Once again, the genealogy bug has bitten: is this a seasonal virus, like flu? While growing our family tree I uploaded a few old photos as appropriate, including these, inherited from the German side of the family. It was, in fact, these photos that first set me off on the genealogy trail. These ladies figure in family anecdotes so I don’t feel they are quite as remote as they ought to be, given the distance in time. But then many clever men, reflecting on the nature of time, have pondered its reality and concluded it’s all an illusion, so perhaps they actually are closer to me than would appear. My mental faculties have been stretched in this regard lately by this article – there’s another book on my must-read list.
The stories connected with this family of three sisters mostly came from the daughter and granddaughter of Margarethe, the lady standing in the middle. The photo was taken around 1890, while the girls were still unmarried and living at home. Their names, from left to right, are Henriette, Margarethe and Karolina, good solid nineteenth century names. Am I alone in discerning a wistfulness in Margarethe’s face that isn’t present in her sisters?
Their parents married in 1868 and I can imagine they were very proud of their three little ones, born in rapid succession in 1869, 1870 and 1871. Their father owned a small farm, but unfortunately he died in 1873 leaving their mother to struggle alone with the farm and bringing up the three little girls, aged 2, 3 and 4.
Well, not quite alone. She was 31. The young widow had a young man working for her, and as they got along well it no doubt seemed sensible to marry him. In those days, a woman needed a man to provide for her and her family, which in this case soon expanded to include two more little girls by 1878.
However, her second husband was not the man she had hoped. Was he really the wastrel portrayed by family tradition, or was there some kind of resentment on the part of his stepdaughters that coloured their view of the “usurper” ? Whether it was simply inefficiency and mismanagement by a man suddenly promoted from labourer to farmer, or whether he truly was a spendthrift, I can only speculate. Was he a victim of the general economic situation in agriculture at the end of the nineteenth century? At any rate, he lost the family farm, and reduced them to penury.
Margarethe, the eldest daughter, married at the age of 23, had two daughters of her own and lived to the ripe old age of 83, regaling her children and grandchildren with tales of lost wealth and happiness.
My mother-in-law, who married Margarethe’s grandson, remembered her as a waspish old woman. She was what is known in German as a Topfgucker: she would visit just as the young wife was preparing the midday meal, and lift up the lids on all the saucepans to see what was cooking. And make comments.
The picture of Margarethe that I have been given is not a flattering one: was she permanently soured in her youth by the death of her father, her mother’s re-marriage and the subsequent loss of her home and social position? Was she unhappy in her marriage, which lasted almost 60 years? Or was it simply that she lived through some very difficult times (the Franco-Prussian War and two World Wars all left their mark in the beautiful Palatinate) and had a hard life?
One thing I know, both from her daughter and her granddaughter: the family house that she and her husband built, which is still in the family, always had (and still has) lots of swallows’ nests around the eaves in springtime, and that is regarded as an omen of good luck.