By Madison Wurtele

Four years ago, at my grandmother’s funeral, her youngest sister stopped and stared at me intently long enough to make me feel uncomfortable.

“I can’t believe how much she looks like my mother did,” she said to my mom as if I weren’t in the room.

This is a reoccurring sentiment shared by many of my relatives.

Photo by Allan Christensen

Caroline Heng Kreifles was my great grandmother’s name. She died in 1997 when I was just 3. I have few memories of her. The only connection that I have to her now is a faded yellow baby quilt that she adorned with hand-painted lambs, bunnies and flowers. I carried that thing until it was frayed at the edges and the perfectly stitched seams no longer served their purpose. Yet, for some reason, I have always felt drawn to her story. It’s as if we’re tied together by an invisible thread.

When I was a teenager, I went searching for a photograph of her when she was young. But there seems to be none in existence. I have one of her in her 80s. However, the quality of the picture and years of aging make it hard for me to see any physical link between us. I know we share DNA, but I can only imagine what characteristics we have in common. Did she have my nose? Did she have a similar mouth? Did she have freckles? These are questions no one who is currently alive can answer. However, from stories passed down from one generation to the next, I am able to piece together a picture of her character.

I’ve been told that in her life Caroline was forced to draw upon the hardworking and enduring spirit of her immigrant ancestors. Like those who came before her, she faced many struggles. Caroline was married in 1929 when she was just 21. That same year the stock market crashed and the United States was pushed into what we now know as the Great Depression. As a farmer’s wife, the Dust Bowl hit Caroline hard. She and husband Sterling had to persevere through one of the worst heat waves in American history. They had to learn to make a little go a long way.

Strong German heritage

Yet, despite their challenges, the couple raised seven children. Each of whom went on to have families, careers and lives of their own. Knowing that relatives see a connection between me and a woman who had such immeasurable toughness is inspiring. And while I may never know if Caroline and I share a nose or a mouth, I can guess that our similar physical appearance has ties to our strong German heritage.

Our shared family line’s transition from Germany to America began with Caroline’s grandfather Michael Heng who was born in 1844 in the Province of Alsace (an area now belonging to Germany). As he entered into his adult years, overpopulation caused hunger, housing shortages and high unemployment in Alsace. This resulted in a mass migration from the area. Michael followed those who fled and, at the young age of 20, he boarded a ship in search of a better life in America.

He originally settled on a farm in Ohio, but he moved to the Nebraska Territory in 1859. While in Nebraska, he built a home, cultivated farm land and met his wife, fellow German-native, Jane Hoffman. Jane was born in 1844 in Bavaria, Germany, and, like Michael, she immigrated to the United States. The two worked hard to build a life together in Nebraska. In his obituary, Michael was called “a pioneer of Otoe County.” They took a piece of land that had nothing but a small fence and made it into something prosperous and thriving.

However, while the farm eventually did well, there were many initials struggles. Like most pioneers, Michael and Jane had to deal with very limited transportation, wild land and little protection from the elements. But, their hardships paved the way for generations to come. Son John followed in Michael’s footsteps and became a Nebraskan farmer. John’s daughter Caroline, my great grandmother and supposed look alike, married Sterling Kriefles, another German farmer, and the line continued with my grandparents

No time for nonsense

My grandmother Jean, Caroline’s daughter, was a strong woman. She was not sentimental nor did she have time for nonsense. She was a woman of action. She showed her love in the fried chicken she cooked, in the stories she read and in the time she devoted to her family. Before she died, she took me on an annual strawberry picking outing. I secretly hated the process. We spent hours crouching over two-foot-high bushes with the sun beating down on our backs. My tennis shoes and bare knees would become caked with mud. My fingers would be stained red. But, I was happy to spend the day next to her proving that I was a hard worker, something that was near the very top of her value list. And it gave me an entire day to listen to her stories.

I can still hear her voice narrating tales of tornadoes sweeping over the farm, of the tricks she and her twin sister used to play and of her mother’s diligence in taking care of her entire family. She was a woman that I greatly admired. She had a strength that I can only assume came for her mother, and that I can only hope is in me.