For almost as long as there has been a Saint Paul, my family has been a part of the city. My father, Carl Reimringer, was born here in 1914, and baptized in Assumption Church, where his father was baptized and his grandfather was married. Though I’d never lived here, when my wife and I moved to Saint Paul shortly after my father’s death in 2001, I fell head over heels in love with the city, feeling that I’d returned to a home I hadn’t realized had been missing from my life. And since my father and the rest of his family and the generation that knew him are gone, I’m always pursuing family legends around the city, trying to catch a fleeting glimpse of ancestral ghosts in the corner of my mind’s eye. It turns out, though, that ghosts are slippery, and maybe what we see reveals more about us than them.
Some of my family’s story is written in stone. Much of it is written in air and electrons, words that reached family ears and got stored away in the sometimes faulty circuitry of the brain’s synapses.
Here’s a part that’s written in stone:
My great-great-grandfather, Theodor Wiemann, became a U.S. citizen in Saint Paul in 1856, and owned a saloon and grocery downtown. His grave monument, in the center of the family plot in Calvary Cemetery, is a Gothic fright that sits on the hillside at a slight angle, as though it might fall on its face; the stone is castellated about the top and chemically blackened around the edges to look very old, the height of Victorian fashion. There’s an unremarkable German verse celebrating Theodor carved into the base.
And here’s the rest:
Family legend claims Theodor Wiemann wasn’t happy on the November day in 1880 that his beloved daughter Anna married Michael Reimringer, who not only clerked for Theodor, but boarded with the family. The Mass was celebrated in Assumption, the city’s first German-Catholic parish. The church is still there, the witch hats of its twin steeples a downtown landmark, but Michael Reimringer didn’t fare so well. In 1887, he confirmed his father-in-law’s doubts by cracking his skull in a drunken tumble from a sleigh at the second-ever Winter Carnival. At least according to family legend.
In my ghost hunts, I’ve confirmed that my great-grandfather did indeed die during the 1887 Winter Carnival, but I don’t yet know whether he died at the Winter Carnival. I haven’t found a clipping about a drunken German falling off the back of a sleigh.
And here’s where ghosts get slippery, where what we think we’re seeing may be a reflection of ourselves on some silvered surface. Take the drunken German story. In my family, this was always told with pride, bravado. The Reimringer ancestors lived hard and died stupidly. So when someone asks how long I’ve lived in Saint Paul, I always tell the story as an illustration of a colorful past. But sometimes that colorful story is greeted with a look of horror, and I realize that my listener isn’t seeing the same ghost that I see.
Or take the German part. The Reimringers are from a region on the French-German border kicked back and forth between the two countries in several wars. Yet, my family has always identified as German. As did I, until I received an email from François Reimeringer a few years ago. Turns out the Reimeringer/Reimringer ancestral village was Remering-les-Hargarten in the Lorraine area of France, close to the German border. Turns out Michel Reimeringer added an a to his Christian name and dropped the extra e in his surname sometime between becoming a citizen and sending out wedding invitations.
And we still don’t know if that supposedly drunken French/German was at the Winter Carnival in 1887.
So what’s the truth? It’s a ghost slipping away in a tarnished mirror. But ghosts that tell a good story slip away more slowly.
John Reimringer’s first novel, Vestments, was published by Milkweed Editions in fall 2010. A Fargo, North Dakota, native, Reimringer grew up in Kansas and moved to his father’s family’s hometown of Saint Paul in 2001. He loves Saint Paul, but stays away from the Winter Carnival.