Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Giving Deep Thanks for My Courageous German Great Grandmother

"Mareichtag and I are speaking nothing but English now. So we should feel at home when we get to America."

"To America!" [Watch the wonderful scene.]

I am a life-long fan of Casablanca, and as the years have gone by, I have discovered more and more cosmic connections to it.

Ten years after I moved to West 103 Street in Manhattan, another fan succeeded in documenting that Humphrey Bogart was born right across the street from our apartment. The city put up an official street sign and plaque, and Lauren Bacall and Stephen Bogart came to the unveiling. It was my beloved film coming to life right on my doorstep.

 I now have a new connection the classic: the short scene of Herr and Frau Leuchtag on their way to America.

Because, it turns out, I am truly part German. My great grandmother on my mother's side--Susanna Sander Waldis--was German and came to America in 1875 as a 10-year-old girl.

On Saturday I am on my way to Trier, Germany—Prussia in her day—which we now have documentation to prove is the town of her birth.

Wherein My Brother Discovers a Talent for Ancestry Research
It’s been quite the road of discovery. As an O’Neill, the Irish/Brooklyn Irish Catholic American-ness was the dominant culture growing up. My identity as a daughter of Erin is very strong, forged from the Clancy Brothers/Bing Crosby-fueled spirit in the household led by my dad and his best friends, my faux uncles.

My mother’s side of the family was quieter. And Lutheran. Growing up we knew that her maiden name—Brown—had been changed at Ellis Island, when her paternal grandfather came over from Norway. His name was Jacob Jacobsen. He returned to Norway late in life, and relatives sent a photo of his gravestone to show the money they were sent to bury him had been correctly spent. So that was clear.

There was also a family story about four china plates that my maternal grandmother had, that her mother had “brought over on the boat from Germany.”

That might seem clear, but it was fuzzy. There was just that one story, and nothing else. So growing up, being one-part German had no resonance. It didn't seem quite true.

My brother became interested in our ancestry some years ago when the confluence of the DNA companies and records of all types being scanned made amateur  research possible.

Working Backwards: Finding the Immigrant Ship from Liverpool
We knew our great grandmother’s name: Susanna Sander (or Saunders). Pat found the record of her marriage certificate in Manhattan in 1885 to Anthony Waldis, a man from Switzerland!  And the marriage certificate had the names of both sets of parents and where they were born. That is how we learned of Lorenz Sander and Helene Berrens, from Trier, Germany.

Patrick next found a 10-year-old Susanna Sander on a ship manifest, leaving Liverpool, England in 1875.  It was the SS Kenilworth, and it docked in the port of Philadelphia on January 7, 1875.

The beauty of this: there are guilds of volunteers who type hand-written ship manifests into databases that can be searched.  Isn’t that wonderful.  If no one did that, then the handwritten documents would be completely silent.

As it happens, I had the opportunity to be in Liverpool in June. And so I found myself at Albert Dock, and the Maritime Museum, which is more and more exploring the enormous historical significance of Liverpool in the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. The museum has a permanent exhibit where they try to re-create the experience of those ships in the late 1800s. I walked between the wooden bunks, around the large galley tables, all on an angle with the sound of water lapping against the walls, but I knew nothing can re-create immigrant steerage travel conditions in 1875.

Maritime Museum Immigrant Ship Experience; Liverpool, England

I tried to imagine little Susanna and her 44-year-old mom and 5 siblings, speaking no English, making their way to Liverpool--how?--and then waiting for their ship.

There is a statue on Albert Dock commissioned by the Mormons--the MVPs of genealogy--called The Crossing. It shows a 19th century immigrant family-- a mother and father with the kids--but I imagine the reality was many women traveled alone, crossing with their children, joining the husbands who went over earlier.

Liverpool, England; Albert Dock
The Maritime Museum has a great restaurant on the top floor. I raised a glass of wine to Susanna and her brave mother and siblings, getting on that ship, not knowing the language, not knowing what that 2-week voyage would be like, and what was ahead.

Liverpool, England; Maritime Museum at Albert Dock
Susanna grew up and made her way in the New World, married a man from Switzerland in Manhattan, and they moved to a farm near Honesdale, Pennsylvania.  Farm life is harsh, I don't think she had a particularly happy life. She had 10 children, only 2 of whom survived childhood: my grandmother Rena, and her sister, my great aunt Helen. My grandmother is the one who escaped the farm by becoming a maid for a Lutheran minister who lived in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.  She is one of the links that gave me the enormous gift of being born in Brooklyn. My great aunt Helen never escaped rural Pennsylvania.

I guess it's not so unusual that there weren't more family details of Susanna's immigrant experience. She had made it to America and did not want to be seen as an outsider.  She came to live with her daughter and my mom in Brooklyn around 1938 when she was in her 70s. My mom says that she spoke without any accent. How/when she learned English is not known. She was a voracious reader--mom says my grandmother was always going to the library to bring her new books. That makes me feel close to her, and I hope she found great enjoyment there.

Susanna died in Brooklyn in 1950 at 85, and is buried with her people back in Pennsylvania.

So, Which Religion Are We?
And now I have the very great privilege to return to Trier. I have never been to Germany, I’ve had no particular desire to visit, but I want to see where the Sanders came from, and great grandmother Susanna lived until she was 10.  Lost to history is any reason why they left.

There is one more little twist to this lineage tale. My mother was baptized Lutheran, as was her mother, and we assumed,  Susanna and her husband from Switzerland. My grandmother married a Norwegian American in the Swedish Seamen’s Church in Brooklyn, a Lutheran church.

I have an appointment at the Trier Diocese Archives office. They verified that they have parish records from 1800s showing the Sander family baptisms and deaths at Saint Gervasius Church.

Trier is a Catholic city. Saint Gervasius is a Catholic Church. So Susanna came to the US a Catholic.


We knew about the sadness of Susanna's 8 children dying.

We only recently learned a crucial detail from a cousin of my mom's: when the local rural priest came to bury one of the children, Susanna gave him some money (which is customary). He threw it on the ground and said it was not enough.

It’s an ugly, heartbreaking story. When Susanna’s later children were born, she had them baptized Lutheran.

In a twist of fate, my mother married a Roman Catholic, she later converted to Catholicism, and I was baptized Catholic. So I will return to Susanna’s homeland as a daughter of her original faith. It sadly made me pause to think of the thousands who have died over the centuries in religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, when it's really all in the family.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I'll continue the story on the other side.

Susanna Sander Waldis, circa 1930, rural Pennsylvania

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Thomas Hardy's Guy Fawkes Bonfire & the Lessons of Eustacia Vye

While the men and lads were building the pile, a change took place in the mass of shade which denoted the distant landscape. Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets that were engaged in the same sort of commemoration. Perhaps as many as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the district.

It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.

Thomas Hardy set his beguiling The Return of the Native in his beloved Wessex, around Guy Fawkes Day. It gives us an excellent, up-close look at this most Albion of holidays.

Hardy's Bonfire on Egdon Heath and Eustacia Vye
Hardy wrote Return of the Native in 1878.  I love that he focuses on the primal urges of the bonfire—the Lux Fiat against the darkness—as the heart of the tradition, and not the echoes of the Gunpowder Plot with its religious baggage.

I read The Return of the Native in high school, a novel well matched to that time and place. Wildeve, the heath, the bonfires, the odd, red Diggory Venn character, cross-dressing mummers, burning a foe in effigy, Hardy’s relentless themes of loneliness and isolation—does anything more clearly speak to the surging angst of high school?

And to top it off, I connected with the tortured, sad, exotic figure of Eustacia Vye, deemed by a chapter heading to be Queen of the Night. It’s hard not to read Hardy as mocking his heroine, but this was a serialized novel during Victorian times, and modern irony was still waiting just over the horizon in the No Man's Land of World War I:

"Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman."

Hardy’s Tess has gotten the serious attention through the years, and we won’t even talk about the effect Jude the Obscure's Sue Bridehead and Father Time have had on subsequent literature.

But for me, Eustacia is the character that made me feel less lonely in high school, because she was so solitary.

She enters the story silhouetted against the Guy Fawkes bonfire:

"When the whole Egdon concourse had left the site of the bonfire to its accustomed loneliness, a closely wrapped female figure approached the barrow from that quarter of the heath in which the little fire lay.

Her reason for standing so dead still as the pivot of this circle of heath-country was just as obscure. Her extraordinary fixity, her conspicuous loneliness, her heedlessness of night, betokened among other things an utter absence of fear."

A tract of country unaltered from that sinister condition which made Caesar anxious every year to get clear of its glooms before the autumnal equinox . . . was not, on the face of it, friendly to women."

Hardy's language is a joy: "extraordinary fixity." It is astounding that he would write of a woman in terms of such strength—"utter absence of fear"—while understanding that such fearless independence can also be isolating. That was comforting to hear in high school.

Eustacia suffers from yearnings of grandeur: she is trapped by class and circumstance to live on the heath, which she detests, while she’s tormented by delusions of living in Paris. She yearns for love in an equally distraught way. Much of the book is overwrought passages about her comings and goings on the heath, as she walks between bonfires.

Yet, amid all the hype, I found a metaphor that seared into my teenage memory.

". . . a clue to her abstraction was afforded by a trivial incident. A bramble caught hold of her skirt, and checked her progress. Instead of putting it off and hastening along, she yielded herself up to the pull, and stood passively still. When she began to extricate herself it was by turning round and round, and so unwinding the prickly switch. She was in a desponding reverie."

Important lesson for women: beware the brambles of life because they will snag the hem of your dress if you are not careful. If you are not vigilant, they will keep you motionless, throw you into a desponding reverie,  or worse. Clear them away, or at the least, walk around them.

Here's the rub: It’s not always easy to see these low-growing thorns, especially when your gaze is focused elsewhere than on your feet, like when looking up at a glorious sky or into the eyes of a beloved or at the bobbing head of a toddler. And that's when you can get ensnared . . .

But since high school, I have been on the outlook for those brambles. And it has helped. Thanks, Hardy.