food, part of my heritage on my mother's side.
Even though Columbus is where we always went to see my dad's family when I was growing up, it's not really where his family is from: both his parents--and his stepmother--grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, an old river port on the Ohio River where it joins the Scioto, which runs through Columbus.
Portsmouth's population peaked in 1930 and the city, located right on the Ohio River, is as much in Appalachia as it is in the Midwest. Today, the county it is in--Scioto County--is one of the poorest in Ohio, and is a hot spot in the opioid epidemic.
Portsmouth is somewhere that my dad's family has always been trying to leave, but has never quite been able to break its connection to. While my paternal grandfather was an only child, my paternal grandmother was one of four daughters raised there. Of the four of them, my grandmother Ethel and my great aunt Pearl both married Portsmouth men and moved to Columbus to start families, and my great aunt Olga moved to Cleveland when she got married.
The Columbus branch of the family is the only one I ever really saw much of while growing up. When I was very young, we visited Olga and her husband in Cleveland a few times, but they both died before I was old enough to really get to know them. We never visited their younger son, Robert, and only met their older son, Dean, and his family once, when they visited DC to be tourists and we got together for dinner.
As for my great aunt Ruth, she was the oldest and lived the longest of the four sisters, only dying when I was in college, but I never met her. She--the girl who at age thirteen, in Appalachia in the 1930's, announced that she was an atheist and wouldn't be going to church anymore, and made it stick--left Portsmouth, and Ohio, and never looked back.
Ruth and her husband wandered around the county for a while before eventually settling in Port Angeles, Washington. And, once she was there, she invited us to visit (which we never did), but absolutely refused to visit Ohio again.
Anyway, while none of my dad's relatives remained in Portsmouth to visit, once I was in high school, he did take me there a couple of times to visit his parents' graves and to see the houses where he visited them every other weekend as a kid, one of which still exists and one of which has been demolished. Once our family trips ended when I finished college, though, it was quite possible I'd never see Portsmouth again: after all, there's not really anyone or anything for me there.
Still, while I was on the road last week, I found myself unable to avoid making a detour to visit the city. I didn't spend much time there, but did discover a local art museum with a very friendly person at the front desk who suggested I visit Serpent Mount, a Native American effigy mound, on my way from Portsmouth to Cincinatti. Doing so was, honestly, probably more interesting than the visit to Portsmouth itself, but it still is important to me to have made it back there again.
While I was in Indianapolis visiting my cousin (technically, second cousin) Cassidy, we talked a lot about the genealogy of my dad's family, which she's been researching. A lot of our discussions were about our great grandfather, Franz Wiesner. However, we also ended up spending a lot of time talking about Portsmouth, and what it seemed to mean to our various ancestors. To Franz, it seems to have been an isolated place to hide from his past, but for his children and grandchildren it was somewhere to flee from; somewhere not to be associated with.
Certainly, both my and her dad seemed to try fairly hard to avoid being "too Portsmouth," even if my dad's feelings are conflicted on the matter. When he inherited his parents' old Steinway piano, he made a point of spending money on getting it refurbished and donating it to their old high school, Portsmouth High.
WHO WAS FRANZ WIESNER?
I've only occasionally met my mom's cousins and her aunts and uncles--other than my late great aunt Frances--and I can usually barely remember their names. On the other hand--perhaps because my dad only had one sibling (who never had kids), and his parents died before I was born, his aunts and cousins have always seemed a bit more important.
My dad's father was an only child, but his mother was one of four sisters, the children of Franz (Frank to his American family) Wiesner and Ollie Sparks. The Sparks family seem to have lived in the US for a long time, and were evidently from Kentucky and perhaps West Virginia. Franz Wiesner, on the other hand, was from Silesia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
As I was growing up, all I knew about Franz was that he was Austrian. More recently, though, partly through genealogical research that Cassidy has been doing, and partly from stories I've heard from some of my dad's cousins, I've realized that his story was much more complicated than that.
Franz was born in Austro-Hungarian Silesia, but he seems to have gone to school on the German side of the border, before working back in Austria for a time. Surprisingly, he apparently had a college degree of some sort: something I thought no one in my dad's family had had until two generations later: apparently my paternal grandfather wasn't the first in his family to go to college after all.
What makes Franz even more interesting, though, is that he was apparently some sort of radical revolutionary. None of us have been able to track down the details, though my father and my cousin Cassidy's father both claim to have some of his writing hidden away somewhere, and if we can manage to find it, Cassidy (who's fluent in German) hopes she can translate it.
In any case, he apparently left the Austro-Hungarian Empire not to make a better life, so much as to save his life: he was a fugitive from the government there because of his writings (or maybe involvement in something?). He crossed the border back in Germany, but seems to have then sailed from the German port of Bremen to the US (most likely Baltimore).
Even then, things weren't simple. Based on the stories his older two daughters--Ruth and Olga--tell, he was paranoid (whether justifiably or not) that the Austro-Hungarian government was still after him, and he moved to Canada and got a job working on the railroad there. We haven't managed to find much record of him there, but he did become a Canadian citizen and Olga apparently told her children that he'd had a family in Canada but that they'd died.
In any case, right after World War I ended, he immigrated to the US from Canada, moved to Portsmouth, Ohio, and married a local woman named Ollie Sparks. He seems to have picked Portsmouth for its isolation: it was on the southern edge of the US's industrial heartland, and more Appalachian than Midwestern in character. In any case, his later life was apparently quite private and he didn't talk much about his past.
While he didn't tell his children, especially his later two daughters, much about his earlier life or his politics, he seemed to be kind of disappointed about the outcome of his life: he'd gone from being a college-educated intellectual in Silesia to a blue-collar life in Canada and later Portsmouth. He apparently was sad not to have any sons, but pressured all his daughters to "marry up" and have sons who would go to college and become professionals, pressure that apparently got passed on to my dad's generation as pressure to become doctors, which none of them did.
In any case, this is what I know now. It's certainly enough to make me (and Cassidy) very anxious to learn more, and I hope we can find a way to track more down.