Friday, January 20, 2012

Keepers of the Family

It seems to affect only one or two individuals in each generation of a particular family--this urge to trace, find, ponder, assemble and share the data and recollections of those who have lived in earlier times.
There is the passing interest manifested by my spouse and relatives who nod politely when I announce that I've located g-great grandfather in the 1870 census;  there are those who politely don't suggest I could spend my time in more productive ways.
Then there are the cousins or the nieces and nephews who respond with an excitement similar to my own, and a barrage of e-mails, pdfs, worksheets and scanned vintage photos fly back and forth.

The seeds of my passion for family history were sown early.  I listened to the stories of my Grampa Mac and his sister, whenever she came to visit. My ears were pricked when my Mother mentioned the personalities and peculiarities of families and individuals in our small town.
I was perhaps 13 or 14 years old when my Father one day lugged home a stack of yellowed and curling Town Reports which a local lady had been about to throw away.  I was out of school that week with a bad cold, had read my library books from cover to cover.
I claimed the pile of old booklets, retreating with them to my lair on the living room sofa, adding them to the muddle of pillows, blankets and sodden handkerchiefs with which I had surrounded my snuffling self.
I was not interested in the proposed school budgets of former years, nor the totting up of snow removal expenses.  It was the pages of Vital Statistics which captured my attention.

My parents were born in that rural Vermont hamlet, grew up there, married and stayed life-long.
Between them, they knew something of any family listed for many decades.
"Where did _____live?" I demanded of my Father.
In his capacity as Road Commissioner he was acquainted with every cross road in the township.
Pondering a moment he would reply, "There was an old house down near Hough's Crossing [or Conkey Hill---or up by the Smith School] 'it burned down one winter and the family moved to Shoreham."
My Mother's store of information was slightly different: "Yes," she would muse when queried, "I taught their oldest boy in school"--or referring to yet another citizen---"He sang bass in the choir for years, and then stopped coming to church.  His sisters were old maids and always crocheted doiles and made cupcakes for the Ladies Aide Christmas Sale."
The decades of Vital Statistics enthralled me for the remainder of the week as I squinted at the fading print between episodes of nose-blowing and sips of ginger ale.
I worked out the relationships between famililar surnames, connected older folks to some of my contemporaries.
"Where is Harry's wife now?" I demanded of Mother when I came across the marriage details
of a close neighbor.
'Oh," said Mother thoughtfully, "I remember her.  Grace had been married before, had a son.  She was used to city ways and being a farmer's wife didn't suit her for long."
She was less forth-coming when I jabbed a finger at an entry in the BIRTHS column, wondering why a baby had only a mother's name entered and no father.
"I don't think she was married, there were some problems in that family," she replied with prim delicacy.

My Mother's aunts, uncles and cousins made many journeys across Lake Champlain from the family stronghold in upstate New York. Sunday afternoons were filled with singing and story-telling. Fat letters arrived several times a month.  My Mother read them, re-read them, sat down with note paper and pen, filling sheet after sheet with her beautiful script. 
My Father's family, though also nearby, were less well known.
His sisters didn't drive, his brothers were busy.  On Christmas Day and Easter and on the odd Sunday afternoon, we piled into the car and drove to Grandma D.'s house at the edge of the village and sat in a row on her creaking sofa. She smiled at us, but had little to say. Her bachelor oldest son, Uncle Ernie, entertained us, showing us how his huge tomcat would step onto an old scale and sit patiently to be weighed, or calling attention to  his parakeets as they chittered in their wire cage. Conversation dwindled and I wondered about the vague stiffness that seemed to take over.
Later, many years later, I would ponder whether my parent's marriage had been, in fact, the cause of the unease between my Dad and his Mother and siblings.  He had, after all, had the termerity to marry a Protestant who refused to bring up their children in the Catholic fold!

In 1980 I was newly returned to my hometown after some years away.  A woman my age had visited the Town Clerk's office seeking information about her French Canadian family, who were also my Father's family. The town clerk had passed Sandra's inquiries to my Mother, who handed them on to me.
We carried on correspondance for a year or two, sharing such information as we had.
It would be nearly 20 years later, when, far from Vermont and a bit homesick, I pulled out Sandra's mimeographed sheets of vital statistics and began again to search for my Father's family.
I had been working on my maternal genealogy and on J.'s paternal line for several years, connecting with distant cousins, utilizing the resources of
Staring at Sandra's notes it suddenly 'clicked' that the oldest child of my great-grandparents was born not in Canada or in Vermont but in an upstate New York town near the Canadian Border.

Bear in mind that French names are not easily understood or spelled by the average census enumerator, especially when the subject he is interviewing has little familiarity with the English tongue and may be marginally literate in his native language.
Still, I typed in the standard spelling of our surname, gave the New York township as location and moments later was staring in some disbelief at a listing of familiar names in an 1870 household.
"I've found them!" I bellowed, leaping from my chair. I galloped to the bedroom, waving my notebook jubilantly.
"Found who?" growled J. who was on the verge of sleep.
Through I became acquainted with a second or third cousin, Pat M. who is the guiding force in her regional genealogical society.  I was astonished to find that she had orchestrated a family sharing session at a cousin's Vermont home weeks after my 1998 removal to Wyoming--and that my parents, sister and nephew had attended!
At last--someone whose enthusiasm matched mine and whose research skills and
generosity were/are outstanding.
Cousin Aggie prodded her Mom, Aunt Lizzie, a bit and Aunt Lizzie, my Dad's only living sibling came up trumps with pages of jottings--references, names, delightful remebrances that brought my Father's family vividly to life.
That was in 2007.  It has taken me this many years of digging through the Vermont Vital Statistics which became available online, checking, comparing, deciphering phonetic spellings and impossible handwriting.
My notes have covered untidy notebook pages, filled boxes and desk drawers.
This week I finished typing my findings, double checking my sources, refining time-lines.
Today I printed all my documents, tucked them into a colorful pocketed folder, added a page of dedication and acknowlegements for the assistance I've been given.
On Monday the packet will be mailed to Aunt Lizzie, age 92, with a hand-written letter which I hope will in some small way convey my thanks for her part in this labor of love.

photo courtesy of Elizabeth Desjadon Archer
and Agnes Archer Barnes
My Father's parents, Stephen and Demarise, with their oldest child, Ernest,
circa 1901.

Photo from Pat Cameron McGrath, taken at the family gathering she organized in 1998.
My Dad, Larry [left] holds portraits of his maternal grandparents. His older sister Helen displays the portrait of their paternal grandmother, while brother Warren holds their paternal grandfather.


  1. Fascinating post - how wonderful to find out about your father's family after all those years. I've been to Vermont a couple of times and and have looked across Lake Champlain to New York and have also stood on the New York side looking across to Vermont so I know the area that you come from though only very sketchily of course. I think it's time I got one or two of my family history folders out again!

  2. I love to hear how my ancestors lived though I admit that my eyes glaze over when my cousin, who's the one in my generation who investigates such things, announces that the name of my great-great granfather's cousin on his mother's side was called Tom. I read your post though!

  3. You don't fully know who you are of you don't know how you got here.

  4. My aunt was the genealogist in our family and did a wonderful job of tracing my paternal ancestry back to the 1500s. My family came over on the Mayflower, so the family stories have really made the history of this country come alive. Your parents sound so loving and patient with your questions!

  5. I know that "Eureka!" moment! I am the family historian in our family (as you know), but I haven't done any work on it this past year or so - due to being poorly etc last year. I must get back to it.

    How I wish I had lots and lots of family memories to draw upon, but 3 of my grandparents died before I was born and the last one died when I was only 3. Dad was just 18 when his mum died, and he could never bring himself to speak of her . . .

    I really enjoyed reading about your rellies though!

  6. Wonderful blog!!! I'm the family historian for our family and I've been digging for about 2 years. My family has long and short branches, but Mac's family who emigrated from Spain in the early 1900's have been harder to track down.

  7. How lovely to know so much about your family.I would be over to your house in a flash to help with your sewing goodies if I lived near,Love sorting things out.Enjoy the rest of the weekend.Love Jill x

  8. I love all the detective work and often go off on a tangent because something catches my eye. I get so excited when things come together and a loud 'YES'is emitted ..rather like seeing a goal being scored... but I get the same responses from the family as you ...occaisonally they try to look interested but have that glazed look in there

  9. Just dropped by again to say that at first I could see no likeness'in the portraits and you ... but there is ...especially the great grand mother your Dad is holding. I can see him and yourself so clearly....and there is something about the other two held by your aunt and uncle, that shows where their feature came from....fascinating just having a long look. xx

  10. Wonderful post! My late oldest sister and I were the two family historians in our family. There are now volumes of information that we compiled. I had started writing the history before she died of acute myloid leukemia. I haven't been able to make myself get back into it without her, although I know I must. I love your photographs.