Families—handle with care

In our families we might not always get along with each other, but for most of us our families are our home. Whether received by birth, adoption, or marriage, our families are people we share a great deal with in everyday life, in accomplishment, and in trial. Family experiences are often felt for generations. Yet, even with such an impact, we all too easily take them for granted.

Marie and Coyne Kidder
Marie and Coyne Kidder

My Mom, Lois Springsteen, lost her father, Coyne Kidder, to  tuberculosis when she was six years old. My Dad, Ed Springsteen, was sixteen when his father, Aden Springsteen, died from injuries sustained as a passenger in a car-train accident. I have heard Mom say many times that she and Dad earnestly hoped in their early years together to both live to see their children reach adulthood.

Lois and Ed Springsteen, 1947
Lois and Ed Springsteen, 1947

I have seen undocumented claims that both of Staats Springsteen’s parents died before he was five years old. If that is true, it must have had a significant impact on him. Who raised him? Johannes and Maria Seger, who were witnesses for Staats’s baptism on January 5, 1755, might have assumed that responsibility. They were presumably Staats’s mother Maria’s brother Johannes and his wife Maria Bradt Seger. Staats was associated with Segers/Sagers and Bradts during and after the American Revolution. Were Staats and his brothers and sisters split up?

Verda and Aden Springsteen with John, Ed, Lorna, Loretta, Madge, Harold and Donovan
Verda and Aden Springsteen with John, Ed, Lorna, Loretta, Madge, Harold and Donovan

Heartache also comes with the loss of sons and daughters, whether as children or adults. Mom never knew her two older sisters. Coyne and Marie Kidder lost daughters Phyllis Marie  and Betty Lou as infants before Mom was born.  Dad’s oldest brother Johnnie died at age 14 as the result of a farm accident. My brother Eddie died in a car accident in 1997, leaving his young daughters and wife without their truly lovable and devoted father and husband, and bringing sadness to Mom and Dad even though they had lived to see their children grown. Our extended family has experienced early death for too many loved ones.

Ron and Dee Springsteen, 1971
Ron and Dee Springsteen, 1971

When I met and married Dedra Van Zandt, I gained her small immediate family—Dee, her mother Dorothy Van Zandt, and her grandmother Rose Dlouhy. Dee’s father Louis Van Zandt had not been part of her life for many years. Dee was raised an only child of an only child in a predominantly Czech suburb of Chicago. Dee’s aunts and uncles were actually her mother’s cousins. Her extended maternal family gathered for Thanksgiving or Christmas meals featuring food from their Bohemian heritage. When I came into the picture during our college years, I was introduced to family experience and food that were new to this country boy.

The impacts of the Great Depression do not need to be explained to the older generations still with us today. Dad’s family lived on a farm in Fairplain Township just south of Sheridan, Michigan, my hometown. Aden Springsteen farmed with a team of horses, not a tractor. He fed the horses hay produced on the farm. Aden had a car, but it was put on blocks during the Depression because it was too costly to run. Still, they had food on the table and were able to barter with merchants in town.

Rose Karel and Joseph Dlouhy, 1921
Rose Karel and Joseph Dlouhy, 1921

Dee’s grandfather Joseph Dlouhy, a carpenter and contractor, reached a point during the Depression when there was no work of any kind to be found. Dee’s Grandma Dlouhy was able to get work as a tester in a perfume factory, but it was very hard to make ends meet. Dee’s Mom remembered being sent down the street to get two apples from the store for a pie but being sent home with one apple because their credit was already thin. They had a small garden on their lot that helped feed them. Nevertheless, when Dee’s grandmother appeared outdoors after one long winter, her neighbors didn’t recognize her due to the pronounced effects of malnutrition. Their life might have been even more difficult had they not chosen to limit their family to one child after growing up in large families.

The world changed for Mom’s, Dad’s, and Dee’s Mom’s families after the Depression and the Second World War.

Marie Kidder married Harold Sovereign in 1935. They gave Mom a brother and sister, Don and Nancy. Following Aden’s death, Verda Springsteen sold the farm, moved to Lansing for a few years, then moved back to Fairplain Township when she married Fred Olsen in 1945. Even though both of my parents had lost their fathers, I had grandfathers from the day I was born.

Joe Dlouhy found plenty of work in the post-war housing boom. Hard work, Rose’s careful management of resources, and Joe’s genuine concern for others in need marked their fulfillment as first-generation Americans. Joe doted on his granddaughter. I wish I had met him. He died after a heart attack in 1966, a year before I met Dee. Rose lived for another thirty years, looking after her family with great care.

Dee’s father Louis Van Zandt’s family has been a challenge to discover. I never met him and didn’t know much about his family. I did know that Louis experienced significant family instability as a child. The ‘Grandma and Grandpa Van’ that Dee knew as a girl were actually her father’s aunt and uncle. Dee’s Mom informed me that sometime during the Depression years Louis’s father Richard Van Zandt left Louis’s mother Emma with six children and no means of support. The children were placed in an orphanage. At some point the three oldest children were taken in by Richard’s older brother Louis Van Zandt and his wife Lena, who had no children of their own. Dee’s father Louis, along with his brother Richard and his sister Evelyn, were raised to adulthood by Louis and Lena. Dee thinks that one of the younger sisters, Jeanette, Dorothy, or Elizabeth, was eventually adopted.

How did Dee’s father’s childhood experience influence his life? Dee remembers a family story about teaching children not to trust anyone, even family members. After a contentious divorce, Louis remarried and had another daughter and a son. Hopefully the rest of his journey in this life brought a greater sense of assurance and trust.

Dorothy Van Zandt
Dorothy Van Zandt

Dee’s Mom saw Louis’s father Richard Van Zandt just once. Louis had taken her to a baseball game, probably at Wrigley Field. As Louis was leading her to their seats, he spotted his father, turned abruptly, and they left the ball park.

How did Louis’s father Richard Van Zandt get started in life? His 1917 draft registration card stated that he was born in Brussels, Belgium on October 14, 1890. It also reported that he was a Belgian citizen and that he was working as a teamster for the Lashaw Teaming Company in Chicago. The earliest record I have found that is definitely for Richard is a Cook County index entry for his marriage to Emma Robash (Hrobar) on September 23, 1916.

I found some clues to Richard Van Zandt’s earlier life by tracking his siblings. I discovered Louis (Dee’s ‘Grandpa Van’), Charles, and Emma Van Zandt, but not Richard, in the 1900 US Federal Census. They were listed at the ages of 22, 18, and 16 as boarders in the household of Alfred and Mary Verest of Chicago, who had younger children of their own. Other records identify them as Alfonse and Marie Verest. Who and where were the Van Zandts’ parents, and what had happened to them? Who were the Verests, and why were the Van Zandts living with them? Were the Van Zandts related to the Verests?

Alfred Verest household, 1900 census
Alfred Verest household, 1900 census

Searching online for earlier records of Van Zandts or Vanzandts in Chicago, I found records for Willie Van Zandt, who was born on July 19, 1892 and died less than two months later on September 9. His parents were reported as Louis Van Zandt and Monica Meert. Louis was reported to be 40 years old and Monica 29 when Willie was born. Further investigation revealed that Louis Van Zandt, born in Belgium in 1852, had died on February 3, 1892 before Willie was born. I remember seeing information somewhere indicating that Louis Van Zandt had arrived in Chicago only a short time before his death. Monica had lost her husband, then given birth to a son only to lose him.

Was there a connection between Louis and Monica Van Zandt and the young Van Zandts found in the Verest household? Emma Van Zandt, sister of Louis, Charles, and Richard, married Fred Wille in 1906. Emma Wille’s death index record in 1922 identifies her parents as Louis Van Zandt and Frances Annaert, both born in Belgium. Were Monica Meert and Frances Annaert the same person? Whoever reported Emma Wille’s death might never have known her mother. In the Verest family, Marie’s death certificate reports her father’s name as Maart. Further evidence is needed, but it seems likely that Monica Meert Van Zandt and Marie Maart Verest were sisters.

If Louis and Monica were Richard Van Zandt’s parents, he would have been just fifteen months old when his father died. Richard might have remained with his mother Monica Van Zandt when his siblings Louis, Charles, and Emma were taken in by the Verests, but what happened to her after the events of 1892? I couldn’t find a record of either remarriage or death.

Since I started working on this message, DNA testing has finally begun to shed some light on Dee’s paternal ancestry. Although Ancestry.com doesn’t provide tools for analysis and comparison of DNA segments shared with other people, they have revealed distant cousins with ancestors I had not yet discovered.

Shared surnames, AncestryDNA match

One DNA-identified cousin, Ronald Barrett, is descended from Jeanette Van Zandt, born in Belgium in 1881. Jeanette is shown in the Barrett family tree as the daughter of Bruno Van Hecke and an unknown mother. Armed with this information, I found records revealing that Monica Van Zands married Bruno Van Hecke on April 16, 1893 in Chicago.

The 1900 census listed five children in the Bruno and Monica Van Nack household. All are surnamed Van Nack, but the oldest three were identified as Bruno’s step-children. Jennie (Jeanette), age 20, Josephine, age 15, and Charles, age 11, all born in Belgium, were apparently children of Louis and Monica Van Zandt. Where was Dee’s grandfather Richard? Was Charles, born in October 1888, our missing Richard? An 1899 ship passenger list shows Monica Van Hecke returning from Belgium with Karl, age 8, Marie, age 4, and Frank, age 2. Charles, Richard, and Karl might be the same person.

Bruno Van Nack household, 1900 census
Bruno Van Nack household, 1900 census

The Cook County death index reports that Monica Van Hacke died on January 14, 1901, when Richard Van Zandt was still a youth. Dee’s father Louis’s family appears to have endured considerable upheaval through several generations.

Family exploration is not just about the past. I learned this summer that Dee’s father’s sister-in-law Rosalie Van Zandt had passed on earlier this year. In the course of learning more about Rosalie’s family, I found and contacted Dee’s first cousin Dick who she hasn’t seen since she was a young girl. Dick’s response was encouraging for Dee because her relationship with her father and separation from his family had been difficult.

Main Street, Scottsville
Main Street, Scottsville

Dee and I recently took a research trip to the Rochester, New York area. My third-great grandparents Jacob and Margaret Smith Springsteen met there after their parents’ families moved to Scottsville. We were pleased to meet several very helpful and kind people during our stay in Scottsville. Barbara Chapman, Historian for the Town of Wheatland, put in extra time and effort to find and share material and to guide us through a historic house in Scottsville that has been restored by the Wheatland Historical Association.

Elaine, Chris, Sue, and Ralph
Elaine, Chris, Sue, and Ralph

Barbara Chapman also put us in touch with Elaine Massena, a niece of Frank Van Rensselaer Phelps. Frank extensively researched the Smith and Springsteen families of Scottsville back in the 1960s and 70s. I had received a copy of Frank’s research report in the early 1970s and had exchanged information with him in 1981.  Frank died in 2010, but Elaine has all of his research files and has generously shared more information with me. John and Nancy Smith were Elaine’s fourth great grandparents and mine as well, making us fifth cousins. Elaine and her family welcomed us into their home for dinner and produced a small cake with candles when they learned it was our anniversary. They were a joy to meet and claim as cousins.

How does our family history influence family relationships? Do we need healing from hidden scars? The actions and beliefs of our ancestors might still be with us, whether rejected or embraced. Our forebears were people dealing with life in their times and circumstances as best they could, just as we are today. Learning about their lives sheds light on the stream of family experience that has much to do with who we are. We are people with personal responsibility to our own families and communities in our own time. While I will not preach from this platform, I will openly claim my Christian faith. I pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to be a help and not a hindrance to our family.

We should be mindful of the past so we can benefit from family lessons, seek healing from unfinished trials, and carry on the gifts our families have given us. We didn’t come to our lives in a vacuum. If we care for our loved ones with compassion helped by some understanding of where we came from, our families can be a good home.