Life and Death in the 1800s

(Content warning-tragic deaths)

Theresa Gerling Heisler

Theresa (Gerling) Heisler 1886, the year of her marriage.

Continuing with my study of ancestors, I want to talk about the family of my great grandmother, my dad’s mother’s mother, Maria Theresia (called Theresa) Gerling. Earlier, I spoke of her marriage to Thomas Heisler in 1886 in St. Thomas, Missouri. Her parents were Heinrich (Henry) Gerling and Sibella Agnes Hahn. They were both born in what is now part of Germany, but came to Missouri before they met and married. They were devout Catholics.

Heinrich Gerling was born 18 April 1824, in Osterath, in the Lower Rhine region (in German, Niederrhine).  Osterath is now part of the town of Meerbusch, west across the Rhine River from the city of Dusseldorf.  His parents were Gerhard Gerling and his first wife Anna Christina Wilms (or Wilmes), who were married Oct 23, 1821 in Osterath. They had three children: Wilhelm (1822), Heinrich (1824), and Maria Catharina (1830).

When Heinrich was five, his 7 year old brother died.  When he was nine, his mother died, and some months later, on 22 Oct 1833, his father married Maria Christina Kronen (b. 1800-1805?). Heinrich’s sister also died the next year, but three more children were born to Gerhard and Christina: Joseph Herman (1834), Ludovicus (1836), and Michael (1839).  I am moved by how many children died at such a young age, in the stories of these families of the 1800s. This was also true for the Heisler family during a similar time frame.

Gerhard Gerling was identified as a “hotelmeister/hotel master” in Osterath.  In any case, they decided to leave, apparently along with several other families from their town. I found a great story of another family from Osterath who came over on the same ship at the same time.  They left from Havre, on the ship Edmund Perkins, and arrived in New Orleans on November 7, 1840.  They came with their children, Heinrich, who was 16 1/2, Herman, 6, Ludwig, 4, & Michael, 1.  One source said they were “early Niederrhine settlers in the Loose Creek area.” Another source said, “They were the second group of settlers that arrived in the St. Thomas area.”

Perhaps they started in Loose Creek, but they did end up in St. Thomas, where both Gerhard and Christina eventually died (Gerhard about 1852 and Christina 1885-6) and were buried.  Heinrich, it is said, had red hair! He married Agnes Hahn October 21, 1851, at St. Joseph Church in Westphalia, MO, but all their children were born in St. Thomas.  (All of these small rural towns are within 30 miles of each other.)

Agnes was born in July of 1833, but I don’t have much more information about where in Germany it was, or when she came to Missouri.  Her parents were Mathias Hahn (1778) and Margaret Durst (1788) and they remained in Germany, but her brother Philip also came to Missouri. It might be most likely that she was also from the Rhineland/Westphalia region, since people tended to congregate with those from similar regions.

Agnes apparently had an earlier marriage to a John Peter Loethen, but he must have died quite soon, since she was only 18 when she married Heinrich (26). She and Heinrich had nine children together, three of whom had died in childhood, when another tragedy struck, just a few months after baby Theresa was born. We have a letter from Heinrich’s second cousin Heinrich Koersches to family in Germany, loosely translated:

May 24 1868

I received your letter on April 20th. I’m so late in answering your letter because on the following Sunday an accident happened to Heinrich Gerling when we had divine service. In the afternoon after the divine service he wanted to mount his horse. Having one foot in the stirrup, he went to swing his other foot over the saddle. As he did so the horse jumped and threw him off so that his right leg hit on a tree stump that was cut about one foot above the ground and broke his shin, so that the bone could be seen from the outside. There lives in St. Thomas a German physician who was close to the church where the accident happened. They carried Gerling to a house where the bone was set. In the evening eight men took him to his home. There they had to put cold water and compresses on the leg every five minutes. The leg wound didn’t bleed.

Heinrich was a big, thick and heavy man. The compresses and water were put on as long as the doctor ordered it to be done. The doctor came on horseback every day. One day Heinrich would complain of backache, on another he would complain of chest pains. He had to cough up what looked like pus. He asked the doctor for medicine. The chest pains were increasing. The doctor ordered more medicine. On the ninth day it got so bad that the doctor said that he did not think that Heinrich would live another 48 hours. Then they asked for the priest to give him the Last Sacraments. Heinrich lived until the 15 of May.

Heinrich’s accident happened on April 26, 1868.  The following year, the 35 year old widow Agnes married his cousin Heinrich Koersches. They had four more children together, two of whom died in infancy. Then two more of her children died of illness in 1872, leaving only six of 13 to survive to adulthood.  Heinrich Koersches died at the age of 45 sometime after 1877.  I wonder how Agnes carried all of the grief she must have felt from so many deaths, and whether she found a balance to appreciate the joyous moments of life.

I also wonder what life was like for her daughter Theresa Gerling, my great-grandmother? Her father died when she was just a baby, and her step-father died when she was still a young girl. She never knew her grandparents, though her step-grandmother was alive until she was about 17. She married just before her 18th birthday, and had twelve children of her own, my grandmother the sixth of those twelve.  Perhaps the strength and sternness of my grandmother was somehow the inheritance of the grief and survival of those who came before?

Great-great grandmother Agnes herself died on Sept 14, 1901, at the age of 68. I want to close with this photo of Agnes from the 1890s.

Agnes Hahn Gerling-g-g-grandmother

Agnes Hahn Gerling Koersches

Note: There seem to be even more ads lately attached by WordPress to my posts. So sorry about that. I don’t have any choice about what ads are posted.

 

A Larger View

Reflections on death from one who has died:  As I was going through some papers in the basement, I found a newsletter article from the spring of 2002, written by my dear mentor in ministry, Rev. Victor Carpenter, who died last year in June.  I want to share his words for this coming week, his reflection on Easter and death and life.

Easter Week.  My attention turns to stories of death and the meaning of life. And not necessarily the Jesus story. Sometimes, that story, so overworked and layered with interpretations, shuts me down rather than awakens me.  Instead I commend a wonderfully imaginative perspective from a favorite novel, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

The novel concerns a missionary and his family in Africa (actually in the area of the Congo.) One of their daughters, the child Ruth Ann, dies. She assumes the form of a serpent in keeping with Congolese beliefs. As a green snake lying on a tree limb she watches her mother and her sisters who, after many years, return to the Congo to search for her grave. What she wishes she could tell them is, “Listen! Being dead is not worse that being alive. It is different, though. You could say the view is larger.”

I love that interpretation! As the great scholar of religion, Huston Smith tells us, all religions teach that after death one is aware of who one has been and who one is and adds that one’s work is not completed. Those who teach reincarnation hold that the soul returns to earth to take up unfinished business. Sometimes many rounds are required to get it all done. As Ruth Ann says, “The view is larger.”

As for what that remaining business is I have only guesses. Probably something along the lines of getting rid of all the false and misleading ideas that have hung us up during our physical lives. Acquiring a larger view. Whatever brings us to that larger view is to be welcomed. Happy Easter.  Warmly, Victor

I am thinking of you Victor, and imagining you in that space of those who have gone on before us, waking up to that larger view. Tree and sky

A wing and a prayer

A poem & photo reflection from eight years ago that I found again today.  (Photos by Margy Dowzer.)Bird WingI think of the wing of a bird

the wing I found by the side of the road 

          of a bird now dead

the wing so intricate and beautiful

           now in decay

I imagine this–the millions of birds–

           beautiful

           coming into being, fading away

the artist painting a billion paintings

the stories wondrous, tragic

the story of that bird—alive, 

           growing feathers, flying, eating

            alive and then dead,

            and then the materials un-forming

so brief a story, so brief a life

 

I imagine The Life

creating itself into a billion forms

and then re-creating another billion forms 

          with almost infinite variation

a kaleidoscope of beauty and diversity

and different ways of being conscious of the work

and different ways of participating in creating

              making choices

Can you feel the inner creative energy in each one?

 

So now I am creating and seeing as Myke

          (and how beautiful I am

            eyes looking out at this world

            heart capable of love

             making changes, healing, choosing)

and I will dissolve and disintegrate too

and I will reform into a new being

 

The larger I Am –it sounds so static, in a way–

yet it is not static

it is creating, evolving, engaging, weaving, curious

dare I say hopeful?

(Is there a goal to which it strives?)

(Or is it playing to see what happens next?) 

(Am I?)

The stories, billions of stories

Can the stories appreciate the magic

            be full of wonder and gratitude

            enjoy the show?

 

I am that

I am the bird who grew feathers and died

          and was seen by the Myke

          and was photographed by the Margy

I want to wake up

 

Holy One,

open my body and emotions and intellect

to be united in awareness with my Larger Self

with the Creator

with the Limitless One

Help me to remember who I Am

          as the I

          as the Myke

Each being is beautiful

We are all one Being

Each story is beautiful

We are all one Story

Bird Wing closeup

Fathers

Victor Carpenter

[Rev. Victor Carpenter] 

I learned yesterday morning of the death of my mentor, Rev. Victor Carpenter.  He was my internship supervisor in 1998-99 at the First Church of Belmont, MA, and truly a ministry “father” to me.  He was the same age as my dad, and taught me all the practical ins and outs of life in the ministry, especially a ministry infused with a passion for justice. But the best gift he gave me was his expression of belief and confidence in me–through Victor, I felt I could do everything!

I was ordained at the Belmont church on Fathers Day, June 20 in 1999.  Victor preached the sermon at my ordination, and I was grateful that my dad was also among the many people who participated in the laying on of hands that blessed me for my work in ministry.  That work took me away from the Boston area, so I only saw Victor during occasional visits after that internship year, but his love and belief stayed with me through all the years of my ministry.

I should say a little more about him for those who do not know him.  Victor was a graduate of the Harvard University Divinity School class of 1959.  Along with Belmont, where I knew him, he served churches in Norwell, Massachusetts; Philadelphia; Arlington Street Church in Boston; and The First Church of San Francisco.  He also served The Free Protestant Church of Cape Town, South Africa; perhaps pivotal in shaping his own passion for social justice. After retirement, he was an interim minister in Dorchester, Carlisle, and Hingham, MA.

He received an honorary Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from Starr King School for the Ministry in 1987. In 2011 he received the Unitarian Universalist Association Distinguished Service Award.  (You can read more about his amazing ministries at that website.)  He was active for racial justice, peace in the middle east, access for people with disabilities, and an end to oppressions of all kinds. He was also kind, funny, savvy, and did I say passionate? He was a mentor and support to many others in ministry.

Today I am thinking about his wife Cathe, who herself has been a fierce and loving advocate and educator, and his children and grandchildren, and all of us who were touched by his life and ministry, and feel his loss.  I am also pondering this unlikely juxtaposition for me personally–his death occurring in the very same week as my own dad’s death.  I had known that Victor was terminally ill with cancer, so it wasn’t a complete surprise.  But I feel the double loss of these two father figures in my life, in many ways so different from each other, yet each so pivotal in my spiritual journey. I feel so grateful for the gifts I received through their fathering.

 

Almost Heaven

Rich & Mitzy 2016

[My dad & mom in 2016]

On Saturday May 26, at about 7:45 a.m., my father Rich Johnson breathed his last breath. I was sitting beside him with my mother, and it happened very gently and quietly. My sister Julie and brother Tim had just left the room, after playing a song for my mom. Tears sprang to my chest in a sob, but they were not tears of sadness. Rather they were a spilling over of love, the primal love I feel for my dad, and the overflowing love of my family that filled his room during the preceding days as we gathered.

I can barely describe what that week was like. I had arrived in West Virginia on Monday evening, and met my sister Julie and my mom at the nursing home. Others continued to arrive through the next days. We gathered in Dad’s room–they had moved him to a private room. Dad was mostly sleeping, but would wake sometimes, not talking, but aware of us. We gave each of us time alone with Dad as we needed it, but mostly we were together, sometimes all of us, sometimes various combinations of us, and one or two people would stay the night each night. We kept in touch with our siblings who were not able to travel to be with us through texts and phone calls.

Mostly, I remember the music–so much music. At first we played CD’s he had in his room, but then folks started playing songs on their phones–country songs, God songs, sad songs, songs of love. Then my brother brought in a guitar and we started singing songs. We have such a musical family! In between, we’d remember jokes my dad would tell, and how sometimes he’d start laughing so hard that he couldn’t get to the punchline. And we’d be laughing too. For example, my dad once talked about starting a nursing home in West Virginia. He would name it “Almost Heaven.” (And we sang that John Denver song too.) We filled his room with music and laughter and tears and grace.

Raccoon – CloserOutside his window was a bird feeder (that was true of all the windows at his nursing home) and sometimes the birds would sing too. Then in the evening, a little raccoon would come to the window, totally fearless, to get his dinner at the bird feeder, and bring us more laughs. My nephew named him (or her) Bandit.

I came home on Sunday the 27th, still overflowing with tears of love. I feel grateful that my dad had a long life–87 years–a good life, and a good death, surrounded by love. I feel grateful for my family. We live far apart from each other, from Maine to Montana, from Michigan to Texas, and we have very diverse viewpoints and perspectives on the world. But we make music and laugh and love so beautifully. These days were like being in ceremony, in the presence of the holy, we were touching mystery. Maybe our time together was a last blessing from our dad, who gave us so many blessings during our lives. Or maybe the blessings just continue.

Johnson family 2013

[Johnson parents and siblings in 2013]

Hoya Plant

Hoya Plant pre-blossoms

It has been many years since our hoya plant has blossomed.  It is a great and easy plant to care for.  I have had it since I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan around 1979.  My partner at the time, Gary, and I inherited the plant from the collective who had lived in the house before passing the house along to us.  We became a Catholic Worker house, and offered hospitality to homeless families.  In 1983 we moved to Chicago and took the plant with us, and when Gary and I separated in 1985, I eventually ended up with the plant, and have moved it with me ever since.

One of the names I learned for the plant was “Widow’s Tears.”  When it blooms, the flowers have a sweet nectar that falls from their center.  That name had an emotional resonance for me when Gary died in a car accident in 1988.  Just after I learned about his death, the plant began to bloom.  That blooming became one of several signs that touched me with Gary’s presence following his death.  It is hard to explain, but it comforted me, it felt like a gift he had sent to me from beyond.

So this week, the hoya started to flower again, with two little umbrellas of florets beginning to form waxy pre-blooms.  And this week, I learned that my dad, who has been in a nursing home for almost a year and a half, has taken a turn for the worse, and has slept through the last two days.  A priest who is a friend of the family came today to pray and anoint him.  My sister Julie has been the primary support person for my mom and dad since they moved to West Virginia in 2005.  Most of us live at a distance.  A few of my siblings have visited in the last couple weeks, and I will fly out on Monday.

Life is mysterious.  They don’t really know what will happen next.  It is possible he will rally, but it is starting to seem more likely that he is preparing for the transition into death, which for him signifies going home to eternal life.  I asked my mom to hold the phone to his ear so I could speak to him, to tell him I love him, and I was coming on Monday, but I am with him in spirit, so whatever he needs to do will be okay.  Which is true.  And there is something about the hoya plant blooming that comforts me today, alerts me to the mysteries beyond life and death, and the bonds that unite us across many divides.  May all of us be held in love.Hoya Plant bloom

Life and Death in the Back Yard

Yesterday I was sitting in a recliner in our back yard, just soaking up the sun, and listening to the birds and other critters. Suddenly, a hawk flew to the ground about 20 feet away from me and landed awkwardly. Its wings seemed to be splayed over the ground, and it was facing away from me. I didn’t have a chance to get a good enough look to identify it, but got an impression of a light color. I was surprised it was so close to me. Then it flew away toward the back of the yard, and I saw it was carrying a chipmunk in its talons.

I was astonished and humbled to witness this moment of life and death in the world of nature.  Perhaps the hawk was taking food to its young.  Perhaps the chipmunk was the one who, earlier in the day, had been startled to see me in the screen tent, when it poked its head under the fabric at the bottom.  I thought it would run off, but then it scampered right under my foot on its way to the other side of the tent.

Two years ago, just a little later in May, I had seen four baby chipmunks in the yard, in about the same place.  I went outside and sat down near them and watched them play.  They were completely unafraid of me and didn’t mind my presence close by.  At one point, they heard an alarm call from their mother, and ran to the hole to their underground homes, and sat right nearby looking around and waiting to hear if they must go back inside.  But mother must have given the all clear, because they resumed their play.

I wonder if today there are babies underground waiting for a parent to return. The yard became utterly quiet after the hawk attack, except for an alarm cry from a bird or another chipmunk–I wasn’t sure. No birds at the feeder, so squirrels chasing each other up the trees, no chipmunks emerging from the rain spout. But later in the evening, life went on.  At least two other chipmunks were dashing back and forth, and gold finches lined up to get their turn at the feeder.

What a gift to sit outside each day, learning what the land wants to reveal of her secrets.  What secrets have you discovered, just sitting outside being quiet?

Chipmunk babies

Chipmunk babies