I don’t know the stories of most of the family photos I have because my father didn’t know his family. My mother’s family were the stoic Midwestern types who didn’t linger much in the past. And my mother was born late in my grandparents’ lives so by the time she was interested in family history and genealogy, many of the older generations were gone.
For that reason, going through Mom’s family albums or discovering pictures on the Internet of Dad’s family always involves some sort of filling in the blanks on who is in it, where and when it was taken, and why.
I like it because it feels like a lot of convincing happened before the camera clicked. Jane’s If-I-Have-To look and William’s self-conscious stance.
I also like it because they look so modest and genuine. It’s like they were comfortably visiting with the camera person, who I imagine was one of their ten children, maybe having some nice potato salad, talking about the doings of the last church social, and then a camera is pulled out and Jane pulls her cardigan a little tighter around her shoulders before heaping her hands in her lap, and William seems to be waiting for the click so he can go grab the last piece of Apple Brown Betty sitting on the far picnic table.
As far as when and where it was taken, all I have are educated guesses. William passed in 1940 at the age of 73, and he seems solidly in his late sixties here, so I think this was taken sometime in the 1930s. They seem to be sitting in a park. The background of the photo slopes up. At the time they lived in Flushing, Michigan, a suburb of Flint, which happens to be my hometown. The only park I know with a rise like that is Flushing County Park near the high school.
Based on their clothing, this might be a get-together after church. William made his living in dirt and gardens; he grew and sold flowers to the florist shops in town, several of which were owned by his children at various points. My point is if this were a casual social event he’d be wearing overalls. Jane is wearing a thick cardigan, but the trees behind them are robust with leaves, so perhaps it is late April or early May.
Like I said, it’s a guessing game. Those I could ask are long gone, unfortunately. Still, the photo does a good job of providing clues.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that finding an obituary had resurrected my 2x great-grandmother, Fannie Grace. This post won’t make much sense if you don’t read that post first.
I found an obituary of another of Fannie’s brothers.
This time Mary, who I believed to be my 2nd great-grandmother, has the last name Elder, has moved to Oklahoma, and had been identified as a half-sister to Willis Grace. I know that Thomas Grace, the brother whose obituary appeared in the previous post, and Willis are full brothers to my 2nd great-grandmother, Fannie, so I did a little more digging.
Turns out that, while I was correct that Fannie’s father did not have any other daughters, I had forgotten that Fannie’s mother, Rachel Boyt Grace, had been married previously.
So Mary Price Elder is my half-2nd great-grandaunt, Mary McGinnis.
And my 2nd great-grandmother, Fannie Grace Romine, is presumed to have died between 1901 and 1910. This theory is strengthened by the fact that on Fannie’s son’s (my great-grandfather’s) death certificate a different woman is listed as his mother. It seems like Fannie’s name would be there if she had been around much in her son’s life.
A while back, I plugged in a simple family tree on the genealogy website MyHeritage and signed up for their notification emails. I like that, even though I’m not a paying member, the emails update me on records the site has found for my ancestors.
Here’s a recent one I received showing a hit on a 2nd great-granduncle, Thomas Grace:
As you can see, this newspaper hit is for an article that ran in Prescott, Arizona, but I know that Thomas Grace lived near Parma, Missouri, all his life. Why would a Missouri man’s obituary run in an Arizona newspaper?
This article is from the November 12, 1938, edition of the newspaper.
Turns out Tommy is mentioned because his daughter, Trulia Grace Head (that’s a whopper of a name, right?), and his brother Charles were living in Prescott at the time.
This standard funeral notice is an ASTOUNDING find for me because it resurrected an ancestor that I had presumed dead.
My 2nd great-grandmother is Fanny Grace. She appears with my great-grandfather in the 1900 census. But in the 1910 census, she disappears.
Her husband, Edward Romine, had remarried in 1901. In most of her son Albert Clayton’s records, Edward’s second wife is listed as his mother. So, I concluded that Fannie had passed away.
But, Nate, no one named Fanny is listed in this obituary.
True. But listed in the survivors is a sister named Mary Price. The thing is, based on Fannie and Thomas’s father’s military records, Thomas only had one sister. Fannie.
So I believe Mary and Fannie are the same person. Perhaps my great-grandmother’s full name was Mary Frances Grace.
There are a few things I can do now that I know Thomas had a sister living in 1938. I can search for Mary Prices, which you know I already tried. There’s only one Mary Price in Nevada, Missouri, in the 1940 census, and I’ve proven she isn’t my gal.
I can try to find divorce records from around 1900 from the Parma area now that I know Fannie didn’t die. I can check the obituaries of Fanny’s siblings who passed after Tommy to see if she is listed and where she is living. I can check the Missouri Vital Records website to see if any Mary Prices are my 2nd great-grandmother.
Do you have any other suggestions? I would love to hear them!
One of my first memories took place at my Grandma’s funeral. I remember passing a tissue to my mother because she was crying. Her open display of grief was confusing and scary to me. I was 8.
We mourned the woman in the center of this picture that day. This 70-year-old version is the only Bernice Harburn I knew. You can’t see it in the way she slouches on our kitchen cabinet or in the right tilt of head, but she was a schoolteacher before she married. A strict one, apparently. With ruler in hand ready to crack the knuckles of misbehaving students. At that time, Grandma Harburn looked like this:
This is my favorite picture of her, of her 19-year-old version, before Bernice Harburn existed—when people knew her as Bernice Wilson. I see my mom in her face, but mostly I see my niece, which surprises me because I’ve always thought my niece looked exactly like her mother, my sister-in-law.
Grandma’s poise is so youthful, her cheeks so plump, her hair so dark. Her head tilts that same way to the right; it makes me smile. I doubt she knew that was something she did, had done since she was young. Knowing that makes me feel closer to her.
I imagine this picture was taken just before she got into that car and carried her to a significant day in her life. Maybe she was on her way to her teaching school in Indiana. Maybe she was going to teach Sunday school. Maybe she was about to meet my grandfather for the first time. To look at her face and be reminded of my 19-year-old niece is a little shocking. I only bore witness to the last 4 years of Grandma’s life. There were so many revisions between the time this picture was taken and the person I knew. It reminds me that my grandmother had been very much like my niece is now–still figuring things out, still wide to possibilities.
These two pictures of Bernice taken 50 years apart are so similar. It reassures me that we carry who we are from year to year. We have a little at the end that we started with, you know? Our voices, our poise, our head tilts. Aging can only add to our presence, never erase. So I am still that scared little boy handing my mother a tissue at my grandmother’s funeral, even as I shave off the gray whiskers of my beard every morning.
Another reason that memory of the tissue stays with me is that it was the first time I remember making someone laugh. My mother saw a tissue float into her blurred line of vision. She looked over and saw my very concerned and eager-to-help face, and she let out the tiniest of laughs. With that reaction I knew my mother was still beside me; mourning did not cause any quick version-changing as we sat in the church pew. I knew my mother was all right, the loss of her mother would not erase her.
(The featured photo is yet another version of Bernice (top left). Her 11-year-old self. Those glasses: like if Harry Potter lent Hermione his specs.)
When I first started renting cars to drive back home, my parents and my brothers would scoff at the foreign ones. I quickly became the car rental agent’s worst nightmare because I would only rent during holidays—read in: the busiest times— and I would have to refuse the Jettas and Bugs they offered me. “I’m sorry, sir,” I’d say, “but could you please yank that nice family out of the Buick? You would not believe the amount of grief I will get if I drive this Camry into my parents’ driveway.” It was a pain, but it saved me from a lot of grief.
My parents and brothers are car folk, and judging by the recurrent theme in these old family photos, they weren’t the only ones in my family. Car folk are pretty common where I’m from. Flint, Michigan, is, after all, the birthplace of General Motors. Every adult I knew growing up was either a “shop rat” or had a job related to the auto industry. Shouting obscenities to the obvious outsiders driving Volkswagens and Subarus was an everyday occurrence. While watching TV once, I remember asking my mom why there wasn’t a cake of Lava soap and a stiff bristled brush next to Roseanne’s kitchen sink. Where did the Connors scrub the oil from their fingernails?
Looking back, it’s obvious that the auto industry was inherent to the economy, the culture, hell, even the religion of Flint, but I didn’t get it when I lived there. To me, cars were like washcloths— just things, identical but for color, that I used when I needed and then immediately forgot.
But I get it now— my ancestors’ desire to be photographed with their cars, my hometown’s fierce loyalty to an industry that took as much as it gave. These pictures of my grandfather, my grandmother, and my great-granduncle were taken at a time when cars were the newest things under the Sun. My family was still basking in the afterglow of the conveniences their automobiles afforded them. No more isolated farm lives for them. New possibilities were springing up like tulips as far as they could see.
Not only that, my relatives knew the people who made their sleek and shiny status symbols. They were family, friends, and neighbors. Cars weren’t just machines; they were products of the community.
My relatives were proud of their beautiful machines and what owning them meant. You can see it in my grandfather’s straight-backed posture as he sits on the hood, in my great-granduncle’s reach toward a fender as if it were his son’s shoulder, and in my grandmother’s cocked hip and tilted gaze.
Being carless in the city these past thirteen years has helped me appreciate them as my relatives did. I love the novelty of driving now. I appreciate having a trunk to put my groceries in when I have one, and the added bonus of being able to drive them home, too. I appreciate being able to have a conversation while traveling without worrying about the thirty sets of strangers’ ears that are listening. Carrying keys in my hand connects me to my family, my past. And now when I walk into the rental agency, I request the American car up front knowing the tremendous role my family and my hometown played in history.
E. Annie Proulx, the author of the story that turned into Brokeback Mountain, wrote a quiet tale of a nebbishy man returning to his Newfoundland roots after his wife leaves him. The Shipping Newsis stunningly written. Oddly, what sticks with me most are the detailed illustrations of sailing knots that mark the beginning of each chapter. I thought, “Oh, those are cool” as I began the book, and then I started to notice the relationship between the knots and the plot of the chapter. Unbelievable. I’ve since tried to think of a way illustrations could add so much more to my own writing.
Here’s my very short Goodreads review:
Don’t let the movie dissuade you. Easily one of my favorite books.
I’m surprised I didn’t write more. This review doesn’t do the novel justice.
I wouldn’t say the movie desecrated the book. It’s just so boring. Even with Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore turning in decent performances. The book does a much better job of establishing the tone and the undercurrents of the situation Quoyle, the main character, finds himself in. I loved the theme of how our genealogy affects who we are today (surprise, surprise). And, again, the knot illustrations.
A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling groggy, I’ll jog up and down the stairwells of my office building. Each time I hit the bottom landing I’ll turn down into the little-used basement and lay on the floor for my jack knifes, squats, and pushups. I like that it’s cool and quiet down there, but mostly I want to spare my co-workers the mental image of me huffing and puffing while doing lunges.
The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s within earshot of the back door of the building. Many people take their cellphones to the bottom of those steps to make a call, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to work. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. A few of them have actually screamed when I’ve emerged from the basement and crossed between them mid-conversation. Since mine is not the only company in the building, these people don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that’s running away from whatever suspicious thing he’s got going on in the basement.
In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.
And sometimes, I must admit, I feel like a creeper when I’m researching my family: shining lights into dark corners, uncovering tawdry secrets, sniffing out facts about strangers to whom I happen to be related.
For instance, early on in my research I found the names and whereabouts of two relatives that had fallen away from the family. Exhilarated by my discovery, I immediately reached out to them on Facebook, but my enthusiasm was not reciprocated. They politely asked me not to contact them again. I was crushed. It hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t be equally enthusiastic, nor had it occurred to me that they’d associate me with the grudge they held against our common relative. I didn’t understand their immediate dismissal at first. I’m not to blame for what happened to them, I thought, and the past is past.
But it’s not.
Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there, and genealogists like me make a hobby out of rifling through it like the NSA at security checks. My relatives’ rejection helped me to understand that my research and my feelings of connection to familial strangers could be construed as intrusive and stalkerish.
Their rejection also reminded me that our past is directly tied to our present. For some people, like my two relatives, the consequences of past events can be so raw for so long that an enthusiastic Facebook message might make the pain of an entire childhood resurface. I realize that now.
Then it occurred to me that if researching my living family members can stir up bad feelings, maybe it’s ticking off my dead ones, too. What if my research is just bringing up long-forgotten resentments and shame in the afterlife? What if they’re sitting together in an all-white hotel conference room right now throwing fast food wrappers at my image on the afterlife’s version of a television?
Most of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet lives. They were solid, modest Midwesterners living as best they could in the capsules of their time. Maybe they weren’t the kind to like attention. I wonder if they find my stories about them ostentatious. I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. My devout Baptist and Methodist relatives probably wouldn’t agree with my life as a gay man. If they were living, they might have ignored me, disowned me, or sent me off to a ‘conversion therapy’ camp.
Obviously, I hope not. I hope they see my creeping as interest in their lives. I hope they appreciate that I’m trying to understand and learn from them. I hope they recognize that their lives are inspiring me to be grateful for every moment of my own quiet and solid Midwestern life.
(I pulled this from my archives and submitted it to two very gentle editors for their feedback and guidance in yeah write‘s Silver Lounge. Thank you, Christine of trudging through fog and Rowan from textwall, for helping me see this post in a different light. Click here to read the previous version.)
Every now and then I like to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in pop culture. I call it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.
Item #1: The Dead by Billy Collins via book and the Internet
(I came across this poem recently, and wanted to keep it around to read. It nicely sums up my connection to my ancestors while I’m researching them.)
The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
Item #2: City of Thieves by David Benioff via book
In the introduction of the book, the author (who currently heads the writing team of the Game of Thrones series) explains that he kept asking his immigrant grandfather to tell him what life in Russia was like during the Nazi occupation. His grandfather repeatedly refused to talk about it, but gave him a blessing of using his authorly skills to make a story up. Benioff researched the siege of St. Petersburg and then built a narrative around the historical facts. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that this technique is exactly what I’m attempting to do with my ancestors’ histories. The result is an incredibly moving tale of two ‘criminals’ and their odd journey through the battle zones of World War II.
This book will stay in my library as an excellent example of blurring the lines between history and fiction. I think you’ll enjoy it too, although, I will warn you that it does not pull any punches when describing the human condition during wartime. I sobbed through several chapters in this book. I am not much for sobbing generally.
For more on my impressions of this book, read my review on Goodreads. Warning: SPOILERS!
Item #3: Who Do You Think You Are? via television
Not quite literature, I know, but the fourth season premieres on TLC this Wednesday night with Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame. Who Do You Think You Are? is a show that researches a celebrity’s ancestors and then recounts an interesting tale from their findings. The first few episodes on NBC were admittedly dry, but the Mormons over at Ancestry.com who produce it have found a way to jazz it up a bit. The episode on Christina Applegate’s father has stuck with me for 2 years.
I’m an insatiable reader. I like to know things and I like to organize the things that I know.
Combine those three facts and you can see why genealogy is an interest of mine. I’ve been researching my family off-and-on for 12 years now. I have broader interests that will probably come up from time to time (roller and ice skating, living in Chicago, watercolor painting (not the kind with numbers), using parentheses inside parentheses, LGBTQ issues, and poetry to name . . . well, quite a lot, actually), but I think what I write here will center around my origin story.
I named my blog The Relative Cartographer because I often find myself hunched over a blank map with a black Sharpie in my hand, plotting out the migrations of my ancestors. The word cartographer has a special meaning to me too; I wrote about it here.
I’ve started this blog about my family tree for several reasons.
First, I wanted a place to write down the stories I’ve heard about my relatives or that I find in my research, so they will be available to people in the future. I want to be able to share them with anyone who is interested, but I also want anyone who is interested to be able to share their own folklore with me. I’m just as interested in other people’s origins as I am my own. Hopefully my posts convey that. Plus, over time, this blog has the potential to serve as a hub for family and friends, a sort of cyber family reunion. That’s an exciting idea to me.
Second, I graduated from college some time ago with a creative writing degree. I’d like to use this blog to get back into the habit of writing creatively on a regular basis. And nothing inspires me to write my own fiction more than the stories I dig up on my ancestors. So, some of my posts will weave what I know about my forefathers with fictional conversations and events in history (in my head they’ll be like the works of authors T.C. Boyle or E.L. Doctorow, but we’ll see). My stories may not be absolute truth, but hopefully they combine the hard facts of my relatives’ lives with a soul or spirit that captures who they were and how they lived. Having an audience will give me some accountability so I can’t just say to myself “No one will care if I don’t face up to writing the end of that story” and then shove it in a drawer for a decade. I’m sad to report that I’ve actually done.
Finally, I started researching my family tree when I was a bookstore clerk (read in: poor), so I think I have some good tips to share about doing it on a super tight budget. I aim to share some of my cheapskate tricks on my blog for anyone that is in the same position.
I’ve already started writing down some stories. Please let me know what you think.
Before I go on with my story about Thomas and his family, I should tell you about the surprise visitors my parents received back in the summer of 1993.
I was a sophomore in college living across the state. During a routine phone conversation one day in June, my mom told me that some people were staying in the dead-end beside our house. That was strange to hear. Understandably, my parents aren’t accustomed to welcoming strangers at their door. They live 15 minutes outside of town. Anyone wanting to pop in for a surprise visit would have to go way out of their way to see them. So I think my parents probably assumed that the strangers at their door were either trying to convert them to a new religion or a new brand of vacuum cleaner. My parents’ visitors were decidedly not salespeople though, they were a lovely Canadian couple named Doris and Ed Gibbs.
Turns out Doris’s maiden name was Wilson and she was my grandma’s second cousin. If you read my post Shot By the Enemy, you know that Thomas and Emily had 5 kids. Doris was the granddaughter of their eldest son, George.
George fought in the 111th Volunteer Regiment of New York. He mustered in just after his father was hurt in the Battle of Petersburg. A brave thing to do. Among many other skirmishes, his regiment fought at the Battle of Appomattox, where Gen. Lee finally surrendered to Gen. Grant, closing the book on the war in Virginia. Our George mustered out at the age of 21, way too young to have witnessed so much death and disease. I believe he stayed in New York for a while after his family left for Michigan in 1869.
In 1874, he pops up in South Dakota marrying a woman named Anna Mae Sherwood. From there, they moved to Calgary. The reason for the move isn’t clear, but in a community history book I have for another side of my family it seems many people at the time caught ‘Manitoba fever’. A disease suffered by many opportunists; the symptoms of which were a strong desire for fast money and a need to move to the new railroad towns popping up on the desolate Canadian prairie. Canadians and Americans alike were afflicted. That’s most likely how Doris and her family ended up as the sole Canadian branch of our Wilson line.
Doris Gibbs was a housewife. Ed was a life-long Canadian soldier, a veteran of both WWII and the Korean War. Together they raised two children in and around Edmonton and Calgary. They had retired and bought a mid-sized RV. Before showing up on my parent’s front porch, they had been dashing around the continent researching Doris’s family tree. This was prior to the internet, of course, when the only way to see original records was to hop in a car and go to them. They traveled from Edmonton to Manchester, New York, where they had looked up our common ancestors.
Their research in Manchester led them to the area of Michigan where the Wilsons had their farm after they moved from New York state. In Michigan, Doris tracked Thomas’s son, Ambrose; then Ambrose’s son, Fred, through the records. This line of research brought her directly to my hometown not 10 miles down the interstate. She and Ed found Thomas’s grave in town and researched some more at the town Library. They picked up with Fred’s records and followed it through his daughter, finally finding my mother’s name. From there — without the help of smart phones, GPS, or Ancestry — they found my dad’s listing in a phone book and drove right over to meet their brand new relatives.
The Gibbs’ stayed in their RV next to my parents’ house for several days. Doris and my mom spent time going over what they had both collected of the Wilson history. Doris is the one that discovered Thomas had been wounded, and she had ordered his pension files from the National Archives. She gave my mom copies of his papers, and eventually my mom gave me copies of the papers as well.
The documents Doris gave us include Thomas’s enlistment papers, his original application for pension, all of the doctor’s follow-up affidavits, and the application and character witnesses Emily submitted in order to prove her marriage and, ultimately, stake her claim to her husband’s pension after he passed. It’s cool to have these 100+ year-old papers in your hand. It has an energy; like walking around castles in western Ireland, there’s a pulse or a whisper in the air around it reminding you that you’re not breaking any ground living your life. There’s a comfort in that, I think. A relieved pressure of not pioneering unchartered territory.
You may notice on some of the documents in upcoming posts that the cursive writing looks written over and there are notes in the margins. That’s Doris — careful to make sure the soft and worn-down writing of a hundred years ago is clear in her photocopies. And excitedly writing notes in the margins as she encounters new info about the family.
When discussing Doris and Ed a while back, my parents both lit up. Several times the phrase “good, solid people” was used to describe them, a high compliment in our household. I know from this that my parents were glad to have known the Gibbs and that the Gibbs were the kind of people of whom you were proud to be related. And even though I never met them, I am very grateful for their visit and their efforts. Their paperwork has yielded so much information about both Thomas and Emily. Looking through these documents is what initially inspired me to find out more about all of the people who came before. For these reasons, I can’t help but think of Doris as my Genealogical Fairy Godmother. Cheering me on when I unravel a mystery. Pushing the right book or article in front of me at the right time. So thank you, Doris. Thank you, Ed. Rest in peace.
I have made a complete stranger my genealogical cheerleader. Please reassure me that I’m not the only one to do this by telling me about any fairy godpeople in your lives.