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Eileen Zrubek



Eileen Zrubeck uses the rich documentation of her family history, especially the letters of John W. Watson, to better understand her own heritage and how that helped determine her place in American society today.




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During the Civil War, my great, great, great grandfather, John W. Watson, wrote a series of letters to his wife, a woman who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland. Growing up, I never knew much about who she was, her life's journey, or what drove her to immigrate to the United States. However, her husband's letters allowed me to better understand who she was. But at the same time, these letters helped me feel more connected to my ancestors and my Irish heritage. But as I grew and learned more about my family history, I couldn’t help but notice the level of detail that had been recorded and remembered. The documents, photos, resources - all at my disposal. This heavy documentation helped me further understand the extent to which my family’s identity helped solidify them as privileged members of society whose stories had been written into museums, online databases, and history textbooks. But more importantly, this realization helped me further define my identity and develop an understanding of what this identity means for me in American society today.

I grew up in a household where the first most important holiday was Christmas; St. Patrick's Day was a close second. My mother had always taken pride in her Irish heritage, spending countless hours of research on genealogy websites and investigating her family history. Through my mother's research, she learned that her great, great grandfather, my great-great-great grandfather, John W. Watson, was a soldier in the Confederate Army and that he had written this series of letters to his wife, an Irish immigrant named Margaret C. Hannan-Watson. In his letters he painted vivid pictures of the battlefields that he crossed and always made sure to remind her that she was always with him no matter where he went.

These letters have always served as artifacts of our family's lived experiences in America, bringing us closer together as we read them while sitting on my mom's bed. These letters have always been important to me. However, the cultural context of the letters began to more clearly develop as I got older and helped me understand how the lived experiences of different groups of immigrants, like my great-great-great grandmother, impact the future generations of families, like my own.