Thinking deeper about the meaning behind my band, Irene & Reed’s debut album, Closer to Home, I’ve come to the conclusion that album isn’t just inspired by the Midwest home I grew up in and the memories I shared with friends and family during that time, but it’s also about physical roots — my ancestry. With a genealogist father, a German mother and a background in journalism (hence, having participated in many interviews) myself, I’ve earned an inquisitive mind. Naturally, asking my family about where they’re from and trying to make connections from their lives to my own makes sense.
Genealogists start researching their roots by interviewing family members about their past experiences and about relatives who have since passed on. Where and when were they born? To whom were they married? How many children did they have? That’s the gist of it. Census collections in library archives can fill in details from there, as can birth, marriage and death certificates. But the best knowledge comes via oral tradition — stories passed along from generation to generation. I’m lucky my dad has done the hard work for me, as collecting those details can be challenging and time-consuming. But I’m proud to know what’s behind me. If I didn’t know, I’d be lost.
I have a painting from 1942. It was given to my German grandmother during World War II by a man I believe may have been sent to a Nazi death camp. The painting has chipped and faded over time. It’s a landscape of a few old houses in a country village. Although it doesn’t say much, it’s a glimpse into a time during which my family lived and struggled, just as others did during the war.
Over the years, I’ve noticed how proud I am of my German heritage. Though 100 percent American and true to the red, white and blue, the soles of my feet are from Berlin, where so much history lies. It’s one of the first points of conversation I find myself falling into when I meet someone new. “I’m half German,” I say. “I lived there as a child, and my first word was in German.” It’s not just an ice-breaker; it’s a point of pride, as if I’m a little special because I’ve got ties to mysterious places and stories. I guess it’s just the child in me speaking up — like “Show and Tell.” But, knowing my roots has made me feel whole. It gives me a grounding in life and a society I can relate to in some ways. I don’t envy the hardships my grandparents endured during the war, for I know they were probably much stronger than I would have been then. But I am grateful for their experiences and their achievements, which kept the family alive and prosperous.
So, Closer to Home, in some ways, means “closer to Germany” and “closer to America” and closer to my ancestors. I take just as much pride in my dad’s side of the family, mind you. His relatives were great farmers, teachers and travelers. They had adventures and great loves, just as I have in my life. I’ve written stories and poems in tribute to them all. Maybe one day I’ll follow in his footsteps and take on the genealogy duties for my family. I know if I did, he’d be so proud.