Saturday, September 24, 2011

Getting to Know Your Ancestors (and Heroes)

by Steve Roth (

Do you have an ancestor you didn’t know or would like to have known better? What if you had the chance to go back and meet him or her? Or what if they could come to you?

Mine would be my great-grandfather, Thomas Hetland, who came to the U.S. from Norway when he was sixteen. Why did he make this long and dangerous journey? The reason was clear as a bell to him: because he was not the first-born son and he knew he would not inherit any of the family farm/ranch/land.

How hard a decision must that have been? Taking only what you could carry and to leave the relative comfort and security you’d known for sixteen years, for the unknown, not knowing anyone or even exactly where you were going? When I was sixteen, I had my driver’s license and I bought a car with my own money. It was the ultimate freedom for a sixteen year-old in the U.S., right? But I didn’t go very far by myself. Why was that? Fear? Too comfortable where I was? Limited resources? Maybe it was none of those or all of those, I don’t know, but I always seemed to stay fairly close to home.

In summer 2011, my wife and I took our two boys (our oldest son is named Thomas after my great-grandfather) on a five week road trip, something neither of us had done before. We had a rough idea of the path we would take and about a third of the time we knew where we were going to stay that night. For the other two-thirds, we used our cell phones and laptops to find places on the fly. But what if you didn’t have easy access to all that information like we do today?

From what I heard from my family when I was growing up, my great-grandfather was a hardworking, driven, smart, successful, generous man. After arriving in the U.S., he made his way to Oklahoma (where he met my great-grandmother, Theresa) and then on to Oakdale, CA where they owned a turkey farm together. He invested his earnings in the stock market and did pretty well. Years later they sold the farm and retired to Santa Cruz, CA.

While my grandmother, Marie, was growing up on the farm, my great-grandparents did not make her work on it. It wasn’t that she was spoiled, or too prissy, or anything like that. It was simply that my great-grandparents wanted her to get an education, to be a professional. They bought her a car at a time when many families didn’t even have one car, let alone a second car for their son or daughter. And they sent her to San Jose State University (SJSU) to get a college degree. She later became a teacher and then owned and ran a successful insurance agency with my grandfather.

Years later, when I was going to SJSU, I would sometimes walk by the house my grandmother had lived in all those years ago when she attended college. My wife, who I met at SJSU, lived in the same red brick dorms that my grandmother had also lived in many years before. From time to time I would stop and just stare at the buildings, trying to imagine what it must have been like when my grandmother was there.

But I digress, kind of. My point in writing this is that all these years later, after my great-grandfather passed away in 1971 (he died when I was only about a year old), I still find myself thinking about what it must have been like when he came over to the U.S. - alone and working his way first across the Atlantic and then the states, not knowing what the future held for him, but having the will and determination to make it work. In writing this, I’ve also come to realize that my great-grandfather is more than a relative – he is also a hero to me.

I would love to sit down with him and find out what it was like and how he did it; and what his thoughts were when he made the decision and then as he made his way from one coast of the U.S. to the other during his life. Wouldn’t that be amazing?! I also think a lot about the choices we make and how they impact our lives. And what if we made different decisions at key times in our lives? Where would we be? But that’s for another blog entry (please stay tuned).

Those are the two main reasons I wrote and published Four Lives (you can check it out at, a mystery/thriller/sci-fi (time travel) novel based on my musings about ancestors and choices, and heroes.

The past is all around us – sometimes we have to look for it and sometimes it just comes to us.

Best wishes,