I have no solid information about any of my family farther back than the grandparents I knew personally. When I was a little kid, I cared more about whether Gramma was going to bake cookies with me or take me to the movies than I did about rambling reminiscences of her 12 brothers and sisters or of what it was like coming of age at the turn of the century in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I remember nothing. My loss.
All four of my great-grandparents were born in Germany and France. They lived in the fertile Alsace-Lorraine region, which apparently bounced back and forth between the two countries like a ping pong ball. My ancestors didn’t have money or titles or high positions. No Grand Dukes because surely, my grandmother would have mentioned them and surely, I would have remembered.
They were probably peasants and their lives were probably hard.
The phrase “sturdy peasant stock” harks back to my elementary school days. I’d get an assignment to write a report about a famous person or an inventor or a composer. The starting place for such assignments was a 10-pound volume in one of those imposing rows of matching books that took up a
whole shelf in the library. The Encyclopedia.
Look up Copernicus. “Copernicus was born in 1473, in Torum, Poland, to parents of sturdy peasant stock.” Look up Diesel. “Rudolf Diesel was born in Paris in 1858. His parents came from sturdy peasant stock and were immigrants from Germany.
My mother was --- OK, let’s hear a big groan – a housewife. She took her job seriously. Her younger sister, who never married, was a secretary. She worked for more than 40 years. When she retired, she was a private secretary for a bank president. Sturdy stock, for sure.
My maternal grandmother, in her mid-thirties suddenly found herself a widow with five young children. Lacking a college education or formal training for anything whatsoever, she became a cleaning lady. During the day, she took care of her own family. After school, my mother, the oldest child, was placed in charge of her siblings while my grandmother scrubbed floors in banks. On her hands and knees. Talk about sturdy.
My grandmother cleaned other people’s houses until her “arther-it-is” and “rheu-ma-tiz” and her knees got the best of her. Then she worked as a housekeeper and companion for a wealthy woman doctor in Cincinnati. Women doctors were trailblazers in the 1920s. My grandmother wasn’t a trailblazer. She was a survivor, made of sturdy peasant stock.
My father was an art director for an advertising agency in Detroit. He didn’t go to college because the cost was prohibitive, but he worked days while studying commercial art at night at the University of Cincinnati. He moved to Detroit in 1938 after landing his first advertising job and marrying my mother. He was offered a fancy schmantzy advertising job in New York City, he said, but he chose Detroit. He was a diligent, creative, resourceful, conscientious worker and he did well. Sturdy peasant stock personified.
His father, also of peasant stock, came to the U.S. from Germany when he was 16. I’m not sure what he did to earn a living, but I know it didn’t pay well. My father, in his 80s, still talked about not being able to afford a sweater to display the letter he won playing high school basketball.
His father said, “You already have a sweater.” (Tell that to one of today’s teenagers and see what happens!) His mother, the softie in the family, bought the sweater anyway and did without a new winter coat for herself. This story has become family legend.
I have no idea what my mother’s father did to support his wife and five children. He was killed in an automobile accident when my mother was 12.
But what about the people in Alsace Lorraine who lived before them? I often wonder if they were farmers. Maybe they worked in the coal mines or grew grapes or raised goats. They probably lived in those dreary wattle and daub huts and wore leather breeches and rough brown tunics made of coarse wool. I wonder if any of my ancestors were skilled craftsmen -- silversmiths or blacksmiths, weavers, woodworkers, brewmeisters. Did any of them make stained glass for gothic cathedrals or write music or paint pictures?
They survived. Sturdy peasants are a good stock to have.