Friday, September 25, 2015

Write About Visiting Family History



Today's post is another personal essay about a place we visited. Yesterday's post was about a special hotel, this one is about a hotel and the town in Germany where Ken's grandfather grew up. You can use one small piece of family history and create a full personal essay or memoir piece about it. This piece placed in a contest and has been published.


Grandpa’s Town
By Nancy Julien Kopp

My husband wanted to go to Germany, rent a car and travel the scenic southern area. He had a yen to visit small towns and villages instead of big cities, which we’d already seen on earlier trips. Ken planned to drive the secondary roads and stay off the autobahn. For people who had relied on tour guides in the past, this was definitely an adventure.

In January, we started planning. I did multiple google searches on hotels, restaurants, attractions, transatlantic flights and car rentals. Ken’s job was to map out the route. He spread a huge map of Germany across our dining room table, leaving half of it clear for us to eat meals. He agreed to fold up Germany when company came.

Pointing to the map one morning, he said, “Here’s Lahr, the town where my Grandfather Kopp grew up.” His finger circled the immediate area. “It’s on the edge of the Black Forest. We could stay there for a few days and take in the surrounding area.”  

With that simple statement, our understanding and love for his grandfather grew tenfold, but not until we’d experienced Lahr.

We arrived in Grandpa’s town on a fine June day. We’d had good luck winging it as far as hotels went, but Lahr proved a different story. One hotel didn’t meet our standards. Three others were open but we could never get assistance. They appeared deserted, even though the front doors stood open. We began to wonder what kind of place we’d come to.

We continued to drive up one street and down another. Around a curve, we happened on a place I warmed to immediately. I sent Ken in to look and book. It proved fit for kings and queens, and that’s who could afford to stay there. Ken kept driving, while I had visions of sleeping in the car. Then I grabbed Ken’s arm.

 “There! The Hotel-am-West-End. It looks nice.”

I liked the all-white building and the big, leafy trees that lined the street. The open deck on the second floor, ringed with colorful, overflowing flower boxes beckoned. Ken went in and returned smiling. We had a room.

We climbed to the second floor reception area, and Ken introduced Dirk, the owner. Dirk must have lost his razor—either that or he liked the stubble on his face. His clothes were clean although a bit rumpled, but he gave us an effusive welcome, his smile warm and genuine.

Ken told Dirk that his Grandfather Kopp had grown up in Lahr. Dirk looked at the register where Ken had signed in. “Kopp? Ja, we got lots of them here.” Ken knew of cousins who had moved away but not of any other relations here. Apparently, our last name was a common one in this part of the world.

We ambled down the hall on oriental carpeting, dragging our luggage behind, mouths opened as we tried to take in the amazing antique art and furnishings that lined the walls
We learned later that Dirk ran the small hotel and dealt in antiques on the side.

After a quick look at our pleasant room, we met the Guest Relations Manager in the hotel restaurant. Schef was a short-legged, fat, amiable dog, who plunked himself next to my chair, hoping perhaps for a morsel of my wiener schnitzel to fall his way while we planned our agenda. We’d only been in Lahr for a few hours but already felt warmly welcomed.

Schef, the Guest Relations Manager


Lahr was not a tourist stop but had its own charm. The town was surely much smaller in the late nineteenth century when Grandpa lived here--where he went to school, played
games, and maybe gave a wink to a pretty girl now and then. Maybe some of these shops were the same ones where his mother sent him on errands.

Each day, we thought of Grandpa as a little boy, a teen, and then a young man. In this clean, working man’s town, he learned values and formed opinions that lasted a lifetime. His cheerful outlook on life had been cultivated here on these streets. Every letter we’d received from him in our early married years began “I am fine and dandy. How are you?”

We did venture to the surrounding area each day, visiting the Black Forest region and crossing the border into Strasbourg, France. After one of these daylong excursions, Ken went out for a walk by himself. He seemed a bit surprised that he felt so much emotion while visiting his grandfather’s hometown. He wanted to see as much of it as possible in the time we had, and he snapped myriad pictures to show his brothers when we returned home.

Ken in downtown Lahr, German


Wilhelm Kopf moved away from Lahr at age twenty to try his luck in America. He left mother, father, and baby brother as well as friends. More than fifty years later, he returned for a three-week visit telling Ken’s family in Illinois that he’d see them soon. Three months passed before he journeyed to America again. I have a feeling long-buried memories flooded back as he walked his boyhood paths and visited family and friends. He must have been reluctant to let them go again. But the pull of his family in America proved great enough to make him return.


Our visit to Lahr touched Ken deeply. Even more than a century after his birth, this was still Grandpa’s town, and a part of his own heritage. Ken’s connection may have once been a fragile thread, but by the time we left, it had strengthened considerably and had drawn me in, as well. 

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