While my great-grandfather was getting married on Christmas day 1906, his father’s barn was burning to the ground.
Click here for source.
While my great-grandfather was getting married on Christmas day 1906, his father’s barn was burning to the ground.
Click here for source.
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.
Reproduced at the National Archives
(writing here is the original researcher’s notes, Doris Wilson Gibbs)
State of Kansas
On this 17th day of December AD 1888 personally appears before me a County Clerk in and for said County of Sumner Christianna Chamberlin aged . . . years who is a respectable person and entitled to Credit. Who being duly sworn deposes and says that she is well acquainted with Emily C. Wilson wife of Thomas Wilson a pensioner on the Pension Rolls at Washington D.C. No. of claim No. 78617 Deposer further deposes and says that she was present on the 17th day of June AD 1843 at Mascedonia, Ontario Co. State of N.Y. and saw Mr. Thomas Wilson and Emily C. Wilson and heard the marriage ceremony performed as they were then and there pronounced man and wife by a Justice of the Peace. She further deposes and says that she has no interest direct of indirect to any Pension Claim to which this affidavit may refer and is not concerned in the prosecution of any such Claim And that her Post Office address is Wellington, Sumner County, Kansas.
Sworn and subscribed to before me this 17th day of December 1888
Wm. Berry Co. Clk. C Chamberlain
In the span of a breath, everything changed. The bees chirped. The birds buzzed. And I sat reading a letter next to a gnarled tree. Alone.
I had watched as Eleanor packed our things, only leaving six chickens, the contents of the root cellar, my clothes, and my razor and strop. What precious little I had in my life without them. I held my chin steady as she picked up my youngest, adjusted her bonnet, and walked down the drive. She took my sons and my daughters with her. All ten of them pitied me as they lifted their valises and hefted them onto the stagecoach. I saw a joy inside each of them waiting to be loosed like the voices of a chorus during Easter services. My children were eager to start their adventure.
I picture them as they were in the stagecoach before Charles set the horses in motion. Helen, oblivious, demanded a gum drop and Sarah, my young lady, bent down to Helen’s ear. “Not now,” Sarah whispered. “We’re saying farewell to Papa.” My quiet Aileen held Felix’s hand. Mary Ellen, Langham, and Millicent sat lined up in a row, their legs dangled over the edge of the stagecoach platform. Standing up front, lanky William soothed the horses after the jostling and ruckus of loading their things. I said a silent prayer asking the Lord to watch over each one of them. I knew once they left my sight I was powerless to protect them.
Charles held the reins tightly and gave me his most solemn good-bye. The steeliness in his eyes reassured me that he knew what I expected of him. Man of the house. Settling a family in the frontier wouldn’t be easy, especially without their father; I hoped in that moment that I had sufficiently prepared Charles for the months ahead: the river crossings, the Indians and thieves, the unpredictable weather. All forces set on punishing my loved ones for aspiring to a better life. The thought of it has brought me to my knees more than once these past months.
Eleanor, my faithful wife, was the only one of them that looked peaked. I worried after they departed if I had witnessed the specter of illness on her face. Now, with this first letter, I know what I saw that day wasn’t illness. It was a secret. It was fear.
She had stepped onto the stagecoach that day knowing she was with child. I will meet my new son or daughter when I join them. They arrived the first week of July and I did not lose a one, praise God. Now all that’s left is the selling of the farm, the wait for warmer weather, and my own journey west.
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Whenever my partner enters the room while I’m digging into the past, I’m either bent over the laptop taking notes, furiously typing another search into a search engine, or, and most likely, I’m muttering to myself. I’m sure, to him, I have the same constipated look on my face as Russell Crowe’s character has 80% of the movie.
But concentration is necessary. I am resurrecting lives after all.
Case in point: reviewing the document at left that was in the pile of papers my family received from my Genealogical Fairy Godmother.
On December 17, 1888, a seventy year old woman named Christiana Chamberlain trudged into the office of a county clerk in Wellington, Kansas, and asked him to write an affidavit. She swore an oath to the man that what she was about to say was absolute truth. The lawyer reached for a piece of lined paper and his quill pen and began to write.
Christiana tells the lawyer that she was present at a wedding some 45 years before in a place called Mascedonia, Ontario County, New York. (Click here for larger version and transcript of the affidavit.) Pretty straight forward, huh?
The reason she took the trouble to tell a lawyer this was to help a widow reclaim money from her late husband’s Civil War pension. That widow happens to be my 2nd great-grandmother, Emily Chelesta Patterson. I knew very little about Emily’s life before she married, just maiden name (Patterson), the state in which she was born, and a rough birth year. And I knew even less of Emily’s mother or father, nor any siblings she may have.
That’s the trouble with finding our female relatives’ stories: they’re as integral as the men to the plot lines of our families, but their childhoods are hidden behind their husbands’ last names.
Up until scrutinizing this old letter, my family agreed that Emily’s husband, Thomas Wilson, had been married twice. The snippet below from the 1850 Census lists a woman named Anna living with Thomas and his children. Every census after that lists Emily as the woman of the house and mother to George, Mary, Ambrose, Joanna and Emogene. The names Anna and Emily are different enough and different ages and places of birth were listed for them. We had each looked at this record and assumed Anna had passed away, and Thomas had married Emily to help him care for his 5 children. But Christiana’s statement verifies that Emily was Thomas’s wife when the 1850 census was taken. So Anna was Emily, and I had the happy task of erasing a name off my To Research list.
But then it occurred to me that the 45 years between the marriage in 1843, and the affidavit written in 1888 was a mighty long time. Christiana lived in Wellington, Kansas, at the time she gave the affidavit; Emily lived in Shiawassee County, Michigan. They must have been very tight for Emily to have asked such a favor from so far away. Seems like Emily could have asked younger family members to attest to the marriage—siblings or cousins who might have attended. The two women would have to be as close as sisters to maintain such a friendship for so long. Sisters? Wait a minute.
So, I started researching Christiana, tracking her and her family back in time from Kansas and sure enough, I eventually found a marriage record that a Christiana Patterson married a man named Chamberlain in Illinois. After living in Kansas a while, the Chamberlains moved to Orange County, California. When Christiana passed away in her home in 1908, her niece Joanna (Emily’s daughter) lived in a house around the corner. Ha ha, success! I still have to do the work to prove that my theory is correct, but I now had strong clues to follow to research my enigmatic great-grandmother.
(You might be thinking: Why didn’t the affidavit mention their relationship? Well, the statement goes on to attest that Christiana had no personal stakes in Emily receiving her husband’s money. Mentioning their relationship could have marred her integrity.)
That’s what I mean by resurrecting people’s lives. I had to go back into the “fantasyland of the past” to get into the circumstances of the people involved in that affidavit in order to piece together that Emily and Christiana were sisters (allegedly, probably).
And to think if I hadn’t gone through my Fairy Godmother’s papers for the 101st time I might not have ever made that important connection. It really is so gratifying to solve another piece of the family history puzzle, like Sudoku only using people to fill in the boxes instead of numbers!
*This post was inspired by the DPWriting Challenge, whose prompt this week was to teach something.
This is Part 4 of my series of interconnected short stories about my grandparents’ wedding day. You can start from the beginning here, but you don’t have to do all that reading to follow along in this story.
Nelson had wanted his brother’s shop in Flint– the one he helps out at– to provide the flowers for today, but decided to ask his sister, Jennie, to fill the order instead. Her shop was much closer. She and Merrill ran the large greenhouses just over on Coutant Street in town. His brother got his flowers from Merrill, so either way Nelson was still supporting his family’s small empire of dirt and bulbs.
He imagined his sister earlier this morning, her hair hanging loose and inches above her narrow shoulders. The bob she wore remaining perfectly quaffed despite the hard labor required of her job. Every day, she wore her uniform of a simple white cotton blouse and a powder blue A-line skirt around the shop–presentable, but easily washed when the inevitable dousing of water or dirt occurred.
Nelson knew his older sister’s routine. She surely would have helped her husband with the day’s load and it would be a large one today being so close to Mother’s Day. She would put the flowers he had purchased in the space behind the driver’s seat, so she could check on them from the passenger’s seat, making sure they didn’t tip on the ride over. Then she and Merrill would fill up the truck with the rest of the orders. Knowing Jennie she hummed a hymn as Merrill drove them to each stop, and, eventually, to Minnie and Fred’s home tucked back from the road where Nelson stood now.
As Nelson walked closer to the kitchen, the combination of smells of the flowers, whatever was cooking in the oven, and his own nervousness made him feel sick to his stomach. He stepped through the narrow threshold of Minnie’s kitchen, the cloying aroma of flowers fell away to a thick smell of ham. He saw the backside of a man, Minnie’s father, stooped over the oven door, basting the ham with either pale maple syrup or dark pineapple juice. Nelson said hello and then wondered if he should start calling the older man Pawpaw like Bernice did. But, Mr. Porterfield . . . Pawpaw being 74 with ears to match didn’t hear him. Nelson knocked on the counter to announce his arrival in the room. Pawpaw turned his head to the left, gave a quick nod to Nelson, and went right back to ladling juices over the ham using a large wooden spoon.
“Grab me a knife, young man, would you? Before my daughter walks in and insists each part of this hog go into separate tins!” In order to hear himself, Pawpaw tended to shout. Pawpaw? Mister Pawpaw? He felt absurd even thinking about calling another man Pawpaw.
“I was just wondering, sir, if you had any preferences on what I should call you. That is, now that I’ll be a part of your family.”
“Yes! It’s the second drawer to the left of the sink!” Pawpaw said, pointing to the only drawer that was ajar in a horizontal row of identical white drawers.
Nelson opened the drawer further to find long, thin cracker tins wedged neatly into one another in order to fit the space. None of the tins had lids, but every last one of them was full to brimming with silverware, sorted according to their use. It looked like one of those children’s games where a picture is cut up into squares with one piece missing and you’re supposed to move the pieces around until the picture is whole again. The empty space in the drawer contained a small rolling pin. He found the carving knife in a tin along the left of the drawer.
After carefully handing off the knife to the other man, Nelson looked around the rest of the large kitchen. He’d been in the house twice before—to plan for the wedding and to bring his and Bernice’s parents together to meet—but he was struck again by the conscripted order of the room. He knew if he were to open the steel cupboards he would find a similar display of perfectly aligned coffee and cookie tins spaced evenly apart. He knew this because his mother had asked Minnie about her caliber of cleanliness when they had visited. Minnie just said it was the only way she could think of to “ward off her husband’s tendency toward clutter” and looked over at her husband with a playful air. To which Mr. Wilson, in his low growl of a voice, responded, “Don’t let her fool you; she’d never tolerate being married to an untidy man.”
Minnie’s smile stretched to her dimples as she said, “It’s true. Fred comes back behind me and cleans up what I missed.” Then she placed her hand on his forearm and moved the conversation toward the new pastor of their church. Later that night, after the dishes were washed and the playing cards were put back in Fred’s rolltop desk, after the Harburns said their thank yous and their goodbyes, after they got in the car waving to their hosts on the porch, Nelson’s mother leaned back toward Nelson and marvelled out of the corner of her mouth about the time and energy it must take that couple to maintain the pristine condition of the old porcelain sink or the perfect bunting-shape of the tea towels on the rack underneath it.
And today standing in the middle of it once again, Nelson thought, the towels, the sink, the whole kitchen looked as if it hadn’t been used since that day months ago, except for one glaring difference: the cutting board on the hoosier bowed under the burden of plate upon plate of cakes, cookies, and tarts.
Start at the beginning of this story: Ties.
Read Part 2 of this story: The Jitters.
++++++ PART 3 ++++++++
“Oh, Nelson, there you are,” Minnie said, as if he’d been hiding from her all morning. She held out the corsage for him, and he took it.
“Good morning, Mrs. Wilson.”
“I thought it would be nice if you pinned it on her. A break in tradition, of course, but so is your seeing Bernice before the ceremony.”
“She’s calling it an elopement,” he said to ease the sting he sensed in her voice, “but I suppose it’s not really one if everyone already knows about it, is it?”
Minnie ignored the question. Nelson cleared the smile from his face and looked down at the flowers in his hand. He immediately regretted mentioning it. Their decision to be married in Indiana must have been the reason for Minnie’s countenance in the window. Probably she’d prefer their wedding take place in the Baptist church in town. A church as full of flowers as friends and their pastor presiding over the ceremony. Certainly, that’s what Minnie would prefer. Nelson looked back up at his fiancee’s mother and was surprised to find a small smile on her face.
“We spent all morning on Bernice’s hair, Wilma and I. It seems to be as stubborn as she is. Of course she wanted to look in the mirror and fuss over it herself, but I stood between her and the mirror so Wilma’s work would be a surprise. She’s nervous, Bernice is, she’s never been one to want attention, not like her sister. Well, you know that, of course, otherwise you would have decided to keep the wedding here . . . Look at you! You look fine, just fine. That vest, is it new? Seems like I would have seen it at church if it weren’t.”
“It is new, yes.” Nelson said, slightly disappointed that his hand-me-down vest was noticed but not his tie.
“Are you hungry? I’ve made a cake, Wilma’s whipping up eggs for us now, the dear, and Father just brought over a ham that would put the chef at The Durant to shame. He seems in better spirits today. He has his ups and his downs, you know. It was hard enough to lose my mother; seeing him dowse about in his grief all day may be harder still. Some days I have to pull him by his shirtsleeves out of that house of his. Of course, having him right next door keeps him from loneliness. I feel like a pest to him, but I do have to shake him about from time to time or he’d sit by the fire with his bowie and his twigs till services come Sunday.”
“It’s good that you do, ma’am.”
“Oh, Nelson, thank you for saying so. But, we’re to focus on happier things today, aren’t we? We should get you in to see everyone. Your family came by this morning with impressive zinnias and hyacinth, and Bernice’s bouquet? It’s gorgeous, just gorgeous. Between the flowers and the ham, my nose just doesn’t know what to follow. Now what’s taking her so long?”
Nelson followed Minnie into the house. Minnie continued down the hallway that led to the bedrooms—he assumed to check in with Bernice—leaving him in the parlor for a moment alone.
Jennie had indeed come by. A smell of the flowers had nudged him at the door, he had thought it was Minnie’s perfume. So it was a bit of a surprise to see the parlor erupting in vases of flowers—on top of the china cabinet in the corner, the side table next to Fred’s favorite chair, the low buffet along the window displaying all the pictures of the family, any flat surface had a vase. Some even had two or three. For a room so full of fresh flowers, the smell was not cloying. Probably because it was early May after a cold April. In a month when the flowers were more mature, the pollen would absolutely saturate the room, even now the sweetness was strong enough to make him pause.
He imagined these flowers hanging on the walls in the church, wreaths on every pew, every pew full of their family. He imagined the bouquet in Bernice’s hand. And then he remembered the corsage Minnie had given him at the door, still in his own hand. He placed it on the table with the pictures, moving two vases of flowers aside and picking up the photo nearest him. It was of the family, back when Bernice, Wilma, and George were still in grade school.
Minnie, on the bottom right of the picture, looked pretty in a way young mothers tend to be—self-assured, ready for whatever’s next, necessary. Wilma stood in the back on the left, her hair draped and pinned creating a veil over her left eye. George’s thin eyebrow cocked at exactly the same angle as his father’s beside him. His hand rested self-consciously on Fred’s shoulder: a pose that would never occur without the suggestion of a professional photographer.
And his Bernice, in her circular glasses set askew on her nose, her mouth pursed, her head angled slightly to the right toward her younger sister. Shoulder-to-shoulder, the sisters looked as if they may have been haggling for the center of the portrait a few moments before the picture was taken. It occurred to Nelson that this was his first look at his bride on their wedding day: a modest picture of an 11-year-old girl with the same unblinking look that had flashed on her face when he first suggested she marry him.
The first chapter of this story can be found here: Ties.
The sedan sputtered because of the series of divots the spring storms pounded into Potter Road. He’d need to check the suspension before setting off for Indiana later. But once Nelson had passed the Conoco station and turned left onto Dillon, he heard the engine ease back into a sturdier rhythm, and he relaxed his grip on the steering wheel.
Pulling into the driveway, he saw his soon-to-be parents-in-laws’ faces in the front window. The morning sun illuminated them. Minnie was saying something to her husband, Fred, her chin pointed toward her shoulder, but her eyes looked directly out the window at Nelson’s Chevrolet rolling to a stop. She wore a red cardigan, and a skirt with a vaguely floral pattern of red and light green. Her hair was twisted back into a loose bun; she’d obviously been cooking recently.
Minnie’s right hand held the lace curtain to the side. The glare off the window blurred the line between her cuff and the curtain. To him, it looked as though her sleeve dripped with lace, like the overstated frocks Queen Victoria wore in her portraits. He imagined Minnie with a crown and a choking collar, but the image didn’t hold. Although she didn’t look too friendly just then, he knew Minnie to be down-to-earth, not at all a queen.
Nelson’s stomach lurched as he pressed down on the brakes. He could gauge Minnie’s tone of voice by the way Fred was standing behind her and to her left frowning: she was getting her way about something. Fred’s already arched eyebrow curled even higher. His eyes moved from Nelson’s car, past the houses across the street to the manicured Michigan fields of young soybeans and corn. Nelson was sure Fred was thinking of his fields, of the quiet, hard work of the farm to be done after the percussions of this morning. Nelson had always felt he had that in common with Fred: an appreciation for action over words.
Nelson jittered out of the car much like the engine of his Chevrolet sputtered. He checked the front wheel, patted the hood twice—all to prepare himself to be the center of attention for the day. It was a role he was not comfortable with; a role he would usually avoid. He looked up at the window again to smile or wave—a conscious decision to start the day out well—but saw that his fiancee’s parents had disassembled their tableau in the window and that Wilma and her husband, George, were seated around the dining room table. A pink and thickly frosted cake sitting between them. No sign of Bernice. He wished she’d been waiting for him on the porch. He felt like he needed her as a buffer, having never been around her family before without her. No occasion to until today.
He heard the side door open. Footsteps on the stoop. Minnie, holding a corsage of lavender zinnias and lilies-of-the-valley, was the first to greet him.
The folklore of our family members meeting their in-laws can give great insight into all of their personalities. Do you have any good stories about these occasions in your family tree?
Read Part 3: The Corsage.