Anyone claiming to be a close relative of mine is mistaken—though I can’t imagine the upside for making that claim. I am the only child of an only child on my father’s side. And those of you who know me understand that my family has only one side, virgin birth being especially difficult when only the father is involved. It’s complicated.
Perhaps the greatest satisfaction I get from the Agincourt Project, then, is creating families. Having none of my own, families fascinate me. Anson Tennan, for example — the architect of Agincourt’s first public library — required context for his existence. He needed a family, which has now grown to seven generations, and that family has expanded laterally as characters became necessary for new building projects.
It’s often difficult for me to recall which came first: the building or its client-owner-occupant-designer-builder.
This remarkable painting has recently entered the matrix. Untitled but bearing a pencilled notation “portrait une famille” on its back, I thought immediately of Mary Grace Tabor, Howard’s aunt and founder circa 1950 of Agincourt’s Montessori school (through the creative energies of Carol and Vince Hatlen). While she studied Montessori’s methods in New York in the early 1940s, Mary Grace met Kurt Bernhard, recently widowed Frenchman with an infant son. He and Mary Grace married in 1944 and had two children of their own.
Bernhard’s emigration to New York City involved an escape from Nazi-occupied Paris following his first wife’s death. So I wondered if this portrait une famille could have been his first wife’s family, the Sobieskis, mid-19th century Polish emigrants who had become thoroughly French-ified by 1920 when the portrait was painted. So, over dinner tonight with Milton at Rhombus Pizza, the Bernhard-Sobieski branch of the Tennant family tree materialized (as the thai chicken pizza simultaneously disappeared before our very eyes):
- Peter/Piotr Sobieski [1887-1951], seated, a winemaker of modest means in the Alsace-Lorraine
- Klara Franciszka neé Markiewicz [1891-1980] his wife, standing beside him
- Irena Sobieski [1917-1969], standing at her father’s right knee, perhaps aged 4
- Clothilde Sobieski [1919-1943], seated on her father’s lap, perhaps 2; she later married Kurt Eugene Bernhard [1917-1999] who subsequently married Mary Grace
- The Sobieskis’ oldest child Adam [born 1909] is not in the painting
In case you’re wondering, Klara Franciszka Markiewicz is my grandmother and those are her dates. Adam Markiewicz was my grandmother’s youngest brother. And Sobiesk is the name of the mortuary that handled most of my family’s funerals. Everything in my life experience is fair game; no really great name is ever wasted.
Can I help with your own family tree?