Today’s post is from one of my dearest friends: Jeniann Nielsen, a dedicated mother of five wonderful children and an amazing, generous friend. We met in college where she was my senior editor. And now years later, the roles are finally switched. Thank you, Jeniann, for sharing your thoughts and allowing me to be the senior editor, just this once.
by Jeniann Nielsen, guest post
Several years ago I found myself in a dark place and frustrated with my life circumstances. I was coming to realize that despite my best efforts, my special needs son would likely never live independently and be under my care for the rest of my life. This was a life circumstance that I never would have chosen, and it was difficult to accept. Sometimes it felt like no one understood the weight of the burden I carried.
As I struggled, one of the things that helped me was to learn more about my family members that came before me, my ancestors. For instance, learning about my great-grandmother Isabelle who gave birth to a special needs child when she was 46 years old when she already had 10 other children to care for helped me to not feel so alone. I don’t know how Isabelle felt about raising a special needs child, but I can imagine that she experienced similar feelings to my own.
In addition, in some of Isabelle’s writings, she also wrote about the joy she had found in learning about her ancestors and gathering their information. Knowing that she also spent time gathering information about her ancestors to help her cope with her challenges, just as I had, helped me to feel a connection to her. I feel a kinship with her and sometimes it’s almost as if she is there cheering me on.
Another ancestor was a clockmaker in Switzerland. He left his home, his extended family members, his friends, his customs, and his native language as well, and when he came to America, the clocks were made in factories, so instead he had to learn how to run a farm and struggled financially for years, yet never regretted his choice to come. When I have thought about his sacrifice which is one of many from my ancestors, I am filled with deep gratitude and I realize that everything I have today has been built on a foundation of sacrifices from my ancestors.
One couple came from Denmark with their five children and made the journey from Denmark to England, then by ship to America, and then they used a wooden cart for their belongings and walked on foot for many miles to their final home. As I wonder if I could have made such a journey with my own five children, again I am filled with gratitude for the comforts I enjoy now which I sometimes take for granted.
Their young son who walked most of the distance said that because his shoes had worn out after walking so many miles, his feet would get prickles in them. One day he sat down to pull out the prickles and quickly realized he had sat down on a cactus! Knowing that he could laugh about this difficult experience taught me that I can find humor in my circumstances as well, even when they are difficult.
Each of us struggle with different challenges. But for me, the more I found out about my ancestors, the more I wanted to find, and the process has been so joyful. I found a new enthusiasm and purpose for my life. When I learn of their challenges, my own challenges feel lighter and easier to handle. I gather strength and courage from my family who have gone before, and it has brought me great joy and even healing into my life.
Through the years by example, Jeniann has helped me find joy in family history work. If you haven’t already begun that search, I truly believe that tapping into this rich source will bring further clarity and understanding to your life and your greater work.