Roaming Photographically through my Family History

My mother, Maria Roose, passed away recently, on July 22, 2018. Since my father’s death in 1989, she had lived alone in our hometown of Bruges, Belgium, surrounded by a mix of family heirlooms and newer things, and she lived an active and fiercely independent life, driving until very recently. We are still in shock at how quickly things changed and how sudden her death was, a mere three weeks after having been hospitalized and diagnosed with rapidly escalating health problems. She was 87 years old.

One of the inevitable tasks after the death of one’s parents is having to sort through their personal belongings and to clear out the house. Such work is always emotionally taxing and in our case, it has also been a physically demanding task, not yet completed at the time of writing, for my mother was not one to throw away things. Perhaps it was the experience of having lived through World War II as a teenager, when there were critical shortages of all sorts of goods and supplies we now take for granted but her insistence on keeping still-usable things also led to instructive and at times hilarious finds.

One was my mother’s “shoe collection,” which surely rivaled Imelda Marcos’s, at least when it came to numbers. Another was her substantial hoard of clothes, many of them hardly worn, which provided us with a “history of fashion” object lesson from the 1950s to the present (she had even kept the striped dress she wore when she first met my father at a ball in 1955, which had a lovely petticoat design). My mother was a beautiful woman and she took her appearance seriously. And then there were ample supplies of candles of all sizes, colours and types and of Christmas- and birthday-themed paper table napkins, as well as dozens of board and card games and children’s toys, many old children’s drawings, and an impressive collection of empty (and near-empty) cookie tins—an archaeology of her life as a devoted mother and grandmother.

My mother was also a collector of memories and the most moving and engaging finds were the family memorabilia and photographs she had amassed over the years and, in some instances, inherited from older family members. Some of the photos we had seen before but there were quite a few surprises. Most are casual snap shots, taken with basic cameras belonging to various family members, but there are also quite a few professional photographs, including formal studio portraits, which were posed, printed and retouched with great care. Some of my mother’s photographs were kept in carefully organized and labeled albums and folders and of course also in frames, but others were stored more casually in boxes and tattered envelopes (and we also found five empty albums with the photographs, so there were obviously never-realized plans for better organization). My siblings and I intend to keep and organize the photographs as best as possible, since we recognize the significance to our family and beyond.

There are countless photographs of the vacation trips my immediate family made together, and of the many family gatherings and feasts that were held over the years–the sort of images one would expect to find in the average family photo album. The most fascinating photographs, however, are the portraits of my parents when they were younger and the older portraits of my mother’s parents, grandparents and, even, great-grandparents, thus going back five generations to around 1900 (there are a few of photographs of my father’s ancestors too and I will write about those at another time, as there are some very interesting characters and histories there too). And along with the photos, there are also letters and postcards, the most touching of which are a set of effusive love letters, written on the back of beautiful engraved postcards of Bruges, from my grandfather Karel Roose to my grandmother Henriette Dumalin, dating from 1925. Theirs was a great love story.

Before I knew it, I started copying the most striking photographs and posted them to Facebook and Instagram–thus giving these images a level of public exposure which was not originally intended but which is consistent with my own cultural instincts as a creature of the social media age. I enjoyed the process, and got positive feedback from family, friends and followers, and I soon realized that going through these photographs had a therapeutic effect on me. It allowed me to explore and celebrate my mother’s life and background, and provided me with a much-needed mental break from the more mundane and disheartening aspects of the clean-up and removal.

When my mother had just been hospitalized and we realized the situation was serious, I had rushed to Belgium and spent most of the ten days I was there with her at the hospital on extended visits. Sometimes we ran out of things to talk about and to keep the conversation going I started asking her questions about her youth and her family. She retold many stories she had told me before when I was younger and surprised me with a few new ones. So family history was already on my mind then and looking through my mother’s photographic collection after her passing was thus also a natural extension of those conversations.

I also became fascinated by how I selected the images I copied and posted, what motivated my selections and the manner in which I presented them–it seems to be impossible for me to move away from my profession as a curator in such things. Naturally, I chose what I thought were the most striking and beautiful photographs but I was also drawn to those of family members with whom I feel a strong personal affinity or who appeal most to my imagination. This, in turn, confronted me with the important role photographic images have come to play in the construction of modern personal and collective identities: never before have humans had access to, and control over such a vast repertoire of images of their immediate past and of those they share their lives with. And since what we leave out and ignore is as important as what we choose to record, keep and show, how we select and handle our photographic records powerfully mediates our sense of self and our memories, and the ways we are perceived and remembered by others, in ways that were not available to our earlier forebears.

My husband Marc Rammelaere remembers very little from his youth while I remember a lot about mine. We have speculated about why that is so, other than me being somewhat less forgetful than him, and we have agreed that I needed to credit my mother, for the way in which she kept family memories alive through her stories and her photo-albums, which were regularly shown to us when we were children. And the fact that she inherited so many photographs from the previous generations suggests that this was part of a handed-down family culture, which was amplified over time by the increasing prevalence of photography in our lives. It will be interesting to see how this dynamic pans out in the age the “selfie” and the publicly shared and judged social media.

In 2006, Petrine Archer-Straw published an essay in Jamaica Journal about the role of photographs in family relationships across the Caribbean diaspora and argued that virtual bonds of affection and belonging are thus created between persons who have never actually met each other. A similar argument could be made for how family photographs work across the boundaries of time. Among my favorites in my mother’s family archives are several photographs of my great-grandfather Arthur Roose (1880-1953) and his wife Irma Deschepper (1877-1938), both of whom died before I was born. I know them only through the extant photographs, several of which I had never seen before my mother died, and the stories my mother told about them. I surely would have loved them if I had met them in real life, and in many ways I actually do.

One of the oldest photographs in the collection, and one I did not know before, is a stunning studio photograph of Irma Deschepper as a young woman, to which I am particularly drawn, not only because of who it depicts but also because of the image itself. The pose and the angular outlines, and Irma’s vaguely “Asian” features resonate with the “Japonaiseries,” or paintings and prints influenced by traditional Japanese art that were fashionable in western Europe at that time. Again, my professional background as an art historian and curator mediates my response to this image.

Another favorite is a photograph of the young Arthur Roose, who was obviously a very handsome, intense-looking young man, dating from about the same time as Irma’s early portrait. Arthur was a jack of many trades and a truly fascinating character. He was a surveyor and for many years served as a Superintendent of Works in Bruges. He was also a classical musician and music teacher: he played the cello, was a member of an orchestra, taught at the local music academy, and directed a choir. Together with his wife Irma, he also ran a lace shop and he designed the pin patterns that were used to create the traditional Bruges bobbin lace for the shop. And he was also a member of the local civic guard.

Arthur Roose appears to have been a bit of an eccentric and a man of impeccable principle. Family lore tells us that during World War I, my great-grandfather refused to let King Albert, who actually fought in the war, pass his guard post because the king and his party did not know the password, and that he later received a medal for this principled stance. I was also told that he had some very peculiar habits that would today be labelled as OCD: for instance, he had a system whereby he rotated his suits, shirts and ties in his closet and whereby he insisted on wearing whatever ended up hanging in the front rows of each type, no matter how odd the combination (clearly, he did not have an equal number of suits, shirts and ties!). I suffer from a touch of OCD myself and will stick to my principles to the bitter end, so I can identify,

I am also fascinated by how people such as my great-grandparents positioned themselves between tradition and modernity, and between the rational worlds of technology and commercial enterprise and the more subjective fields of the traditional and classical arts. And as one whose research interests include tourism and culture, I could not help but note the role my great-grandparents appear to have played in Bruges’ emerging tourism industry, and in crafting the nostalgic, picturesque image of the city that is used in the city’s tourism marketing to the present day.

Among my mother’s records is a postcard that advertised my great-grandparents lace shop, which at its peak employed some 360 (mainly female) workers, and was distributed to carriage drivers to give them to tourists who toured the city. The image itself was based on a stained glass window, painted by Irma’s brother Karel Deschepper, which also served as shop sign. It depicts an older, traditionally dressed woman, who produces bobbin lace in a small, spartan room, accompanied by two cats, one of whom is mischievously playing with the yarn–it does not get any more picturesque than this. And I am also pretty sure that the engraved postcards of Bruges my grandfather used to pen his love letters to my grandmother were sold in the shop and perhaps even custom-made for that purpose. Tourism is a quintessentially modern enterprise and a product of modern capitalism, but it relies strongly on the staging of cultural authenticity and on presenting a carefully edited version of the traditional in which less pleasant subjects, such as poverty, do not usually have a place–a tension which parallels those that shaped my great-grandparents’ own lives and with which their business activities were intimately interwoven, as purveyors of a nostalgic and traditional Bruges.

Bruges had been a major trade centre during the Late Middle Ages in Europe and was a prominent member of the Hanseatic League. When the access route to its harbour silted up in the late 15th century, Antwerp took over those economic functions and Bruges, which in the early 1400s had a population twice the size of London’s at that time, rapidly sank into economic decline, which lasted until the early 20th century. Because of that and the related lack of new building activity, Bruges is a particularly well-preserved Gothic-era city. In the 19th century, the dormant city attracted the imagination of Romantic and Symbolist artists and writers. One of those was the Belgian Symbolist writer Georges Rodenbach who published his famous novel Bruges-La-Morte (1892), which roughly translates as “Bruges, the dead city” (and in an interesting side-bar, the plot of this novel inspired the plot of the movie Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock). This romantic fascination with Bruges as a Late Medieval time capsule and a place of romantic intrigue became the basis of Bruges’ tourism industry, which also originated in the 19th century. And Bruges is now one of Belgium’s most popular tourist destinations and tourism is, in fact, the city’s main source of income.

Lace-making is a traditional activity in Bruges which dates back to the 16th century but it was actively promoted by the city in the early 20th century, as a tourism attraction and an income-generating activity for the poor. Several lace-making schools were established, of which at least one was attached to an orphanage for girls. It is probably in this context that my grandmother, Henriette Dumalin, became a lace-maker. Her parents had died when she was very young, under tragic circumstances that are not entirely clear, and she was placed in an orphanage with her two sisters, while their brother was placed with family. My grandmother became a supplier for my great-grandparents’ store, for which she did assembly work, and she was taken into the household by my great-grandmother Irma, who was apparently a very kind and maternal woman. It is thus that she met my grandfather, who was five years her junior and who suffered from serious heart problems caused by rheumatic fever. Despite the difference in age and social background and my grandfather’s ill health, their marriage ultimately had the blessings of my grandfather’s family. While there were several tragedies and challenges along the way, theirs was a happy marriage and my mother, Maria Roose, was born on October 7, 1930 as their third child and only daughter (she had three brothers).

It is this way in which personal and family histories are intertwined with the broader social and cultural histories of my original part of the world that makes the older family photographs so interesting and valuable. And there are many other stories I could tease out here. One is that my great-grandmother Irma bore 14 children, of which 8 lived to adulthood. She died relatively early, at age 60,  while her own mother, Virginie Strubbe, outlived her by several months and died at age 89. I am left to wonder how bearing and losing so many children affected Irma’s mental well-being and physical health, in an age where birth-control was practically unavailable (and in any case a cultural taboo for Roman Catholic families like ours) and infant mortality high, even among the relatively affluent.

Another story is the role of migration, mainly to the USA and Canada, in Belgian-Flemish life in the early 20th century. Several of my great-grandfather’s siblings migrated to the USA, which suggests that despite the romantic image that was being projected in early tourism and the economic progress that was actually made, opportunities were still very limited in Bruges and environs at the turn of the century. His sister Helene did quite well in New York City, where she owned several flower shops, and he visited her in 1939, the year after the death of his wife. Photographs of that trip suggest that they visited the NYC World Fair, which may have been the occasion for his visit, and there are some photographs that have palms in them, which suggests that they may also have ventured to Florida or California. While his sister wanted him to stay in the USA when World War II erupted, my grandfather insisted on traveling back to Belgium, to be with his family there. He was among the last civilian passengers on the SS Volendam, which was subsequently drafted into the war and torpedoed by the Germans, although the ship was repaired and later put back into use.

My mother’s photographic archive is not only a comprehensive and personally meaningful family archive but it is also an instructive history lesson on how middle class Flemish-Belgian families like ours lived and worked, and what they looked like and aspired to. And for me, who has lived in Jamaica for 34 years and who has been professionally immersed in Caribbean culture to the point where my own identity has been arguably “creolized,” it is an opportunity to rediscover and explore my own roots, as a European, a Flemish Belgian and, let me not gloss it over, a white person–subjects that come with significant baggage in the Caribbean and with which I may never fully come to terms. I’ll leave that for another time but it is clear that I descend from a lineage of strong, resourceful and resilient men and women who have overcome great personal and collective adversity to get where their offspring is today and of which my mother was a proud member and a dedicated memory-keeper. And that is a gift I intend to honour.

[Note: this post was updated and slightly expanded with new information on August 9 and 10, 2018; and a correction on August 12, 2018]

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Roaming Photographically through my Family History

  1. I am in the midst of a similar journey, Veerle. My mother died last year (in Vancouver) and I have made several trips up there from Jamaica to wade through the vast volumes of papers, letters, photographs and memorabilia that were in the house, going back generations on either side. No-one else was willing to do this, and in order not to lose it all, I had to ship everything, at huge cost, from Canada to Jamaica. I am becoming the memory-keeper of the family, and your writing gives me encouragement!

    Like

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