Roots, Wings & Family Things
Just as I suspected after Aunt Mary died in February of 2000, the next family funeral would be Great Aunt Peggy's.
Sure enough, after praying to die for the last five years, Peggy, who was born December 1st, 1900 and whose mind was still sharp enough to converse with anyone who showed up at the nursing home where she lived in Sterling, Illinois, gave in to a touch of pneumonia and died peacefully in June, 2001 at age 100.
Great aunt Peggy and her husband Bill lost two nearly full-term babies to miscarriage and remained childless, so the planning of her funeral was left to her niece and nephew, my 92 year-old Aunt Helen and my 81-year-old Dad who was her executor.
Dad decided that the memorial service could be held just about anytime that our family priest, cousin Father Jerry Kobbeman, could get away from his big parish in Rockford to say the Mass in the little church of St. Mary's in Tampico, Illinois, population 600, where all our older relatives were baptized, confirmed, married and buried.
Great Aunt Peggy was cremated in June and on August 18th, her niece, nephew, great nieces, great nephews, great-great nieces and great-great nephews and a sprinkling of friends, gathered to celebrate her life.
After a joy-filled Mass of Christian burial and a rollicking lunch afterwards at the church hall during which we cousins regaled each other with more funny family stories than should be legally allowed at a funeral lunch, I finished the weekend at various cousin-gatherings. The night of Great Aunt Peggy's funeral, about 20 of our relatives gathered around the huge kitchen table at my cousin Barb's house in Morrison, Illinois. The stories of our childhood, retold with comedic intervention from the funniest members of the group, literally caused us to double over in pain from laughing so much.
The next morning at Dad's house as he set about the task of finalizing Peggy's life and death, I noticed that there were only four things he had retrieved from the nursing home where she lived her last ten years. Other than her clothes that he left there for others to use, the only possessions she had were her Catholic Christian symbols: a wooden crucifix, a small metal cross, a beautiful crystal rosary, plus an 8-by-10 inch framed picture of Peggy's mother, Mary Schwamberger.
That night I asked Dad if I could take the photo of Mary, my great-grandmother, out of the frame and make copies of it for my children, brother, sister and various cousins. He agreed and twenty copies later, I found myself doing research about this woman who was born in Richland, Illinois in 1856 and married to Casper Schwamberger who was born in Bavaria, Germany in 1845. They had ten children, one of whom was my grandmother, Emma, and the youngest, Great Aunt Peggy.
As I reframed the original photo of Mary for my Dad and later at home, framed one of the copies for me, I felt a strong connection between this woman and her husband Casper. Casper was born exactly 100 years before I was. He was a farmer and a musician. He even had a small band and played a number of instruments.
The night in Morrison when my first cousins and I gathered to share stories, we noted that none of us were particularly musical and must not have inherited Casper's music genes. However, three of us first cousins from three different families, two generations removed from Casper and Mary, do have children who are grade school, high school and college band directors which may prove that family genes do have a great deal to say about our natural talents, even if they skip a generation every now and then.
The genes, talents, history, memories, stories, and most of all, the laughter, became a sort of quilt or stained glass window that makes our family, and every family, unique. Who we are, where we came from, who we look like, what our talents are, and why we do the things we do, stem from those who have gone before us. The roots truly do give us wings.
Great aunt Peggy's funeral certainly gave my cousins and me a renewed sense of faith and family and a sense that our roots can help us understand ourselves better.
The Saturday after great aunt Peggy's funeral, Father Jerry and I sat together in the rain at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison watching the Wisconsin Badgers defeat Virginia in the first game of the season. When the band stepped onto the field and the young assistant director, Casper and Mary Schwamberger's great-great grandson, took his place next to his boss to direct the huge band, we hooted and cheered. When the game was over, Cousin Jerry and I danced the polka together when the band played the "Chicken Dance" during the 5th quarter. It was a wonderful scene, proving, once again, that with the help of faith, family, laughter and roots, life goes on and on and on and on. I have no doubt that Mary and Casper and Peggy were cheering for us and beaming with pride.