May 29, 2024

You can’t help who you’re related to

Erin' it Out

I’m a big fan of history, so you can imagine I enjoy learning about my own family history. I’ve shown some of my interest in a previous column, sharing with you my varied heritage.

While I’ve never seen it myself, my mom tells me there was once a family history book for her side. Included in that book quite a ways down the line was infamous American president, Andrew Jackson.

That was really cool for me to find out when I was little. The guy was a president and is the face of the $20 bill, why wouldn’t it be good? Well, then I found out about the man himself. It didn’t take much learning of U.S. history to find out my supposed ancestor was a pretty bad person.

A brief description for those that don’t know, Andrew Jackson was the power behind the Trail of Tears, which was a 1,000-mile death march of the Cherokee to what is now Oklahoma. This is what he is most well known for, alongside his various other atrocities towards indigenous Americans. However, there are also plenty of stories about him before he became president.

When I was in New Orleans, some of the historical tours touched on why he was so hated there, despite his success in battle. Instead, his attitude toward other people and tendency to turn to anger made him into quite the pariah. In fact, the statue of Jackson in New Orleans’ Jackson Square is mostly to make fun of him.

Commissioned along with the rest of the park by Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba, the statue faces what was once her personal home. Apparently he was rude enough to her that she wanted to every day see him tip his hat to her, knowing he would never do so in real life.

But that was long ago. He was an awful person, but he’s not really family. So let’s talk about my family.

Every family has their own dirty laundry, and while I’m certainly not going to air it here, but I like to meet the cast of characters that are my grandparents.

On my mom’s side are who I call Grammie and Papa. Papa died in 2015 at the age of 78 of Lewy body dementia. Though the strongest of my memories come after he moved to a nursing home, there are plenty of things that stick out from before.

Papa was a great person, something everyone in the family is reminded of any time we meet someone who knew him. As a grandfather, he was strict but funny. To stop us from bad habits, he would tell us certain things were against the law. For example, when my cousin put his mouth on the water fountain, Papa told him to quick stop or the police would take him to jail.

Papa would tell us what he called “bloody finger stories,” short horror stories that were terrifying to my young brain. Once he even set up a tent in the living room where the cousins spent the night, also lending itself as a great stage for these stories.

Grammie is still with us and actually celebrated her 79th birthday last Saturday. Ever the dramatic person, she sat and read each card she got out loud to us, crying at many of them. Grammie is known for a number of things to my friends, including her love for Diet Coke and her interesting phrases (such as “cool jewel”, the symbol of which I have a tattoo).

Grammie is one of those people who will find a way to talk to anyone and everyone, no matter the situation. Going anywhere in public with her makes the errand twice as long, and she won’t hesitate to touch your baby.

On my dad’s side are Oma and Opa, which are the German words for grandmother and grandfather. Oma died in 2003 at 56 from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was only 2 at the time, so I don’t have any memories of her personally. However, she’s always been a strong presence in my life.

I specifically associate Oma with hot air balloons, hence the large tattoo on my back. Before she died, she and my dad went on a hot air balloon ride. Now, every time I see a hot air balloon, I think of her, making Creston’s September festival extra special to me.

I grew up with everyone telling me how wonderful Oma was. When people heard my last name, they’d ask if I was related to her. When I said yes, I would be flooded with stories about how she impacted their life in one way or another. She’s been an inspiration for me my whole life, someone who’s characteristics I’ve tried to emulate.

Finally is Opa, who will be turning 82 in October. While he’ll soon be moving back to Wisconsin, he spent most of his retired life living in Arizona. I like to think it was to live out his boyhood dream of being a cowboy, but that might just be speculation.

When I think of Opa, I think of two things: John Wayne and card games. Opa has loved John Wayne as long as I can remember, so I of course have been to the museum in Winterset in his honor. Most of the free time I spend with Opa involves playing cribbage or some sort of rummy game. He conveniently has forgotten every time I’ve beat him, making him the master of the cards.

I really cherish the time I get to spend with Grammie and Opa. They’re both uniquely themselves, and sometimes lend memories of Papa and Oma that I otherwise wouldn’t have known.

So yeah, you can’t help who you’re related to, but at least in this century, I think I turned out pretty lucky.

Erin Henze

Originally from Wisconsin, Erin is a recent graduate from UW-Stevens Point. Outside of writing, she loves to read and travel.