Sunday, January 13, 2013

Yearning To Know

"Some people flee their ancestors, while others yearn for them, almost viscerally," says a character in Eduardo Halfon's recently translated work, The Polish Boxer.

I've been writing this blog about my ancestors and the foods they ate for two years now, and have completed 101 posts. There is still much I yearn to know about my forebears. When I peer at old photographs or tintypes, I yearn to know what they were thinking and feeling. What were their hopes and desires, their aspirations and their fears? Would they be similar to mine? If I were able to travel back in time and meet my ancestors on the street, would I recognize them? Would they care to meet me? If so, what would we say to each other?

An 1895 class photo shows my grandmother Elizabeth as a scowling nine-year-old (top row, center) in the village of Loosdrecht in the Netherlands: I yearn to know what made her frown like that. Was it merely the sun in her eyes, or a scolding from the schoolmeester? What other Daams siblings and cousins pose along with Grandma?

Loosdrecht school photo, ca. 1895

Five years later, as a domestic servant for a wealthy family, Elizabeth posed with her sister Hendrina. How did they get along? Did they gossip about their employers?
Hendrina and Elizabeth ca. 1900

When Elizabeth married in 1911, did her family know that she and her bridegroom Barend were planning to leave for America the next day?

Listing of marriage in family booklet

On the other side of the family, I yearn to know more about my great-grandmother Kittie Van Slyke, the canal locktender's eldest daughter, in Mindenville, NY in the 1870's: Did she go to school? Until what grade? She married my great-grandfather when she was only sixteen years old. Was it a love match? What did her parents think?

Kittie and Fred - damaged tintype

How large a town was Mindenville in those days? It is only a handful of houses now, as the old canal lock tended by my great-great-grandfather Jonas Van Slyke is long gone; a few feet away is an old cemetery, no longer used, where many Van Slyke ancestors are buried.

How was the family prosperous enough in those days 140 years ago to be able to afford periodic trips to a photographer's studio to have tintype portraits made of so many family members?

Nancy Fineour Smith (Kittie's sister-in-law?)

What happened to Kittie's youngest sister Mary (called Matie), that she died before she turned fifteen?

Kittie's sisters - Matie and Minnie

Who arranged Kittie's hair so elaborately in the various portraits she had taken during her young adulthood?

Great-grandma Kittie - undated photograph

One tintype shows her with a decidedly modern Dutch bob that predates the 1920's  --  when this "helmet hair" was popularized by silent movie star Louise Brooks  --  by several decades.

Kittie - with "helmet hair"

Who was Alix Van Slyke, and how was he related to my direct ancestors? (Notice how his tintype was hand-colored by the photographer. I think he looks like Edgar Allan Poe in this picture.)

Alix Van Slyke (Kittie's uncle?)

I could go on  --  there is still so much I would like to know. Some questions can be answered with further research, but I may never know what the people portrayed in these old photos were thinking and feeling . . .unless some day I discover an old diary . . . !


  1. What would we talk about if we met them? Books of course!!