The fourth installment in a series by Victoria Marin, an Educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Victoria has been blogging about her discoveries as she explores her surprising and complicated personal history.
Part 4: My Father’s Father
As the product of a biracial union in the 1980’s, identity issues have always been on the periphery of my personal evolution. All in all, I was fortunate: I grew up in a diverse, accepting community, in a two-parent, middle-class household. I never felt out of place because of the way I looked, but as a very young child, I felt stifled by my life of safety and domesticity. I daydreamed about traveling the globe (particularly to places that differed wildly from my home), and the superpower I wanted most was the ability to speak every language in the world. Meanwhile, my parents didn’t even have passports–nor did I until I was 21 years old and left North America for the first time.
By the time I started working on this project I’d been traveling internationally for nearly a decade, and had visited some very remote, under-developed parts of the world. Even though those parts of me that were once so stifled were finally freed by these experiences, I still felt out of place among the wonderful, loving people in my immediate family, who are more than satisfied with a stationary life.
And then I read my great-grandmother’s memoirs, and suddenly, I knew where my wanderlust came from.
About five years ago, my father’s cousin Clive stumbled upon the journal that my great-grandmother, Gladys Marin (nee Smart) kept while she traveled with my great grandfather, Albert Joseph Marin, in the then-Belgian Congo in the late 1920’s. Clive published her observations and photos in a text he shared with the family. In the introduction, Clive deduces that Gladys “loved dancing, drinking and adventure,” and that her journal “reveals so much of her character, her faults and her natural generosity.” By 1928, when Gladys was 33 years old, she had already spent significant time traveling through east Africa, China and India.
Gladys Fortnam Smart was born near Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1895, the descendant of immigrants from Oxfordshire, England. Her parents ran a glass bottling plant and raised their four children modestly, but abundantly; everyone was well-educated and scrupulously cared for. The life that lay in front of her may very well have provided everything that she ever needed, and likely wanted, too. But Gladys had other ideas.
By the time she was 20 years old, Gladys was working as a model in New York City, which is where she met my great-grandfather, a mining engineer from Belgium. Within a few weeks, they were married, and her life of unparalleled adventure began. Albert and Gladys had two sons, Gerald Albert, my great uncle, and Roald Andre, my grandfather, and chose to raise their children in Europe (despite having an American mother and a Belgian father, both children were legally French nationals). From early ages Gerald and Roald were exposed not only to a cosmopolitan lifestyle, but were also extremely well-educated, enrolled in a Parisian boarding school until war broke out in Europe in 1939.
As Hitler’s army invaded France, boarding schools began sending students home. At the time, Albert and Gladys were on the other side of the world, working in Kashmir, considered for decades to be the most dangerous place on earth. Gerald was sent to live with his mother’s relatives in England, while Roald was sent to the United States to live with his mother’s sister. And so, one day before his 16th birthday, on Christmas Eve 1939, my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, alone, French passport in hand.
I remember Roald Andre Marin as a thoughtful, compassionate man, who seemed to observe the world more than he participated in it. He chose not to judge people unfairly, instead living by the Golden Rule of doing “unto others as you expect them to do unto you.” He didn’t talk much about his childhood, or his parents, and generally allowed his wife to rule the roost when it came to family. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t know him well enough at all, despite his living well into his 70’s. And yet, what I do know about him, a brilliant geologist and a kind, loving husband and parent, made my grandfather the kind of man that I have grown to admire more than any other. And his parents, those wild, adventure-seeking great-grandparents of mine, so far ahead of their time in so many ways, people I never got to know at all, seem to be the link to the identity I’ve stubbornly owned for so long.
— 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. Her research sources have included public records, ancestry.com, memoirs, interviews and her own memories.