Reuniting of two families after 115 years teaches important life lessons

My plans for the usual family gathering for Memorial Day weekend were completely turned around in just one e-mail message.

A great-great-granddaughter of my great-great-grandmother’s sister asked whether her family could come visit mine. She has come many times to the USA from Saint Petersburg, Russia, but we haven’t been able to arrange a visit in the four years we’ve known each other.

Without hesitation, I dropped my plans for a visit from my 4th cousin whom I only know from pictures and e-mail messages. I was excited for many days.

The excitement escalated when my Russian flag arrived in the mail from Then the anxiety kicked in. Will they be comfortable in my home? Will their daughter get along with my kids? What will we do? What will I feed them?

Luckily over the years our families were separated, we have kept similar heritage. My great-great-grandmother married another German Lutheran from current day Poland;  my great-grandmother married a Russian; my grandmother married a Ukrainian and my Ukrainian-born mother married a Russian. My 4th-cousin’s great-great-grandmother’s descendants were all Russians.

So the anxiety about hosting Russian cousins over a weekend could have been worse. There wasn’t a language barrier to stress over. Anything they didn’t know in English was spoken in Russian, a language that I learned as a child and maintained as an adult.

But then I got anxious about making sure everything went well. I forgot to put the Russian flag in the bay window of my living room as promised but my sons welcomed them with the Russian flag. We rushed home from their school after my cousin called to tell me she was in our driveway.

Then everything went the same as many friends with kids who have visited. My 6-year-old son Andy is crying his Russian 3-year-old cousin is taking his toys. She dumped a big box of Legos and my sons acted as if they never do that on a regular basis.

The girl knows Legos, Spiderman, Darth Vader, Mr. Potatohead and the Toy Story movies. She was excited to meet Andy because she knows Andy from the Toy Story movies. She called my sons мальчик (“malchick” boy in Russian), the same habit my oldest son had when he didn’t know a boy’s name.

She doesn’t want to eat much nor go to bed. She’s banging on a door at bedtime because she wants to play with two boys whom can’t speak Russian.

This child is no different from my children even though they live in different countries, speak different languages and are growing up in different cultures. The parents ate the same food as I, used the same technology, learned to speak English and complained about the same problems in life.

We are the same people with some differences, thanks to the Iron Curtain crumbling and many people of the former USSR opening themselves to the world on the Internet. But never forget that even if it’s 90 degrees outside, Russians will still need their hot tea.

I spent more time worrying about things that didn’t matter before their arrival than appreciating the fact that our families haven’t seen each other in 115 years. Even if the clock was turned back to 1900 and the same visit happened, the same feeling of family would be there.

Family always will be family, no matter how much time has passed or what century people are living in. Some people won’t care about their close relatives nor their 4th cousins. Those who do care will be the family worth finding.

Related post:
The mystery of a great-great-grand aunt gets solved

Top 10 things to never say to potential relatives in the former USSR

There is nothing as exciting as finding family lost after many years. In that excitement of finding relatives’ postal addresses, e-mail addresses or social network pages, it is important to think before typing away.

History and politics haven’t been fair in the former USSR. Sensitivity is required to make the first impression that sparks a response of excitement.

A simple comment that seems harmless could end dreams of reconnecting. Here is 10 things to never say when trying to reconnect with family in the former USSR.

  1. “Do you know what happened to Grand Uncle Sergey? We heard he was arrested and sent to Siberia.” It’s been 25 years since communism collapsed but many families still don’t want to talk about how communist persecution affected their lives.
  2. “I heard Grand Uncle Nikolai was captured by the Germans and held in a P.O.W. camp during the war.” People in the former USSR don’t want to be reminded of the pains from the Great Patriotic War (or World War II).
  3. “My grandmother wrote to the family in 1959 and she was upset that no one wrote back to her.” Receiving foreign mail or sending foreign mail was considered highly suspicious and some people were arrested for being foreign spies.
  4. “What happened to the beautiful family home on Red Army Street? The family had the home for many years.” Many families lost their family homes to the government and were moved to much smaller homes.
  5. “Do you have any photos of my grandfathers’ brothers from their service in the White Army?” Many families burned documents and photos proving service in the enemy army of the Red Army. Some families will have great pride in their Cossack ancestry while others don’t want to discuss it.
  6. “We hope the family isn’t still upset over the family fight between Uncle Dimitri and my mother.” After many years, the facts of family fights can become twisted so it is best to avoid mentioning these situations.
  7. “We heard Aunt Tatiana’s daughter worked briefly in the U.S.A. Why didn’t she contact us? She had our address and phone number.” Some USSR citizens were able to work briefly abroad but they knew contacting their families would bring lots of trouble.
  8. “You really should come for a visit. We would love to get to know you.” Many people from the former USSR were taught to be suspicious of strangers so it is best to hold these invitations until the families get much closer. Also, traveling abroad is beyond reality for many families.
  9. “Why can’t I find you on Facebook (or other social networks)?” Some people from the former USSR are suspicious of networks that track their activities, know their friends and store their personal photos. It’s a holdover from the Soviet era.
  10. “I am working on the family tree. Would you mind sharing family documents?” That sounds innocent but relatives who don’t know you could get leery of your interest in the family. Genealogy hasn’t caught on in the former USSR as it has in the English-speaking world. Wait to ask for documents until everyone knows each other better.

Related posts on finding long-lost family:
Memorial Website Opens Door to Find Living Russian Family
Build the best mousetrap to find long-lost family this holiday season
Guide to Using the Best & Largest Russian Language Genealogy Forum