Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A French Ancestor Provides Tough Love

This is written in recognition of Catherine Zeline Megnin, known to our family simply as Aunty.
Her life began in 1842 on a small farm in a the tiny township of Chulay, France --- not far from the Swiss border. Her record of birth was certified by Chulay's mayor, whose surname was also Megnin. When Aunty was a child, her parents, seeking greater opportunity in America than could be realized on their little farm, disposed of all of their possessions and booked passage for the family on a vessel bound for New York City.

While Aunty's father found work in America as a stonecutter, Aunty opened a laundry business that washed and ironed the lace curtains and fine clothing sought after by Manhattan's emerging upper class. By dint of hard work, keen intelligence and extreme frugality, Aunty soon accumulated considerable wealth. An instinctive capitalist, she foresaw the growth of New York City and invested wisely in undeveloped real estate in the Bronx.

Meanwhile, domestic trouble was brewing back in Chulay, threatening the well being of her two young nephews, Eugene and George Emil Megnin. It seems their mother had forsaken her family responsibilities and in a burst of passion had run off with a lover. Aunty came to the rescue of the motherless boys by paying for their passage to America where they were taken under her protective umbrella.

Aunty's role as benefactoress continued after George Emil married Maria Koethe, a recent immigrant of Danish and German descent. Their union produced seven children - my mother Marie, and six boys. Aunty had two houses built side by side in the Bronx, one occupied by herself, her husband (of whom little is known), Aunty's mother and Marie. George Emil, his wife Maria and the six boys lived in the other. George Emil was a good man who made a modest living creating rug designs and selling them out of his home. However, when a check from a rug manufacturer arrived in the mail, on a number of occasions he succumbed to a powerful urge to flee from the household. In these instances, his wife Maria formed a search party, consisting largely of their children, who were commissioned to scour the neighborhood taverns for their errant father. George Emil never strayed far and was always located following a few days of absence. He returned home in disgrace, but was soon forgiven by his children and eventually by his wife.

My mother, Marie, told me that living in the same house with Aunty was strictly regimented. The door was locked at 9:00 p.m. Should my mother miss the deadline she was denied admittance and obliged to go next door to find a place to sleep in the adjacent house occupied by her parents and six brothers.

On Saturday night Aunty would take a hot bath. My mother would bathe as well. She was told to step into the same, now luke warm bathwater in which Aunty had previously been immersed. That is the way personal hygiene was practiced around the turn of the 20th century.

In 1915 Aunty, then 73 years old, decided to move the family from the Bronx to Allendale, a town in rural northern New Jersey. She purchased a large parcel of land and built an impressive house which was in later days converted into a tavern. It stands to this day.

When Aunty died in her late eighties, she still owned considerable property. Her will tied much of it up in trust, with the income to be shared for the lifetime benefit of her nephews George Emil and Eugene. Aunty was motivated by fear that Eugene's share of the estate, if given to him outright, would be wasted by Eugene's wife who had a weakness for whiskey, cigarettes and romantic escapades.

Aunty was a wise, practical and no nonsense sort of woman. A leader, Aunty stood out in a man's world long before the word feminism came into vogue.


At 7:35 PM, Anonymous Maria said...

What a wonderful story. Your family is so lucky to have you as a historian.

I wandered into your blog from the ageless project and I certainly plan to come back for another visit.

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At 11:32 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Great story. I live in New York. Where exactly does the fromer home stand in NJ?

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At 6:04 PM, Blogger mon/nom/es/Ed said...

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