Searching for Emma Deserranno

One of the very few photos we have of my paternal grandmother, Emma Deserranno

In today’s blog Ann is taking an “ethnic track” about her Swedish roots which gives me license to share my adventure while searching for family roots (on my father’s side). It all had to do with an old family photo taken in a Belgian cemetery. In the photo you can see Andre, my dad’s brother, and his wife Elise standing next to a tombstone with the inscription ALA MEMOIRE D’EMMA DESERRANNO 1865 – 1949. I’ll tell you about how that photo led to my “adventure” after providing some ancestorial background.

My Uncle Andre and Aunt Elise standing by Emma Deserranno’s tombstone in a cemetery somewhere in Jumet, Belgium. Andre made the headstone (photo date unknown).

As I mentioned previously, my father immigrated to the U.S. from Belgium in 1920 when he was about 11 years old. He came with his mother, Emma, and his two half-siblings, Emelie and Andre. Like so many immigrants at that time, they entered the U.S. via Ellis Island.

[As an aside, from the Ellis Island Foundation we obtained a photocopy of the original April 14, 1920 “List of Aliens” listing passengers who arrived aboard the Kroogland. The list includes my father and his family. Even though difficult to read, it is pretty awesome to imagine what it must have been like to have been processed along with the estimated 225,206 immigrants who arrived in that year .]

Part of the “List of Aliens” arriving at Ellis Island on the Kroogland in 1920. Note the changed spelling of “Deseran” for Gustave (my father) and Emma (my grandmother) – which, if you noticed, is quite different from the spelling on my grandmother’s tombstone.

I never met either Andre or my grandmother who both returned to Belgium after a few years in the United States. I grew up hearing many stories about Andre: how he made fireworks from spent WWI German munitions, how he single-handedly built a house while in the U.S., how he hand-carved a beautiful carousel style horse. However, for some reason I heard very little about my grandmother. About the only story I can recall was the episode I mentioned previously when she bonked a German occupation soldier on the head with her soup pail during WWI.

The adventure that I have been leading up to took place in 1984 while I was on Sabbatical leave at the University of Exeter in England. It was an opportune time to finally do a pilgrimage to Jumet to find my grandmother’s tombstone in that old family photo. Andre had passed away, but I had his address in Jumet where Elise still lived.

I took a train to Charloi and then a bus to Jumet which is a suburb of Charloi and set out to find Elise who surely could direct me to the cemetery. It was drizzling rain and bitterly cold when I got off the bus.

Jumet, Belgium where my grandmother’s grave is located.

I had written Elise’s address on a piece of paper (no Google Maps in those days) and by showing it to some locals, none of whom spoke any English, I was eventually directed to her place. When I knocked on her door she only opened it as far as the latch chain would allow. In (very) broken French I tried to explain I was her American nephew and wanted to speak with her. She only said, “Andre est mort,” and closed the door in my face.

I then found the local police station where I hoped someone could phone Elise to assure her that I was legitimate. Only one officer in the building spoke any English and offered to call Elise on my behalf. After speaking with her he told me that she was very old and frightened; perhaps it was best not to insist on seeing her.

So that was it. Disappointed, I started walking to find a bus stop. At the first corner I came to I saw a large cemetery across the road. Being just blocks from Andre and Alise’s home I was sure that this had to be where I could find Emma’s tombstone. At the entrance was a little stone building with open windows and inside I found the caretaker who could very well have been a double for Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek.

The cemetery caretaker resembled Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek

After I finally was able to communicate that I was looking for my grandmother’s grave who may have buried there sometime in 1949 he broke into a big smile, swept some clods of dirt and a shovel off a table, and pulled down several of the very large ledgers that lined the walls. Each page was filled with names, dates, and plot locations, all hand written in ink and smudged from years of use. After thoroughly going through the 1949 and 1950 ledgers I found no one named Emma Deserranno.

I was cold, and miserable when I finally found a bus stop. Two older women, waiting for a bus, were lost in deep conversation in French about something or the other, paying no attention to me. One of the women had a very small pathetic looking dog on a leash at her feet shivering in the cold. The little dog looked up at me in a way that I just knew it understood how miserable I felt. Then the women and the dog got on the next bus, leaving me behind.

Although I didn’t get the satisfaction of finding my grandmother’s tombstone, I did come away from that adventure with the vivid memory of connecting with that little shivering dog. It is an image that I often think of when things seem down. I’m not sure why but I find it strangely comforting.

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