There was a time, oh, about a century or two past, when it was fashionable for friends and family to go calling on New Year's Day. In the flurry of activity from mid morning to mid afternoon, families and, most often, single men would take a carriage ride from house to house to visit as many of their acquaintances—in the case of the gentlemen, to the home of notable single women—as could be managed in the allotted time frame.
I first learned about that quaint custom through a passage in a book by Louisa May Alcott, Rose in Bloom:
Old Miss Campbell was nearly as great a favorite as young Miss Campbell, so a succession of black coats and white gloves flowed in and out of the hospitable mansion pretty steadily all day. The clan was out in great force, and came by in installments to pay their duty to Aunt Plenty and wish the compliments of the season to "our cousin." Archie appeared first…. Hardly was he gone when Will and Geordie came marching in, looking as fine as gray uniforms with much scarlet piping could make them and feeling peculiarly important, as this was their first essay in New Year's call-making. Brief was their stay, for they planned to visit every friend they had….
That was the very entry which inspired my first-ever New Year's blog post, back in 2012. On that occasion, I had envisioned the day's digital calling as a visit to the blogs of those I considered my mentors during that first year of A Family Tapestry, and shared links to their blogs.
This year, in my Auld Lang Syne season, I've re-imagined that New Year's holiday-inspired event as one in which we gather together with old "acquaintances" we've met, courtesy of cast-off photographs. And we have made a few "calls" already, revisiting the stories of the Hawkes and Reid families from County Cork, Ireland, and the contacts I've since received this year inquiring about various individuals featured in their photo album from 1936. We've also revisited the story of John Syme Hogue and a contact I received from one of his relatives this past summer.
For today's remembrance, though, I wanted to save the story of what became of the photograph of John Cunningham Blain, the unfortunate Kansas salesman who lost his life a few days after being struck by a locomotive back in 1908. As you may remember, I found his photograph from Walnut, Kansas, in a northern California antique shop a few years ago, and only in the past month decided to pursue the man's story in hopes of returning the picture to family members who would appreciate receiving it.
As it turned out, it was not at all a difficult task to locate a close relative who most certainly would welcome receiving the hundred year old picture. Two Ancestry.com subscribers—a mother and her daughter—who were researching that same family turned out to be close family members. I returned the little treasure by mail just before Christmas.
What I didn't mention, though, was the plan this relative had in store, once she received the package. The photo, as it turned out, was not something she intended to keep for herself, but one which she decided to re-purpose as a Christmas gift for someone else.
You see, one of John Blain's own grandchildren is still alive and happened to be planning to visit this woman for Christmas. What that grandchild didn't know was that the photograph had been located, after all these years, and was awaiting her arrival over the holidays.
I just received word that, at the family's Christmas gathering, when this grandchild—now in her nineties—was presented with this unexpected gift, at the point at which she laid eyes on the likeness, immediately exclaimed, "That's my grandfather!" And that, to a photograph of a man gone long before this woman was even born. That picture must have been a significant memory from her own childhood, doubtlessly coupled with stories told by a mother who was barely six years old, herself, when she lost her father.
That's the type of gift which elicits a response rarely encountered when opening the usual holiday fare. Perhaps its pricelessness is owing to its ability to transport a soul from present day to memories of the past so palpably.
The host of the gathering—the woman to whom I had mailed the photo—observed that, in the delightful moment of discovery in opening up that photograph, not only did John Blain's granddaughter once again reconnect with a memory of her past, but her great-grandchildren, also at the Christmas gathering, had a hands-on chance to learn about their own third great-grandfather, as well. A wonderful opportunity to tie together recollections of multiple generations, all in one holiday visit.
Of course, that was Christmas and this is New Year's Day. There was no way I could have shared that report earlier, though—not, at least, until after the Christmas gathering was over and the secret was out. But now, in the time-honored New Year's calling tradition kept by many of our American ancestors, perhaps we can "revisit" those friends we've met along the way in this past year's stories at A Family Tapestry by recreating a New Year's Calling tradition of our own.
Though you may not prepare your carriage to go out in the cold to greet your acquaintances on this New Year's Day, you surely have ancestors you've discovered through this year's research. I hope their stories come to mind again in a genealogical Auld Lang Syne sort of way on this mellow start to another year.