The second installment in a series by Victoria Marin, one of the wonderful educators at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, as she discovers her surprising and complicated personal history.
Part Two: My Father’s Mother
I’ve spent the last several days poring over census data and immigration records; connecting dots between birth dates and progenies as I critically considered the implications of the people who came before me. The story that took me on a journey the furthest into history is that of my paternal grandmother, Thelma Marin (nee Mider). Imagine the intensity of my curiosity when I realized that her 8th great grandfather (my 10th) was one of the original English settlers of New England in the 1630’s!
Thomas Spencer, of Bedfordshire, England, emigrated with three of his brothers on a Winthrop ship in 1635, ahead of the English Civil War. According to the Winthrop Society, this “Great Migration” of people leaving England for the American colonies was born of the desire to “live, worship and raise their families without government harassment” among this “[mainly] middle-class, self-reliant and motivated” community of English Puritans.
I suppose none of this should be surprising, but it’s surreal nonetheless. As a former US History teacher, it struck me profoundly to learn that my own bloodlines closely parallel the development of this country—for better or worse. Original settlers (including one of the first men to vote in Hartford, Connecticut), Revolutionary War patriots, German and Irish immigrants, Civil War and World War veterans abound in my ancestry. These were people of unassailable passions and spirited fearlessness, ready to take on the challenge of pioneering and adapting and evolving.
And yet, those undeniable markers that arrest human development, tragedy and disappointment, and fear and ignorance, persisted. I couldn’t help but wonder how my ancestors interacted with the indigenous population of the “new” world they inhabited. I’m curious about the circumstances surrounding my other 10th great grandfather’s birth at Plymouth Colony in 1635; was John Gorton the first “native” American in my family? How do I reconcile my very complicated relationship with this country’s colonial history, now that it’s certainly personal? The pang that I felt in my stomach when I read that my fourth great grandfather, John Burke, apparently owned slaves was real and simultaneously enlightening and jarring.
Of English, Irish and German (Bavarian) descent, my grandmother’s father was born in Ohio in 1884. John Charles Mider didn’t go to school again after completing 8th grade, and worked his entire life as a locomotive/railroad engineer. Around 1907, while living in Kentucky, he married Alice Mussar who had three grandparents from Germany (Baden and Rhineland) and one from Ireland. The couple soon settled in Cincinnati, where they raised six children.
My grandmother was the third of the six, born in 1917 in the weeks following the interception of the Zimmerman Telegram, which proved to be a catalyst to American entry into World War I. How did the German-American community that my great-grandparents may have belonged to fare in those months and years of fervent global nationalism? Did they staunchly identify as Americans, and if they did, was it out of sincere patriotism or fear of reprisal? John Charles’ mother’s roots were deeply planted amongst the original 13 colonies, but his father’s feet were planted firmly in the Fatherland. As I realized that my great-grandfather may have faced pivotal moments of self-identification confusion of his own, I suddenly found myself relating to him—someone to whom I previously felt no connection.
I still face a sense of uneasiness when I consider the standard John Charles and Alice set for their family’s beliefs, which may have been the foundation of the intense racism my grandmother carried through the early years of my parents’ marriage. She was apparently distraught over my father’s choice of a black wife, at least until I was born. I can’t remember my grandmother being anything but loving and open-hearted toward me. Unfortunately I didn’t get to know her particularly well, as the tension that fraught my parents’ relationship directly affected my familial ties.
I remember her as a woman of intellect and compassion; a woman who finished college and became a teacher before the Depression ended, only retiring when age and ill health forced her to. She was a person who moved her students so much that when she died in 2002, a woman she taught in the 1960’s felt compelled to come to her funeral. When I started teaching in 2008, I thought of this often, hoping that a little of her legacy lived on in me.
– Posted by Victoria Marin. Victoria has lived in New York City for three years. She has worked in publishing, public relations and public education (she also fancies pubs…coincidence?). Victoria’s biracial background has been the subject of question and debate for as long as she can remember; this series is a self-guided exploration of her genealogical history. Research includes public records (thanks, ancestry.com!), memoirs, interviews and her own memories.