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I’m Joe Martzen’s granddaughter. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about grandparents. Someone very close to me just lost his grandmother, and so, comforting him made me immediately empathetic in a way I’ve never been before. I experienced the bevy of emotions that accompany loss all over again: sadness, anger, happiness when reminded of their jokes, hunger when you remember the cookies they made every Christmas.

Also, I’ve been talking a lot with my boyfriend recently about personal history. He’s been doing a good bit of research into his family’s country of origin, Jamaica, and it’s made me think about where–and whom–I come from. There’s a Bob Marley lyric he keeps quoting:

“If you know your history,
Then you would know where you’re coming from,
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me,
Who the hell do I think I am.”

I’ve never thought of my upbringing as particularly exotic or interesting. I’m just a small-town girl from small-town people. But talking with my boyfriend about his history and family has made me think differently about my own. I started to take a real interest in the history of my family’s country of origin (one of them, anyway), Czechoslovakia. Currently, I’m reading Prague Winter by Madeline Albright. While the main thrust of the book deals with WWII, Ms. Albright spends some serious time discussing the Czechs and their colorful past. I’ve been highlighting passages like crazy, so that I’ll be able to reference the important stuff. A favorite is the following description:  “A Czech does not rely on others [but]…sets out to do his work and will overcome everything.” It is an apt description of my immediate family members and myself. We’re all rather self-reliant (sometimes maddeningly so). But to tie it back to the initial subject of this post, my grandparents exhibited the ability to overcome everything better than anyone else I know. The best example of this is the story of how my grandfather fought the Atlantic Ocean…and won.

During WWII, my grandfather was enlisted in the Coast Guard. The unit he was with was called upon one night to rescue a freighter caught in a storm off the coast of North Carolina. The boat on which they set out also got bested by the weather, and the men were tossed off-board. For the next two and a half days, the men fought for their lives. Unfortunately, many lost the battle, especially since there was no clean water and little to no food. Being the consummate athlete that he was, my grandfather swam all around, trying to keep his buddies awake, since to sleep was to die, and to keep their spirits up. My grandfather weighed about 220 lbs before the accident. Upon rescue, his 6′ frame had dropped about 60 lbs in as many hours. The constant physical strain and the complete lack of nourishment took its toll. Fortunately, when they were rescued, my grandfather was among the few lucky ones, and lived to tell the story on a radio program where he was named “Hero of the Week.”

Two weeks ago, I was at the gym, running intervals on the treadmill. During my last sprint, I felt my focus blur and my body tire. Realizing I had to get my focus back if I wanted to make it through, I had the sudden thought of, “You are Joe Martzen’s granddaughter.” Something clicked inside me that gave me a boost of energy that not only allowed me to finish strong, but also to add an extra minute of sprinting. I realized that if this man’s blood flows through my veins, this man that survived two and a half days in the ocean, then I can plow through this workout. I’m trying to recognize that that strength is not just physical and to parlay it into all aspects of my life.

All of my grandparents endured hardship in their own right, whether it was illness, lack of financial stability, or growing up without a father. When I remind myself of these things, I become aware that my background is not as humble and ho-hum as it seemed. I come from people who “overcome everything”, and I inherited the blood of a man who kicked the Atlantic Ocean’s ass.