We don’t know much about the “Schwarz” side of my family, such as when exactly they came to the United States or where they emigrated from.
There are family stories that involve the Ukraine. Plus a curious tale about a small cottage in Switzerland that was emblazoned with the family name.
At some point when I was a kid, we got a wooden sign (it might have been a gift) with our name carved into it in a pseudo blackletter font. That sign followed my father most of his adult life, from his shop at our farm in Hackett, Ark., to his shop in Fort Smith, Ark., and finally to his home in Charleston, S.C.
Last Christmas, my dad gave that wooden sign to me as a Christmas gift, and its meaning was not lost on me. He knew his battle with prostate cancer was nearing an end. And this slab of wood is pretty much our family baton.
Last Tuesday, my sister Robin called to say our dad had entered hospice. When I got the call I was driving to my workshop with a replacement part for a woodworking machine. The rest of the day was a blur, but I remember doing one thing: I put our family sign at the top of the bookcase in the workbench room where everyone could see it.
I headed to Charleston the next morning. During his final day alive, my dad sang along with my sisters to all the easy-listening songs from the 1970s that we loved. John Denver. The Carpenters. Jim Croce. Cat Stevens. Crosby, Stills & Nash. Even some Olivia Newton-John.
About 3 a.m. on Feb. 26 his breathing began to slow dramatically. And within the hour he was gone. He died at 3:52 a.m. and it was as peaceful a passing as I have ever witnessed – thanks in large part to the living saints at Lutheran Hospice.
Though we lost him too soon, his death was a relief in many ways. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003, my father spent a good deal of his time fighting the disease. And the last couple years were particularly painful.
Since July, my sisters and I were with him almost nonstop. During one of my visits, he asked to have his DNA tested so he could perhaps learn something additional about where the Schwarzes came from.
The DNA results were odd. Despite my father’s last name and the way he was raised, he was not ethnically German. He was about 27 percent English with the rest of his genes scattered throughout Western and Eastern Europe. According to his DNA, his Schwarz ancestors likely immigrated to the United States in the 18th century. This does not line up with the little we know of the Schwarz family.
Our family’s reaction: Oh well.
Last week while we were in the middle of all this stuff, my sisters and I had dinner with my dad’s brother and cousins. I informed them of this genetic news. We had just received our drinks, and usually we all raise our glasses and say “Prost!” I’ve been doing this since I could lift a sippy cup with apple juice.
And so we said “Prost!” in honor of my father. And then my uncle Ron – my father’s brother – added: “Tolly ho!”
So my family remains a mystery. The only thing I have that seems a constant across the generations is the wooden sign hanging up in my shop now.
I don’t know who the Schwarzes are, but whoever they are – scoundrels, peasants or refugees – I am one of them. And I have a sign to prove it.
— Christopher Schwarz