February 2014: Love Story
I have begun the immense project of digitizing my family tree using a computer program I utilize in my counselling practice. As I have transferred information from paper copies, stories have emerged. It is fascinating what surfaces when I move beyond entering names and dates to realizing how old people were when they married, relocated, and experienced significant life events including death.
For example, I discovered an ancestor that was 16 years of age when she married for the first time! And I tried to imagine what it would have been like to board a steamship with eight children in tow, or how horrific it would have been to have a child die at sea, or the pain of permanent separation due to geography, or uprooting as a community and moving from one country to another—wherever the current government allotted the group sufficient space until circumstances would push them on again.
The most intriguing story, however, ties in well with the month of February and especially Valentine’s and Family Day. A story that makes me wonder what it was like to be in love in 1879. In Russia. It is difficult to envision life without electricity, indoor plumbing, even toilet paper and toiletries. I wonder if I would have had any suitors if I could not improve my appearance with modern hygiene practices and the advantages of make-up to present my best self. What drew people to each other in rural Russia in 1879? Are there laws of attraction beyond how we smell and look? Good hygiene and grooming is such a significant part of being attractive these days. Are there ‘base lines’ to being an attractive mate that incorporate our flaws rather than our efforts to disguise our natural smells and blemishes?
Gives new meaning to the term: raw beauty. I don’t think I’ve ever considered my own raw beauty before—or if it even exists! Our culture puts so much emphasis on how we make ourselves presentable rather than what makes us attractive behind the ‘smoke and mirrors.’ Is it possible to be attracted to someone based solely on personality? What about the plausibility of true natural chemistry or finding someone physically appealing ‘as is’?
Now back to the story from 1879 that I was reminded of as I entered data into my laptop. In keeping with most North Americans, I have a family background that follows a trail back to the ‘Old Country.’ My family history can be traced from the Netherlands, to Prussia (now Germany), on to southern Russia (now Ukraine), and then US and/or Canada.
In June of 1879, a portion of one of my ancestral families boarded the SS Switzerland headed for Philadelphia. I do not know which European port the ship left from, but my ancestors had to take an emigration train to get there. My great, great grandfather Jacob was on that train with his parents, 3 sisters, 2 brothers-in-law, and 9 nieces and nephews. He was 21; the youngest sibling and only surviving son (his older brother Johan had died at age 7 in 1858—the same year Jacob was born). His 23-year-old sister was the only other one without family of her own. The fourth oldest daughter had emigrated with her young family of 8 children the year before. Four sibling families remained behind in Russia.
As the story goes, my ancestral grandpa Jacob got off the train at the last minute—for love. He married his sweetheart, Anna, on October 25th of that same year. They are scandalously holding hands in their very serious wedding photo. They had 8 children—3 of whom came to Canada in 1925 and 1926. My grandmother arrived in Canada with her parents in 1926. She was 5 years old.
If I could time travel, I think I would endeavor to meet my great, great grandparents, Jacob & Anna: those radical Russian Mennonite sweethearts of 1879. To find out their secrets to a passionate and enduring love that could prompt a 21-year-old male to abandon half his family—headed for an adventurous, fresh start in a new world—to choose a hard life of farming with the woman he loved.
And I’m curious what sort of raw beauty great, great grandmother Anna had.