A Conversation for Family
In search of my ancestors
Alfredo Started conversation Dec 5, 2003
After I escaped my parental home, I rarely stopped by that house again. On one of the occasions that I did, my mother grabbed the opportunity to give me a dramatic message. She walked towards her desk, opened a draw and from a wooden box, where I kept my allowance as a child, took out a picture of a sitting man, who’s holding a violin that’s resting on his leg…
“Look Fredo”, she said carefully – this because talking about her own family was just not done in this household – “This man once fled from the Basks and became a violinist at the French court of Napoleon. He traveled with the court of his brother Lodewijk, who had his pales in Harlem and my mother gave this picture to me. I’m passing it on to you, to save it carefully.”
“I will”, was my promise and I put the picture of postcard size in my jacket and left.
Away from home.
Her dramatic message must have stuck with me, because it was on my wall during my marital years, between the pictures of my daughters. It gave a sense of history between the newcomers and I liked that.
As appreciation of that document I had a copy made and, as it turned out, that wasn’t unnecessary, because in an emotional outburst in the year of George Orwell, the violinist was ripped to pieces and thrown into the fireplace.
At the end of the nineties my mother passed away. And when my dad passed away a few years later, anecdotes on small papers, which she kept in a secret safe at the bank, surfaced. She wrote about whether to take mathematics in collage and how she wanted to be a pharmacist but became a secretary at Haas vinegar factory in Harlem.
“Yes mom, I know, the first real natural vinegar”
There, for the last time.
I read about her dad who was supposed to be ‘on the wrong side’, but who during the war changed sides. He always secretly wore an orange tie and I see pictures of the family in a T-Ford and find notes about a violinist “who’s name was engraved in one of the walls of the ‘Princenhof’.
That last part grabs me and suddenly it appeals to me to start digging in history and also turning the promise of saving carefully into discovering about.
I’m also planning to buy a small house in about 5 years and who knows, maybe this birth town where this Spanish violist lived is the place where I would really want to live.
Even if it would only be to be buried there, even though I realize that in this millennium there isn’t anything more difficult in Europe then to move a body from one country to another.
But a grave, on the side of a Spanish village where Olive trees whisper stories about ancestors, that seems like a burial place I would almost long to.
And so the violinist arrives on stage again.
He now functions as a compass in a new episode in my life.
It’s October 2003.
Through the Net I start looking for anything about Napoleons, even though I’ve never been a fan of them. And I try to contact the ‘Lodewijk Napoleon institution’ hoping to find everything at once about what I’m looking for. Unfortunately the wife of the initiator of this foundation told me on the phone that ‘her husband died in ’93 and everything ended then, because shortly after his brother also died and there was no one to take over the lead’.
Death never sleeps, apparently. In my case though, it only motivates me to dig up the stories of the dead now that I still can. Time has many faces and for now I borrow its mask of curiosity to discover what’s still left to discover.
Couragesly I realize that there just ‘has to be an institution who can tell me in which wall of the ‘Princenhof pales’ de name of my Spanish ancestor is engraved.
It’s the first pin on my imaginable pinbord. There, in my own hometown.
I call, e-mail, read and fax to see where my questions end up and I may finally receive the fist few answers. It’s very convenient that I could scan the picture and attach it to my e-mail. Who knows, maybe someone will recognize it instantly!
After two days I receive an answer that stuns me right away.
“Do you realize that Lodewijk Napoleon lived here from 1810 ‘till 1813 and that the very first picture was mad in 1847 and that it wasn’t popular until 1870? On top of that, the ‘Princenhof’ is not a pales, it’s a city hall.
Finding is calculating. This man doesn’t seem any older that 50 and wouldn’t be younger than 15 when he played for ‘the Court’, as my mother would officially and with capital wrote it. So he had to be at least 15 in 1810 and he couldn’t have let his picture taken before 1865, so the man in the picture had to be at least 70 years old.
“There goes my Court violinist, my job as a treasure keeper and my compass in the Mediterranean world”, became conclusion 1.
There I am with my Spanish/Frensh inheritance, exotic phenomenon’s included.
What’s still standing about my explanation that in every crisis in my life I end up in Spain in no-time? And that, once I’m there, I have to come up with what I’m going to do there.
My just being there was apparently enough and I knew why. There were my roots.
The feeling of living without a destiny grew every day and I looked for comfort at institutions who kept archives. Longing slowly becomes a life priority.
On top of that, these institutions turn out to be a maze using legal terms that are as unclear to me as Dutch in the Middle ages. Kafka is nothing compared to this.
There are birth certificates, personal cards, family cards, church books, marital acts, etc. And every form of registration has it’s own archive in yet another building at yet another institution.
On the Net there turns out to be a jungle of possible family trees that all claim to have ‘everything’.
For a second I feel ground beneath my feet when I see a careful, but effective tip on a beginners page that says that after typing a few magic words on Google that I will be blessed with family trees who could be related to me.
And yes, the family trees keep coming in and it suddenly seems as if everybody in Holland honoring their ancestors. After running into the same name in one document for the third time it starts dazzling me and I feel like I’m falling from the top of this rainforest all the way down.
With pretend distance I surf on the Net a few days later and land on a site ‘family histories’, where I find a picture if a man and a woman. Both mid-thirties, looking at each other from each side of a table. They seem to be completely happy in peace. In the description beneath this picture it says that they do research in historical archives and do research for others as well. The hour rate is 25 Euro and ‘if we go to the archives for more then one person you pay half of that train ticket, second class’.
The “ultimate nerd” I conclude “with some influence from Zeeland. I would even leave illegal money with these people”. And they may know that as well. Well, not in these exact words, I’d like to get a good start.
Within 24 hours I get a response with the question if I want a ‘family tree investigation’ or a ‘Kwartierstraat (Quarterstreet latterly translated)’
I wait patiently so they can explain the ins and outs of this, including ‘the cold and warm side’.
“I’m only interested in the ancestors on my mothers side with the same family name. But I also have a picture of a violinist….. and this one has different name: Croix. And if you find any exotic people here and there, that’s fine with me too.”
The clear assignment was born and could go any way. “I’m going to do research on Thursday in Harlem, is that Okay?” is the question. “Fine by me. I might also be there to pick up some skills first hand”. Not. I stayed home, at a safe distance.
Two weeks later on a Sunday night, I received e-mail. It takes a while to download. It turns out to be the final report. After an introduction it becomes clear to me that there haven’t been any ‘foreigners’ found. Often these kinds of stories belong to land of the family fairytales. “My family also has these kinds of stories”, he ads wisely and subtle. “But I did find a few strange characters in your family tree.”
“There is no way back” I concluded bravely: “Come on Alfredo, brave warrior” and by reading an enormous length of logistics, documents, pieces, summaries and codes, I did indeed discover some ‘strange characters’.
Like a Pieter Kuyler, who had been drawn a few times by a street artist in Harlem, with a theatrical hat, long knee socks and slippers on his feet.
His son had, as a doorkeeper at the ‘Big Market’ and after loud trumpet blows – announced a trial against a conman from up town. He had demanded that the man would be punished by putting a ‘noose around his neck, standing on the platform and burning the initials TPF in his right shoulder.
That’s a little different from today’s punishment of picking up papers from the ground for a week…
Another ‘strange character’, according to my researcher, had even more ruthless working methods. He was connected to Napoleon, known as “The Greater Warrior” in the army, though my researcher was so kind to translate for me and put (“butcher”) behind his name.
“Would I be able to undo a wish?” I though silently. “Would that help?”
My violinist gone, no Mediterranean blood what so ever, and an ancestor who served Napoleons army as a butcher (and whose family sign hangs around my eldest daughters neck during ballet classes on a golden necklace)
Everything seems to fade away in this historical triangle. Nothing is what it seemed to be.
But this triangle turned out to have another side… and that side tells of a whole different story about the lives of my ancestors.
There had been a small notebook found from 1816, where the butchers cousin mentions him. He mentions his traveling trough Europe while in the army of Napoleon, along with his wife and children, who apparently could come with him. De writer appears to been with him.
He describes their journey to Amiens in France, where “child Helena” was staying with a family member in 1811 in “The Hague, with mother's Family, who died of whooping cough and was buried there.”
The suffering grows when “Maria Keppen” is born in 1813, "in Germany", in an area called Stettien at the borderriver "Ooder"."We were surrounded by Pruysen and Russians, because we were still under French demand. And this child was born when we hardly had any food supplies. We had to eat horse- and dog meat and that’s nothing, but I can’t tell everything that went on there. And that child stayed with my mother in Amsterdam where she grew older, died and was buried there."
This document starts mentioning names of chíldren around the battlefields of Napoleon.
Maria’s brother, “Matthijs”- is born during the battle at Waterloo in Mons, “a place where we stayed at because we were part of the Lienje troops and this big city needed to stay free.”
The family now apparently fights against the French.
I read somewhere that during that time old war mates would run into each other at the battle fields and yell that they should come join the other side. Napoleon made Europe into one big battle field and everybody had his own part in it.
Children are staying with family en despite that, they die.
People and animals die with thousands, tens of thousands at a time.
In the battle field against Russia, millions of Russians die and from the 500.000 soldiers that Napoleon sent out only 17.000 return. During that return they could walk by the frozen bodies of there mates and say goodbye one last time.
Soldiers who Napoleon promised to become “rich and famous” to get them to go to war.
I can’t undo what’s in this notebook and the same goes for History.
I can only discover, understand, and pass on. The only thing I could change was that “The Great Warrior” wasn’t in fact a butcher, but a head of a military court. “A typical internet mistake” admits my researcher.
I also know too little about how en why people got into the army.
And I do not understand, why Lodewijk, brother of Emperor Napoleon, is being mentioned “first king of Holland” and “His Highness” on the website of the Dutch parliament. In my eyes he’s nothing more then a substitute boss for a dictator from France.
“Are there any other ‘strange characters’? , I sort of ask myself.
Because at the horizon I see a shadow of a woman rising.
Somebody sent me a document, who ‘had gotten it of somebody once’
I see that my mothers name coming up in the family tree around 1750. And I read in one of the original certificates that in 1790 a certain ‘Anna Kuyler’ is born in Harlem, mother of an illegal child of an unknown man.
And that in Calvinistic Holland.
In the right lower corner I read a name and address from the writer and I decide to give the person unknown a call. I hear a male voice: “Yes, that must have been my wife. She’s been working on that for quite a while. And who are you?”
“I’m the son of… etc.”
“Oh, that sounds close related. We went to your mothers and fathers funeral. My wife is a half sister of your mother. “I didn’t even know she existed”, was my lame response.
“But I don’t think she interested anymore, but I’ll give her the message when she gets home.”
After a half hour my phone rings.
“Lydia Kuyler speaking”
“Well, I found a document of yours and that’s why I’m calling”. I tell her about my search, about my low results in the beginning and the things I did find later on, about the fact that I didn’t know that my mother had a half sister (twp even and two half brothers), the research that I had done, and about Anna Kuyler, who appeared out of nothing.
“Yes, Anna was a strong woman”, she says as if she knew her personally.
“She sure was”, I agree with excitement.
At the end she tells me,that she is my only aunt still alive.
We decide to meet each other in January 2004 in Halem, now that we still can.
Again my eyes are attracted to the notes about this Anna Kuyler, “mother of an illegal child of an unknown man.” This child later became a shoe repairer and is one of my ancestors.
“What awful terms has mankind invented”, I think grimly.
Anna Kuyler lived with her mother for a while, who was a knitter for her profession, ‘became a shop salesgirl in The Hagesteeg’ and married when she was 34 to a greengrocer from her town. They have a baby, but when she’s 50 her husband dies.
But Anna is Anna and so she remarries when she’s 55 on 29th February 1845 with "Gerrit History".(people had to invént familynames those days,as an order of Napoleon). Gerrit had also lost his wife.
Her new husband also dies and by now her signature – with a graceful A – is seen on numerable documents of relatives who marry, divorce, etc.
Anna was present everywhere.
Then, when Anna is 74 years of age, she dies “on March 2nd 1864 on the Vogelkopsteeg 15 at 1:00 P.M.”, says the coroners rapport, which was written by two coroners, who happened to be family members as well.
Her biggest A – that even a goldsmith couldn’t have made – was shown during my own battlefield of 8 weeks, where there was no violinist to be seen, where stories collapsed, horrifying battles were fought, hunger and death ruled Europe and words as illegal were made by mankind to keep people like Anna at a distance.
She saw them all coming and going.
In January I’ll talk about her with my newly discovered aunt.
For the first time in thirty years back in Harlem.
With thanks to Anna.
Alfredo, 30th November 2003
(Some names and data have been changed for privacy reasons)
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