Family Ties Pt. 2

In my previous post, I laid out the basic history of my family, and detailed much of the history of my father’s family from their former Scandinavian homelands to new homes in the States, down to the time of my birth.

In this part, I will do the same with my mother’s family. Since I have far less information and fewer photos of her forebears, I’ll finish up with a look at my early childhood in Chicago – the (perhaps) inevitable result of the family histories I’ve been recounting.

My mother’s father George (originally Georges) was born in Normandy, and came to the States as a teenager. He was a hard-working man, dedicated to his family. I don’t know a lot about him, and less about his ancestry. After the end of WWII, one of his sons, my uncle George, went to Le Havre, Normandy, to try to find family records, only to discover that the Nazis had destroyed them, along with many thousands of other records in France and other occupied countries.

One other fact (or family legend, at least) that I can recount is that my grandfather could have inherited a title and a manor in Normandy. However, at the time of this inheritance in the mid-1930s, it was already fairly clear that Europe was becoming a dangerous place, and my grandfather renounced the title, because he would have had to return to France to claim it and the land. I wish I could get more information about this, but unless more records have been found since my uncle’s unsuccessful search, it would seem to be impossible.

I don’t know a lot more about my mother’s maternal family. I do know that they settled in Chicago much earlier than either of my parents’ other family members, apparently sometime in the first half or middle of the 19th Century. Family lore says that they owned much of the land which has since become known as the Chicago “Loop” – but had to sell it after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Note the interesting irony; three of my four grandparents came from families that either were or had been nobility or otherwise landed, but it’s all gone, whereas the fourth was descended from a man who had no property, but had planted an apple tree that (to the best of my knowledge) still stands some 160 years later.

My mother’s mother’s family came from Alsace-Lorraine, a small region on the border between France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany, which has a long history of being passed back and forth between French and German control. This has led to an interesting cultural amalgam.

When my forebears left for the States, the dominant culture in Alsace-Lorraine was German, and one of my ancestors apparently was a general in the German army. Among the family recipes I learned from my grandmother and mother were sauerbraten, home-made noodles, German sweet-sour potato salad, sweet-sour red cabbage, and a delicious milk-based white bread.

My grandmother’s name was Vera. This is the only picture I have of her, and I currently have none of my grandfather, although I hope to be getting some from one of my cousins.

My grandparents had six children: three boys and three girls. My oldest uncle was Richard. The next oldest was my aunt Marjorie, who we knew as Marge. Third in line was my mother, Doris. The next son was named after his father – sort of; my grandfather was George Girard, while my uncle was George Martin. The youngest boy was Phillip, and the youngest of all was my aunt Geraldine, who we knew as Gerry.

Before the Depression, my grandfather made a very comfortable living as an entrepreneur. However, as with so many others, his business collapsed after the crash, and the family went from living very well to having to scrounge for anything edible. The older children worked. Among other jobs, my mother was a “soda jerk” at a drugstore soda fountain. She also worked at Jane Addams’ Hull House, the famous settlement house in Chicago. She also managed to study for a while at the Art Institute of Chicago.

As I mentioned in my previous post, my father managed to live more comfortably during the Depression, since his father was a postman. After his hitchhiking around the States, my father spent a couple of years at Northwestern University studying liberal arts. He took a job with Stewart-Warner, a company that manufactures instruments and gauges for vehicles and other purposes. He designed mechanisms for windshield wipers, among other things, while building the Tahiti ketch, Thora.

My parents married in early December, 1939, and lived in an apartment in north Chicago. Once WWII started, my father was not drafted. Instead, he was employed on a secret defense project at the Brookhaven Labs on Long Island, New York. I’m not clear on how much time he spent there, or how much he was able to travel back and forth, but Thora was launched in 1943, a year before I was.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I was born in a hospital in Evanston, Illinois, and my mother immediately dubbed me “the little Skipper.” Since I was sailing up to about 2 weeks prenatal and about a month post-natal, I can almost claim to have been born sailing. There’s no doubt that I spent a great deal of my young life on the boat, although this picture, taken around my first birthday, was in front of the family car, a 1940 Ford DeLuxe Sedan.

My first real cruise wasn’t until I was 3 years old. By that time, my brother, who was 2 years younger, was old enough for my mother’s parents to take care of him, and I was old enough to spend several days aboard Thora. One of my father’s oldest friends, another Swedish-American, helped him sail the boat from Chicago up to Green Bay, Wisconsin, at the north end of Lake Michigan, and his wife, my mother, & I rode by train to meet them there.

Some of my earliest memories are from that trip. I remember riding on the train. I remember sleeping in the “little bunk” that hung above my mother’s bunk in the fo’c’sle, and being able to look down at my mother and the other woman, and aft into the main cabin where my dad and his friend had those bunks. I remember walking on the dock at Green Bay, wearing a brand new slicker and matching rain hat. I’m not sure if I remember, or just recall being told, that I caught my first fish on that dock.

We cruised around northern Lake Michigan and as I recall also into neighboring Lake Huron, where we stopped at Mackinaw City and Cheboygan.

A lot happened once I reached the age of three. The same friend who with his wife joined us on the Green Bay cruise was a fine photographer. He took the photos of Thora and of my parents sailing her during her first year. He also took a lot of photos of me, including this one, a setup shot when I was three – the picture of innocence.

During that same year, my uncle George got married, and in addition to his brother Richard and sister Gerry, I was asked to serve in the wedding party at the Hemenway United Methodist Church in Evanston – as the ringbearer. Little did they suspect what was in store. Here’s a photo of the wedding party. I don’t recall for sure, but I can only expect that it was taken before the ceremony.

I love this photo. My uncle George (the tallest man in the group, standing tall despite having lost a leg in New Guinea during WWII) and his bride Margaret are in the center of the back line. my uncle Richard, the best man, is on George’s right hand, and my aunt Gerry, one of the bridesmaids, is second from the end of the row. Of course, that’s me in the front row, next to the flower girl, deceptively cooperative in my monkey suit, holding the satin pillow with the wedding ring.

After staying quiet as long as I could stand in this terribly-cast role, after walking up the aisle next to the flower girl who with intense seriousness had been casting flower petals this way and that, after standing quietly next to uncle Richard and the rest of the celebrants at the altar rail listening to the minister talk on and on, and aware of people behind me crying or wiping away tears, I finally took off, pillow and ring in hand, running around the altar, with Richard chasing after me trying to get me back in tow, yelling at the top of my lungs: “Isn’t this SILLY? Isn’t this SILLY?”

Somehow the wedding was concluded, but never again was I asked to take on that particular task.


4 thoughts on “Family Ties Pt. 2

  1. I guess I am just emotional today because when I read, “being able to look down at my mother,” I burst into tears! It just sounds like such a lovely memory.

    The pictures of you are JUST ADORABLE. You were definitely a beautiful little boy. The photo of your holding the book is just so lovely. Oh, and Vera was stunning! Everyone in the photos are so young, thin and beautiful. You have a beautiful heritage!!!

    I’m so glad you are writing all this down. I’m enjoying myself immensely reading everything you write. Thank you Skip.

    • Thanks so much for your warm, generous comments. It moves me tremendously that my words have affected you as much as you say. I do have some great memories of a wonderful family, and hope to bring many more of them to these pages.

  2. Now that I’m not crying any more, let me just say that I totally love that you broke up the wedding!! When kids do that at weddings, it just MAKES the day perfect. It adds such humor and innocence to the whole occasion. I had a perfect visual of you going around and around happy and as June bug! LOL

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