Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ancestor stories

Last week I went to visit my grandmother. She is elderly (mid eighties) and lives alone in a town about 2 hours away. Grandma is my last living grandparent, and unfortunately we didn't have much of a relationship when I was growing up. She never got along very well with my mom (her daughter in law) so there was a rift there that made it difficult for me to be close to her. That's all in the past, now.

For over a year now, grandma has been making a sincere effort to have a relationship with me. She had been asking me to come and see her for months, so I finally did.  I was afraid it might be awkward after all these years, but I'm glad to say it wasn't. We had a great visit, and I discovered we have a lot in common, too. We're both avid readers, and I discovered some of my favorite books and magazines on her bookshelves. We have similar habits, and when we went out to eat with her daughter (my dad's sister) we all chose mostly the same foods. Grandma and I both love to garden, and to keep track of bird species spotted at our backyard feeders, and the list goes on. It was very interesting to see how much I have in common with a grandmother I don't know all that well.

I also got to hear great stories about our family. When grandma was a teenager, she met my grandfather while he was on leave from the air force and visiting Myrtle Beach, SC. He was the son of Polish immigrants living in Chicago, Illinois, and was fighting in WWII. (He was also incredibly handsome in the photos we have of him from his war years!) After grandma finished college (it was unusual for a woman in the 1940s to get a college education, but she was from a well-to-do farming family) she converted to Catholicism, married my grandfather, and moved with him to Chicago. Her in-laws spoke no English, and it must have been a real adjustment for her, coming from rural South Carolina to live in a large city with grandpa and his family. They proceeded to have three kids, one of which was my dad, before moving back to South Carolina in the 1950's.

I wanted to know more about my Polish great-grandmother, Angeline Czmiel. She came over from Poland around 1905 as a teenager, and met her husband (also the son of recent immigrants) after arriving in New York. She told a story about her trip across the Atlantic that has come down through the years to me. Apparently, while they were in mid journey, a woman on the boat fell overboard and drowned. My great grandmother saw it happen. The poor woman had been wearing a scarf around her neck and it floated to the surface in the spot where she went under. The teenaged Angeline watched the floating scarf get smaller and smaller as the ship sailed on. She said that that  image stayed with her forever, and she told the story of it often enough that it's now part of family lore.

Grandma said that Angeline was always kind to her. Although she spoke no English, her children would translate for her and grandma picked up a little Polish in the years they lived near grandpa's family. Angeline was a very, very devout Catholic. According to grandma, every Sunday morning the entire family had to go to mass, then to the cemetery to visit the family graves and pray. She had had two babies die early in her marriage when the family had lived in Pennsylvania, and she scrimped and saved to have the bodies moved to Chicago. She got a job in a factory during the war to send money home to relatives in Poland who were hungry, but also spent a lot of that hard earned money to buy a beautiful monument for the family graves. They are all buried in Resurrection cemetery in Chicago, and one day I hope to be able to visit the graves and leave some flowers.

Since we were on the subject of family stories, grandma surprised me with a thick folder of papers with a family history compiled about her side of the family, the Martins. I was shocked to see that someone had done a ton of research, and compiled a detailed history of the Martin family that goes back 11 generations! The very last ancestor documented (where our record begins) was a man named Jean Michaux born on the Ile de Re, France, about 1608. He worked in salt mining and later moved to London, where his daughter was married in Canterbury Cathedral in 1659. Her married name was Catherine Rembert, and she and her husband moved to what is now Georgetown, SC, where she died in the early 1700's. Apparently they were very well to do; several of her descendants had listings of their property as well as birth and death dates, and most of them had hundreds and hundreds of acres of land. By the time my grandmother was born, her family still had several large farms, even though the land kept getting divided up as the generations marched on. I never knew we had a French connection in the family, nor that we had detailed records going back so far.

So it was a very interesting visit, and I'm happy to say that I'll be going back soon. I'm truly fortunate to have a living grandparent at my age who can tell me all these stories, and that I have so much in common with!


  1. I've turned into a bit of geneologist in my senior years. I have one branch that is french also. My great grandfather on my mothers side. Some of the family has traced his direct line back to a John Jarboe born in Dijon France in 1619. John came to america in the mid 1600's and settled in Maryland. The rest of my tree is Scotch and Irish. Most of them arrived in this country in the early 1700's so we're well rooted in thee american landscape. It's still interesting to try and discover where they came from in Europe. X.

  2. I think it's great that you renewed your connection with your gradmother. X.