The Resilient Major Anton Andreae

I am going to tell you a story about the man who was the first person in our family history to step foot on United States soil. His name is Major Anton Andreae and his story changed the way I look at myself and my very resilient family.

I remember as a child, being fascinated with an old picture album that Mom has of some of my ancient relatives. I was fascinated because these relatives looked rich. The photos were professionally made in a studio back when photos were only made in a studio. My relatives, in these photos, were wearing elegant clothes and exquisite jewelry.  They sat in chairs covered in real fur. This was impressive to me because my parents never had that kind of wealth. My relatives were all loggers or farmers. Even in their Sunday best, they looked nothing like the people in these photos. Who were these people, and most importantly, what happened to all that money?

A few years ago Mom dug up an old obituary of My Great Great Great Grandfather, Major Anton Andreae. For simplicity in this story, I will just call him Great-granddad. She sent me a copy of the obituary and the story in it made a huge impression on me. For the first time, I caught a glimpse of who those rich people were in that old photo album. That obituary also explained how my Great-granddad’s family became the loggers and farmers that I know to be my family and most importantly, it told what happened to all that money!

My Great-granddad Anton Andreae was born in Frankfurt on the Main in Germany, an important city centre, world renown for commerce, culture,  and education. In this bustling trade center, Anton’s family was wealthy and prominent. Anton’s father, my Great Great Great Great Grandfather, was a rich merchant in the East India trade industry which included some of the wealthiest people in the world.

Anton Andreae was given one of the finest educations in the world in a school in Switzerland, the same school where Napoleon the third got his education. At school Anton learned to speak both French, and English and later in his life learned to speak Hungarian and Polish. In total he became fluent in five languages.

After his extensive education, Anton joined that military and became a Major in the army. Frankfort on the main was under the subjugation of Austria at the time. Hungary was also under subjugation of the Austrians and Anton was sent to fight with the Hussars in Hungary for Austria. Unfortunately,  the Hungarian revolution broke out when Major Anton Andreae was fighting in Hungary and the Hussar regiment that Major Anton Andreae belonged to, broke rank and joined forces with the rebels.

My Great-granddad was forced by the rebels to fight his own country. He was finally able to escape and fled to Turkey as a fugitive. The obituary does not tell how he managed to escape, but now because of his ties with the rebels, Major Anton Andreae was no longer safe in either Hungary or his own country of Germany. My Great-granddad then fled Turkey where he hid for a short time until he found a way to Constantinople and from there gained passage to America, landing in New York. He traveled almost immediately to Wisconsin where he settled down. Upon arriving in New York, Anton Andreae was still quite young and still had considerable wealth. I imagine that he retained his wealth through family ties. The obituary speaks of a brother living in New York who was in the silk industry.

Anton left New York almost immediately to make a life for himself as a businessman and family man in Wisconsin. I like to think that Great Great Great Grandma was already there waiting for him. He began his career in Wisconsin as a prominent businessman, however, each and every business that he started ended in failure of some sort. During his career in business, his company was burned to the ground six different times. He started in a brewing business, then went into the grocery business, had a flour and feed store, a clothing store, a whole sale liquor establishment and finally a saloon which also folded. Finally, Anton Andreae managed to get hold of 160 acres of land under the homestead act which he cultivated shortly before his death.

Now I finally know what happened to all that money! My family went from riches to rags in the one short lifetime of Major Anton Andreae.

But, I also took away something completely unexpected from this story. The obituary describes my Great Granddad, Major Anton Andreae as, having many genial qualities, as being well esteemed in his community, and having many friends who spoke highly of him.  He may have died a poor man but, he was no scoundrel. He did not give up even when the going got tough.

The obituary says that Great-granddad had “eight or nine children”. Those eight or nine children had children and those children had children who became the farmers and the loggers that I know to be my relatives today.  My relatives all have those same genial characteristics that Great-granddad had. Most importantly, my family is made up of people who know how to pick up the pieces when their luck is down and keep moving forward. They are resilient. I, for one, choose resilience over money any day.

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Driving lessons

I had been labeled at an early age as a bad driver.

I was seven years old the first time I drove anything. My older brother wanted me to drive the lawn-mower tractor so that he could ride along on the wagon in back along with the rest of the cousins. He ordered me to get into the driver’s seat and grab the handles. At that time I still felt that I could do anything that my older brother could do, so I was excited to drive for the first time. I climbed up to the seat and took hold the handles the best that I could. The tractor had the type of handles that came out like a large V. I grabbed the ends of that V with purpose, but it took the entire length of my arms stretched straight out to reach each handle. I had to lean my body entirely forward, standing off the seat to just get the grip. Then my brother started the engine and those handles started to rumble in my hands vibrating and jumping as the motor spurted. I had a full load of my cousins on a trailer hitched to the back of the tractor. Then my brother put the gear into forward, yelling that I needed to steer as he ran to join the cousins on the wagon.

I just hung on to those handles not knowing what to do next. I did not have a clue how I might steer that tractor. The rumbling handles made my hands numb and turning in any direction, stretched out the way I was, seemed impossible so I just I hung on as I watched the tractor move across the stretch of green lawn. When I saw the metal poles of the swing-set come rearing into view, I heard my brother yelling at me from behind, “Your need to STEER!”. I pulled at the handles with my numb little hands but there was no budging. Just before contact with the metal pole of the swing-set, I jumped off the tractor and ran. Hearing the screams of my cousins on the trailer, I turned around and watched as the tractor crawled in jerks up the pole of the swing set, the back wheels grinding into the ground as the front wheels inched up the pole until the pole bent and collapsed, the tractor falling to the ground finding new purchase on the pole, chomping away at it like a hungry animal. My cousins all flew off the trailer, scrambling in different directions, screaming. All I could do was watch as the swing-set was turned into a mangled mess of twisted poles.

There was also the time that my cousin Debbie came over on her moped. I must have been about twelve years old at the time and I was having some friends over for a sleepover. We found the alcohol stash my parents had and decided to give it a try. I was a little tipsy by the time Debbie decided it would be fun for us to take turns driving her moped. I was the first to give it a try. This time I was ready for the vibrating handles and I knew enough to steer. Debbie explained to me how to rev it up and give it some gas to make it go and how to lay off the gas to slow it down. I took a couple spins around the yard and realized that I had forgotten to ask her how to stop the thing. In my inebriated state the only thing that I could think to do, under these circumstances, was to run the bike into the house. I broke a bone in my foot and caused enough damage to the bike that it would not start after that.

By the time I was sixteen and wanted to get my license, the stories of my inability to drive were legend.  I took the Driver’s Ed course in high school, sliding behind the wheel in a car meant for students, a car that had an extra brake on the passenger side so that the instructor could stop the car if the student went careening off course. I fully expected that the teacher would need that brake when it came my turn to drive.

Mom tried going out driving with me on a few occasions before I went to take the driving test to get my license. She sat in the passenger side placing her feet up against the dash to brace herself for the inevitable crash, hanging on to the cushioned door handle so tightly her knuckles turned white. Each time I turned a corner or took off from a stop-sign a little squeal would erupt from her mouth. Mom was not the best driver herself and was probably not the best choice for a teacher but it was all that I had. The words I remember her saying while I drove: Watch out! Where are you going! How fast are you going! Slow down! Are you watching the road! Oh Crap! I think we are done! I hate doing this!

My Dad’s answer to driving lessons was to let me drive the car by myself in our driveway. He insisted that I needed to spend eight hours driving in the driveway before I could go take the driving test. We did have a long driveway with a loop at the end but there is only so many manuevers a person can do in a driveway. To this day I can drive backwards better than anyone I know.

By the time I took my first driving test I was a nervous wreck. I was happy to put my hands on the steering wheel to keep them from shaking. It was hard to hear the instructions of the man giving me the test over the beating of my heart.  I made several errors including driving on the wrong side of the road after botching up a Y turn. I had to wait six months to try again, that being how often the instructor came to our neck of the woods. I passed on the second try, but just barely.

After finally getting my license, I could drive by myself but the extra car that my parents had for the kids to drive was an old Rambler that was a stick shift. I had never learned to drive a stick. After complaining long enough about wanting to drive that car, Dad finally gave in and decided to teach me. We were sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the window at the Rambler sitting in the driveway. He waved his hand in the direction of the car. “There’s nothing to it. It’s like a letter H” he said explaining which gear is in which position and how to ease on and off the gas when going from one gear to the next. “Go give it a try it if you want.”

I was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and went out to the Rambler, sliding into the driver’s seat, checking out and memorizing the position of first second and third gears. I managed to move the car in fits and false starts to the end of the drive way and then I got it to cough and sputter down Highway 13 to the gravel road that turned past my Grandparents’ house. Getting it out of the driveway was the hardest but once I had it on the dirt road and  going things went well. But I got stuck again at the first stop-sign with someone coming up behind me. I was blocking traffic. My panic at causing someone to wait for me to figure this out caused me to make things even worse. I just kept killing the car each time I went into first. Eventually, the man behind me got out of his car,  got in the passenger seat beside me and proceeded to teach me how to drive a stick shift. It was easy once I was shown how to do it.

I came home gloating about how I learned to drive a stick. I never told Dad or any of my family about the man who had to stop and show me how. It was better that I figured it out on my own without help. It was one victory that I had, proving that I was not a bad driver. The problem was that I knew I needed help so in my heart I knew I had not really made the victory.

It was Mohan, my best friend that last two years of high school who finally taught me how to drive a car. We were skipping school and I was driving the Rambler with Mohan in the passenger seat. Mohan came from a family with five kids, all of them girls. Her Dad always wanted a boy and Mohan decided to be that boy for him. Her Dad sold cars and Mohan knew cars and how to fix them. Her name was Cindy Mohan but she gave up the use of her first name because it was too girly. She had shoulder length blond hair that she parted just off the center, always wearing it in a ponytail low on her head, always wearing the same uniform, a jean jacket with a tee-shirt and jeans.

As we were driving the twenty miles from school to the nearest Shopko, she noticed that I was driving all over the road. “I know,” I acknowledged. “I am a lousy driver.” I will never forget what she said in response: “No you’re not. You just need some confidence. You need a little practice. We need to take a road-trip this weekend and you will drive.” For her that was all that was to it.

It was the most amazing thing I had ever heard but I knew that she was right. I could learn to drive. Just because I did not know how to drive did not mean that I “always”  had to be a bad driver. All I needed was practice. We did take that road-trip, driving to her Aunt’s house in Milwaukee, a five-hour drive each way and I drove most of the time, arriving home at the end of the weekend a competent driver.

Running With Wolves

I read a story in Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, many years ago. The story spoke about a girl who waited for the right suitor to come along. The girl lived in a small village and suitors came from far and near, but each time they were not the right one, and she let them go. She was looking for the perfect one. She did not try to fix this or that, in the one that was almost just right, she just sent them on their way and waited for the next one. Eventually, after many suitors and much waiting, the perfect one came.

I was so impressed with that story and could not get it out of my mind. I had never sent a suitor packing before, instead I always tried like hell to make it work. I would grasp details of something that I liked in a man, and hang on for dear life. I never imagined that there could be a constant stream of suitors for me to choose from. I never had faith that there would be the perfect one.

Just prior to reading this story, having been married twice, each marriage followed by divorce, having had numerous one night stands and many relationships of varying length, all ending badly, having given up entirely, handing in my library card, saying enough was enough, the good ones are gone, snatched up by women much smarter than I was, I woke up one day realizing that I had not had a date in five years.

It seemed like there were no men out there, even though the statistics showed millions of single and available men in the world. I imagined that all the good ones were completely taken and were now gone, even though there were divorces in the thousands that happened every day. It did not matter because in my experience, the well was dry. You get what you believe and I believed there was no one out there, no one who was perfect for me.

The story of the girl with the stream of suitors bothered me. How could there be such a story. The symbolism in the story was supposed to shed light on some truth after all.  Where did all these men come from? After being bothered for long enough, I checked out the internet and found dating service after dating service of men looking for someone. I looked up the number of single men in my city and in my state. The number was big. I started to let myself believe, letting the door creak open to the thought, with all these available men out there, maybe just maybe, there was one for me. I was a good catch and I was available, so why couldn’t that be the same for those men who were also looking.

Once I opened that door with the expectation that there were available men, the stream of suitors began to line up. Friends introduced me to their single friends. I went on coffee dates. I met men at my church. I met them over the internet. The stream became steady and reliable.

The next issue I faced was not clinging to the ones who were a close, but not perfect fit. I needed to let them go, like the girl in the story, let them go and remain patient for the right one. It was not that I was looking for a perfect human being. I am not a perfect human being. But I was looking for someone who was perfect for me. That’s a far different thing.

There were many false starts along the way to finding my perfect suitor. I thought that this one or that one was Mr. Right but it would become apparent, sooner or later, that it was not to be. There were those who came close and I had to work hard not to clutch, as I had in the past, letting him go on his way, working hard to be patient and not look back. It took everything I had at times to break the pattern of wanting something that was not right for me, remembering that trying to make it work had failed many times in the past. I needed to hold out for the perfect one. I worried often that I was just being overly picky, that what I was after did not exist, and it was hard to keep a steady gaze forward.

It was the overall feeling of the thing I was after. I wanted it to feel easy, like coming home. I wanted it to be fun and full of laughter. I wanted to be understood without having to push at the finer points. Mostly, I wanted to be loved without reservation. I did not want someone who loved me with one eye over his shoulder, looking for someone better, nor did I want someone who would be constantly pointing out small little things that I might improve on. I wanted someone who was absolutely sure that I was as perfect for him, as I was sure he was perfect for me.

So I waited like the girl in the story. I was not always as patient or as clear as the girl in the story, but I did the best that I could to stay the course. In the end it worked. Mark walked into my life one day and never walked out. The moment I saw him, I thought that he was the one, but I did not jump out of my dress and I waited to make sure. When he did not ask me out on the first night we met, I did not lose heart. I knew that if he was the one, it would happen, and I felt certain that it would happen. There was a knowing I had from the first moment, a knowing that had been missing from all those bad first starts. It turned out that he did want to ask me out, believed that he would find my name in the directory, but was unable to. He came back to the discussion group where we first met the very next opportunity that he had, and made certain to ask me then.

Mark was as keen on me as I was on him. There has been nothing difficult about our relationship and our courtship is a highlight in both of our lives.  For the first time in my life I am where I know I should be in a relationship. That is not to say that we have not come up against difficult things. We have had our share. The difference is that we know that together, we can figure things out. We also know that we are committed to being together. We are right for each other. We are perfect together.

I suppose there are those out there that get this straight out the door. They don’t have to go through marriages and divorces and many failed attempts before finding the one. For several reasons I didn’t get it. I don’t beat myself up about that anymore. I like the life that I have had. All the crazy things that I have been through and done, in the name of love, have made me who I am. I know for certain that I appreciate what I have now, in a way I never could have, if I had not gone down this long and winding road.

Legacy

The idea of leaving a legacy was brought to my attention the other day and the whole idea of it rubbed me the wrong way.  I don’t like the idea at all and decided I had a few things to say on the topic.  So here goes!

The idea of leaving a legacy, for me, has a sort of pretentious feel to it.  It seems to me that the world assigns the term only to people who have done something extraordinary.  This separates the legacy leavers from the average person and gives more importance to their lives than to others. It feels phony and overly self interested to think about leaving behind a legacy. It’s almost as if I’d be bragging that I expect something better of myself than I expect out of the average person.  So, you wonder what is so bad about that? What is wrong with thinking you will accomplish great things?

I decided early in my life that I was going to escape my small town existence. I was born in Dorchester, Wisconsin, a town of about 500 people. Our house was out in the country and our telephone was on a party line. This meant that anytime I talked on the phone, my Grandmother and two of my Aunts were likely to be listening in from their house down the road. In Dorchester, you are labeled early in life and you are not likely to escape being associated with the family who brought you into the world and whatever happens in your life will follow you on the party line.

I figured college was my ticket out of town. It worked too: I got out. College seemed to change who I was in the world. I felt that having an education made me a different person from the one I was in Dorchester. Well, ultimately, it did and it didn’t. Even with my fancy college degree I still felt all the many doubts I had grown up believing about myself. I still felt less worldly and not as savvy as everyone else I knew. So I decided to fix the problem the only way I knew how. I got a law degree. A law degree would prove to the world that I was smart and capable. But the doubts continued even after I got the law degree. The worst of it was that I still felt just as inadequate after getting that law degree. I still spent my time comparing myself to others and coming up short. I had to face the fact that the story I was telling myself was wrong.

I was striving to prove something to the world that, as it turned out, the world did not care the least about in the first place. I had to change the direction of my story. It took some amount of time and gravitational pull in a whole new direction to finally realize that comparing myself to others is a complete waste of my time.  I changed my focus to working on who I wanted to be in my life and what would be the best for me in each moment. I had to stop wondering or caring what anyone else thought about what I wanted or who I was.

Once I made that shift, life became so much simpler to figure out. I could factor everyone else out of the equation. Several years into this process, I am still new at this different kind of way of looking at life and it is a continual work in progress but it is never disappointing and I never come up short anymore. Now it is just me figuring things out.

But it brings me back to the idea of leaving behind a legacy. Why would I spend any time considering my legacy unless I cared what someone thought of me after I am dead? If I do not want to care what anyone else thinks about what I am doing right now, why would it matter to me what someone thinks of me after I am dead? If caring about what others think of me now is not helping me, then to care about what people think after I am dead seems extremely counterproductive. The whole legacy thing pulls me right back into comparing myself to others. How will I compare after I am dead?

In any case, it seems to me that everyone leaves a legacy whether they want to or not. My dad graduated the eighth grade and worked blue collar jobs his entire life. He was not considered some type of amazing saint. He never learned to meditate. He was not even the best father in the world; in fact he was not at all good at it. He loved greasy cheeseburgers and fries. He was overweight most of his life he smoked cigarettes and drank too much beer on occasion. He had friends and occasionally he made enemies. He was not interested in endearing himself to anyone or sucking up or whatever you want to call it. Having a Ph.D. behind your name neither impressed nor threatened him. But the one thing that made him stand out from the crowd was that he lived an authentic life. He lived his life the way he wanted to live it. He was always honest about who he was and what he was about. It was clear that throughout his life people admired him for that. To me that man left a legacy. I am sure that the thought of leaving behind a legacy was the last thing that was ever on his mind. If it were, he could not have been the person that he was. So if leaving behind a legacy means that what you leave behind is that you lived an authentic life, that I suppose it is something worth considering. But then why have to consider it? Why not just live your life now in the moment the way you want to live it?

I doubt that Einstein or Picasso or Beethoven or Dante and Michelangelo or Mark Twain or you fill in the blank ever thought a hoot about legacy as they were doing what they did best. Instead, they painted, they wrote, they sculpted, they figured and played what was in their hearts now in this moment, today as they were doing it. People are interesting who follow their dreams and find what in life is worth living for.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to do great things, but do those things because it thrills your socks off and not because it will impress someone after you are dead and gone.  When I am dead it is time for others to live their life. It is their time, not mine. I hope to be playing along with them from the afterlife but I would never suggest that they look back. If they want to remember me at all, I hope it is from a place of being right there as if I never left. That’s the place my Dad has for me.