By Megan Crain
The small mug in my hand confused me.
It was a graduation present from my Aunt Bernie. The mug had an almost iridescent finish, was spotted with blue and red flowers and the word “Mama” was written on the front in white letters.
Why on earth was I, an eighteen-year-old with no kids, receiving a mug clearly meant for someone’s mother?
My mom, sitting next to me, knew what it was immediately. Before I could ask, Bernie launched into the story of the women in my family, a history that would connect my past to who I am today.
The story goes that Margaretha Guetter Hammerschmidt, my maternal great-great grandmother, brought it with her from Austria in 1892 when she immigrated to the United States.
Her husband John Hammerschmidt arrived from Austria at Ellis Island as Johann Hammerschmidt on May 26, 1885. He and his family moved to Redwood County, Minnesota where Margaretha and her family would eventually settle.
My family doesn’t know why our ancestors left Europe, or why John and Margaretha’s families went to Minnesota. They were all farmers, so we imagine that the draw of free or cheap land was too hard to ignore.
John and Margaretha met sometime after she arrived, got married in 1896 and bought a farm. They brought some of their Austrian traditions with them as they spoke German at home and were devout Catholics. They were hard workers—you had to be, to keep a farm afloat.
Like any good Catholic couple, John and Margaretha had lots of children, seven in total. They worked the family farm together until John died at the age of 39, when Margaretha took over. She never remarried and died in March of 1950.
The mug was then passed on to her eldest daughter Mathilda, my great-grandmother.
Mathilda was born in 1898 and became Mathilda Rolf in 1925. She and Henry Rolf met at a mutual friend’s wedding in Minnesota. He thought she was special and kept traveling from Nebraska to Minnesota to court her—the 1920s version of a long-distance relationship.
They married in Minnesota and moved to a farm outside of West Point, Nebraska, where Henry and his family had settled after arriving from Germany. They both still spoke German and were still devout Catholics.
Margaret Rolf, my grandmother, was the first of their seven children. Margaret was a child of the Depression, and her habits of pinching pennies and stretching resources were as much of a result of the time period as her German-Austrian roots.
She went to school until she was in eighth grade and then had to stay home and help take care of her younger siblings. She spoke German at home until Henry decided they all needed to focus on speaking English.
Margaret married Casper Wordekemper in 1945. They knew each other from growing up around West Point, despite their age difference: she was 18, he was 31. She had her first child a year later, at 19.
She and Casper tried out farming, but decided it wasn’t for them. They moved to Fremont, where Casper worked at the Hormel plant and Margaret became a housekeeper.
They no longer spoke German, but the Catholic roots ran deep in this family.
Margaret and Casper had seven children, the youngest of whom would become my mom, Ann Wordekemper. She was born 20 years after their first child and basically grew up an only child.
The Wordekempers were neither poor nor rich. They had enough to have a good life, but they never had anything particularly fancy. All seven kids attended Catholic school and went to mass every week.
When Casper died of a heart attack in 1978, my mom was 12. Margaret became a single mother and had to learn how to manage a household and raise my mom on her own.
While the odds were stacked against her, Margaret figured out how to budget, pay the bills and deal with my mom’s teen angst all by herself.
A year after Casper’s death, Margaret’s mother Mathilda died, and her father Henry died nine months later. Mathilda died from a stroke; Henry died from a broken heart.
After their deaths, my mom remembers racing to their home with Margaret.
“She wanted to make sure that she would get the ‘Mama’ cup and not one of her younger sisters,” my mom said. “She was very adamant about that.”
Margaret got the mug, and kept it until her death in 2009. At that point, it should have gone to her oldest daughter, but she had moved to California and Margaret wanted it to stay in the family in Nebraska.
She had asked my Aunt Bernie to hold on to it and when I decided to come to school in Nebraska, Bernie decided to give it to me.
The mug connects me directly to Margaretha, Mathilda and Margaret. While I can’t speak German, and I’m far from being a devout Catholic, it will always remind me of their hard work, determination and perseverance that has led me and my family to where we are today.