And She’s Dead Again

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.

The Younger Versions of Our Grandparents

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.

Mom, Grandma Harburn and Aunt Marily - aug 78.jpg
my mother, my grandma, my aunt in 1980 or so

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:

Bernice+Ellen+Wilson

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.)

4. I wouldn’t say the movie desecrated the book, but. . .

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 News is 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.

 

 

The Creeper of the Family Tree (revised)

Sums it up pretty well.
Sums it up pretty well.

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.

Me, after a workout
Me, during a workout

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.)

 

in which I formally introduce myself to Blogging 101 folk

Blog avatarI’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.

 

 

Genealogical Fairygodmothers

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.

A quick Wilson tree for clarity's sake.
A quick Wilson tree for clarity’s sake.

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.

The physical descriptions on papers like these bewilder me. I'm grateful for the sketch they provide, but what possible use could the term "dark complexion" afforded? Dark compared to what?
George’s Certificate of Duty. The physical descriptions on papers like these bewilder me. I’m grateful for the sketch they provide, but what possible use could the term “dark complexion” afford? Dark compared to what?

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.

Ed Gibbs, a kind-hearted man. Unfortunately, I can't find any pictures of Doris. Here's hoping a Gibbs family member will spot this blog and give me a picture.
Ed Gibbs, a kind-hearted man. Unfortunately, I can’t find any pictures of Doris.

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.

Doris and Ed Gibbs
God bless them both. Photo credit: Cheyenne Kepke (http://cemetery.canadagenweb.org)

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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.

Shot By the Enemy

One of many forms detailing Thomas' injury in the war.
One of many forms detailing my forefather’s injury in the war.

My third great grandfather, Thomas Wilson, was about 46 years old when he enlisted in the 24th Regiment of the New York Cavalry. The document above is a form the doctor had to fill out in order for Thomas to receive government money. In my possession, I have a dozen more of his claims for an Invalid Pension spanning from 1864 to 1875. Each one has a mannequin-like diagram of a man (think Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man) with an arrow pointing to the upper right leg indicating the source of Thomas’s complaint year after year. It seems the government required him to get a physical regularly to keep his soldier’s pension.

This document says that he was wounded on July 9th, 1864. He was shot in the right thigh “splintering the bone.” On top of that it describes an exit wound just left of the pubis. Youch! The wound was “received in the trenches before Petersburg from a shot by the enemy.” I will leave you to read the rest of the gory details in the document, if you so choose. The initialism GSW, by the way, stands for “gun shot wound.” That tripped me up.

Thomas received $4 a month because he suffered from “too much lameness to allow work of more than half a day.” I’ll say. Good thing he had his wife, Emily Patterson Wilson, and his sons and daughters to help him with the farm work. His oldest son, George, also fought in the war. Mary Jane, his oldest daughter, and Ambrose, his second son, were in their late teens and unmarried at the time. His youngest children, Joanna and Emogene, were still in school.* Ambrose, by the way, is the father of Fred Wilson in the fictional story I’m writing about my family.

 

From the Library of Congress archives
“In the trenches before Petersburg, Virginia, 1865” from the Library of Congress archives

The Battle of Petersburg, Virginia, or the Petersburg Campaign, was an especially gruesome one and significant to the outcome of the war. Petersburg was the seventh largest city in the Confederacy at the time and a center of transportation. A third of the soldiers involved perished during the 292 days it rumbled the country. Thomas probably fought in the initial battle. I say probably because the government website lists June 15-18, 1864 as the dates of the first battle. Thomas’s record states that he received his wound 21 days later. Considering those dates, the word before in “received in the trenches before Petersburg” probably refers to geography and not time. In other words, my man suffered his wounds in the trenches that are located in the ground before one enters the city, not before the Battle of Petersburg itself.

I found a genealogy website that lists an article where Thomas is reported to have been slightly wounded on June 29th. So, that seems to suggest that Thomas was in the trenches as the initial battle raged. Given the details I’ve read of the campaign, he is lucky to have survived it.

Whether he fought in Petersburg or not, Thomas’s story is fascinating to me. If I had known when I was in school that I had a direct ancestor who had participated in the Civil War (now I know of several),  I surely would have invested in the topics I was being taught. How could I not? In my family tree alone, I have probable ties to most of the major wars, Jesse James, Eli Whitney, the Quakers, and Susannah Martin, one of the first women accused in the Salem Witch trials.  And those are just the ancestors I know about now! But now I’m getting ahead of myself; those are subjects for future posts.

I’ve often thought it would be wise to teach a little genealogy in junior high school so students could discover how their family was impacted by the historical events they learn about in class. It would help students recognize that history isn’t just about memorizing random dates and places. It would also help teachers maintain their students’ interest . . . or maybe not everyone would be as geeky about it as I am.

Not long after he was mustered out (which is olde timey military-talk for ‘released from duty’), Thomas moved his family to eastern Michigan. He lived about halfway between the towns of Flushing and New Lothrop until his death in 1883. Thankfully, despite his wounds, he lived to the ripe age of 65.*

This isn’t the last you’ll hear of Thomas Wilson. I have more documentation to share. I actually edited out three more documents that directly relate to what I’ve told you so far about him. Plus I have war documents that helped me find his wife’s family, not to mention the story of how these documents landed in my hands in the first place! I just don’t want to smother you with everything I know.

I will, however, smother you with what these forms neglected to mention: Thomas’ parent’s names. In genealogical terms, that means Thomas is one of my brick walls. A brick wall in a family tree is a person whose paper trail ends abruptly. It’s frustrating to have his childhood be a dead end for me considering how much paperwork I have on his life as an adult. Other documents suggest he may have been born in 1817 in Morristown, New Jersey.* Other Wilsons and Willsons can be found living near Manchester, New York, where Thomas and his family lived before the war, but Wilson is such a common surname. I couldn’t find data on common surnames from back then, but Census.gov lists it as the eighth most common last name in the country in 1990. Therefore, I don’t think I can safely assume that all of the Wilson/Willsons in the area are Thomas’s relatives. I have looked for other Wilson/Willsons in the area that were also born in New Jersey about the time Thomas was. I came up with one person: a man named Stephen Willson. Stephen was only in the area for one census and I have no idea where he moved after that. If anyone has suggestions of where I can look, please share!

Recently, I sent a friend who lives in nearby Rochester, New York, to the Genealogical Society near Manchester to look up Thomas and Emily’s marriage announcements. I was hoping there’d be something there listing his parents or his family. But no dice. (Thanks again, Kristy!)

*documentation of these facts available, just ask.

 

The Creeper of the Family Tree

Sums it up pretty well.
Sums it up pretty well.

A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling logy at work, I’ll jog up and down the three flights of stairs in my office building. I do sets of exercises each time I reach the tucked-away basement. I used to do my jack knifes, squats, and pushups at the top of the stairs, but people would often be spooked when they turned into the stairwell and spotted me huffing and puffing on the landing situated just before the stairs open out onto the roof. The location I used before that was a recess in the hallway near the service elevator. I moved from there when not one, but two different dogs came over and sniffed my scalp as I did my push-ups (my office building is pet friendly). Those dogs made me feel a little vulnerable. So, I moved to the barely used basement for my privacy and to maintain other peoples’ sense of security.

Perhaps if I wore a bow tie while I exercised I would scare less people.
Perhaps if I wore a bow tie while I exercised I would scare less people.

The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s directly adjacent to the back door of the building. Many office workers take their cell phones to that landing, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to their desks. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. My perfectly innocent presence still scares them when I emerge from the dank basement to cross between them mid-conversation and continue my jog up the stairs. I should also mention that my office building houses about 20 different companies, so these are people who don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that likes to scare people and enjoys having his scalp sniffed by dogs.

In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.

Me, after a workout
Me, after a workout

And sometimes, I must admit, I feel a little like my family’s genealogical creeper: lurking in unseen corners, overhearing the snippets of their lives I find on documents and pictures, surprising newly found relatives on Facebook asking for info about their relatives after sniffing them out.

That’s why I’ve all but given up researching living relatives. As much as I would like to bring my distant cousins together, it feels intrusive and a little stalker-y knowing my connections to people who don’t know me. Also, I realized early on in my research that my feelings of connection to my relatives went unrequited more often than not (not to discount my family members who were open to connecting).

That was a hard lesson I had to learn just about out of the gate. I found some relatives and was instantly rejected because of bad blood. I just couldn’t understand their rebuffs  at first. What’s the big deal?, I thought, the past is past.

But it’s not.

If that were true, genealogy wouldn’t exist. Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there. And genealogists like me are set on rifling through it like the NSA does a suspicious suitcase. The past is directly tied to our present. Some events in the past are still so raw and tangible that a single name might burble up the pain or joy we associate with it to our surfaces like blood to a blushing cheek. And some details in our past can transfer to seemingly unrelated people and things. An inconsistent parent can deem an entire branch of a family tree unsavory. Words left unsaid to a loved one can fester and make a person want to never talk about that person again.  I realize that now. (Insert grateful prayer here about having to learn that lesson as opposed to having to live it.)

So, I often wonder if my research is ticking my ancestors off, like it did those relative who rejected my interest in them. Knowing that quite a few of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet, honest lives. Perhaps, they weren’t the kind to talk about themselves. Or I wonder if they would rather I stick to the facts instead of making up my own flouncy stories about them. Perhaps more to my point, I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. Most of them probably wouldn’t have agreed (while they were living) with my life as a gay man. They were after all solid, modest Midwesterners living their lives as best they could in the capsules of their time. Some or most of them might have thought less of me, might have disowned me, might have sent me off to ‘conversion therapy’ camps, might have ignored me completely.

But I hope not. (Insert another grateful prayer here about the ability for times to change and for my very supportive family.) I hope they’re happy I’m interested in their lives, happy in my efforts to remember and learn from them, happy to have lights shine on events that no longer elicit bad feelings, happy I’m spreading their tales. I happen to believe, among many other things, that our relatives can see our lives from our perspective after they’ve passed, and I’d like to think that they know that I’m striving for the same goals they did: exacting my own quiet, honest life the best way I can in the capsule of my own time.

Surprisingly, that task has involved a lot more gasping strangers and dog snouts than I ever expected.

 

Flushing, a conflicted love note

With a title like that, this post could go a few different places, but that capital F is the proper-noun kind of capital, not the obligatory beginning-of-sentence kind.

Flushing happens to be a very pretty town cozied into the banks of the Flint River just downstream from Flint city. It is also the town in which I was born and raised. It supported a fantastic childhood and many good friendships. Before you ask, no, our high school mascot wasn’t a toilet, as rival schools often suggest. Yes, whenever I mention it without the Michigan qualifier, people assume I grew up outside of NYC and wonder why I don’t talk like Fran Drescher’s The Nanny.

Flushing's Summer Fair is held downtown next to the river every summer. photo credit: lonniec61 on flickr.com
Flushing’s Summer Fair is held downtown next to the river every year. Photo credit: lonniec61 on flickr.com

Case in point: On his application to enter the U.S., my grandfather wrote that he only intended to stay in Flint for a month. I think that was a lie. Most of his family was in Flint by then, sailing across Lake St. Clair one at a time.
Another case in point: On his application to enter the U.S., my grandfather wrote that he only intended to stay in Flint for a month. I think that was a fib. Most of his family was in Flint by then, having sailed across Lake St. Clair from Ontario one at a time.

When researching my family history, I geek out when I come across a record that hints at the algorithm of past decisions that led to Flushing becoming my hometown. At minimum, there were 1,024 decisions made leading to the actual event of my birth. And that’s just going back 7 generations (to about the early 1600s). Eight generations back would be 2,048 people (!) barring any kissing cousins in the tree. So let’s just say that’s the number of mothers and fathers directly involved in my, and each of our births in each of our towns in each of our countries. Even though we both know our ancestors didn’t just magically appear in the miasma of the 17th century.

Tangent aside, that means one thousand and twenty-four amazing stories had to unravel for you to be where you are sitting in your chair kindly reading this blog post. When you factor in all of their brothers and sisters, their cousins, their step-mothers, their pastors, their business partners, and the fact that there were significantly less people in the world the further back we go in time, that number really highlights how interconnected we must be.

When I actually lived in Flushing, I wanted nothing more than to leave. I was restless for getting out on my own; I didn’t feel I belonged there. We lived 15 minutes outside of town and it just seemed too quiet, like nothing interesting had ever happened there. For most adults with families the tranquility is a draw, but for a teenager (and me, still) it’s annoying to not be in the middle of things. So even though I don’t see myself ever moving back for many of the same reasons I left when I was 18, I find myself thinking about Flushing a lot. The more I research my family tree, the more I realize that Flushing and Flint are at its core. I have list upon list of records I’d like to look up there, graves I’d like to photograph, farmsteads I’d like to visit. I had no idea growing up that my history was scattered all around that little house in a field outside of town.

I thought that show was from the 90s, but judging from that outfit it must have aired in the 60s.
I thought this was a 90s tv show, but judging from that outfit and hairdo it must have aired in the 60s.

From what I’ve read, my Flushing owes a lot to The Nanny’s hometown. Back when NYC was just swampy farmland, Dutch settlers founded a town on an island that juts out into the ocean, and named it after a city that also juts out into the ocean: Vlissingen, Netherlands. When the Dutch government pulled out of the New World later, the English changed the spelling and pronunciation to something a little easier for them to say: Flushing. Later still, determined shippers dug the Erie Canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Erie, bypassing Niagara Falls. The canal was finished in 1825. Many New York farmers living along the canal used it to move west to plots of Michigan farmland and points further west.

In addition to their belongings, the settlers also brought with them the place names they knew, just as the Dutch did before them. They named their new towns Rochester, Utica, Holl(e)y, Brighton, Troy, Gaines, Clarks(t)on; and their counties Genesee, Wayne, Livingston—all names of towns and counties on or near the Erie Canal and in eastern Michigan. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, they named a spot in the gentle dip of Genesee “valley” after the town of Flushing in New York.

So, that’s how a wounded Civil War veteran named Thomas Wilson, and his wife, Emily, ended up living near Flushing in 1870. They had packed up their things in Manchester, NY, got on a boat in the canal with their five children and moved to eastern Michigan to a large farm on the very outskirts of Flushing. Thomas Wilson, my 3rd great grandfather who passed away 95 years before I was born, was buried in Flushing City Cemetery. Those are some deep local roots. I’m planning on posting about Thomas soon. Of course I am. This is a blog about my origins and Thomas is 1/1,024 of my story.

Like Batman, Superman, the Joker, and the Hulk, we all have our origin stories. And each of our stories take place in Gothams and Kryptons – places that define who we are. They can be both our strength and our weakness, our pride and our shame. But there’s no denying that they are the source of our identity. In that way, we’re all superheroes . . . well, the heroes, at least, of our own stories.

Maybe I should start walking around wearing a cape and a tree emblem on my chest. Or not.

This postcard seems misleading. I don't remember hills that tall in my hometown. Maybe they're treetops?
This postcard seems misleading. I don’t remember hills that tall in my hometown. Well, maybe near Bueche’s, I guess. (Update: a fellow Flushingite suggested it’s the view along the river pre-Valley Golf Course. I think she’s right.)

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For all you heroes out there: what were some of the best parts of growing up in your hometown?