Discovering My Family Tree on an Alaskan Cruise

by Barbara Carpenter

Barbara, second from right, her husband Jim, and her parents, Frances and Harvey Goerlitz
Barbara, second from right, her husband Jim, and her parents, Frances and Harvey Goerlitz

Have you ever wished you had asked your parents or grandparents more about what it was like for them growing up? Several years ago, my husband and I asked my parents to go on a trip with us. We thought that going on a cruise vacation would be a perfect opportunity to get away for a few days, spend some quality time together and learn about our family ancestry.

But, we had to sell them on the idea. I’m a baby boomer and if your parents are like mine, you’ve probably heard that they feel they can’t travel anymore. My parents told me that it would be too difficult. My mom has Parkinson’s and my dad has every kind of arthritis known to mankind. Getting around isn’t easy for either one of them.

Fortunately, we were able to convince them to join us for an Alaska land and sea vacation aboard Coral Princess; which ended up being one of the best cruise vacations we’ve ever been on. We booked this trip because Mom wanted to see Glacier Bay while I wanted to enjoy the train ride in Skagway. We flew into Fairbanks and started an experience that literally changed my life.

My dad had done some genealogy research, so we had some basic information about our family history. Once we sat down and asked them the first few questions, we were greeted with smiles and all sorts of stories. One story would trigger another memory and another and another. While they enjoyed sitting in their deck chairs and telling the stories, I couldn’t write or type fast enough!

We talked about their childhood, their memories of growing up during the Depression and recollections they had of their parents and grandparents. The stories we heard were fascinating. After the first time we sat down, they asked us with huge grins, “what time are we going to do this again?”

During that cruise, I learned my great-grandmother was a widow with five sons. They lived back in Wisconsin. When the wife of one of her former beau passed away, she received a letter from him in California. He knew of her husband’s passing and asked for her hand in marriage. She packed up her five sons, her piano and boarded a train in Wisconsin, heading all the way to Visalia, California. He met them at the train station and they all walked across the street to the justice of the peace, who married them on the spot. My dad’s dad (my grandpa) was one of those five boys!

This experience of being with my parents, away from the commitments of everyday life, gave me the perfect opportunity to really take the time to do something that was so personally significant. As much as it meant to me to gather all of this family history, it meant even more to my parents to sit down and talk to us for hours on end about their heritage, giving us a better understanding of what shaped the people they became when they brought me into the world. I’ll always remember the time spent with them on this cruise and my only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner.

Since this cruise in 2006, I began asking more and more questions. I’ve had some wonderful visits with my parents, especially when we used to take them out for Sunday drives – many times past their childhood homes and churches. Sadly, my parents’ health has been declining recently so I’m glad I’ve written all the stories down so I can pass them on to my daughters and grandchildren. And to think it all started on a Princess cruise!

Think about doing something like this with your parents or grandparents before it’s too late. Don’t let your parents tell you “no.” Plan that family reunion cruise or 90th birthday celebration. Dance one more time with your mom or dad. Take one more picture. Live, laugh and love each other.

Take advantage of your time together and find the time to sit down and ask them those questions that you’ve been meaning to ask. Bring a thick pad of paper and plenty of pens and enjoy what’s about to unfold before you. Believe me – you’ll love it and so will they. It will be the memory of a lifetime! It was for me!

Barbara lives in San Diego, Calif., and she’s cruised with Princess 10 times.