Remember the movie Big Fish? It’s one of my favorites. For those who didn’t see it, Edward Bloom has lived a life filled with wonder. Problem is, his son Will has no idea what stories were true, and which were tall tales. Edward is dying, and Will wants to know the truth. The movie is a joyride through the vivid imagination of Edward Bloom, and Will discovers some surprises along the way as he works to reconcile with his father before it’s too late.
My great-grandfather, Hugh Stein, was a real-life Edward Bloom. Though I never met the man, I have been on a Big Fish-style discovery to sort out truth from fiction. As some of you know, this journey is about to take me to Scotland. In the interim, I took a side trip to Illinois to interview my parents. The more information I have, the more effective I’ll be with my research.
In order to start the conversation, we watched…you guessed it…Big Fish.
The next day, I went through popcorn tins and boxes filled with treasures. Included were letters from my great-great grandfather, who died in 1915, describing the early days of World War I. There were letters from my grandfather to my grandmother during World War II. My father even shared the many poems he’s written for my mother over the years — before now, I would see them hanging, unannounced, on the side of the refrigerator, but this time my dad offered them eagerly. In fact, he handed me the most recent one, saying, “I think this is one of my best.”
Who knew I had a great-great grandmother named Franziska Pokorney who would go on to marry several times? Who knew I had a female relative who was a wealthy, successful career woman in the 1920s, when women didn’t usually do that sort of thing?
I spent the bulk of the day scanning stacks of materials as relatives I never knew came to life.
We visited graves of relatives who lived in Hanover, Illinois. My sister drove us back home so Mom and I could sit in the back. So many details emerged, stories I’d never heard, about my parents, teenagers when they married, and how they built their family.
After 64 years of marriage, there are too many stories to tell in one sitting. Too many to tell no matter how many more times we get to talk. I am realizing how little I know, and time is fleeting. Gathering them, I feel like I’m trying to catch rainfall in my hands. It’s impossible. All the interviews, all the documents, and all the historical context cannot reconstruct a life, or generations of lives. And yet I continue, because something inside demands that I do so.
I cannot capture all the rainfall, but I will hold the drops I can.