Of late I've become more and more drawn to research my mother's father's German side of the family. When Randy Seaver had us list our Sweet 16 a few weeks ago the listing made me realize how little I knew about that side. There are many reasons for that, of course; some that involve distance (geographically and emotionally) and others that don't belong in a public forum. Suffice to say that my mother's father's side of the family were the stereotypical taciturn Germans.
My mother's parents divorced when she was an infant. Her mother Clementine initially tried to gain custody of her children (my mother and her elder brother) and when that failed, she tried to gain visitation with the same result. My grandfather, my mother and her brother moved in with his mother Minna after the divorce and Minna became my mother's surrogate mom as well as her grandmother. My mom moved back in with her father when he remarried but that didn't last long; after his second wife became pregnant my mom was told to move back to her grandmother's house. Basically, she was shuttled around. There's a lot more to the story but it doesn't really need to be shared here. The moral is that none of this really fostered any sense of familial closeness.
There's a part of me that mourns this. When I was about seven I spent two summers at my grandfather's house and spent some of those evenings in front of the TV eating ice cream with chocolate sauce, drinking Pepsi, and watching the Cubbies with my aunt. I didn't know at the time that my aunt's mother and my mother's mother weren't the same person because no one in the family ever said anything about it. You just didn't speak about such things. Come to think of it, that sentiment -- buck up, soldier, don't cry, keep your chin up, don't be weak! -- was essentially the attitude of the German side of my family. You couldn't afford to let your guard down, that's for sure.
Still, memories of those two summers stay with me. They are the only times I remember feeling close to my mother's father or any of his immediate family other than Freddie, his brother. I've written about my Uncle Freddie in this post so I won't revisit what he meant to me. I have a few other memories, too -- I remember my great-grandmother Minna would allow me to go down in her basement to play, or to use her Vicks Inhaler. She seemed stern and I would never dream of crossing her but she was sometimes indulgent with me. I suspect it was because I was her "Dolly's" little girl.
When Minna passed away she took a storehouse of memories with her. I was too young to ask her the things about her German ancestors that I should have and to my knowledge there's precious little left from her life. Her children sold most of her things to pay for her last days in a nursing home (she lived to be 98) and whatever was left was parceled out amongst the kids or thrown away. I remember she kept a huge portrait of Alvin, the son she had that died young, in her basement. She had a beautiful big bible written in German that had been brought over from Germany by her parents. By the Bible she always kept a picture of her father in his red German calvary uniform, posed next to the Lippanzer stallions he trained for Kaiser Wilhelm I.
All these things -- it seems -- are gone. At least all my inquiries as to their possible locations have come to naught.
It wasn't until I was about nine that I learned there was another woman in this story. My mother took me along with her to meet a woman in a mobile home park and I played and quietly watched the two older boys that were also there while the two women talked. I was told this woman was my mother's mother -- my grandmother Clementine. I've written about her in the past in this post. I remember only being curious and a bit confused about the relationship but it must've been a very emotional time for my mom. That visit marked the first and last time she ever met her mother. By that time Clementine had remarried and had gone on to have five more children -- my mother's half-siblings.
After their meeting the two corresponded for a few years or so but Clementine eventually stopped writing and the cessation wounded my mother deeply. I remember hearing my parents speak of it in their room (yes, I was a nosy child -- surely a personality trait of any good genealogist?) and the pain in my mom's voice. As an adult I've spoken to her about that time and she said she never understood why her mother stopped writing. I wish I had an answer for her but the same thing happened to me. I decided to try to locate Clementine again after I had my own daughter in the early 90's. She and I wrote back and forth for a few months (her letters to me remarkably resembling those she wrote to my mother two decades earlier) and then the letters stopped.
In the late 90's I managed to locate her nephew, who by happy coincidence lived fairly close to me. We went to dinner at his house once and he gave me photos and shared some memories. One of the most important ones to me was his rememberence of a picture on his "Aunt Tootie's" mantlepiece of a flaxen-haired baby girl in a pink dress (see picture at right.) He said as a boy he'd always wondered who that little girl was. I told him I had a copy of that picture and it was my mother.
It seems to me that in her way Clementine did mourn her lost children and I'm sure she was ashamed of her inability to go up against the force that was my great-grandmother Minna. I don't think she knew how to move past those mistakes and embrace her older daughter while simultaneously managing to maintain the children she had with her second husband. I think her desire to love us was stronger than her actual ability to do so. I don't hold anything against her for these things -- people are what they are and the past shapes them. Then again, I think I probably have the luxury of feeling that way about it because she wasn't my mother.
I found out one day last year that Clementine died in 2002 by putting her name into the social security death index.
Anyway, back to the purpose of this post -- the madness that is the entire German side of my family. I had names of the places they were all supposed to be from that -- until this last week -- I'd never been able to find! Incidentally, one of my most promising discoveries is that none of them would be considered "Germans" any longer if they'd stayed put in the villages they came from. Many borders have changed since the late 1880's. They'd be Polish now. (Yes, I know, grandma Minna, I can almost hear you rolling about in your grave and saying something about you'd never be Polish, so I'm very sorry about that, hehe!)
I know there are many bumpy roads ahead of me. I've never done this sort of research before so it's uncharted territory. I have maddening issues, of course. Alternate spellings of all the surnames (Papstein, Depperman, Koplen, Koehn, Sanglam/Sennhousen, Schultz, Vierkow) abound. A death certificate I have is faded in the exact place where names of parents are. I have no idea what ports any of them came through when they got here. Passenger index searches have come up empty even though in one case I have an exact immigration date. (Maybe I'm not looking in the right places, though, so when I discovered recently that a few of them were naturalized I ordered naturalization indices. Waiting on them now.)
Funny story of a convoluted relationship I've found in this family: one of my 3rd g-grandmother Henrietta's sons (Franz) married her step-granddaughter Minna. That makes Franz and Minna's children both Henrietta's grandchildren AND her step-great-grandchildren. How messed up is that!
In the coming weeks I'll be posting some of what I'm beginning to discover. I'm growing excited about all of it. I do love a good challenge. It's a good thing I do, too, or my hair would be all over the floor on a daily basis!
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