My ancestors came from Germany, Canada, and England to America in the 1700s and 1800s. They tossed and crashed about on ships for months travelling to the “New Frontier” in search of a better life and more opportunities. Once they arrived, some rode into uncharted territory on covered wagons. Two robbed a bank and escaped. Others had to uproot their whole family because of the Civil War. Most of them spent their days toiling for hours on end, farming to harvest the powers of the virgin and sacred earth. My ancestors had to do things we can only read about or see in Wild West movies.
My mom’s side of the family came over on a ship from Germany in 1776. The Orndoffs landed in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. They lived in that quaint little settlement for about two generations, but when the Civil War broke out, they were forced to move to Illinois for fear that they would lose their land. After moving, they became farmers. My great-great grandmother and her family rode in a covered wagon from Illinois to Iowa seeking better land. For weeks they travelled, fearing the treacherous trails, the wild, untamed prairie, and attacks by the natives. However, it seemed as if they were the ones to be feared once they got there. When they arrived in Iowa, my great-great grandfather’s brothers robbed a bank in Modale, Iowa. One of them escaped. He fled to Montana and managed to live there for about twenty years until the local authorities found him. But, the authorities deemed that he had been an “outstanding citizen” during those twenty years,and the Iowa judges pardoned him from his crimes.
My great grandfather continued to farm on the land they acquired after their move to Iowa. Later, he moved to Cairo, Nebraska, and the stars began to align which would allow me to be born.
The LaBrie side of the family comes from a similar place. Six or seven generations ago, they lived in France. They came over to North America about four generations ago: to French-speaking Quebec, Canada. For the generations before my parents, having about ten children was the trend. Take, for example, my great-great-great-great grandfather, Jacques LaBrie. He had twelve children altogether, but two died of smallpox as infants. In 1874, Jacque, his wife, and his ten children rode on the new railroad to Hastings, Nebraska. They settled on land just west of town and became farmers. With their settlement in Nebraska, they lost their French language abilities. English dominated the family now. Eventually, the Dust Bowl and Great Depression forced them to find a different method of income. They moved to a nearby town, called Aurora, to work in a factory—just in time for the industrial revolution.
My grandparents met in this town and had ten children (continuing the trend)—seven boys and three girls. They kept with the family tradition of farming, and life on the farm was adventurous. My dad told me the boys used to dig holes seven feet deep just for the sake of digging holes. They ran around pretending to be World War II soldiers and used sticks as fake guns as they reenacted battle scenes, screaming a made up German phrase, “ZEBIDY KAH!” as they fought each other. When they weren’t playing around, they would help their dad out on the farm wherever possible. Almost every night at suppertime they would eat popcorn, because it was the cheapest and most readily available way to feed all twelve people in the family. My migration story was about to begin, and the spark that would eventually lead to my birth was ignited in that small farming town where my parents met.
I was born in Hastings, Nebraska. It seems to be a family tradition to be born there—all of my aunts and uncles, my parents, and even my grandparents were born there. From the time I was born until fifth grade, my family lived in Doniphan. There was little opportunity in that small “village” of 800 people. My mom worked in Hastings and my dad in Grand Island. Doniphan was just a middle ground place. I felt very repressed there. I was always the “odd one out”—even though I tried really hard to fit in. I was raised Catholic, but one evening during church, the priest told me dogs did not have souls, and then told me I could not go to church if I believed they did. So, I took his word and I never set foot in a church again. I suppose an important part of my family’s tradition is lost with me. Almost every one of my ancestors was catholic. I feel like I’m betraying them, and if there is a God, I feel like I’m betraying him as well. When we moved to Hastings some of that guilt vanished and I was able to freely express myself.
It is amazing what just fifteen miles can do to change a life. Hastings was full of opportunities. I learned it was acceptable to not be religious. I could take part in whatever my heart desired. If I had not moved to Hastings, I would have never been involved in band, never would have had the opportunity to learn German, never would have made the connections I did.
Because Hastings had a wonderful German department, I was inspired to become an exchange student during my junior year. If I thought just fifteen miles made a huge difference in my life, four thousand miles was an even more life-changing distance. I was practically thrown into the unknown the second I stepped off the plane. I knew very little German, knew not a single person over there…and for a second, I realized that that was probably very similar to how my ancestors felt when they stepped off the boat those three hundred years ago. I had a sort of eureka moment; my exchange meant more to me than just learning German—it meant paying homage to my ancestors. I am the only person in my generation who still speaks German. When I came back from my exchange, I knew I wanted to do something in the future with my German skills. I became more confident in myself and was not afraid to meet new people or face new challenges. The year between high school and college was really tough for me. I had to assimilate back into the American culture, and everyone expected me to be the same person I was before I left. It was very hard for me to pretend to be unchanged. I became direct and headstrong, but some of my friends didn’t understand that that was just the “German” inside of me.
Needless to say, I was ready for college when the time came. I knew that I wanted to attend UNL since I was a small child. It was the only school I applied for because I knew it was the only place I wanted to go. I was in love with the Husker Football program and the atmosphere, and both of my sisters had graduated from there. Another huge reason I came to UNL was because of the marching band. I love Husker game days, and the experience is greatly improved and made more amazing by wearing a band uniform and playing with 299 of the football team’s biggest fans. I feel a sense of belonging here at UNL. I am continuing to pursue my passion for German, and also am studying Global Studies. I could not imagine being anywhere else than here, learning to do what I love—and all because of my ancestors and their paths throughout time and this country.