It was a minor mistake. Yet it took seven years to resolve. I answered the house phone on a quiet summer day in 2010. At the time, land lines were going out of style in favor of personal cell phones, so I did not usually answer ours, a number that we had for over thirty years and which had followed us through two houses. In fact, the assumption was that any call must be for my wife Lori, since all of the kids had cell phones and did not use that number either. From the start, it appeared to be someone looking for a donation, which they were, and since I am not particularly patient with telemarketers, I typically end such conversations with a rude but effective hang-up. However, the question was intriguing. “Are you related to P & B Wackerman?”
My father, Joseph Grant, had always told me that there were only a few Wackermans in the United States outside of New York. As proof, he would check phone books when he went on business trips. I continued that tradition, and confirmed that the cities I visited did not list any Wackerman in the white pages. I was convinced that we were the only Wackerman to have ever lived in Michigan, and although I was not happy with it, I thought it poetic that a New York Wackerman had married a Detroit Pack and moved the family back to the Motor City. The problem was that we were looking in the wrong cities at the wrong times.
Before the internet, we were limited to our out-state trips to find our namesakes. Over time, friends told me that there were plenty of Wackermans on the west coast – there were barns with our name on the roof. We learned there were Wackermans in upstate New York. I heard of a Wackerman in Chicago, because we were in the same business.
In the early days of the common internet, I stumbled on a handful of Wackermans in various databases and on social networks. As the internet became more useful, I found Wackermans around the county, even getting email intended for someone with the same name in California. I read stories about a Wackerman founding father of Cleveland. It was official; we were more numerous than I thought.
Now the caller was looking for living relatives of long dead Wackermans in Michigan to help restore a stained glass window as part of their founding celebration. “P & B” had paid for the window in St. Mary’s Church in Detroit’s Greektown, and it was in Greektown that I had my first date with my wife. Of course, my date was in 1981 and “P & B” had made their mark a hundred years earlier.
The question got me rethinking about my family history, and sent me to some newly available sources to find a connection. I had done some preliminary sleuthing on a trip to Salt Lake City in November of 1995. I was there on a business trip, visiting American Stores for contractor training, and had heard that the Mormon Church was the best source of genealogy information at the time because they were constantly searching for lost souls. I spent an afternoon in their Family History Library, scrolling and scanning microfilm, and had identified my great-great grandfather Philip – apparently a cow herder in Brooklyn, New York – and had basically built the branches of the family tree in America. I also had the opportunity to spend some time with a beautiful young Mormon missionary discussing Mormonism versus Catholicism over cookies and juice at their Temple, but that is another story.
To answer the caller’s question, I needed to go beyond my initial research. Up to that time, I had not identified any “P & B” combination, and certainly not identified any Wackerman in Michigan before our move there in 1967. I started to dig, and found that our story was far more interesting than my family had ever bothered to mention.
What I have discovered about my background is that I am Alsatian (on the French, not German, side), Irish, and German, with a little bit of Belgian. I come from a long line of Brooklyn Roman Catholic Democrats. My grandfather, Joseph Henry, broke the Brooklyn connection. His son, Joseph Grant, broke the Democrat connection. His grandson, my brother, Joseph Frederick, made the biggest break in the Roman Catholic connection by becoming Jewish, but all my brothers left the church. Surprisingly, as I researched and wrote this story I realized how much of this history I had already heard, as names and places awoke memories of stories told at the dinner table, or seemed oddly familiar.
The paternal branch of my family started with a button maker in the slums of New York, and now has four generations of college-educated professionals. The maternal branch started with a butcher in Detroit that reinvented himself by changing names and professions after being in this country for twenty-five years, and ended up earning and spending a fortune. Both branches struggled for and achieved the American dream, but most of the best stories and all of the answers to why are lost to history.
I guess it can take something as small as a stained glass window in an unfamiliar church to trigger my obsessions. I have been known to become focused on obscure things, like the Lincoln Highway, on the slimmest of provocations. Yet why did I become fixated on building this story? With all of the pressures in a day, why did I spend years with on-line research, sifting through the detritus of everyone else’s history to find mine? Why did I remain in my den to write this story while the family was out doing family-things?
Part of the answer is that Michigan in 2010-2012 was going through a deeper than acknowledged depression, and as a business owner I was catching my share of grief. With all the uncertainty in the economy, and therefore my business, I needed something solid to unravel. I clearly needed an escape, but there were so many options that I did not need to invent a new one. Maybe more importantly, since business is a team sport, I needed something that was mine alone.
This was also the time when our two oldest, Colleen and Brian, were independently off to college and our youngest, Matt, was getting ready to leave, if not already gone mentally. I missed them as part of my daily life, and maybe I needed to find my roots so that I could remain in place after their substantial weight had left the building.
More likely, it was as the psychologist G. Stanley Hall suggested, “because one problem with growing old is that you don’t know where you’re going anymore, what you should do, when you feel yourself getting stodgy, is think about where you came from”[i]. I was feeling stodgy, and I knew that I would soon become irrelevant, but I feared being forgotten.
Before you get into the details, I want to be clear on a few things. I do not claim that the scholarship of the story I am about to tell is rigorous. I have documented sources and connections when available, but it should be obvious from the title that I have also taken some liberties. I have added antidotal information whenever I could find it, and relied on stories and personal histories when available, although most of the clan had passed by the time I became interested in what they had to say.
This story is far from done. Although I have taken advantage of the advances in information access since I started, in the future, I expect that research will be easier and someone with more time and devotion can round out the edges and push the story further back. Future generations need to add their part, and I did not touch on our European period. However, this book is not for my children, their children, or any of my living relatives. They are only the caretakers. This story is for my great-great-great grandchildren. To them I hope to be new and mysterious in the same way that my great-great-great grandfather, Philippe, is a mystery to me.
My fears of being forgotten may be misplaced, given the increased tracking of personal information on the internet and the rising use of social media. I doubt that anything about me will be a mystery even three generations from now. In fact, you may be able to piece together more about me than I know myself. Therefore, most importantly to my future relatives, I hope that this book is the backdrop of where you have come from in order to help you understand why you are trying to get where you are going.
If I die before you read this book, remember that it is incomplete and forgive it any grammatical errors, inconsistencies, lapses of logic, or errors in fact or fancy. If you read this book before I die, remember that I am incomplete and forgive me any grammatical errors, inconsistencies, lapses of logic, or errors in fact or fancy.
[i] From “Twilight: Growing old and even older” by Jill Lepore, published in the New Yorker, March 14, 2011