Vacations that nurture a sense of place

Summer vacations serve many purposes, offering time for everything from simple relaxation to sightseeing, adventure, and education.

For some vacationers, there's another rich possibility: a chance to trace family roots by visiting – or revisiting – ancestral homes. Wandering through rooms that sheltered earlier generations of relatives, descendants can feel new connections and a heightened sense of appreciation for those who have gone before.

In our family, this kind of sentimental journey involves heading to Pine River, Wis., a tiny dot on the map 45 minutes northwest of Oshkosh. There, on a hill overlooking the main street, stands an imposing white Colonial where my maternal great-grandparents, early settlers here, raised four children and carved out fulfilling lives.

On a brilliant summer Saturday, as the current owners graciously lead us through the seven-bedroom house, we try hard to memorize details. This is the dining room where the extended family gathered for Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is the library where my great-grandfather, an enthusiastic reader, kept his books. This is the back room where the hired men slept after long days of planting or threshing on the family farm. And this area off the kitchen is where my great-grandfather wrote in his diary and issued stern reminders to his grandchildren – "Don't slam the door!" – as they ran in and out.

The décor has changed, of course, but these spaces still convey a sense of the past. "You can almost feel the people and their presence," says my cousin as we thank our hosts and leave.

Up the road, past the Congregational church where our relatives worshiped, a small cemetery tells other stories. Pausing to read gravestones dating back to the 1800s, their names and inscriptions dulled by the elements, visitors can feel awed by this silent community of former residents who played varying roles in shaping this town.

Sometimes such pilgrimages are bittersweet. One woman in New York describes her sadness in discovering that a favorite cherry tree in her grandparents' former yard is gone, and that her grandfather's carpentry shop in the basement has been turned into a studio apartment. A man in New Jersey laments the loss of his grandfather's garden, now paved in concrete.

Neglect can also take its toll. My father and I once visited the beautifully maintained house where he was born. But our elation over its pristine condition turned to sadness at our next stop, the dairy farm that once belonged to his grandparents. The house and barns looked derelict, badly in need of paint and repairs. Never again, we vowed, would we go back. Some beloved memories are best left unchanged.

Tracing family roots on paper, through documents, letters, and diaries, brings many rewards. But actually walking in the footsteps of earlier generations adds a powerful new dimension – a sense of place.

"The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there," observed the British novelist L.P. Hartley. Those differences make a case for visiting the past.

Several years ago Christine Louise Hohlbaum, an American living in Paunzhausen, Germany, went with her father to Long Island, N.Y., to see a house once owned by her great-aunt. As they walked the grounds, she says, she felt an "overwhelming" sense of history. "It was as if I were convening with the essence of our family. This was a real live place where important events happened."

As other vacationers make pilgrimages to their own long-ago "real live places" this summer, some might agree with Thomas Wolfe that you can't go home again, at least not permanently. But you can go back for an hour, or even 15 minutes. And chances are good that you'll feel the richer for it.

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