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Have you ever seen a movie play out in front of you and felt like they had taken parts of the story from your life? That’s exactly what happened with the movie “Coco” and our own family history mystery. And why we loved the movie so much!
The holidays are a favorite time of year for so many reasons in our home. From the decorations to the food to the parties, it’s hard to not find something to enjoy! I also find myself looking forward to the Christmas season because we get some of the best movies of the year. One of those movies was Disney/Pixar’s “Coco”.
Any movie that incorporates family and music rings true in our home. My husband has music in his blood; he his now the third generation to work at the family music store and he also spends his evenings teaching guitar, ukulele, violin, and mandolin. When he’s not teaching, he’s practicing. Family gatherings always include some of the grandkids performing a new piece of music recently learned. And the family is often recruited to play at church meetings, parties, and other gatherings. While I’m not as experienced as they are, I play and teach piano and I’m learning the ukulele. Our oldest son just started vocal and piano lessons. Music, in many ways, is our life!
You can imagine the excitement when we began seeing previews of “Coco” that involved a guitar. I knew the music would be incredible and I wasn’t disappointed. But the story line surprised me even more-it touched me much more than I expected. The story line echoed a family history mystery eerily similar to our own, one that we only just recently solved this year!
I have grown up with a love for learning about my family history. When I was 10, my maternal grandmother passed away from breast cancer. She truly was my best friend and it was very difficult to cope, especially in my teen years. I missed her terribly. I found that I clung to stories, pictures, and memories even more after she was gone. This included learning as much as I could about all of my family. I found that learning about where I came from helped me better understand who I was. It gave me a sense of belonging, of understanding, and helped me through the difficult teen years.
Miguel, in the movie “Coco”, finds himself longing to know more about his lineage when he discovers a clue to finding out who his great-great grandfather was. He loves music and feels like he doesn’t quite fit in with his place in his family as music is not allowed in their home. His heart longs to know if this family history mystery will help him find a sense of belonging. A clue leads him on a journey of discovery and he ultimately finds his place in the world by finding out where he comes from.
In our family, we had two holes in our genealogy. We did not know who my paternal grandmother’s father was and, on my mother’s side, we never knew who my great-great grandfather was. It’s common to find holes in your family tree a little bit further back but having two unknowns only a few generations back on both sides of my family was frustrating. And how in the world would we ever find out who they were?
Thankfully, we did have some information to aid us in digging up my great-great grandfather. There was a story in our family that he had died on his way to marry my great-great grandmother but was tragically killed in a train accident. And there was always a name attached to him. But that’s all we had. A family legend with no hard proof.
With the advent of technology, we hoped for more help to guide us. We found birth certificates for my great-grandfather but his father was never listed. And all other marriage licenses (he was married three times) and even the death certificate did not list a name! It seemed we continued to hit dead ends. But I was determined. I wanted to know who he was and why we never knew him. I felt I owed it to my family and to him so that he wouldn’t be forgotten, much like Miguel felt in finding his great-great grandfather.
I love this clip from the movie. Miguel believes he’s found his great-great grandfather! And he uses music to create a connection…”The music is my language and the world is mi familia”. He literally uses music to communicate something that words themselves cannot express. A poignant moment that I felt to my bones when I saw it (there are some other even more moving moments later in the movie too). I knew how it felt to finally find that connection…
After doing some research in newspapers and looking up names with guessed birth dates on Ancestry.com, I still felt like I had nothing. At one point, I thought I might have found him. There was a newspaper article about a man who was about the right age, lived in the right area, and who died in a train accident. But after mentioning it some family members, I was disappointed. No one thought it was him, though I did have my doubts.
Last year, I decided to buy a DNA kit for myself and both of my parents from Ancestry. I hoped that they might give us that last little bit of information we needed to find out who these men were. We got our samples together and mailed off our kits to be tested and then waited. I was anxious and checked in more often than I care to admit!
When you get your DNA results, there is a definite rush of energy and excitement. Most people who I have talked with share the same experience we did-there were some results we did not expect (for example, I have some Italian in me after all!!). But, unfortunately, the DNA didn’t offer any clues. At least, not at first.
Just as Miguel thought he had it all figured out, so did we. About a month after my mom’s results came back, I received an email notification letting me know that a new DNA circle had been created for me. A DNA circle is a group of people whose DNA have a shared ancestor. You can literally find cousins and family you never knew you had!
On this day, I began checking my circles. At first, there was nothing new. I have about 18 DNA circles currently and each one I saw looked familiar. Until I scrolled to the bottom. There was definitely a new DNA circle and interestingly enough, a familiar name. Remember the name that our family had heard about but always disregarded? Well there it was. Big and bold like a flashy trumpet! Excitedly, I clicked it open to double-check what side of the family it was on. It included my mom and a few of my cousins who had DNA tests as well. At this point, there was no doubt in my mind. This was who we had been looking for! The DNA circle belonged to my great-great-great grandfather and it was his son who had tragically died while working in a train yard.
I looked up everything I could from that point on. I called my mom, who at first couldn’t believe it. Phone calls were made and the story confirmed. Turns out, my aunt had long ago talked with one of my great-grandfathers half siblings who had shared the name of Madsen and a tragic love story, much like Romeo and Juliet but with a child.
My great-great grandparents had been in love. She would have been in her late teens and he in his early twenties. Both families had immigrated to America from Denmark but their parents didn’t agree to the match. We have no idea why and may never know. But, despite their parents refusal, the two still found time to be together and my great-grandfather was born. About two years later, my great-great grandmother married another man. And just two years after that, Great-Great Grandfather Madsen was killed.
We have no way of knowing if his son ever knew who he was. And there is some indication that his mother still loved Grandpa Madsen. And in a twist of fate, just like his father, my great-grandfather was killed while working on a train.
After so many years of wondering who he was, we finally knew. I felt a connection to someone I had never known and I crave to find whatever information I can about him. But, most importantly, our family knows his name. And he will be remembered.
This song called “Remember Me” brought me to tears as I thought about him. Did he feel the same way as Miguel’s great-great grandfather? Was he somewhere in heaven, wondering if we’d ever find him? If we’d ever know where we came from? Did he share our excitement when we learned who he was?
No matter where we are at in our lives, we owe much to those who came before us. Our ancestors lives are reflected in our own. Some are physical, others found in personalities, and some found in talents just as Miguel found his through music. Family really is everything and it’s central to who we are. Remembering and finding those who came before us honors their legacy and continues to help us find our place in the world.
If you have not had a chance to see “Coco” yet, run to the theater! Your kids will love it, you will love it, and you’ll be singing the songs weeks. And I hope it inspires you to do some digging too! If you have a family history story that you’d like to share, please don’t hesitate to post a comment or send me an email. Hearing other stories continues to inspire me too.