January 12th, 2013

My Puzzling Immigrant Grandfather

I loved my paternal grandfather. He didn't talk very much. He loved having grandkids sit in his lap. He had a crewcut full head of hair that was amazingly soft and he had no objection to me touching it whenever I liked. He had chickens and goats -- I didn't like the goats much -- and he liked to take us around to feed and milk (not the chickens! Geez!) them. I was 14 when he died at 86 -- he'd had a series of strokes which was why he didn't talk much during the years I knew him.

If he _had_ talked, I would have had a very different opinion of him. He was an absolute hardliner when it came to his religion and was intolerant in a wide variety of other ways as well. And he wouldn't talk about his family back in the Netherlands, so I grew up completely ignorant. I initially blamed my father for this, but eventually came to realize that he hadn't known anything either.

Some time in the 1920s or perhaps early 1930s, JWs (not known by that name then) converted my grandparents after a visit to their home. When my grandfather wanted to go to a big JW convention in the Netherlands after WW2, he wrote to his brother S. and asked if he could stay with them during the visit. S.'s wife objected, saying she wouldn't have anyone of that religion staying in the house. This suggests to me that the hardline attitude was not _entirely_ one-sided.

In any event, after everyone was dead, my aunt M. stopped in the Netherlands while on her way to Georgia (not in the USA) to visit her son who was a missionary at the time. Using contact information pulled from her father (my grandfather's) papers, she eventually tracked down one of her first cousins. By then, her visit was nearing an end and she spent a brief afternoon. But when she returned to the States, she had very positive things to say about our Dutch family.

A few years after that, I sent my aunt M. a letter, asking for the contact information, and in the course of the ensuing visit, I looked at a lot of photos with my first cousin once removed. In those photo albums were pictures of me and my three sisters from the 1970s. A. -- S.'s daughter -- wanted to know if I knew who these people were. Ha! Weird, right? Go thousands of miles to meet someone you didn't know existed (I didn't even know my grandfather left siblings behind in the Netherlands until I was an adult) and they have school pictures from your 2nd grade year. But that's genealogy for you.

A. gave me a letter and an index card. The letter was a typed response from my grandfather to her husband J. (sadly, no longer with us), in response to a request for address information for my grandfather's brother who came to the United State before him. A. had tried to use the information to contact H.'s daughter, but failed and wanted to know if I could help. It took me a few years -- and was one of the major impetuses to pursuing genealogy -- but I did eventually find H.'s daughter E. (deceased) and her children (one of whom is now an FB friend of mine).

In finding the travel binder, I saw the letter and index card for the first time since about 2006 -- I had looked for them, but failed to find them. I noticed several things in the travel binder.

(1) The grave markers with my maiden name in the church yard in Achlum are all people I can now readily identify in my tree. Which is cool.

(2) I hadn't realized the letter from my grandfather was to A.'s husband; I had thought it was to A.'s father. A. really is one of the sanest, kindest people in my entire family tree, willing to fight through an incredible amount of hostility to recreate burned family connections. I am _so_ happy I named my daughter for her.

(3) My grandfather -- a very poor man, by any economic assessment -- used watermarked cotton paper to send a typed reply to the Netherlands. In 1976.

That last one is a real head-scratcher. But I'm happy about it, because it means if I am careful, it'll outlive me -- by a lot. I'm also happy because of what it suggests about the rest of my grandfather's papers, presumably still in my aunt M.'s possession. They might all be in really good shape.

ETA: R. and I took a good look at that piece of paper. It's Eaton's and marked "cotton fiber content". R. says his mother used to use that kind of paper as well. It's probably not 100% cotton, and it's also probably leftover from when my grandfather engaged in a variety of businesses when he was younger (he and his oldest son sold gas for a while, drove trucks, moved houses -- as in the actual buildings, not the contents).

That Puzzling Grandfather's Name

When I went to Friesland the first time, I visited the church at Achlum, where my grandfather was born (yes, it really is that tiny a place. I have not confused the name.). There, I took some pictures of grave markers. They went into the travel binder for the trip and when I was moving from Seattle to New Hampshire the second time, the travel binders went into a box, from which they have only recently (about 6 years later) been extracted.

Looking at the pictures with genealogist eyes, I realized I had some of these people in my tree. One, in particular, is the uncle of my grandfather and they share first and last names (but not patronymics). I grew up believing my grandfather was named "Sam", but he was not. When I was sixteen, I heard a story from my father that it was Simon, but pronounced in the Dutch manner, it sounded like seaman (or its homonym). That, plus Simon's brother Hein's opinion that Simon wasn't a very American name resulted in Simon becoming Sam (and Hein becoming Harry).

At least that's what my father told me, and there's really no one he was likely to get that story from other than his father, possibly with his mother as an intermediary [ETA: altho now that I think about it, this story could have been near pure invention on the part of my grandmother. Or, for that matter, either of her parents, all of whom were Dutch. *sigh*].

Here's the thing. Sam's uncle was born "Symon" and died "Sijmon", which is about as comprehensive proof anyone could need that the way Sam's uncle pronounced his name was _exactly_ the way we would pronounce it today. Remember: these people didn't speak Dutch when they could avoid it; they spoke Frys.

So how did that turn into a it-sounds-bad-pronounced-Dutch story? Well, "Simon" pronounced in Dutch _does_ sound like seaman, which is probably why "Symon" died "Sijmon" in 1957 -- he had his name genormaliseerd, or whatever the term is, to preserve the correct pronunciation in the mandatory Dutch spelling (there was some minority language oppression going on. Now that they've stamped it out, it's become sort of a chic thing to keep around, but never mind that now.).

Bringing me back, once again, to the question I continually gnaw on: what language(s) did my grandfather speak growing up? When he told that story about the name sounding bad in Dutch, what was he trying to communicate?