Reflections on a Reunion

Has it been four weeks already? It seems like yesterday, I was hugging my cousins. I think Steve said it best in an email the other day: “I guess you’re back on your busy, crazy schedule, huh?” I suppose I am, because life seems to be rushing past me with few moments to reflect, rest, refocus. I confess it freely, but not as complaint. Life is great. I am doing well. This weekend is the first chance I’ve really had to be alone, to be quiet.

I would trade it, of course, if I could spend the weekend with my relatives again. Since I can’t, I will opt for the next best: I’ll finally settle myself long enough to write about the Reunion and my excellent family.

To be fair, I have to tell you that for all my excitement and anticipation, I was incredibly anxious about the Reunion for several reasons. My nephew’s condition was growing worse and my brother and sister-in-law were trying to coordinate a trip to Mayo in Rochester; my sister gave me some good, but difficult to handle (for me) news; work was a bit overly-dramatic in several regards; another sister was visiting; I was feeling a bit depressed because we were nearing the two-year anniversary of Rodger’s death; I was on a new medication that was making me very sick to my stomach (I just couldn’t wait to get to the Reunion and vomit up everyone’s wonderful food). On top of all this, I had an irrational fear that no one was going to show up for the Reunion. So you can see, the Reunion came with much “life.”

We gathered in Frankenmuth, Michigan–home to our Schmitzer roots. We rented a pavilion at Heritage Park, right along the Cass River. It was beautifully situated, with many trees and a nearby playground for the kids. It was also tucked away a little bit so we weren’t right next to any other event that was happening over the weekend (and listen, there was a lot going on at Heritage Park). We had worried about being out in the summer heat on a July afternoon, but incredibly–we had a beautiful day, warm enough to enjoy, splashes of sunshine, and intermittent rain showers. It could not have been better!

Food? Oh, there was more food than we could have eaten. I still can’t figure out how it happened. When we were planning the Reunion, I asked Uncle John what he remembered about Reunions from his youth, and one thing he said was that there were always “tables lined with every kind of food imaginable.” I remember his exact words, because I remember thinking, “Okay, I get it–there was a lot of food.” But honestly? I think his words were an accurate depiction of our food situation at this Reunion. There was so much. So, so much. And we didn’t even cut into the watermelon!

I can’t tell you exactly how many people attended the Reunion. I mentioned that I had an irrational fear that no one would attend. This was intensified by folks asking me how many people I expected would come, to which I hopefully replied, “Thirty? Forty? I hope?” I figured that if only those I knew about would attend, we’d have around thirty. Well, here’s what I can tell you. I know there were several people who (unfortunately!) had to leave before we took the group photo (yeah, this is something we’ll have to coordinate better next year). And how many were in the group photo? Sixty. Sixty heads in the group picture.

I have to admit, I was relieved with the turnout. There were so many Schmitzers there!

But enough for the logistics of it all. What were some of the highlights? I’ll try to give a quick recap of some of my favorite mentions:

  • Uncle John’s hugs. I can’t explain why, I just love his hugs.
  • The twins: Jamie and Travis’ daughters were (I think) the youngest in attendance, and they were adorable! It was wonderful to have some young faces at the Reunion.
  • Aunt Verna was my grandpa Herman’s cousin on the Trinklein side. Okay, so she isn’t “technically” a Schmitzer. But you know what? I am so glad she was there! She was one of the best parts of the Reunion for me. I heard stories of my grandparents, and my great-grandparents. What a blessing! What a beautiful woman! I think she said she is 96 years old.
  • We brought a large print poster of an old Schmitzer Reunion (unsure of the year, but some seemed to think it was in 67 or 68) and spread it out with markers, asking people to identify anyone they recognized. In the end, there were only a few names on the poster, but it sure generated a lot of discussion, and it was so cool to see people pointing and talking around the poster!
  • Dori. What an incredible woman.
  • My siblings and cousins. Wow! What fun…I can’t tell you how cool these people are. If you knew, you’d be jealous!

But what tops everything? What was the highlight of all highlights?

My Mom.

I wish I could explain this. I have known my mom my whole life (right?), and she is one of my closest friends as an adult. But when family started to arrive, I felt like I saw my mother for the very first time. She opened up, like a beautiful flower that had been waiting for the sun to shine–she just unfurled, right there, with her family. She told me that she was nervous about the Reunion because we had been talking about names of cousins, etc, and she would say, “I know the name, but I can’t quite picture them.” And all of that resolved when she saw people at the Reunion. It was as if she became this woman I never knew she was. Or…she was able to be herself, more than I’d ever witnessed before. It was absolutely wonderful.

So…there you have it, folks. I leave you with two photos. The first is my niece and me; the second is our beautiful group photo.



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Choral Society, Program Notes, and Grandpa Schmitzer

We take for granted that Jim’s program notes will be informative, pertinent, entertaining, and–yes–even a bit touching. We take for granted that Lynne will sit tall and play the piano flawlessly, with or without her glasses. We take for granted that Floyd will select music that is both infuriating and breathtaking, and will make a decent choir out of an un-auditioned community group. We take for granted that the program will be formatted correctly. We take for granted that the posters will be both beautiful and inviting. We take for granted how sharp the choir will look in black attire with red corsages. We take for granted how wonderful we know it will feel when we are there on the stage and finally hear the fullness of our program, start to finish.

There are so many pieces to a semester of choir. There is so much we take for granted in the scheme of it all. The highlights of this semester of Choral Society were, for me, the moments I refused to take for granted. I’ll share one of them with you.

Jim, who has written the program notes for almost forever, was honored this year with the Choral Leadership Award. How incredible it was to learn more about him and his service to the Choral Society (and the community!), and to hear his remarks of humble appreciation! But after our dress rehearsal Friday night, I sat home on my sofa, numb from my eyes to my neck from Cepacol overdose, and I read Jim’s program notes. Over. And over. And over. Friends, I’m not too proud to tell you that it brought tears to my eyes. I’m not even sure I can identify the emotion, but I can tell you it was an enormous one. I read his words and it hit me like the deep thunder—you know, the kind that shakes the birds right out of the trees, sends the cats ripping through the house to find safety, leaves your heart trembling, and steals the warmth right out of the air before unleashing its torrent—I wasn’t just reading history. I wasn’t just reading the history of German or Lutheran music. I wasn’t just reading the history of brilliant composers. I was reading my history.

My heart still quivers just to think it, just to type the words.

What a moment! What a realization! What an awesome and humbling thing, to read my own history on paper in the words of perhaps the most articulate man I’ve ever known—to learn, from one of my heroes, the stories of some of my Grandfather’s heroes. For a moment, I felt like I’d been given a chance to know my Grandpa, the man I have longed to love, the man I have longed to know, the man who gave me his love of music, who died seven years before my birth. What an enormous, emotional, unexpected, thunderous blessing.

I refuse to take for granted the moments that move me, that challenge me, that change me, that reveal myself to me. This is really what singing in the choir is about for me: Identity. There is something incredibly profound about the movement of harmony, the struggle and peace of dissonance and resolution. There is something to be said for the paradox of so many voices—individual voices—coming together to sound one corporate voice. There is something quite theological about it, folks. Too often have we taken it for granted.

If I died today or if I had a tragic accident or diagnosis that left me unable to sing (or far more likely than either of these: if I were banned from the choir for excessive laughing during ridiculous songs like Adam Lay Ybounden), I would still raise my voice in thanksgiving. Singing with the Marquette Choral Society hasn’t simply changed me; it is recreating me. It is refinding* me, a soul that’s been lost for a very long time.

Just like my faith.

What a blessing to see it as it unfolds.

*I don’t think refinding is a word. It should be. I use it here intentionally.

Family History, part III

Well, folks? This will be my final post about my recent Family History vacation. And what remains to be said?

There is something magical about returning to the land of your fathers (or in my case, the land of my mother’s fathers). To walk there, to breathe the air, to look upon the fields and the Cass River, to drive on the roads and see the old homesteads where their friends and neighbors lived–it is magical. It brings history to life. It takes names and dates that we’ve known in ink–on birth, marriage, death, census records, etc–and photos and memoirs, and it pulls them out of some obscure thing called “the past,” and makes it part of the here-and-now. In a sense, it brings our families back to life.

But what is especially magical, I think, is having family that still lives in those places. I live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The few towns I’ve ever lived in my life have been “small towns,” so I know the great honor and the great entrapment of being “a local.” Those families that have lived somewhere forever, and know all the weird little stories–that’s what the Schmitzers are in Frankenmuth. I love being able to sit at my Uncle’s house and listen to the stories of our family’s home. It’s all those odd tidbits that I was never going to find on the internet.

And…it’s more. You know, I mentioned before (and will likely mention many, many more times before I die) that my uncles’ interaction with each other reminded me so much of how my own brothers (Steven & Jer) banter. As John and David were talking about David being Grandma’s favorite, and how John would get in trouble for things that Dave instigated (which I can totally believe, by the way), all I could hear in my mind was Steve and Jer telling the story of the time they tried to move the washing machine. And the freezer. Totally unrelated story, of course (it had nothing to do with either of them getting in trouble), but…the back-and-forth banter would’ve been the same. You knew that they were going to tease and mock and blame each other without mercy, and yet, you also knew (without question) that they’d been in it together.

That’s the thing. Family History isn’t just about capturing the names and dates of your ancestors. It isn’t just about building an impressive Family Tree. It’s so much more. It’s about bringing to life the characters who’ve shaped the context we find ourselves in. It’s about seeing the similarities–not just between siblings, but among extended relatives who have no reason to be behaving the same way that you are. It’s about connecting to those who belong with us. It’s about understanding how and why we do belong with one another.

In all of this, I am quite overcome by two distinct feelings: First, it is the realization that the Schmitzer line is only one of the many I have to research, and Second, it is the awareness that it’s not enough to capture the past.

Somehow, I must also learn to capture the present.

Family History, part II

My Great Agenda for the Family History trip included two very personal stops.

I had heard rumors some time ago that the old Schmitzer house was still standing on South Dehmel road in Frankenmuth. I was given a photo from my uncle of the Johann Michael Schmitzer family that, if I’m not mistaken, was taken at the house on Dehmel. This was the home where my great-grandfather would have grown up. To say that I wanted to see the house was an understatement. To stand where my great-grandfather may have stood, where his daddy and granddaddy may have stood–the idea has been drawing me for some time. In the end, no one was certain where the house was–though I think Uncle David knows more than he realizes! I’m not disappointed that we didn’t make it to the house on Dehmel road, because I know it will be the first thing on my Great Agenda for the next trip. It gives me a place to begin.

The other point of interest was Frankentrost. Mom has told me about growing up in Frankentrost, but the few times we’ve passed through the small town, I haven’t thought much of it. After all, the house where they lived is no longer there; the church has burned down and been replaced. It just doesn’t hold any visual memory for me to connect with. However, one of my cousins shared a photo on FB last year that showed my dear Grandma tending her flowers:

When I showed this photo to my mom last year, the first comment she made was that this was Frankentrost! You can see the old church in this image, and the driveway. On this side of the photo, beyond the flowers, was the house where my mom grew up. Though the landscape and buildings have changed, I wanted to see the place where they lived and served (and they did serve–behind the church was the Lutheran School where my grandfather taught). It meant so much to me to see where they lived, but I know it meant a lot to my mom to see it again, as well.

The greatest part about the trip, though, was spending time with family. Not only did I have a fantastic time with mom and Jer, but it was so nice to visit with several of my cousins, and my aunts and uncles. We never had those strong connections as children, so to be building those relationships now as adults is very important to me.

My Aunt Judy did something remarkable. She brought photos to my mother that she’d been hanging onto. Remember when I said I was surprised to find the Schmutzer record? I hadn’t been expecting it. It was the same with these photos. No one had known that I’d been wanting (something fiercely) the two photos below. And yet, Aunt Judy had been holding them for my mom. Now…I’m enormously thankful that Judy held them, and also that my mom didn’t mind sharing them with me!

The above is my Grandma Schmitzer’s family. From left to right, the four children: Genevieve, Margaret (my Grandma!), Ewald Jr, and Norman Raatz. Seated in front is their mother, the infamous Grandma Hanson (actually, my great-grandma, Jennie Pieczynski–the good Catholic girl who married a Lutheran boy…I’ll take Family Mysteries for $1000, Alex).

And here, we have the Schmitzer brothers. Handsome fellows! From left to right, Alois Sr, my grandfather–Herman, Richard, and Alfred.

What a precious gift–to see the faces of my grandparents and their families!

Places I’ve lived include…

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Places I’ve lived include…


I’ve only lived a few places in my life, and most of them have been here in Michigan.

I was born in Manistee, which is a city anyone interested in our family history should be familiar with. Manistee was home to your Grandma’s family. While your Great Grandma Schmitzer’s house is no longer there (the one my siblings and I used to visit when we were children), there are several other homes, churches, and rocks (okay, only one rock—but it’s a big one!) from our family’s past that still dwell there. There is also an elderly man living in Manistee—90-some years old—who was your Grandma’s godfather (and also her first cousin, once removed). Your Uncle Steve and Grandma (and Grandma’s mom, and both of Grandma’s grandparents) were born there as well. Your Great Grandpa Schmitzer (the musician!) taught for many years at the Lutheran school in Manistee. He and his wife are buried in Manistee. Lots of family history in Manistee.

But there’s a lot of family history in Marquette, also. In 1984, our family (your grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles) moved to Marquette—to the big green house on Ridge Street, just across and down the street from Peter White Public Library. Most of my childhood memories revolve around that house, that neighborhood, that Peter White parking lot where we used to roller skate around and around and around that center island until we collapsed, that white house on the corner where the funny old lady swept her grass with a broom, the Campbell’s house—which was first Sarah Jean’s grandma’s house, who was my very first best friend (Sarah, not her grandma)—where the boys played and the girls were teased, Jim’s Party Store where we used to buy Tootsie Rolls for a penny apiece, the walk down Ridge Street—through the oldest and wealthiest homes in Marquette—on warm summer days to pass the enormous green flower pot and go swimming at McCarthy’s Cove, the hill behind Parkview where we used to sled in the winter…

I have lived few other places—Hancock, Houghton, Munising—but Manistee and Marquette hold special places in my heart. I hope you always remember your hometown and all the things and people there that make up who you are.

All my love,

Aunt Sarah