Thursday, July 9, 2015

My Maternal Grandmother

My maternal grandmother, Mary Toonen sailed to the United States from Holland  at the turn of the century.  She was a mere 16 years old, and accompanied by her new husband Henry Vissers.  They settled near De Pere, Wisconsin, where they established their family farm.

Mary Toonen (Center) with her sisters.

I never knew grandma, as she passed a few years before I was born.  What I know of her story is amazing.  I can't imagine leaving her parents and some of her siblings behind at such a young age, knowing she would never return or see them again.  There must have been some real heart break and lots of tears at the dock as the ship left the harbor for America. 

Their wedding

Doesn't it seem odd that the wedding attire was black or darker colors?  So unlike today.

Grandma had two daughters; Minnie and my mom - Cecilia, and four sons, Martin, Joe, Frank, and Norbert. 

Grandma became a widow when my mom was about four years old.  As my mom told the story: it was a very hot humid Wisconsin day and Grandpa was working the fields.  My grandmother thought it would be nice to take him a cold bucket of drinking water.  She filled a pail from the well to bring  to him.  Shortly after drinking the pail of ice cold water, he became very ill and died that night with no apparent symptoms.  Looking back and using today's medical knowledge, he probably was overheated and dehydrating,  drinking the cold well water put his system in shock and death. 

So many times, Mom would  recall how she had to stay home from the funeral because her family thought she was too young to attend.  During that era, it was tradition to hang black wreaths on the doors of the home of the deceased.  The black wreath really left an impression with my mother.  She would never allow a wreath of any sort to be hung on a door, not even a Christmas Wreath.  It just reminded her of her dad's untimely death.

This is the last photo that I have with my mom and her mother and dad together.  You can see the farm house in the background.  I wish I knew the story of this photo; I have so many questions; why were they dressed up?  Why were they standing with a cow in the background?  Who took the photo?  Where were the older kids?    My answers are only guesses.

And that's the way it is...............


  1. i like this story and i to would like more details on that photo.. life was so very hard back then and death came from things that are next to nothing now. my hubby's dad died in 1952 at age 45 from a bleeding ulcer. today he would take a purple pill and forge on... i can't image leaving your home country at age 16 and going to a new land, but that was common back then. she looks so young in that wedding photo. my grandmothers dress in her wedding pic is dark shades of blue. i think it was because they had to wear them and not hang a dress away for just one time wearing it.

  2. I have been wondering what you have been up to! This is an interesting piece of family history. The thing about the wreath really touched me. We do only know such small bits and pieces and have to guess the rest. Nice that you have some pictures for whatever clues they can give.

  3. Such a poignant story. Thanks for sharing it!

  4. gorgeous vintage images, they are in wonderful condition!! i wonder if weddings were "fun" back then, or more of a formality!! i would not have lasted back then too many clothes and no one smiles ;)

  5. They wore black because it was practical and the dresses could be worn over again...remember the streets in town were not paved and if it rained well your skirts got dirty and there was "stuff" in the gutters...I have seen dresses that were cut off at the bottom and a new bottom sewn on. White Wedding dresses came into fashion after Queen Victoria wore one in 1840 a white dress was a sign of wealth. She was not the first one to wear white but she made it fashionable.
    Your Grandmother wore a beautiful gown with many ribbon trims and some beautiful buttons that help hold the over skirt or maybe the bustle.
    People did not smile in photographs because the exposure time was very long up to a minute, that and some had no dental care.
    I suspect that the last photo was taken on the day that they got a new bull...and perhaps it is taken elsewhere and not on their farm, they were dressed up for travel and maybe they only took one child along that day. That would be my guess...of course that could be a cow also..a good milker and she joined the herd:)

  6. I wonder what times will be like in another hundred years...... It's great that you have these old pics! Thanks for sharing them!