My parents died a few years ago, both in their nineties, after a fulfilling life and with the memories of having survived two world wars and sixty years of marriage on the Old Continent.
When we – my sister and I – were children, our mother used to remind us, at least once a year, in a subtle way, that she came from better family stock than dad’s. Born in 1907 in a well-to-do merchant family, she had enjoyed a privileged youth. From old photo albums we knew of her travels to Egypt and to the Arctic Circle, which, considering the period, were feats for a young woman in the 1920s. The fading pictures showed her sitting on a camel in front of a pyramid, or waving, from a ship’s deck, to an iceberg. We were impressed. The plush Antwerp home of her parents, which we had briefly known as small children, had been a hub for painters and musicians. Somehow we were led to believe that the spirit, if not the blood line of Rubens and Van Dyck, the great Antwerp masters, was still present in those sumptuous rooms brimful of Renaissance furniture.
It was in that artistic home that, in 1939, she met dad. He had been invited to come and play the violin in a quartet on Sunday afternoons. After three years she consented to marriage. On occasion she would let us know that dad came from a humble home in a common neighborhood. However, since he could play music, he had been allowed to enter a different world.
In short, mom had made dad. Our dear father would just smile, with the wisdom of acceptance and the patience of love, or rather prudence, that would never contradict mom.
Then entered genealogy.
As a young convert to the Church, I spent my Saturdays in stuffy archives, thumbing through bulky books, copying birth, marriage and death certificates. Besides dates and names, those documents can also be revealing. A birth certificate in mom’s ancestry line, only two generations back: “Male child, father unknown, the mother declaring that she cannot read nor write, signs here with an X… “.
– Mom, want to know what I discovered today?
From that moment on, genealogy for her was as unreliable a discipline as astrology.
It became an arduous task to sort out her ancestry, with some branches taking bizarre twists amidst unwed mothers, children of various fathers, one child sometimes recognized afterwards by a manual worker who added his X at the bottom of a certificate.
How much drama behind such an X? The Industrial Revolution and its background of social misery came alive in those two hesitant strokes, meekly put under stern sentences. X, an ailing young man who had been toiling in coalmines since age six? X, an illiterate girl abused by her boss in return for her laundress job? So many mysteries. Moreover, the ancestry lines quickly shriveled up in the dusk of tiny parishes, where a priest had scribbled: “Baptized today: Jan, son of Jan.”
And dad, our humble dad from a common neighborhood?
His older sister, sweet aunt Helen, gave me a box with family documents that had not been opened for decades. I found large, beautifully enameled pictures on cardboard from Art Studio Jacqmain – Photographie Deluxe, 1860, 1870, 1880. Static and stately families, dressed to their best, posing with fearsome seriousness in front of exotic decors. Next, hand-written music compositions, brilliantly complex, concert programs, military insignia, decorations. Dad’s grandfather, Henri Francois Decoo, had been the acclaimed composer of military marches and the director of the Symphonic Orchestra of Bastogne. In 1890, he died in New Orleans at age 40, victim of a deadly fever, while on an international concert tour. Included in aunt Helen’s box was a letter from an old American lady, written on the back of her brown, enameled photograph. She had cared for him on his death bed and sent her words of consolation to this unknown widow in Belgium:
“Dear Madam, I the undersigned am also a widow and as stranger desire to give expression to my feelings under this great affliction in depriving a wife of a loving husband and children of an appreciated kind and affectionate father… I knelt at his bed side in prayer when he breathed his last and I closed his eyes. Try to console yourself as his remains are respectfully laid in our own family tomb and in your behalf I will visit it and remember him… “
signed A. Acosta, 25 March 1890, 1.11 Saint Peter Street, New Orleans
In Antwerp, Henri Francois’ widow, Maria Kremer, moved to a humble home in a common neighborhood and raised her seven underage children alone.
Research on dad’s ancestry turned out to be a piece of cake. Clear lines, no stumbling blocks, with documents always signed in neat, confident handwriting by parents, newly-weds, in-laws. From Antwerp the ancestry branched out to east and west. To the east sculptors, painters, composers. To the west aldermen, mayors, patricians. The Decoo-line brought me straight to 15th century Bruges, Venice of the North, wealthy Medieval City. I found in their State Archives large parchments, heavy with red wax seals, and in between the signatures of Decoo’s, agreeing to land sales and other major transactions.
I remember dad’s twinkling eyes, when on Saturday nights I reported the next step in my ongoing discoveries. He would just listen and smile. Mom would take off to the kitchen, and handle pots and pans with more noise than usual.
Of course it doesn’t matter what social substance is in a line. Our aim for each of those people is a little card, devoid of title or profession, with just a name and dates next to Baptized, Confirmed, Endowed, Sealed. “For and in behalf of…” – whether they were maid or mayor, plebs or patrician.
How magnificent it is to be able to believe that Henri Francois Decoo, Maria Kremer and their seven children have been reunited and sealed for time and all eternity, just as well as all those who could only sign with an X.