My family has been immigrants and nomads for centuries, preferring to be identified by a set of beliefs, principles, and morals rather than by any country. The furthest we can trace this pattern back is to a man named Peter De Tringham, who lived in Northern France in the 16th century. Peter, a Huguenot, which is a French Protestant, fled to the Netherlands with his family after their village was burn down by Catholics. They decided to drop the De and became Trigham. In the late 19th century My great, great, great grandfather Tringham decided to seek a better life in America, following his brother to West Michigan.
Upon Entry at Ellis Island, my ancestor could not find his brother, who was to vouch for him and thus allow entry to the United States. That’s how immigration worked for Europeans at that time period: You showed up on ship, presented yourself at the port of entry, and had someone vouch for you. It looked like Mr. Tringham wouldn’t be able to enter, but somehow he did. I’m not sure how.
Did his brother eventually show up? Did his brother send a letter? Did he just disappear into a crowd and sneak in? Or perhaps, he was vouched for by another immigrant? Often immigrants of various nationalities would stand waiting on the docks to vouch for other immigrants from their homelands.
Eventually, Mr. Tringham made it in to the US and a transcription error turned him from Tringham to Stringham, my maiden name. He eventually had a son named Harry, who married a woman named Bertha, and became a homeless, alcoholic bum. His son, Harry Newton, grew up to be a kind-hearted workaholic, who died at an early age from a heart attack, leaving behind his wife, Wilhelmina, who had her own personal immigration story, to raise my sweet, poetic 14-year-old grandfather, my feisty, stubborn 16-year-old great aunt Phyllis, and 19-year-old Navy recruit Bob, who sadly went the way of his grandfather.
Unlike her husband, Wilhelmina herself was a Dutch immigrant. Her father – my great, great grandfather – Cornelius De Jong, fled famine and serfdom in the Dutch province of Groningen. He worked and saved and eventually sent for his family to follow. My great, great grandmother packed up her starving, unemployed family onto a boat, and set sail for a life that included proper nutrition for her several children, including the youngest, my 4-year-old great grandmother called Mina.
Due to lack of proper nutrition, the unsanitary conditions on the boat, and lack of vaccinations, little Mina got sick. Very sick. And as was custom, the ship’s crew planned to throw the sick little girl overboard. Luckily for me, this is not where Wilhelmina’s story ended.
I have a nearly 4-year-old niece named Inola. She’s a sweet, spunky little princess with 3 older siblings who dote on her and fulfil her every wish. I imagine my sister, Maria, in my great, great grandmother’s wooden shoes, and how she would have turned into Wonder Woman, shouted SHIELD to her other children, and catapulted herself into the air, incinerating all those in front of her who would dare wrest her sweet child from her arms. You do not come between a mother and her children.
I don’t know what she did or said to keep her child, but it was an anomaly. Thousands of sick children were thrown overboard. Sometimes entire families would succumb to illness on the way. Little Mina made a full recovery, but her mother was not so lucky. Cornelius remarried a lovely woman, who saw all her step-children as her own and raised Wilhelmina to be a righteous, intelligent, and loyal woman.
What would cause my family to brave the rough journey across the ocean, knowing that many times most of the family would die on the way over? To leave everything they’d ever known? Parents. Siblings. Friends. To face down the great, gaping maw that swallowed so many other immigrants into its watery depths?
They were serfs, living at the discretion of the landowner, and when famine hit, the landowner’s generosity dried up like the land they owned.
While visiting Joop, I had a chance to visit Groningen, the province that sentenced my great grandmother’s family to starvation. Joop’s Opa, Bart, explained to me about these rich farmers, or Herenboeren – gentlemen farmers if you translate literally, but I feel there’s hardly anything gentlemanly in taking advantage of the poor – who just over a 100 year ago still had a feudal system intact, and how they ruled over the people that worked the land. The workers could leave, but where would they go? Another Herrenboeren? They could eat the food and use natural resources, as long as there was enough for the lavish lifestyle of these farmers.
I saw little Mina in those artificially raised hill towns called Terpendorp, playing with her one little doll, perhaps because she was the baby and the little princess of the family she was afforded the luxury of a toy. Maybe it was her older sister’s once upon a time. She was beyond lucky. Lucky her mother held onto her so tight, lucky she wasn’t taken from her mother, lucky she didn’t die, lucky she had a toy, lucky she got a good step-mother.
If it wasn’t for my great, great grandmother refusing to surrender her child, I wouldn’t be here today. If it wasn’t for Mr. Tringham presenting himself at a port of entry and grace being shown when all the papers weren’t in order, I wouldn’t be here.
I’m proud to be an American, but like Peter and Cornelius, by loyalties lie not with any country, king, or even president, but with a set of beliefs, principles, and morals higher than any man-made law. Here or there, America or the Netherlands, Europe or the Americas, Earth or Mars….it makes no difference.
I live in Athens, Georgia, with my son, my husband, and an ever-revolving list of exchange students, who are a never-ending source of entertainment and writing material.