Somewhere Out There


Out there, somewhere, in all the documents, papers, and stories of humanity, is information concerning one Thomas Napoleon Vandenburg, born in 1814 in either Germany or Holland, and died – according to lore – in 1864 in an insane asylum in Tennessee. We know he married a woman named Elizabeth, had three sons, all of which are easily documented, and the descendants of those three sons are scattered world wide. That’s it, that is all we have about this man who is my direct descendant.

Oh, I know, he is long dead, and that the stories about him died with his children or grandchildren. No one who knew him still walks the earth. But it bothers me that a man who was a father, husband, and no doubt, friend is simply erased as if he was unimportant in the formation of our family line. To me, he isn’t just a name and date on a piece of paper, he is part of who I am from the smallest part of DNA to, perhaps, how I look and act. It is a connection that becomes more important the longer I can’t find an answer.

As most genealogy enthusiasts know, there is always the one brick wall that makes us keep on pounding away. So many things can cause a brick wall. A name change, a spelling change, someone just decides to drop out of sight and moves on with a new life. All of that was much easier the further back one goes in history in the United States and other wilderness areas that became dumping grounds for criminals and religious fanatics. That very combination of rebelliousness was ripe for anarchy. Wars added to the losses, and sometimes, the soldier joined up using a fake name and disappeared into the chaos of history ending in a nameless grave somewhere on a nameless piece of land.

Disease, insanity, grueling hard scrabble lives, starvation, and wanderlust added their share of ghosts and lost men and women who became vague names in some old Bible or land document. There are thousands of ways a man could die in the past that would be cured with a simple pill today. The greed for gold alone took thousands of men from their families into the gold fields of California. A multitude of them were never heard from again. Some simply slipped away, some died horrific deaths, some drank themselves to death, and some managed to make it home, or bring their families to them to start a new life.

Today, it is rare that someone can simply disappear. We have documentation from the second we are born until the day we are buried or cremated at the end of our lives. Millions of tons of paper and ink are outlaid on each person born in a modern society. And now, with social media, computer hackers, and everything available electronically, we are even less likely to be able to disappear. Eventually, someone, somewhere, will recognize the missing person or discover when and where he or she died. I abhor the modern world of constant surveillance and intrusion, yet still wish that our ancestors had been a bit more organized and determined to keep records straight.

However, as I beat against that brick wall that is Thomas Napoleon Vandenburg’s history, I know in my heart that he is happy that someone cares enough to search for him from so far in the future. One day I will find him, and when I do I will do my Happy Dance and know that all the late nights, road trips, digging around in ragged paperwork and frustration was worth it. His story will be written again, and we will be able to move on to the men and women who brought him into this world. I know he’s out there, somewhere. Hang on Thomas, I am searching as hard as I can.

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Brown Eyed Boy


arron_6yrs“Well, hello little man,” The new mother said when she first held her baby boy. He looked at her with his big brown eyes and cried. She cuddled him close and told him not to cry because she would always hold her brown eyed boy in her arms.

“Look at you, you’re walking!” The mommy said as her brown eyed boy took his first steps across the room on his own. He looked at her and smiled a drooling smile as he took his first steps away from her.

“Hurry! We’re late! You don’t want to miss the bus on the first day of school” she said, as she rushed him out the door and down the street to the bus stop. The big yellow bus pulled up and he climbed on with all the other children in his neighborhood. His mommy stood on the curb and smiled at him as the bus moved away. He didn’t see her cry as her brown eyed boy took his first ride away from her.

“Here’s your uniform, you need to change so we can get to the meeting on time. Tonight, you get to move up from a Bear Cub to Webelos in scouting” his mother said, as she rushed from one task to another. When he walked across that bridge to move up to his next rank, she applauded and smiled while he grinned with pride at his accomplishment. He didn’t see her cry as her brown eyed boy took one more step toward the future.

“What have you done!” The mother whispered in a quiet voice, as he was rolled into the emergency room. “We won!” He shouted as they gave him medicine so they could set his collar bone. He didn’t see her cry as he drifted off. But he knew she was right there by his side. She prayed for her brown eyed boy.

“Where have you been!” His mother shouted at him when he stumbled in at daybreak. He knew she had been waiting up for him all night, afraid he wouldn’t come home, afraid he was hurt. “Mom, we were out night fishing. Don’t worry, I’m almost a teenager I can take care of myself. Then he wandered off to bed. He didn’t see his mom cry in relief he was fine, and in sorrow that her brown eyed was one step further away.

“What is this?” His mother asked. He knew she knew what it was as he tried to think of an excuse or a reason he had it in his room. “It’s just pot mom. It isn’t going to hurt me.” He said it with a tone of contempt for her. She threw it away, and he was punished, but it didn’t bother him ’cause he knew where to get more. She knew he knew, and when he left she cried at the dullness and sullenness in the brown eyes of her boy.

“Get Out!” His mother shouted in anger and frustration. “Live by our rules, or live somewhere else.” He grabbed his pack, threw on his boots, and stomped out of the house. He was tired of being treated like a kid, and he would show her that he didn’t need her at all. He didn’t hear the painful sobbing of his mother as her brown eyed boy walked away in rage.

“Mom! It’s a girl.” He sang down the phone in joy when his baby was born. He was overjoyed and so was she. When she got to the hospital, he hugged his mommy tight and whispered, “I never knew, I never knew, how much a parent loves their child until now.” He had tears in his eyes as he held his daughter in his arms. “Well, hello there, little angel baby.” She looked at him with wise brown eyes, and sighed with content.

“Hey Mom! Merry Christmas!” he shouted over the popping phone line! He was, he said, doing great. He had a great woman, a beautiful daughter, a good job, and that is really all a man needed to be happy. “Mom….. Mom…. I’m losing you. I love you,” he shouted just before the line dropped the call. He didn’t hear her say “I love you, too, or see her cry because he missed it, and she deeply missed her brown eyed boy.

“He’s dead! He’s dead!” came over the phone in the deepest part of the night. His mother and father rushed back home to find it was true. It was… it was – inexplicably painful, horrific in every moment of pain. She went to the morgue to identify him. When she started to leave him, she turned back, and gently closed his eyes. He didn’t see her cry as she walked away from him, knowing she wouldn’t see her brown eyed boy until she joined him on the other side one day.

“Nana, can I play my daddy video again?” Her little voice asked. “Of course,” and she put the video on.” She didn’t she her Nana cry as she walked down the hall, knowing her brown eyed girl was getting to know her daddy the only way she could. She didn’t see her smile as her Nana stood still and listened – remembering her brown eyed boy.