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The grandmother I never knew

I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know and love my mother’s mother. My grandmother Opal (Robertson) Cottrell was a powerful force in the lives of all who knew her in her nearly 96 years — including but not at all limited to her many children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren.

I can tell you what her voice was like. I can spot her handwriting at a distance. With long hair or short, with a smile or the rare frown, in a close-up or a distant shot, I recognize her face, her profile, even the way she carried herself. I know how her gravy and biscuits tasted. And I would kill for a chance to hear her laugh one more time.

She is part of me, every day, even now, all these years after her death.

But I had another grandmother. My father’s mother.

And about her, in every way that matters, I know nothing. She is, and will always remain, a mystery.

Oh, I have the dates and places of her life. Marie Margarethe Nuckel was born 122 years ago today, on the 9th of February 1891, in Bremen, Germany, the daughter of Carsten Hinrich Wilhelm Nuckel and Juliane Margarethe Smidt.1

She married my grandfather, Hugo Ernst Geissler, in Bremen on Valentine’s Day 1918,2 and thanks to a few old photographs I can share with you here what she looked like when she married.

She bore her first child in 1919, a daughter, Marie Emma, who lived only four months.3 She was just weeks short of her 29th birthday when she buried her only daughter.

And Marie bore her second and only surviving child, her only son, my father, not even 18 months after burying her first. Once again, thanks to a few old photos, I know what she looked like around the time that second child was born.

I have the papers that document her departure from the land of her birth and her travels to a new life in the United States.4 I know when the ship she sailed in with her husband and young son left Bremen and when it arrived in New York, and even where they were going and who they planned to stay with when they arrived in the Windy Cita.

I can trace her through the years-long process of filing a declaration of intent to become a citizen5, then the petition to become a citizen and finally even her oath of citizenship. I even know what her signature looks like, since she signed it to the oath of allegiance in 1930:6

I know that she worked in unskilled jobs after arriving in America7 and I know my grandparents finally settled down in one home by 1935.8

And I know Marie was still living at that address in West 63rd Place in Chicago when she died in 1947, years before I was born.9

In other words, I know absolutely nothing of any consequence about my grandmother. My father rarely spoke of her.

Stories that did get passed down tell a story of a stern and forbidding woman. But, I wonder, what else there was to know about her.

What did her laugh sound like? Did she smile often or more often frown? Was she a good cook? And what dishes would she have served her grandchildren if she could have known us?

Could she sew? Did she have friends in the neighborhood? Did she speak English well in her later years?

What was it like, going to school in Germany before 1900? How did her life change when her mother died, when Marie was just days short of her 16th birthday? How did she and her family weather World War I?

Did she mourn the daughter she left behind in that German grave? Did she regret not having gone back to Germany in the days just before the war to visit her father once more before his death? Did she ever regret coming to America?

And I suppose there will always be that one question I’d most have liked to know the answer to…

Would she have liked her grandchildren? Would we have liked her?

We will never know.

But on this, her 122nd birthday, I can’t help but stop and think and wonder about this grandmother I never knew.

I can’t help but think of the words of Linda Ellis’ poem, The Dash, about the years between the birth and death dates:

For that dash represents all the time
that she spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved her
know what that little line is worth.

And I can’t help but think how sad it is that there is no-one alive today who loved her… or can even speak to what that little line in her life was worth.


  1. Bremen birth certificate, attached to visa application, Form 255, 4 December 1924, Marie Geissler; photocopy received 2004 via FOIA request by Judy G. Russell from U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).
  2. Heiraten (Marriages), p. 41, nr. 5, Geißler-Nuckel, 14 Feb 1918; Kirchenbuch (Church Book), Evangelische Kirche St. Jakobi, Bremen, Heiraten 1911-1930; FHL INTL microfilm 953,273. Also Bescheinigung der Eheschließung (Certificate of Marriage), nr. 135 (1918), Geißler-Nuckel, Standesamt (Registry Office), Bremen.
  3. “Funerary Records 1875-1939 (Die Leichenbücher der Stadtgemeinde Bremen von 1875-1939),” Die Maus – Family History and Genealogical Society of Bremen (Gesellschaft für Familienforschung e. V. Bremen) ( : accessed 25 Jan 2013).
  4. New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States, SS George Washington, Passengers sailing from Bremen, January 28th, 1925, line 5, Marie Geissler; digital image, ( : accessed 5 Apr 2012); citing NARA microfilm publication T715, roll 3605.
  5. Declaration of Intention no. 179553, Cook County, Illinois, Circuit Court, Marie Geissler, 14 Jan 1927; Cook County Archives, Chicago.
  6. Petition for Citizenship, no. 86796, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Marie Geissler, 20 Feb 1930; FHL microfilm 1468306.
  7. Marie Geissler, 29 Nov 1936, Application for Account Number (Form SS-5), Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland.
  8. 1940 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois, Chicago Ward 13, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 103-867, page 1,429(B) (stamped), sheet 61(B), household 52, Margarite M. Geissler; digital image, ( : accessed 2 Apr 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 947.
  9. Illinois Department of Public Health, death certificate no. 12011, Marie Geissler, 12 Jan 1947; Division of Vital Statistics, Springfield.
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