Posts Tagged ‘history’

The B0y came home from school day before yesterday talking about Middle English. Well, that was just like a red cape to a bull around here. I took a Middle English translation class in graduate school and have been simply pining for a place to put all that esoteric knowledge. Little did The Boy know what he was unleashing when he innocently spoke of having to write a short passage using certain Middle English words!

Imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to be my child. You go to school. You get an assignment you find mildly interesting. On the way home you mention it in passing, on the way the really vital discussion of whether or not McDonald’s is in the family’s immediate future.

And suddenly you find yourself buried under an avalanche of information about how one dates and geographically places Middle English texts, a spirited re-telling of “Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight,” (complete with “voices”), an analysis of how natural barriers like rivers and mountains factor into dialect formation, and a brief detour into natural barriers’ role in national boundary formation, complete with cautionary examples of countries who try to exist without them (Poland, something of keen personal interest, since while the family is ethnically German, we come from north central Poland).

And all this because you innocently mentioned that you were talking about Middle English in school. It must be hard.

Of course, it’s no picnic being the mother in this scenario, either. The Boy expressed mild interest in the fact that it’s possible to place Middle English texts, given a decent sample, and I wanted to show him the maps I got in graduate school, graphing out which variants were used in which parts of England. And of course I can’t find the damned book. I’ve looked all over. No joy, as they say on the detective show I’m currently watching on Netflix.

I’ve looked online, and can’t find them there, so this tells me that this particular bit of information is really, really esoteric. So I’m back to relying on my own resources. I’ve vowed that I’ll find that book if I have to clean the whole house to do it. Well…maybe not that…that’s a bit extreme. But I’ll at least look in the bedroom again. And on the shelves in The Boy’s room, where my overflow books live.

But let’s leave that for the moment. Our conversation (read “my monolog”) on the subject of how dialects grow and change based on boundaries has gotten me thinking about how our language reflects our history, and never so strongly as when we are forced to accept things we don’t like. Old English became the language of England in the wake of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Norman French took over with William the Conquerer. Middle English fought its way back to prominence, only to find itself exposed to new ideas, expressed in new languages, from the Middle East.

The Puritans came to America, and their language immediately began taking on a freight of Native American words, and then, as they encountered settlers from other European countries, words from their languages as well. The influx of immigrants and refugees from Southeast Asia, Mexico, and South America have added words to our language.

Someday, linguists will take out their charts and attempt to place one of our written documents geographically and chronologically. And they’ll be able to do it. Our language carries our history in its bones. No matter what some may say about who the “real Americans” are, and what the “real American language” is, our language tells the truth of us–we are a nation that has grown on the shoulders of ancestors from all over the world. We have been a global society since our very beginnings. To say that any one ethnic group or language defines us is to deny all of the forces that have shaped us for thousands of years.

I’m not quite sure where I was going with this. Maybe it’s just to say that our language reflects not who we wish we were, but who we are. It holds our reality. And keeping it vital and strong means allowing it to grow and evolve to reflect our changing selves.

So what does that mean today? Maybe it means that instead of rigidly insisting that English and only English be spoken, we adapt to the reality that there are millions of people here, now, whose language holds a different history. And maybe we become bilingual? Or trilingual? At the very least, I think it means understanding that, like it or not, our language is changing, and will continue to do so, if it is not to become as dead as Latin.

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I’ve been googling my great-great grandmother. Why you ask?

Well, I’ll tell you. Last fall Patrick had a Family Tree assignment. Thinking I’d make things easier, I signed us up for Ancestry.com, and started him a family tree. I’m pretty much an off-the-top-of-my-head genealogist–I go strictly for the low-hanging fruit on the family tree. I knew from the beginning that there would be no trips to Germany—or as it turned out, Poland–to photograph family headstones. I knew I wasn’t going to spend one red cent on having obscure documents traced and then mailed to me. There would be no file cabinet in my home overflowing with family memorabilia.  We just wanted a nice, respectable family tree with representatives various generations for maybe three, four lines back.

I began keying in names, confused myself, and had to start over. The second time went better. I started learning stuff right away. For instance, I learned that I had never fully appreciated the fact that my son’s father comes from a family where where family history isn’t a regular topic of conversation. I come from a family where we live, breathe, and eat the stuff. Furthermore, my family is prolific. There are five of us in my birth family. There are five in my mother’s birth family, and ten in my father’s. My maternal grandmother’s birth family also had five children; my maternal grandfather’s family started out with ten, of whom nine survived. It was about here that I insisted my son switch from the 11 x 17 inch paper he was using to a scroll. He was not amused.

I had thought things would slow down when I got to my maternal grandparents. I was wrong. For one thing, Grandma and Grandpa were master storytellers. I had no problem documenting the names of all the great-aunts and uncles; I grew up on tales of their exploits. The Great-grandparents were a little trickier. And then, as the commercials have it, I. Found. A. Leaf! It led to Susan Rockwood Bradley’s family tree, which made mine look pathetic. Thanks to the material I shamelessly appropriated from her, I discovered that I qualify for DAR. In return, I shared the names of my great-aunts and uncles. She seemed pleased.

I moved on to great-grandma Emma, and again had little problem documenting her, even though she and my great-grandpa emigrated from Posen, a war-torn province in the heart of Poland. At the time they lived there, Posen was part of Prussia. It had been acquired by Napoleon for a while. The Russians had it for a while. The tides of battle and nationality swept back and forth across that little province, scrubbing away much of the documentation people like me seek.

Still, though, family was everything to great-grandma Emma. She and great-grandpa emigrated in 1902, bought a farm in Wisconsin, and established a beach head onto which many of great-grandma Emma’s relatives poured, conquering Wisconsin’s heartland by stealth.

If great-grandma Emma is largely an open book, the man she married is another kettle of fish entirely. I’m not even certain of his name; of the various documents attesting to his presence (most of which are confirmed by Emma’s steadying presence just a line or two away) few list his name the same way, though all seem to bear a ballpark resemblance to each other. He was John Zimmerman, Johann Zimmerman, Johann Zimmermann, Rudolf Zimmermann, John Rudolph, or Rudolf Johann. His father is a mystery even greater than great-grandpa Whoever.

This is strange, because a treasured piece of family lore was centered around great-grandpa. The story is that he was a master smith, and he married great-grandma Emma (who in the family tale was lower nobility) against her parents’ wishes. He was, after all, In Trade–even if he was a master at his trade, and had the Kaiser himself as a client. Because that was the other part of the story–great-grandpa was blacksmith to the Kaiser, and once had to watch an apprentice executed for shoeing a horse incorrectly. After that great-grandpa did all the Kaiser’s business himself. If he was a bit slow on the uptake regarding the Kaiser’s feelings about blacksmithing, he was, according to family lore, positively prescient regarding World War I. As my mother told me, “Grandpa didn’t like the way things were going in Germany (it was Prussia, and later Poland, but never mind) and so he brought his family to America.”

It’s a great story. I just can’t find anything to confirm or refute it. The city of Posen was a provincial capital for the Kaiser, so it’s conceivable that great-grandpa did indeed shoe his horses on occasion. Given the social structure of the area, it’s entirely conceivable that great-grandma did indeed belong to a mildly aristocratic family–but there’s no proof. Another family tale has it that a cousin of hers found emigration a hardship; she had never washed her own hair in the Old Country. But again, it’s a family legend.

I can’t find a record of my great-grandfather’s birth, or his father’s name. I did find a record of his mother, but only because she emigrated to America with great-grandma and great-grandpa, and a mysterious $3,000. At the time, the shipping manifests recorded the names and relationships of emigrants, as well as their place of origin, and where they hoped to wind up at the end of the voyage. Some of the emigrants had clear ideas where they were going; great-grandma and great-grandpa knew they were headed for the Kypcynski farm in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. It has the ring of truth, particularly since that is indeed where they ended up. Besides, who could make up names like that?

The manifests also listed the amount of money each emigrant had in his pocket once he had purchased his ticket for the voyage. Some emigrants made the trip with change. Some had a dollar, two, or maybe fifty or even a hundred dollars. Great-grandpa had $3,000 in his pocket. In 1902. After buying passage for himself, great-grandma Emma, great-uncle Ernst, great-aunt-Meta, and his own mother, great-great-grandma Anna. And he was a blacksmith.

Where did he get it? Did he knock over a 7-11 just before they boarded the ship in Bremen? Was this money provided by great-grandma Emma’s family? Did he blackmail someone? Why couldn’t he give his name the same way twice? Was he on the lam? Did the Kaiser pay Great-Grandpa off to keep him away from his horses? Who was my great grandfather?

Living family members universally describe great-grandpa as “a piece of work,” which in my family is not a term of approbation. Grandpa spoke of being belted regularly. My mother, who spent her first seven years on her grandparents’ farm, learned to curse in German at his knee. When she was punished for exercising her new and startling vocabulary great-grandma Emma comforted her with hugs and gingersnaps.

The genealogy assignment is long past, of course. But now I’m hooked. And I’m also up against what seems to be an impenetrable wall. The series of wars in Poland means that records are fractured. Census records my poor relatives filled out in the decades after they emigrated reflect this. They give their country of origin variously as Germany, Prussia, and Poland. One woman even says she’s from Pomerania. She may well be. Add to this that there was an ethnic cleansing of Germans in Posen after my family was safely lodged in Wisconsin. My family lines have become as fractured as Posen’s history. Add to that great-grandpa’s stubborn silence about his past–no one I can find can recall him speaking of his birth family apart from great-great-grandma Anna–his seemingly deliberate obfuscation of records, and all the money with which he funded a new life in America, and I am just about ready to call it quits.

And why not? My grandparents, all the great aunts and uncles, and my great grandparents are all long gone. Why should any of this matter? But it does. Stories are my family’s life blood. Stories are what fed me in hard times. The stories told me who I was. When I learned that many of the stories I had been told were untrue it nearly destroyed me. I want the stories that remain to be not just good stories, a tribute to my grandparents’ gift for narrative, comedy, and pathos, I want them to be true. I want them to be real.

Because they are to me. When I tell my son the family stories in the way they were handed down to me, I feel like I am a strand in a rope that binds my son to my past, and to his future. These stories are our reality, and we are, in a sense, only as real as they are.

If someone out there knows something–anything–about my great-grandpa, can you let me know?

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