In June, 2015 I had the great honor of telling family stories at the Global Family Reunion in New York. It was a deeply moving experience, and I look forward to returning to any stage that will have me. While the storytelling was free form, I did write a script for the event, which I have included below.
The carriage came to a rest at the castle gate, the wind cool as Cornelia emerged, her young children in tow. She took a long deep breath and steeled her nerves, walking through an imposing doorway into a cold and dark space. When she was alone with her husband later that evening away from her children, she wept, but not from joy.
The Swiss for centuries had been mercenaries for numerous European monarchs, and Cornelia had met her husband, the Baron of Vaumarcus, while he was a Swiss officer in the service of the Prince of Orange. They had married and lived happily for 14 years in Holland with their five children.
Her father had been the Mayor of The Hague, and her family art patrons in the Dutch Golden Age. Cornelia’s life had been urbane and pampered. When her husband’s service was at an end in 1771 they returned to the castle of his youth, and as lovely as the view of the Lake of Neuchâtel and surrounding woods were, her new home was ancient, drafty and isolated.
She implored her husband to build her something new. Her most important request was a studio with natural light where she could paint. Being an attentive husband, he had a new addition to the castle built in 1772 going essentially bankrupt in the process.
In this new more comfortable space Cornelia taught her children about the finer things, art foremost among them.
Thanks to her, and her values, there has been an artist of some note in every subsequent generation. These artistic genes I am pleased to say endure in my children as well.
A nurtured creative flame knows no boundaries, and when you are moved to go beyond your limitations, you not only liberate yourself but inspire the world around you.
As you can imagine with a name like mine, going to Starbucks is a rare treat. “Who will I be today?” Geoffrey? Shep? Sean Francisco? The possibilities are simply endless. And as much as I like Star Trek, “Make it so, Jean-Luc Picard!” got a bit old at one point.
There were occasions in elementary school when I thought it might be easier to be named Steve or Bob or Michael, but I knew that my name was not chosen at random. I was named after two good and honorable men, brothers Jean and François Lasserre on my French grandmother’s side who both immigrated to San Francisco in the 1890s. One became a florist, the other a street car conductor. Both survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, even if their homes did not.
I honor Jean everyday by wearing his 1909 wedding band. Fate also made it so. His wedding date, March 27th, was also the day I met my wife, 85 years later. While I still have some distant cousins in France, and feel a deep kinship to my French ancestry, my adult life has been consumed by research into my parental Swiss heritage. A heritage that goes back to the 12th century and the small town of Buren near the Swiss capital of Bern.
My Swiss family members have been soldiers, statesmen, artists, bankers, priests, farmers, vintners, botanists and adventurers.
But I did not grow up in the world of ancient villages. I grew up just over the Golden Gate in the fresh-faced and free-spirited Marin County of the 1970s, and it was very clear to me from an early age, that my home environment was very different from that of my peers. Between ancestral portraits, family artwork, and a small library of books in Latin, French and German, my family home was atypical to put it mildly.
As lucky as I was, my family heritage felt at times like an existential burden, I mean, how do you live up to eight centuries of history? It seems odd to me now as someone who cherishes my individuality, but as a kid, what I wanted more than anything was to be like everyone else and blend in.
A critical step for me was attending a French bilingual school in San Francisco for middle and high school. I was able to embrace my cultural roots more freely, and from a practical point of view, learning French meant I could now read many of my ancestral documents, which up to that point had largely been a mystery. Documents that were housed in an immense ornate armoire.
I would spend weekends lost in examining its treasures, and like the wardrobe to Narnia, I was immediately transported to another time and place as soon as I opened its door. The interpretation of what it all meant to me personally would come much later.
As valuable as my research was, if I had never travelled to or lived in Europe, I would have missed a crucial element. A pilgrimage to the birthplace of your ancestors does more than any amount of research ever could.
To walk the same streets as my family did, to visit their homes, to gaze upon the Alps – which are so central to Swiss identity – and perhaps see the same vistas they may have seen centuries before. My heart would swell to near bursting.
I will never forget my first trip to Bern.
As others looked up at the ornate cathedral vaults, I looked down. I was looking at the wooden pews intently, I was looking for “our” seats. I saw many crests carved into the church pews, lions, stars, and various mythical creatures and then I found what I was looking for, three bee hives, our family crest.
I stopped and absorbed the moment. I continued to look, could there be others? To my delight, I found other examples of the crest in pews, in stain glass windows and one under the altar where a family hero of the Burgundian wars is buried. My discoveries left me thoroughly energized. Was I having a religious experience or was this simply overactive family pride?
Later that day, my parents and I visited our Cousin Claire. She was in her eighties and was the last of the family in Bern, a city in which my family had played a central role for six centuries. She was the widow of Eugene, who had been head of the family Bank. Claire was getting on in years but was still mentally sharp and adept in multiple languages. Adept in many languages, so very Swiss.
In subsequent years when I visited Switzerland on summer holiday, I always paid Claire a visit. I was a receptive audience during our meetings and walks in the old town as she regaled me with family stories. I would also visit the library that housed many family papers, and was always the youngest in the reading room by an average of 50 years.
After she passed, I was told that the last time she ventured into town was with me.
On a more recent trip I had the pleasure of being the honored guest at the annual dinner of the Metzgern Zunft or Butchers guild (one of the many medieval guilds still in Bern), an organization that my family became a member of starting in 1342.
The annual celebration commemorates the aftermath of a 14th century battle when soldiers from the guild, exhausted and hungry from a hard fought victory, ate what was available to them, carrots from a local field.
While the feast may celebrate the eating of carrots, do not be fooled, this is not the vegetable guild; meat, meat and more meat is on the menu for this occasion.
I sat in a part of the room nicknamed the “Pig’s corner,” a place traditionally reserved for hog butchers, but now occupied by the young members of the guild.
We started with soup, introductions and speeches. The first speech was made by the President of the guild who after acknowledging his many important guests, most from other local guilds, came to me. He said that a member of one of the oldest families in Bern and of the guild, was with them today, and had also come from California just for the occasion. He stopped speaking in Bärndütsch (the local Swiss-German dialect) and continued in French for my benefit saying that I was always welcome within these walls. To say that I was moved is putting it mildly.
The second course was bone marrow and liver, and not just one platter mind you. The man across from me at the table joked that it didn’t matter how much wine we were all drinking since we were eating liver. The third course arrived with heaping mounds of beef, special sausages and green beans. The wine and conversation flowed for hours. I hope to attend again soon, if only to have a couple more of those sausages.
Over time, my interest in family history has become less of an intellectual exercise and more of a heart-centered one. Beyond simply a deepening relationship with the subject matter, other events have made their mark.
Becoming a father was the most important one. My heart started to open more fully as my girls grew. My children have been my greatest teachers, without question, and as I have supported their dreams, they have supported mine in turn. I would not be here today without the help of their shiny spirits.
As someone who studies the past, I sometimes wanted to take up residence in the land of “what might have been.” The practice of meditation has allowed me to quite my mind, and learn to appreciate the present moment, just as it is.
And the fact is – stories of emotional impact abound in my family history.
A family member who served Louis XVI in Corsica helped get Napoleon Bonaparte promoted as a young man, only to have him repay my ancestor years later, by invading Switzerland and throwing him out of power. Be careful whom you promote.
A female ancestor whose marriage was arranged to an Irishman who was a supposed great match only to have him turn out to be an terrible scoundrel, living high off the hog on her money and disappearing when the coffers were empty. She would return to her mother in disgrace. Not everyone is lucky in love.
Vast tracks of land that had been gained through years of careful planning were almost all lost in one generation by an incorrigible gambler and drunk. The reason I don’t go to Vegas.
Two young cousins challenged each other to a duel after an argument over which of their hometowns was more beautiful took an ugly turn. One of them dying as a result. Have I told you how much I love NY?
Prosperous years followed lean ones. Health followed illness. Fame followed disgrace.
As I read my family stories what kept surfacing again and again were the timeless nature of their underlying themes. Do we not see these same things today? This is a reason why Historical Drama works so well as a cinematic art form, and why I feel my storytelling future resides in film.
Throughout my family history, regardless of social status, or society mores, or cultural influence, my ancestors were on some basic emotional level just like me, possible of both incredible feats as well as terrific folly. And since we are cousins, they are you as well. This is why their stories resonate, this is why they matter.
In your own family research it is important to remember that if a story moves you, it was meant for you, and it has something to teach.
The following stories have moved me.
He saw her from across the room, their eyes met – a connection that was instantly electric.
My grandfather was born in 1900 on the family ranch in Argentina. A ranch purchased by his father in 1891, with seed money from the sale of the castle. He would spend his first 11 years in Argentina, before the family moved back to Geneva, ostensibly for children’s schooling.
He was handsome, athletic, and fantastically stubborn. In his early 20s while still living with his siblings and parents in Geneva, his father got him a job at a local factory. My grandfather would leave every morning with his lunchbox and overalls, and return in the evening, very tired.
After a number of weeks, his father contacted the owner of the factory where he was supposedly working, and the owner said, “Your son never showed up”. Every day he had thrown his lunchbox and overalls in the bushes a couple of blocks from the family home, and spent his days with his friends drinking and smoking in town.
His father was none too pleased, and in an effort to teach his son a lesson and at the same give him the practical skills to run a large farm, his father sent him in 1923 to Tranquility, California, near Fresno to work on the farm of a fellow Swiss. He was said to have arrived at the train station in a three-piece suit with a steamer trunk of swords and other weapons, expecting the Wild, Wild West. He would not spend long there.
He later moved to San Francisco and met my grandmother at a French social event. He would not board the steamer to Argentina, leaving the duty of returning to the ranch to his youngest brother, which was a source of tension for the rest of their lives.
My grandfather was a study in contrasts. He was superlative cook and entertainer, had a green thumb, was highly cultured, and spoke many languages. At the same time, he was quick to anger, could be cold and distant, and did not seem to have any real friends.
My grandmother was kind, caring and fiercely intelligent. She was a French teacher in San Francisco, and taught Joe DiMaggio for a time as a boy. She never left the house without gloves or a hat. Opera was her greatest passion, one she passed down to my father.
In her late 70s, over a period of a some years my grandmother had a series of strokes that ultimately left her mentally compromised, a tragedy for a woman who had such a brilliant mind, but her husband never strayed and constantly advocated for her needs.
In 1986 my grandfather fell and broke his hip, he tragically would not leave the hospital. The day he died, my grandmother stopped eating, no one told her what had happened, she simply knew.
Their bond, while complicated, was authentic and their connection undeniable. True love takes many forms.
The lost branch
I am sorry to inform you that what you know about your heritage is incorrect. You are not Dutch, you are in fact Swiss. This is part of a conversation that I remember having with a rediscovered cousin roughly 15 years ago now.
In spite of the incredible scholarship done over time on my family history over the centuries, one glaring hole existed. The lost American branch.
My grandfather was not the first of the family to immigrate to the United States. Two family members left Switzerland for Indiana in 1830. Some information was known about the first generation born in the U.S. and then nothing else.
I started doing some research on Southern Indiana in 1998 while living in Washington D.C., and found that there was an influx of Swiss emigrants in the 1830s to Indiana and was immediately intrigued.
I started posting on Rootsweb and joined Ancestry.com (let’s see “Oh, a shaky leaf, honey we’re related to, well, everybody.”). I was eventually contacted by a woman in Louisville, who knew she descended from a van Buren in area in which certain information of mine synched up with hers. van Buren?
Once I tried van Buren, the information flooded in. The name had been changed at some point, whether by error or by choice. After spending many hours swapping information with my new distant cousin in Louisville, and even more hours on Ancestry, I had re-constructed the Indiana branch up until the 1930s or so.
I decided to see if I could contact one of the living relatives I found. I found an older cousin and was able to share with him the news of his Swiss heritage for the first time. He was in the midst of caring for his wife who had Alzheimer’s and I was concerned he might be resistant or even angry at this new found information, but he remarked jovially without missing a beat, “I heard stories about one of the family members being in the Swiss Guards, and that never made sense to me if we were supposed to be Dutch.”
In 2000 upon returning to California, I stopped in Southern Indiana, and saw where the van Buren farm had been. I later lost touch with my new van Buren cousin, and years after our initial conversation I tried to contact him again. Sadly, I learned of his passing, but thankfully for me, his surviving children were listed in the obituary.
I am now in contact with many of my new found cousins and feel blessed that I am able to share with them the richness of our collective heritage.
Be thankful for holes in your research, you never know where they will take you.
The sun glistened off the surface of the blue Caribbean Sea gently rocking a small water taxi as it made its way to port. Mid-morning sunlight shone on an imposing fort and lighthouse crowned by the Spanish colors gently waving in the breeze. Below in elegant cursive the word “Havane”.
This is my first memory of a journal that has consumed my life for the last eight years resulting in two books.
I initially found it as a boy, but certain material only makes sense when you are ready for what it has to teach you. I re-discovered it again in 2007 and instead of merely skimming its beautifully penned pages as before, I decided to read it and hoped it would have secrets to tell. I would not be disappointed.
I discovered that Cuba was only a very small portion of the journal; it was dedicated almost entirely to the day-to-day documentation of an 1853 expedition of European settlers venturing deep into the Amazon of Northern Peru. The pages were brimming with tales of natural beauty, social conflict and internal power struggles. I was hooked, and to my utter amazement I found the journal to have been written by my great-great-grandfather, Henri de Büren.
How did I not know of this before? No one to my knowledge had ever spoken of it. It would have seemed to be a great family story, passed down from generation to generation told over sumptuous dinners, getting more fanciful in each retelling. “Did you hear how grand-père cleared the jungle with only his Swiss Army knife?”
Later on in his life he had sold the family castle, and I believe this tainted his legacy. As a younger man, I often bemoaned the fact that it was no longer in family hands. After much research I have come to understand that he sold the castle primarily so he could secure better services and greater opportunities in Geneva for three of his children who were deaf.
Once I fully understood his motivation, my attitude completely changed. Context in family stories is critical, otherwise you are coming from a place of presumption or judgment.
Passionate about his voyage, I searched for any additional writings and to my delight found another journal that compiled all of his correspondence home to his family. The letters home covered a grander voyage than just Cuba and Peru. It documented a Grand Tour that lasted almost two years and covered thousands of miles, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama and Brazil.
What had started with the fascination surrounding one watercolor illustration had blossomed into finding a detailed first-person account of a journey that covered large parts of the Americas. I felt at that moment, that I had discovered a unique artifact and a piece of cultural history that needed to be shared.
In spite of the early exhilaration of discovery, there have been moments that I doubted my sanity, as did my parents, for throwing myself headlong into this endeavor. There were also those along the way who dismissed it as simply a quaint family project. I have come to feel very strongly that it is far more than that.
Henri was a witness to scientific, social and cultural history in the Americas and in an era of one-way immigration, his return home is something to be acknowledged in itself. When I felt a lead go cold, a new bit of information would be revealed, or when I became dispirited, an invaluable word of encouragement would come from the unlikeliest of sources.
Like Henri’s adventure, my project concerning him has continued to evolve. Beyond the intellectual calculations of its historical value, there was a deeply emotional component. The journal felt viscerally part of me, a creative product that called to me, desiring to be expressed. Publishing the journal was my first thought, but am also still considering a documentary film, retracing Henri’s route in the present day, and a historical drama.
My time researching Henri’s life and journals is a metaphor for the voyage itself. In the past eight years I have slowly embraced his adventurous spirit and it has allowed me to redefine how I see myself. As I followed him down the Americas, I simultaneously went deeper into myself and it has inspired me to start to live the life I have always dreamed of.
The Persian Poet Rumi said “What you seek is seeking you.” A fact that was made very clear to me when I visited Switzerland six weeks ago for a book launch on Henri’s voyage. I was having dinner with the family that now owns the castle and midway through dessert an album of pencil sketches was given to me to peruse. It was filled with sketches that my great-great-grandfather had done before and after his journey to the Americas.
I looked at the album with deep reverence, turning the pages gingerly. Mrs. Thalmann, the castle owner said “You can keep it, I know how much you care about your heritage.”
When you are moved to go beyond your limitations, you not only liberate yourself but inspire the world around you.
We are the stories we tell about ourselves.
Make yours bold.
Make yours memorable.
Make yours authentic.