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What Do You Really Know About Your Ancestors?

  Self portrait of Leonard da Vinci

Self portrait of Leonard da Vinci

 

I have been thinking a lot about my grandfather and great grandfather lately. Both were artists, and I grew up surrounded by scores of paintings and artworks that they did including oil paintings and drawings. I did learn a few stories about them as a child, but I never met them. I missed a lot there, but their artwork influenced me a great deal—but even with that legacy I don’t really know what they were all about. What were they thinking? What were their hopes and dreams? What were their philosophies of life? How did they feel about traveling to the New World in the first decade of the 20th century, building a totally new life? There is a great deal of lost history to our family, so much that I never will know.

Perhaps these thoughts have come up lately because I’ve been reading the book Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson, who has written many exhaustive biographies. This book, tallying in at nearly 600 pages, uncovers a wealth of material on the great and complex artist and Renaissance Man. It has exploded my knowledge of Da Vinci, whom I have admired since I was a kid. Even though I have studied his artwork and marveled at his endless imagination and talents for 50 years, I am learning so much more. It has been fascinating seeing original Da Vincis in Paris, Milan and Washington, DC;  I habitually copy and use his work and ideas in my own work. But with all my knowledge and love of the Da Vinci mystique, I now find that I didn’t know that much.

 There is such a wealth of information about Leonardo and his excesses in the Isaacson book, so many amazing stories and details. And if I really didn’t know much about his life, is it any wonder that I don’t know a lot about my own ancestors?

 JUST THE FACTS MA’AM

Da Vinci wrote and spoke a great deal about the process of learning, saying that “The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” I associate this concept of joy and  understanding to my lineage and what my ancestors were all about. Yes, we do have those famous family anecdotes, but those stories only provide bits and pieces of the puzzle and beg for more information. It’s not like we don’t have a lot of facts—over the decades, some of my siblings have dug into our history, doing a great deal of research into the family lineage. What they have found in libraries, churches and municipal records is fantastic. They have also found information from military records, newspaper articles, and immigration records at Ellis Island. We have found that on our American side, our Indiana ancestors fought in the Revolutionary war and Civil War. On our French side we had an ancestor who fought in the French Revolution. Fascinating to be sure, but most of the information falls under the heading of facts and dates. We are luck to know this much, but the facts scream out for more.

 We are lucky as a family to have the hundreds of pieces of art and thousands of photos passed down and shared between all my siblings.  But there are still precious-few examples of personal memoirs and writing, or even substantial oral history passed down. I feel like I’m at a loss for important information … if only the previous generations had written down their thoughts and stories, their struggles and successes. Their memories of their parents and grandparents, too, would be a rich and fascinating history for us today.

Karl Borzo: Grandfather, Painter

Karl Borzo: Grandfather, Painter

LIVING IN FRANCE, THE NETHERLANDS, AND INDIANA 

With my paternal grandparents and great-grandparents, written records would provide fascinating details about living the high life in the 19th century Netherlands – part of a banking family that was enjoying all the accoutrements for people of wealth and position. How did they feel when the family fortune was lost; was it courage or desperation to leave the old country and make their way to the New World to start over? It would be quite a story: just as the 20th Century was ramping up, two generations, grandfather Borzo and great grandfather Kerstens, traveled with their family across the world to start over. That’s a lot of drama and intrigue, and I would love to know more about it. 

 And on the other side, I would love to know more about my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents, from the USA and France. My Grandfather Hacker from Indiana met my future Grandmother during his service in the “Great war” (now known as World War I, of course). Grandpa was a “Dough-boy” who had probably never been out of the state if Indiana before  (but I don’t know, again – details).

“Dough Boy,” circa 1915      (Image from the private collection of David Ball, Public Domain)

“Dough Boy,” circa 1915

(Image from the private collection of David Ball, Public Domain)

Granddad Hacker was stationed in France and met grandmother, and….well, I don’t know. How did they meet? Was it love at first sight? Did he help liberate her town? Was it a whirl-wind romance? We do know that when Grandpa Hacker returned to the United States and his Indiana home after the war, he established himself and saved money to “send for” his young French fiancée, Mademoiselle Chantoiseau. Lots of facts, but there is a huge amount of life and understanding missing in these glimpses of family history.

 WHY DON’T WE KEEP MEMOIRS?

Writing down the stories of our lives and loves is simply not something most of us do. Seems to be way down on the list of things for today, along with the chores, errands and jobs that keep us distracted.  But imagine if we did take the time to keep alive our personal narrative and family stories. Imagine writing down important thoughts, experiences, even some of the mundane everyday things, for generations to follow.  Even the simple act of recording names and dates on the back of photos would provide a treasure of knowledge. If we had identifications of all the people in those thousands of photos we have, it would be amazing. A treasure for the generations to come. I wish that 100 and 200 years ago my ancestors did it, it would be a vital gift to today, a priceless gift.  So, just as I’m learning so much about Leonardo Da Vinci – when I thought I had him it down – all the facts I do have about my ancestors really only scratch the surface.

FOOD FOR THE MIND AND SOUL

I guess Leonardo Da Vinci and I are on the same page in one respect; Leonardo wrote that “knowledge of the past…is the ornament and food of the mind of man.” This was written in one of his notebooks, his diaries and records of his scientific, philosophical and artistic endeavors. Leonardo knew that our past is paramount because the past feeds our mind and our soul. Talk about keeping records:  Da Vinci’s sketchbooks include notes on personal plans and observations, new subjects he wanted to learn about, and so much fascinating artwork. So many interests, thoughts and questions are raised and speculated on, some centuries ahead of his time. There was little that his observational skills missed, and he was captivated with science, invention, architecture, music, mathematics, engineering. He excelled in literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, architecture, writing, history, cartography, even stage designer and fashion. OH, and he was a painter too….

 LEONARDO WAS…’ALSO A PAINTER…’

This is one of the ironies of Da Vinci: he considered painting as just one of his many expertises, and not even the most useful one.From his own words in a letter to the Ruler of Milan, Da Vinci outlined a list of several advantages that he could bring to the defense and advancement of the city-state of Milan. From plans for “very light, strong and easily built bridges,” to “…cannon, most convenient and easily portable,” and “covered vehicles…which will penetrate the enemy and their artillery.” But the fun thing is that at the end of this itemized resume of abilities, almost as an afterthought, Leonardo mentions he can “…also execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise, in painting, I can do everything possible…” Wow. I’m glad we still have that little entry to illustrate the Da Vinci mindset. An invaluable insight into his psyche and view. There are so many ideas and concepts from my ancestors that I could learn from, if only.Who will provide the records ads stories for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, 50, 100 and 200 years down the line!?

 

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