Today is my father’s ninety-third birthday. He was born July 21, 1924, and died June 3, 2011. I wanted to note that, then make an observation addressed to parents and grandparents. As I think about how long ago my parents were born, in the mid-1920s, I also think about how I know virtually nothing about my great-grandparents. So I recommend to men and women: tell your children about your grandparents. Tell your grandchildren about your parents. If your grandchildren have an interest in family history, tell them about your grandparents, their great-great-grandparents. That covers five generations.
Few of us have great-grandparents alive when we’re born. Fewer still meet their great-grandparents when they are old enough to remember them. We have a sweet family photograph, when my son’s great-grandmother held him as an infant. During a visit to Iowa City, where my son was born, she said over and over, “God love him!” She died only a few years later, well before my son would be able to remember who she was.
Thirty-five years later, my son is busy raising his own children. During his daughter’s naming ceremony, he spoke tenderly of his grandfather, who died in 2007. They were good friends. I was so happy to hear him describe their relationship, and the things they did together. Grandparents can have a beneficial influence on their grandchildren that they may seldom apprehend.
Great-grandparents can’t have an in-person influence like that, but I’d still like to know more about mine. We all have eight of them. We can only know them through what our parents or grandparents tell us about them. To take a brief example: my maternal grandfather, Marinus Heyboer, was born in The Netherlands about 1900. My mom told me that when he was about thirteen, his father remarked, “You can be a blacksmith, or you can be a painter. You should make a choice.” My grandfather chose to be a painter, and apprenticed himself to a master commercial painter shortly afterward.
Significantly, that’s all I know about my great-grandfather in The Netherlands, except that he was a blacksmith himself. My mom told that story to convey her family’s roots, to say that her dad couldn’t go to college, or even to high school. I don’t know how much contact she had with her grandfather as she grew up, or even if he lived until 1925, the year she was born. Given how little she said about all four of her grandparents, I wonder if they lived until the 1930s, the decade when she would be able to remember them.
So we should pass down stories and simple facts about our forebears, simple facts like their names, the year they were born, the year they died, and where they lived. We will grow old and not know these things.
As an appendix to this post, let me write down what I know about my great-grandparents. I won’t try to call up everything, and in fact, little is stored in my memory.
Parents of my paternal grandfather:
Julius Greffenius – came to the United States from Germany as a youngster during the Civil War. Died at about age twenty-nine in 1890 or so, shortly after my grandfather was born in Wisconsin, in 1887.
Amalia Dahlmann – remarried, lived a long life into the 1930s. My father would see his grandmother when he and his parents made the long trip from Valley City, North Dakota, to Ripon, Wisconsin, for family visits in the summer.
Parents of my paternal grandmother:
Last name of Lang, kept a farm near Ripon, Wisconsin. Do not know first name of either great-grandparent, or my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Mr. Lang beat my grandmother and her twin sister, under influence of alcohol. He forbade my grandmother to marry my grandfather in the early 1920s. My grandmother stood up to her father, insisted that she marry a man ten years her senior, who would read and practice law in North Dakota.
Parents of my maternal grandfather:
Basic facts about my grandfather’s parents are cited in the career choice story told above. Last name of Heyboer, lived in Rotterdam, I believe. Details lost to history, especially as The Netherlands, in the 1800s, both feel so far away.
Parents of my maternal grandmother:
Knowledge of this couple is totally lost. I do not know their names, or any other information. They had a fairly large family. I do know that my grandmother became pregnant with my mother when she was only seventeen, and married my grandfather before my mom was born. My grandmother had a number of siblings, my mother’s aunts and uncles, who we visited during a trip to The Netherlands during the summer of 1965.
That’s it for tonight!