The Washerwoman’s Genes

February 13, 2006

Seats for life, Seats forever

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 12:26 pm

Elesabet Quenbe had a seat in pew #40 in the Reformed Dutch Church at Wiltwyck in 1788; she took it over from Maritje Beever.

It says so right before my eyes in—well, not black and white– in brown on beige: the sepia projections of a microfilm reader. And it says so in Dutch, in a crabbed hand, amid cross-outs and indecipherable notations: Maritje Beever nue Elesabet Quembe.

But I recognize the name, or think I do, as I pursue Quinbys and Quimbys through the records of old Kingston, NY. Is this the Betsie Quimbey who shows up later in the baptismal and marriage records of this church as wife of Phillip Van Keuren (also Van Curen)–married in 1798 (or ’99 in Hoes’ transcription)? More crucially, is Elesabet, an adult by 1788, related to my Jannette, b. 1817? Is she an aunt, perhaps? Or just a side-track?

She caught my eye, and now I ponder her, and this church notebook which someone saved for two hundred-plus years, and which someone microfilmed, back when microfilming was the state of the art in preservation. I was turning the wheel to advance the film and suddenly everything was in Dutch, and I squinted hard and scanned for names, my eyeballs marinating in the sepia-stained light that makes an antique document look, well, antique.

Elesabet Quembe doesn’t appear in the next set of records—in 1800, the records switch to English– in that seat or any seat. Nor can I find Van Keuren in the men’s lists. But reading the yellowing pages put me there: in a church segregated by sex, where sitting was by subscription and records told the tale. The men’s lists revealed something else; besides the year-by-year payment, some seats were purchased “for life.” Others were “seats forever.”

But the church itself is long gone; the denomination is now the Reformed Church of America, one with a small presence on the national religious scene.

What were they thinking? In 1800, did no one have an inkling of how quickly things would change and change again and again? Not much is “for life,” and what is “forever”?

Even preservation is temporary. The books are crumbling. The microfilms will fade; the originals will be scanned and digitized, to last how long?

And Elesabet? Someone in the twenty-first century is thinking about you. That may be as close to “forever” as it gets.

Miscellaneous Records of Dutch Church ( also known as Wiltwyck or Esopus) Kingston NY (1663-1881) on microfilm roll # 0017734.

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