walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

A Genealogical Story: Part 1

Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, I thought my father's stories about Where His Father Came From were pretty cool. When we went to see the Hiram Chittenden Locks in Ballard, we heard about the dams in Holland. If there was a tulip, we heard about tulips. I'm not sure what brought up the windmills or wooden shoes. Because we were Jehovah's Witnesses, unfortunately, there were no Sinter Klaas and Zwarte Piet stories (sort of a bummer, really).

When I was a little older, my mother's mother died. She had led an eventful life involving four children by her first husband, second and third husbands (one of whom was very short term; the other of whom fathered my half-uncle and was much beloved. Inevitably, in one of my mother's stories, he found out he had cancer and shot himself, thus ending the few happy years in her life.), years without meat resulting in my mother's lifelong hatred of beans, and eventually, a fourth husband, Great-uncle Adolph, one of the younger brother's of the first husband. Quite biblical, really.

That grandmother stayed with us sometimes when I was quite young -- the kind of grandmother who provided at least some assistance in raising grand-littles. I remember walks in the neighborhood in which she taught us (or at least me) which plants you could eat: dandelions, chamomile. In retrospect, this is actually a little terrifying. Cool, but terrifying. At the time, it seemed normal (my dad talked about Euell Gibbons a lot). When she died, my mother was the executor of her estate. For a variety of reasons, no one else was able to travel with her (younger sister too young, next up too unreliable, oldest couldn't take time off school; dad stayed home to watch the kids -- I do sort of wonder what that was like). As a result, I (as a 14 year old or so) went with her. In combination with a couple earlier trips, this cemented my fascination with the extended Mennonite family in Canada. When a spare copy of the family genealogy became available, I snapped it up and never let it go. (Really, what kind of teenager does _that_? I was never normal.)

I believe my father's father -- the one who came over on the boat from Holland -- had died a little before this.

In any event, when I was 15 and a half, I got my learner's permit, and spent more time alone in the company of my father than before or since. Among the nuggets of information conveyed during these drives (and pathetic attempts to parallel park) was that my paternal grandparent was not, in fact, named Sam. At the time, this was shocking. Grandpa Sam was not Sam? What was his name? Simon, which between the Dutch pronunciation and then-common ideas of what-an-appropriate-name-was, his brother Harry told him to change to Sam. Oh, and Harry wasn't Harry, either: he was Hein. (<-- A little hazy on whether my father told me that at the time.)

While I was in college, my father's mother's mother's clan (Poldervaart) had a reunion. Mostly this was sort of a crowning achievement in the life of Belva Vera Harris Poldervaart, and one she surely had earned. But we were Poldervaarts too, so we went to the reunion, where we saw all the other branches of the family a lot more documented than ours and first really started to get a handle on how everyone in Skagit Valley was (a) Dutch (b) related to each other and (c) not communicating with us because my grandfather was quite religious and rigid about socializing with people of any other religion.

If you're following along at home and taking a drink every time I collect a bound family genealogy, this is your second drink.

A variety of other people died and I made a slight effort to collect the little programs and other ephemera associated with their funerals. I kept them in an album along with copies of other family pictures.

Before I was born, my father's sister was a missionary for the Jehovah's Witnesses. There are some funny stories associated with this (notably, her learning about homosexuality because men in a non-Mediterranean country were referred to as "Greek" when they really obviously were not. She told my mother this story as a ha-ha-jokes-on-me story, and my mother eventually told me when she was trying to find out if it was really true that the ancient Greeks had done the things they were reputed to have done. Yes, mother, and much, much worse. Why do you think I complain about the classics so much? Turns out she hadn't actually been listening to me. Please do not interpret this as me slamming homosexuality. I am instead attacking the classical Greek pedophilia.), but her two sons became missionaries eventually. When the oldest was in Georgia (not the one in the US) and before the younger son had gone to South Africa, my aunt and cousin went to visit my other cousin in Georgia.

At this point in time, my aunt had the paperwork and other detritus of her father and my grandfather, since her mother and my grandmother had died and her older brother was not the executor. In this paperwork, she had discovered that her father had been in touch with siblings back in the Netherlands. Siblings? In the Netherlands? Never heard of those! Being a frugal and curious woman, she and her younger son stopped in the Netherlands on the way to Georgia and tracked down one of her cousins (daughter of one of those siblings who stayed home). By the time they connected, they had only time for a very brief visit (on the order of an hour) and then my aunt and cousin had to catch their flight. I heard about this story before I cut ties with Jehovah's Witnesses and hence lost most contact with that part of my family.

My younger sister had left the Jehovah's Witnesses straight out of high school. I reconnected with her when I left, when she was living in Paris (yes, the one in France). Stupidly, I did not get it together to visit her while she was there on the State Department's dime, and wound up instead visiting her on her husband's next posting, to Warsaw, Poland. My connection going home was through Schiphol, because I still hadn't figured out that only an idiot flies anything but SAS across the pond, at least when going to Northern Europe.

When we were all much younger, there were some books about Holland floating around the families. We used to look through the black and white photos and try to figure out who in our family resembled someone in the photos. It worked really well for me and two of my sisters; my eldest sister, not so much. When I was in elementary school and we had to do projects on Some Country, I usually picked Holland. But when I was older, I quit thinking so much about how We Are Dutch. When I got divorced, I picked my maternal grandmother's maiden name, rather than going back to the Dutch last name I was born with.

Thus, poor adult me, almost 30, coming home from Poland, struck dumb by how most of the people in the airport -- and everyone, almost, who worked there -- sounded like a cousin, or uncle or aunt or some relative, or at least someone from the small towns my father grew up in and around. Different language, same cadence, same tones, same _voices_, same _faces_, and everyone had our color hair and our eyes. When you've been away from home for over a week and (despite having learned more Polish on the flight over than my sister learned in a couple years) feeling linguistically successful when the right food showed up at a restaurant, and you're in a completely strange airport and going through a second round of security, you just do not expect to feel so utterly at home, so surrounded by your own people. It still makes me tear up (<-- not a joke) remembering that feeling.

It took me a few years to get back there. I wrote a letter to my aunt, to ask her for contact information. I wrote a letter to the Netherlands, and got email back asking me to explain who I was. When I went there, I didn't rent a car; I took the train, and let's just say where my family lived at the time wasn't served by a sneltrein. I asked the people running the desk at the hostel to make sure I had the right route picked out. They were mystified that I wanted to go there: that's a place that people _leave_. It took three hours to get there (what with a wait at the transfer) and I had no idea where I was going to spend the night. But my father's first cousin and her husband took me in and fed me, housed me and showed me around for several days. Along with a drive to the even tinier town my grandfather and her father were born in (and a visit to a church), she told me a little about her life and her (adopted) sons and their lives and her father. And we visited the widow of one of her brother's, and I heard about how her brother had competed in the Elfstedentocht.

She had a lot of funny stories about "Tante Sip", including a little about the silver ship, and Sip's imaginary wedding. And she had a sad story about my grandfather contacting her parents to visit as part of a trip to Amsterdam to attend a Jehovah's Witness convention after the war. Her mother wanted nothing to do with those crazy people, and as near as we can tell, that was more or less the end of any conversation across the pond. I don't blame my cousin's mother at all. I know a little about Friesland and religion, and if there's one thing worth remembering it's that these people have had it with nutty, schismatic religions. Then she went upstairs to get some things that my grandfather had sent in the 1970s. Some school pictures of his grand children: there I was in 2nd grade, and all three of my sisters as well.

Let me tell you that very little brings home the certainty that one is with family quite as completely as discovering they have a 2nd grade picture of you.

She also had a piece of paper with a brief family tree and a 3x5 card with a name and phone number on it. The family tree showed her father, my grandfather and their siblings and a few other people. The name was the name of the one child of the brother who came to the US who was _not_ by grandfather. The phone number no longer reached her. My dad's cousin wanted to know if I knew this woman. I did not. But she gave me the card, and I said I'd try to find her.
Tags: daily activities, genealogy

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