A Tale of Two Sisters by Carol P. Christ


When I first returned from my ancestor quest in Germany, I fell ill with a bad cold and cough and had little physical energy. For two weeks I lived in the dreamtime, communicating with the ancestors and trying to make sense of the information about their lives I had discovered. After I got better, I had difficulty returning to daily life. The ancestors wanted to speak through me. Their stories, based on facts, come to me in waking trance.

A happy moment in the life of girl like Agnes

Feeding the ducks

Agnes Lattauer Sweitzer : I was born in Ober-Floerscheim (Hessen Darmstadt) on July 9, 1812. I was the first in a family of five children. Four years after me came Jakob, named after Father, and three years later, Rudolph. It was nice to have brothers, but my dream of a sister came true when Catherina was born a month and a day after my tenth birthday. My mother was busy with Jakob and Rudolph, so I became a second mother to Catherina. I could not nurse her, but I could sing to her and rock her to sleep. I changed her diapers and gave her a bath. It was so wonderful to have a baby to take care of. Three years later little Johanetta was born two days after my thirteenth birthday. Another baby for me and Mother bring up together.  I was in heaven. I was both mother and sister to the little girls. When they got older, I took my little sisters to play by the stream, where they giggled and cooed as we fed the ducks and the geese. In the summer, Mother and I brought them with us to the fields where we hoed and planted, weeded and harvested. They tried to pull weeds with their little fingers. It was my job to keep them from pulling up the plants too.

The Lattauer house

The Lattauer house

I was eighteen and the little girls were only eight and five when Father died. He came home from the beer cellar one night early, saying he did not feel well.  He went to bed, and when my mother woke up in the morning he was cold. He was only fifty-one, much too young to die.

The ladies from the neighborhood came to move him and prepare the body for burial. What a sad day. My brothers were only fourteen and eleven, but on that day they had to become the men of the family. They were sent to Oberwiesen, Father’s village, to live with Grandmother, help her with her land, and when they could, to work as day laborers on other people’s farms. They didn’t make real money, but they often came home with baskets of fruit and vegetables. My mother and I had two fewer mouths to feed. I often found Mother crying silently when she thought about Father or the boys.

Ober F fields

Fields at the edge of the village

We settled into our new life without Father. Catherina was old enough to help us with the chickens, the cow, and our small plots of land. In the winter she went to school, and then Johanetta too. I helped them learn to read and write. Things went on like that for ten years, until I married. By that time, I was twenty-eight, Catherina was eighteen, and Johanetta was fifteen. They didn’t need me to look after them anymore, and they were old enough to help Mother.

When Grandmother died, Jakob and Rudolph came back home. There wasn’t enough work for both of them, so Rudolph decided to try his luck in America. There were men traveling around the villages selling tickets for the passage. They painted glowing pictures of the new life in America. Rudolph sold the small pieces of land he had inherited from Grandmother and took the train to Le Havre. With Jakob back in the house, I felt free to leave, and anyway it was getting crowded with the three of us and Mother in one bed–after we gave the other one to Jakob. Our neighbor Heinrich Sweitzer asked for me. Though he was ten years older than I, he was a kind man, so I said yes.  I never regretted my decision.

I had my daughter Elisabeth, named after our dear Mother, a year later. Then my Johanetta, three years after that. I was happy to have two more girls. My sisters helped me with the children when they could. I had a couple of pregnancies after that, but I lost the babies. One of them, who was so small and died after a few days, was the son my husband wanted. About a year after my Johanetta was born, Catherina left for America. Rudolph had become a shoemaker in New York City, and he said he was sure she would find a good husband there.

German doll

German doll

Catherina Lattauer Iloff:  I was born August 10, 1822 in Ober-Floerscheim. I was only eight when Father died. I remember him as a kind man. He worked very hard in the fields, and when he came home he smelled of sweat and soil. He would wash his hands and face, eat his dinner quickly, and then go down the street to the beer cellar to meet his friends. Mother sometimes complained, but most of the time she sat quietly spinning, weaving, or sewing by the oil lamp. When we were little we played with our dolls at her feet, but as soon as we were old enough, we learned to spin and sew. Weaving came later, when we were bigger and stronger. We were very proud the first time we were allowed to sit at the loom. I had two sisters, one older and one younger. Agnes was like a mother to me and my sister Johanetta.  I grew up quickly, but Johanetta was spoiled by Mother and Agnes. I had two brothers too, but when Father died, they went to Oberwiesen to live with Grandmother. Sometimes Johanetta and  I were allowed to visit Grandmother, but it took us most of the day to walk to her village, and Mother didn’t like us to be away for long.

When I was eighteen, Grandmother died, and Rudolph went off to America. I heard the stories the ticket men told, and I longed to go too. Rudolph said he would write me everything about the New World. I begged and begged to go. Finally Rudolph said he would try to send for me later. I was waiting for that day.  I no longer looked at the village boys. My heart was already in America. One day the letter came. Rudolph was doing well as a shoemaker. He said that before he got married, he would fulfill his promise and bring me to America. I sold the small plots of land I inherited from Mother to Jacob so I could pay for my ticket.

Catherina arrived at Castle Garden

Catherina arrived at Castle Garden

Mother and Agnes and my sister Johanetta were sobbing uncontrollably as the square basket with my clothing was lifted into the cart that would take me to the train. I was crying too, but I climbed into the back of the cart and bravely waved good-bye. I traveled to Le Havre on the train and then to America on the boat with a family from a neighboring village. We picked them up along the way. Rudolph received the letter we sent before our ship left from Le Havre. He was waiting for me on the dock when I arrived. New York was like Le Havre, but bigger. I had seen nothing like it growing up in the village. So much noise, so many people, so many smells. Rudolph hired a cart to take us home. My eyes popped out. It was not a house, but a big building with lots of doors on the inside. We had to walk up four flights of stairs to Rudolph’s two rooms. He gave me the bed in the bedroom, while he slept on the couch in the kitchen.  I set to cleaning as soon as I arrived. This was not easy, as I had to lug the water up and down the stairs. The privy was behind the building. It was never clean. I soon realized there was no point in trying to clean it myself, as it was soon dirty again.

Wood turner

Wood turner

Rudolph had several friends who were looking for wives, but I found my own husband. One day when I was out shopping, I looked into a tiny shop. There was a smell of sawdust. Heinrich was working with his lathe. He called me in to show me the flowers he was carving into top of a chair. There was something about him. He was not the most handsome man I had ever met, but I could not take my eyes off of him. His hands worked so steadily with the lathe. He told me to stop by when I finished shopping, saying he would help me carry my packages home. I didn’t really need the help, but I came back. I was out of breath as I fumbled for the key at the front door. Heinrich’s hand touched mine as he took the key from my hand and placed it in the lock. I never felt anything like that before.

Henrich was not from our local area, but he spoke German almost the same way we do. Everyone in the neighborhood spoke some form of German, but not everyone like we do. Still, with everyone speaking German, I did not have to learn English right away. Rudolph was disappointed that I didn’t choose to marry one of his friends, but he liked Heinrich well enough and could see that he would be a good provider.  Rudolph was worried that without Mother around, I might fall pregnant. He urged us to marry quickly.  A few weeks later Heinrich and I were married in the German Lutheran Church. Heinrich was a Catholic. That would have been a problem in the Old Country, but here in America, he said, these things do not matter so much.  He was happy to follow my religion.

To be continued.

Genealogists breath of life

Carol Molivos by Andrea Sarris 2Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Sign up now for spring tour and save $100. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ.  Carol speaks in depth about the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in an illustrated interview with Kaalii Cargill. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.

A Serpentine Path Cover with snakeskin backgroundA Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the GoddessGoddess and God in the World final cover design will be published by Far Press in 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in August 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.

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Categories: Ancestors, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, General

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17 replies

  1. what a beautiful story. I am engrossed in it and feel like I am also living your ancestors lives!
    Waiting for the next part – hopefully this coming Monday!

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  2. This is so beautiful Carol! One can feel the urgency behind these stories, needing to be told, needing to be heard. Each life is such a story, and we need our storytellers and our hearers.

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  3. Another beautiful and fascinating post! If you are ever in NYC, you might want to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street (tenement.org). It is a museum of actual apartments in a real tenement building recreated to look as they did when immigrants from different eras lived in them. The building was actually built by a German immigrant in the 1860s to house other immigrants. You can also take a virtual tour on their website.

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    • It’s on my to do list. I also recommend A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (the movie) which gives a good picture of what life in the tenements was like in Brooklyn, albeit in the next generation, when there had been some improvements.

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    • Carolyn, this is interesting. I live in NYC, and for years I earned a living working in various museums here. But I hadn’t heard about the Tenement Museum, what a great idea, thanks for sharing it. And thanks Carol for this fascinating post!!

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  4. Carol, these stories are fascinating. Life was so hard in those days! I like knowing how people lived back then. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. I am loving your collaborative storytelling with the ancestors. Right on, write on!

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  6. Around this time, my ancestors were sailing from Germany but settling in New Jersey. Wonder if any of them met on the boat! Such great stories. Thank you for sharing yours.

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  7. Great stories. This is a good way to make genealogy come alive, so to speak.

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  8. I love how you have created a story around the facts you have learned!
    I have been doing a lot of research about my ancestors. It is so fascinating!
    I have ancestors from Wurtemberg, who came over in 1738 and settled in Pennsylvania.

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  9. I had a feeling a story was coming from your ancestors point of view. I love historical fiction so much and look forward to reading more about your ancestors as they speak through you.

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  10. Beautifully told, Carol.

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    • I loved reading the story you crafted from what you learned about your German family. It has inspired me to reflect upon and learn more about my parents’ families. Both my mother and father were born in Germany and emigrated to America in the 1920s. Several years ago I took a trip to Germany with my daughter to visit my parents’ birthplaces in central Germany as well as travel the so-called “FairyTale Road,” walking in the footsteps of the Brothers’ Grimm. (I loved fairy tales as a child; still do as a matter-of-fact.) It was a beautiful trip on so many levels.

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  11. I love following your ancestral journey :) xx

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  12. Beautifull story i loved it

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