It was quite the adventure. I dreamed of exotic places and women with wanderlust. I would travel in their footsteps. But my journey didn’t go far. Just a couple of kilometers from my grandmothers village in Lierop, I found hundreds of years of the history of my foremothers. I discovered a witchhunt, war, suppression and dead children. But between the lines, I found love as well, and perseverance, tight families and party animals. Since then, I have started with my first portraits.
Her name has disappeared 350 years ago
It all started, as far as I could find, with Ida from Lierop in the south of the Netherlands. Maybe she was born in Asten around 1580, but I am not sure. She married Hanrick Hemelaers and two of her daughters survived their childhoods. They were called Merijke and Margriet. Margriet Hemelaers is my oldest maternal grandmother with a last name, that I could find. Hanrick never had a son that could pass his name on, so his line ends in 1665, after Hanrick’s death. If his daughters could have passed their names on to their daughters, I would be called Evelien Hemelaers. But now her name has disappeared 350 years ago.
My foremothers had no control over their property
I was naturally disappointed that I couldn’t embark on some exotic trip. However, the story of my foremothers does give an interesting insight in the lives of many Western European women. If you came from a poor family, you would marry poor. Maybe one of your sons would get a chance to travel, to improve his situation. Maybe he would be the start of a more well-to-do family line. But your daughter would marry poor. My foremothers would sometimes inherit some farmland or a little house, but they had no control over their property. Their husbands or sons were their guardians. In documents the women are mentioned as an aside: ‘Hanrick Hemelaers, husband and guardian of Ida.’ Many of these women lost their children to disease and died young. Margriet probably didn’t become older than 40. My great-grandmother’s own mother, Johanna van Vlerken, died only days after the death of her newborn son. Only in the twentieth century, with the generation of my grandmother, did I see improvements in the situation of these women.
In the context of history, it reminds me how new women’s equality actually is. And it doesn’t surprise me that much anymore, that it hasn’t reached all corners of the world yet.
These women, living and breathing, show me a different inheritance of our foremothers
All in all I found ten foremothers. I presented them to a number of women in my family, who descent from the same line. Some of them, I never met. These women, living and breathing, show me a different inheritance of our foremothers. They are warm, enthusiastic and free-thinking women. We are all very talkative, get great joy from the company of others, like art and culture and worry a bit too much. Would Ida, Margriet and the others have been like that as well?
I connect each of them to one of the foremothers and make their portrait. An image of the women of today, connected to the fantasy about the women that have come before.
We are here, thanks to their sacrifice
When this journey ends, I hope to have an interesting line of portraits and new family connections. I might even expand my identity with a new name, Hemelaers. I see it as a tribute and commemoration to these women. Their lives where lived around their children. Procreation was their destiny, whether they liked it or not. We are here, thanks to their sacrifice. In the Netherlands there are strict rules to changing your last name. A man can adopt the last name of a forefather, if that line would otherwise die out. Can a woman do that too? And, as a person who worries too much, do I dare to take on that challenge….