Last updated on August 21, 2023
In 2015, the ghost in the glass came to me after we cleared my parents’ home. When I saw him, I immediately recognized him. The ghost was my paternal grandfather, present in the form of a portrait adhered to the back of a glass paperweight. My grandmother had tucked away all of the photographic prints of her husband in piles of paper archives on the third floor of her home, not to see the light of day until many decades later. But she kept the paperweight with the portrait of my impeccably dressed grandfather prominently placed on her mirrored cobalt blue coffee table. Whenever we visited her home, it refracted the light of the sun, forcing my brother and me to notice his presence. The reappearance of this almost magical object in my life intrigued me. I wanted to learn as much as I could about him beyond the sparse comments that family members made about him when I was young. I leveraged Ancestry’s research capabilities and began to uncover his story.
In her book, The Lost Family, Libby Copeland describes people who delve into family genealogy as “seekers,” those people with an intense drive to understand more about their own origins. It’s an apt description of a phenomenon that I believe is likely to happen to anyone who looks into their family history. It certainly happened to me. My straightforward task of finding my father’s military record for VA benefits turned into a quest that now has no end in sight. The search for my father’s records started it. But it was the ghost in the glass who led me to becoming a seeker, myself.
As a seeker, I find the most intoxicating draw in seeking to be the possibility of uncovering stories of particular ancestors who are shrouded in mystery. I have found some who hold a place of legend in the family. I’ve found others who were seemingly never photographed, making me wonder what they actually looked like. But most compelling of all are the ancestors whom I should have known but don’t know because they were missing in my life. It’s the draw of long lost family that drives seekers to seek the most. And when the story of an unknown ancestor is revealed, the personal connection can be profound.
Such is the case with my paternal grandfather. He died decades before I was born, a hundred years prior to my writing of this tribute to him. Yet, I felt his presence in my life as much by his absence as from his light-refracting portrait on the coffee table.
Raymond Clarence Griesemer was born on December 4th, 1893 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to David Griesemer and Louisa Schmid. His father was a prominent member of Allentown society along with his uncle, who owned and operated Allentown’s famous Duck Farm Hotel. Raymond grew up in Allentown as the youngest member in a large family with six brothers and two sisters. Growing up, he witnessed the transformation of Allentown from a rural community to a significant Pennsylvania city with breweries, plants, and mills. It was an era of growth, not only for Allentown, but for the entire country.
Raymond became a young man in 1910 in the midst of the Ragtime era. Sometime around 1914, Raymond met a young Allentown woman named Esther Simonton Rahn. Esther was to become the beloved grandmother in my immediate family. Raymond and Esther’s early courtship remains a mystery. I originally assumed they courted in 1916, the year before their wedding. I discovered my assumption to be incorrect.
As a seeker, I am often discovering that the family legends passed down from one generation to the next are often just that – merely a legend. At the same time, many stories that turn out to be true are the ones that remain intentionally hidden for years. My grandparent’s interrupted courtship turns out to be just such a story, one told as a woman-to-woman secret between my grandmother and my first cousin. I found out from speaking with my cousin that Raymond wanted to marry Esther sooner. Her parents, however, were either opposed to the match or wanted her to wait. Rejected, Raymond set off on a trip to the South Pacific – not a small excursion in those days nor inexpensive. I continued searching for documentation in Ancestry and discovered his name on the passenger manifest of the S.S. Lurline, dated June 8, 1915, traveling from Honolulu to San Francisco. This document not only confirmed the story, it gave meaning to a set of photographs that my grandfather must have taken onboard the Lurline, including several photographs of young women taken on the ship’s promenade deck. Could he have been searching for another potential bride?
My grandfather did return to Allentown, at least by 1916. Obviously, he proposed again and she accepted, probably against her parents’ wishes. I have several photographs of Raymond and Esther, likely taken before their wedding. My grandmother is radiant in these photos, exuding a joyfulness which I never witnessed when I knew her as my grandmother. Through Ancestry, I uncovered an interesting close set of dates. My grandparents registered their marriage license on June 4th of 1917. The next day, on June 5th, my grandfather registered for the draft for World War I Selective Service. Then on the following day, June 6th, he married my grandmother in the parsonage of Christ Lutheran Church. My father was born almost a year to the day of their marriage license on June 4th, 1918. They named him with my grandfather’s full name of Raymond Clarence Griesemer, making my dad a “junior.”
My grandparents began their new life together in Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley with their infant son. Life for them was looking up. He worked in the family business, Allentown’s most prominent stationery store, and enjoyed new inherited prosperity after the selling of many acres of family land. In one photograph, my grandfather, grandmother and infant father appear with a new Model A Ford. In 1921, my grandmother gave birth to my uncle Richard, giving my grandparents two boys and the hope of a bright future after the end of World War I.
While my grandfather survived the great war and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the often-forgotten plague of that time, tuberculosis, took him from his family. In less than a year after the birth of my uncle, he contracted TB. Years later, some in the family claimed he would have survived if he had not refused to go to a sanatorium, a legend yet to be verified. The Allentown Morning Call reported in January 1922 that his health was improving. But on March 15th, he died, leaving a young widow and two sons too young to remember him. I am one of five grandchildren who never met him.
My grandfather’s untimely death left a great hole in the family. My grandmother never remarried. A widow for the last 60 years of her life, she fulfilled her role as a mother to two boys and and became the adored grandmother who my brother, my cousins, and I loved so much.
As my grandparents’ story came to life through my research, I began seeing other aspects of his absence. My grandmother supported her son’s desire to marry a young Algerian Jewish woman he met during World War II. My mother arrived in 1950 on the RMS Queen Mary and my grandmother took her under her wing, defending her against some in the family who made anti-Semitic remarks.
I believe she cared deeply for my mother both because she liked her, and above all, realized how important my mother was to her son’s happiness. Looking back, I wonder if losing my grandfather to tuberculosis so soon after marrying him made her acutely aware of what she lost by not marrying my grandfather sooner. Had she followed her own desire for happiness, against the wishes of her family, she would have had more years with her husband. The major decisions we make can lead to unalterable consequences. From all we know, it could have been many years.
Seekers are often drawn to stories of others who seek. It is unalterable consequences that underlie the two highly successful television series. Who Do You Think You Are? features well-known public figures who become seekers themselves. Long Lost Family follows people who are seeking missing family members, often after many years of trying. In many episodes, I found commonalities at the core of who we are.
When you uncover your ancestors’ stories, you form an unexpected personal connection with them. In episode after episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, even the best actors are reduced to tears – genuine tears – after viscerally feeling that connection. Even more moving is witnessing long lost family members finding each other. In Long Lost Family, siblings, children, and parents all describe the same feelings of instant connection with someone who should be a stranger to them. Even their immediate family will say that they never realized how much they missed that connection until it happened.
After watching these shows and seeking my grandfather’s story, I have come to understand how decisions we make and events we endure bring profound consequences to our lives, our partners’ lives, our children’s lives, our grandchildren’s lives, and beyond. I call it “the wake.” We all leave a wake behind us. Like a ship in an ocean, each of us displaces the world we live in and the lives of those connected to us. It begins the minute the bow of our birth slices into this world and continues after the stern passes and we are gone, leaving behind an ever-widening wake of displacement. We can leave behind positive or negative consequences in our wake depending on what we do with what we can control and how we respond to what we cannot control. But as much as possible, it should never be an unknown wake — consequences of family secrets that leave children and grandchildren unmoored from their own origins. Far too often, we neglect to ask our own parents and grandparents about their lives before we knew them. When they are gone, it’s too late. The rich undocumented details and personal experiences of their lives are gone with them, never to be uncovered in any online research. In an effort to prevent this from happening to our grandchildren, I have been endeavoring to tell them our parents’ stories, our childhood lives, how my wife Sheryl and I met, and what formed the deep love we have for each other and our family.
I will never be able to know my grandfather, see his expressions, hear his voice, and feel his love. Like the many children who’ve lost grandparents and parents to the pandemic and the awful war in Ukraine, he will remain an empty place in my life, one whose presence I can only imagine. But the glass paperweight that now sits on my desk connects me to him as a spiritual presence. It never weighs down papers. Instead, it serves as a constant affirmation that he is still remembered, at least by one of his progeny. It also serves to give weight to my continuing genealogical research. Eventually, I hope to understand who he was and grasp what he meant to my grandmother. I want to better know the ghost in the glass. ❖
– Jim Griesemer, January 19, 2023
© 2023 Jim Griesemer, all rights reserved.