Sentimental Sunday: ‘Home Is The Sailor’

It was a dinnertime ritual enacted with gusto whenever my mother’s cousins Alma and Cecelia were in town.

The front door would bang open. My dad would sweep in and declaim:

Home is the sailor, home from the sea!”

And Alma would reply, from upstairs or down:

And the hunter home from the hill.”

Cue seven children rolling their eyes. It’s a wonder they didn’t get stuck that way, as my mother was always warning us.

Alma (1897-1981) and Cecelia (“Ceil,” 1898-1980) were Mom’s first cousins, the daughters of my grandfather John Rudroff’s older brother George. Since they were 30 years older than my mom, we gave them the courtesy title “aunt” in a triumph of seniority over genealogical accuracy. Their annual extended visits helped fill the grandparent gap in a family where only Grandpa Rudroff survived into our childhoods.

Aunt Alma was a demon worker, even when she was supposed to be having a nice relaxing family visit. After she whipped through all the laundry and ironing, she attacked the mending basket, then cooked everybody dinner. She thought my mother could use the break from dealing with the seven of us.

Aunt Ceil’s specialty was straightening out my dad’s bookkeeping. Hard to believe in today’s bloated health-care industry, but my dad, a dentist in solo practice, was truly a one-man band. There was always something for Aunt Ceil to straighten out, clucking in impatience at my dad’s handwriting as she sat at the dining-room table, paperwork piled high.

We loved them both to pieces, although Aunt Alma in particular could be gruff. One morning I happened to be alone with her at breakfast. Having an actual one-on-one with an elder was so novel that I began chattering nervously — and mindlessly.

“Tell me,” Aunt Alma said. “Are you planning on becoming a preacher?”

“No, why?”

“Because you talk enough for two.”

It wasn’t a visit without Aunt Alma and my dad proclaiming their trademark lines at day’s end. I didn’t realize for years that they were written by Robert Louis Stevenson, in a poem he intended as an epitaph (inspiring a later poem by A.E. Houseman). Alas, unlike Dad and Aunt Alma, I don’t belong to a generation for whom reciting poetry was typical schoolwork.

Here’s the whole thing, in memory of them both.


Under the wide and starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie:

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he long’d to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

— Robert Louis Stevenson, 1880 • First published in Underwoods, 1887

Foiled again!

Don’t you hate it when Grandpa turns up with a surprise sibling?

Mind you, it was no surprise that my maternal grandfather John Rudroff had a sister. We knew he was the youngest of ten children [it turned out to be eight], a major factor in his decision to emigrate to the USA in 1925. I was fortunate to know his parents’ names, and the name of his birthplace — Kottweinsdorf, in Upper Franconia — but that was it. He could have had seven sisters, for all we knew.

But I put off learning more, partly because dealing with my paternal side seemed more urgent, and  also because I had cold feet from a story about one of my mother’s Rudroff cousins getting a chilly response when trying to contact the Kottweinsdorf family on a visit to Germany in 1962. Scary!

The Internet, patron saint of chickens everywhere, broke this particular logjam. Scrolling Ancestry’s discussion boards one day, I noticed a post from a German researcher, Jörg Ruthrof, responding to a genealogy inquiry about Kottweinsdorf.  I ventured an email to him and far from biting my head off, he responded with a gracious, detailed account of Rudroff family research on the German side of the pond.

He was happy to hear about my grandfather John and his brother, George (who emigrated in 1896). The German family’s genealogy had no details about them after their emigration dates to the USA. Could I explain more about them? And about their sister, Anna Kunigunde, who emigrated to the USA in 1907?

Sure … WHAT?

Grandpa had had a sister in the USA? My mother had never mentioned such a person. My Rudroff cousins never heard of her, either. She has been elusive in U.S. censuses, although Ancestry’s immigration database shows the departure from Germany of Anna Kunigunde Rudroff (born Kottweinsdorf)  in 1907, along with a U.S.-Germany trip in October 1914. Of course, she might have married, although it would seem she’d be somewhere in the 1910 census, at least, as a Rudroff.

Recently another possibility surfaced when  I found a Brooklyn Eagle death notice of June 29, 1926 for a Sister Mary Rudroff of Brooklyn, N.Y. Could this be my relative (having adopted a new name as a religious)? Off I charged to the New York City death certificate database, where indeed there was a certificate number for a Maria Rudroff, death date 29 June 1926. Alas, her age was given as 26, far too young to be my great-aunt, who would have been 43 in that year.

So, foiled again. Although the experience still had some value in opening my eyes to yet another way in which female ancestors’ identities are obscured to us, at least if they’re Roman Catholic. And next time I’m at the archives, I’ll go take a look at that Maria Rudroff certificate to see who she was and where she came from. One never knows.

Is that my great-uncle’s play in your catalog, sir?

I have a large, untidy pile of intriguing genealogy research questions I mean to figure out someday. One involves whether my mother’s uncle Georg Rudroff  copyrighted a play in 1909.

My mother always said her Uncle George was a character. He was my grandfather’s older brother, the one who left home first. He emigrated to New York City from Kottweinsdorf, Germany in 1896, 30 years before Grandpa did. My mother described him as a tavern keeper, the occupation listed on his 1940 death certificate. At other times he was a drug company clerk and a Brooklyn Rapid Transit motorman.

He also was a bit stage-struck, according to Mom. She was a little vague on this point, although she once mentioned that he wrote songs and tried to shop one of them to Kate Smith, who was not interested.

A few months ago when I was supposed to be working (shhh!), I got bored and plugged my mother’s maiden name into this search engine at the Library of Congress. Four results popped up, one citing an unpublished play in German by Georg Rudroff. (Two of the others involve genealogical works in German by Arno Rudroff, an expert on all things Rudroff.)

You never know who might turn up in the Library of Congress.

I emailed the Library of Congress to ask how I might go about reading this play. It’s in manuscript form and I’d have to go to Washington to take a look at it. So for now, I don’t know whether my Georg is the author, if it’s possible to be certain of that.

What is certain is that in 1909, someone named Georg Rudroff copyrighted a play called  Schwer Erkämpft (militärisches Volksstück in 4 akten). That roughly translates to Terrible Struggle (a military play in four acts).

Using “play” for “Volksstück” isn’t very helpful, because the Volksstück is a theatrical form with no real equivalent in today’s American theater. It was a populist work in which dialect was used to score dramatic and satiric points. A Volksstück might use a country-bumpkin character to poke fun at hoity-toity types, or trendy fashions. I can only imagine how a “military Volksstück” might look. Maybe Georg’s play was a forerunner of Catch-22?

Until we go on our oft-discussed trip to D.C., I’ll just have to keep wondering.

In the meantime, all I can say is: Try a surname search in the Library of Congress catalog. You never know.

“Franconian Siberia”? Sheesh.

Every so often on YouTube someone puts up a video from the Fränkische Schweiz, the part of Germany from which my grandparents Johann Rudroff and Eva Forster emigrated back in the 1920s.

This video is particularly informative, with excellent footage of the twisty rock formations for which this area is famous.

It even makes a stop at my grandmother’s ancestral village of Oberailsfeld (starting at 4:31).  Oberailsfeld  is described as a  “challenging place to live,” with a climate that earned it the nickname “Franconian Siberia.”

Tough-sounding place. No wonder Grandma left …

A word about my German ancestors

One of my German great-uncles and his wife at their farm in the village of Kottweinsdorf.

I’ve been feeling guilty because the majority of my ramblings so far have originated with my research into the Irish side of the family. And as we know, there are two sides to every story. In my case,  a German side and an Irish side.

So to balance things out a bit, I added this information about my German ancestry. If any of it rings a bell for you, feel free to get in touch!


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