Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Here’s To “Auld” Acquaintances

It’s New Year’s Eve. Whether you have plans for a big night out on the town, or a quiet repose in a more secluded getaway, you will likely give thought to those in your acquaintance who shared with you some aspect of the past year.

Whether 2013 was a good year for you or not—in my case, I’d say it was a year I hope never to repeat—you can quickly think of those who made the year a bit brighter, more encouraging, or even delightful. Of course, part of sharing the cheer of the New Year is to pass along your gratitude to those others for the role they have played in making it so.

For my part, I wish to express my gratefulness to each of you for reading along, sharing your comments and observations—and, in some cases, a lingering visit over a good cup of coffee—and keeping me company on my genealogical research journey this past year. A blog isn’t really a blog without a conversation, and you have kept the conversation going.

Best wishes to all of you for a brighter 2014!

Above: Chilean artist Friar Pedro Subercaseaux Errázuriz depicts the scene of the first presentation of the Argentine National Anthem; in the public domain according to Chilean law; courtesy Wikipedia.  

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Process of Discovery

Researching family history leads to an ever-unfolding revelation.

For one thing, more records are being converted to digital files and added to various online resources every day. What couldn’t be found yesterday has a better chance of being found today—and an even greater possibility of being discovered in the weeks to come.

In addition, the more we know, the more we are equipped to find additional facts. Each detail drops into place like a missing piece of the puzzle, clarifying most-likely next steps to nudge into place.

However, sometimes those revelations are not so much Ah ha! moments as Oops recoveries. Going back over what we’ve already entered in our databases, we may find details entered in error—or provided by documents themselves riddled with mistakes (yes, even death certificates). And we may uncover spots in our records that had been left blank. The last time we passed that way, we just weren’t prepared to enter some data, whether because of lack of supply, or because of sheer doubt of our source.

Since embarking on a revisit of my records for my mother’s cousin, Sarah Martha Moore McKinnon—whom I introduced to you when I stumbled upon her childhood picture a couple days ago—I’ve realized I needed to do some housecleaning of her data.

I was particularly in need of her birth and marriage information. While I had most likely gleaned the April 3, 1927, birth date from an entry in the Davis family Bible, I hadn’t been able to uncover any other documentation of that date, especially any that indicated the location of that birth. One could easily assume she would have been born in Tennessee, where her parents were raised. Knowing her immediate family’s propensity to travel—and live—in Central America, though, I couldn’t be sure she was American-born.

Between those blanks in my records, and my unprepared launching into a blog post on her part of our extended family, I was brought back to the fact that I was missing some details and documentation on this one family member’s entry.

So what can a winter-bound family history researcher do on a cold post-Christmas day? Scour the Internet to see what can be found!

Of course, as often happens, while I was looking this way, what should show up from that way in my search? Trying desperately (as I have for years, now) to discover any more on Sarah Martha’s husband, the mysterious Mr. C. J. McKinnon as my grandmother always addressed him, I happened to bump into a birth entry for Sarah Martha, herself.

Undaunted by the fact that the date was one day off from records gleaned from our family Bible (chalk that up to a source listed as an index of material), Tennessee Births and Christenings, 1828-1939 did at least confirm that she was born in Tennessee, not Honduras or any equally exotic (and inaccessible for records) location.

And that date being a matter of one day’s discrepancy from my previous notes was no problem. As it turns out, thanks to both FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com (for those willing to subscribe to obtain the privilege of accessing their records), I was able to find quite a few travel records showing Sarah Martha’s yearly return trips to the States to attend boarding school while her parents remained in Honduras. Thankfully, of those passenger lists that included a birth date, the April third date I originally obtained was amply vindicated.

So much for governmental records. Or the indexes thereof.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Namesake of Two Grandmothers

Since the childhood eyes of Sarah Martha Moore McKinnon beguiled me into jumping into the middle of my Davis family narrative, I may as well take the time to position her on the timeline of this family history.

There are a lot of details to fill in, when it comes to Sarah Martha—though, on the other hand, her life is still quite the mystery to me. But let’s start with what we know.

First, I wouldn’t be surprised if the many palm trees in the background of yesterday’s photograph indicated a location far to the south of our own country. Remember, this Davis family came from Tennessee. While I’ve only been to Tennessee a few times, palm trees do not figure prominently in my memories of those trips. Nor do my Florida roots come into play here, as my mother’s McClellan line in Florida comes from the side of the family that was in-law to this Davis line.

Long before Sarah Martha was born, however, her mother had traveled to Honduras, El Salvador and the “Canal Zone” for “study and travel,” according to her application for passport in 1922. And after Sarah Martha’s parents were married the following year, they eventually moved to the nation where her father served as a railroad executive—Honduras.

My guess: those palm trees in yesterday’s photo were from Honduras.

It seems strange to think that a family from back home in the hills of Tennessee would be party to such an international lifestyle, yet that outpost in Central America actually played host to a number of Davis family members. I’ve found ship’s passenger records showing that Sarah Martha’s uncle—my grandfather, Jack Davis—and a cousin, H. M. Chitwood, both made the journey from Erwin, Tennessee, through New Orleans to Puerto Cortes to visit Sarah Martha’s family while they were living in Honduras.

Somewhere—whether in Honduras, back in Tennessee, or an undisclosed place in between that I’ve yet to discover—Sarah Martha entered this family scene on April 3, 1927. She became the only child of my grand-aunt, Lummie Davis Moore and her husband of the past four years, Wallace Moore.

Upon her arrival, her mother chose to bestow her with a name calling to remembrance the child’s two grandmothers: Wallace Moore’s mother, Sarah Good Moore, and Lummie’s own mother, Martha Cassandra Boothe Davis. Being a child of the south—though she didn’t even live there—she was destined to bear a two-part name which always would remain that way, as far as the rest of the family would see it. That middle name was part of her name, and was intended to be used that way, so “Sarah Martha” it would always be.

Having never met Sarah Martha or any of her immediate family, I have no idea whether that Southern notion carried itself forward in how she kept her name throughout the rest of her life—but for her Southern relatives, any time they spoke of her, they always, always called her Sarah Martha.

Perhaps that was one way to give equal time to the grandmothers on both sides of the family.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Photograph’s Journey

Mrs C J McKinnon of Baltimore MD as child in Central America
Don’t you just love it when, flipping through old family photographs, a sweet face stares back at you and captures your heart?

For the last several days, I’ve been stymied with the rush of all the family pictures I’ve suddenly inherited. Blame it on holiday obligations or a lingering cold that befuddles my mind, but I’m stuck under an avalanche of glossies. I have no clue where to begin to sort this collection into anything that would make sense to the proverbial innocent bystander.

I’d like to set out to document my findings in a logical progression—something along the lines of branches in the family tree—but I can’t even find enough room to claim as working space to sort and label the mess.

So I keep flipping through pockets of pictures tucked away in envelopes, old wallets—everything but labeled albums—wondering where to begin.

And then this cherubic face looks up at me and nearly begs, “Start here.”

So, as usual, I find myself, once again, starting from the middle.

Here, in the middle of my aunt’s collection of family keepsakes, is a photo of a young child. My guess is that the picture was snapped by her mother, who penned on the reverse, “I love her in this picture made in the back lawn.”

I’m presuming the rest of the story about the journey this picture took from there to here involved mailing it to the photographer’s own mother. Thankfully, that grandmother had enough sense to label the picture with the grandchild’s name, for in a different hand and color of ink, the words were inserted, “Sarah Martha Moore.”

I wonder if the rest of the journey for this picture involved this grandmother’s son inheriting the woman’s personal effects, including this photograph. He, in turn, left it up to his wife to organize and dispose of the collection as she saw fit. His wife, apparently, chose to keep the photo, but upon her passing, the whole collection became the property of her daughter.

That daughter would be my aunt.

And now, I have the photograph of Sarah Martha, from Ruth McClellan Davishusband’s mother, Martha Cassandra Boothe Davis, who received it in a note from her daughter Lummie Davis Moore, mother of the young Sarah Martha. And I'm so grateful someone decided to label the picture.

Isn’t your head spinning? That’s why genealogists employ databases to keep this stuff straight.

Thinking about Sarah Martha always makes me sad. Not because of Sarah Martha, herself—I never met this cousin-once-removed. But I’ve heard her name so many times. She was my mother’s favorite cousin on her paternal side.

Back in the early 1990s, when I rebooted my pursuit of family history, I had been discussing all the now-available resources I had found online in my customary phone calls back east to my mother. My mom had perked up at the notion that people with whom she had lost contact might still be accessible through online searches.

“Can you see whatever happened to Sarah Martha?” she asked me. Certain that I could, I promised her I would make that a priority.

Sadly, not more than a few months later, I ran across an item indicating that Sarah Martha—or at least someone who, strangely, had managed to have the exact same name—had passed away.

All the data was right. By this time I had inherited my grandmother’s little address book, showing “Mr. and Mrs. C. J. McKinnon”—Sarah Martha’s married name, according to that prim and proper Southern style of address—living in a Baltimore suburb right by the place where this Sarah Martha had died.

Any genealogist, however, knows it’s not really over until the fat lady sends that confirming copy of the death certificate, so I didn’t want to say anything to my mom until I could determine that I had the right person. Sending for a copy of that cert, however, is not an easy thing in the state of Maryland unless you are the direct descendant of the deceased. I, of course, was not.

I thought I’d try a different route: obituaries. Even with the help of the friendly librarian at the city’s main library, none could be located.

Cemetery? I was clueless where to look. I gave it my best try, but no results in the Baltimore area.

I even tried looking up others with the same surname in the suburb, writing those “please-excuse-me-for-the-intrusion” letters in hopes that one would find its way to the right family. After all, those would possibly be second cousins I’d be connecting with, if any answered. No response.

The more daunting approach was to guess what those prim-and-proper Southern-style initials might represent for Sarah Martha’s husband. Perhaps he had an obituary published which could lead me to any descendants. I remember sitting down at the computer one long evening and starting a search, trying for possibilities every man’s name beginning with the letter “C.”

I gave up long before the middle of the alphabet. And that’s a good thing, as I realized when I later found the likely candidate for those initials to be “Cyril John.”

It’s been nearly twenty years since I had to tell my mom that, best I could tell, she would no longer be able to enjoy a later-life reunion with her beloved cousin. In those many years, I’ve thought, wistfully, about Sarah Martha many times. What an interesting life she must have led, being the only daughter of a teacher who married an older railroad executive with the caveat that the deal that began with “I do” included a life lived in exotic locations in far-away Central America. What a wonderful wrap to such a life's story to find a way to reunite two cousins.

I can find, thanks to documents available at Ancestry.com, records of Sarah Martha's earlier travels back to the States to visit family or to return to the boarding school she attended in her later childhood. Oh, how I wished I could have made that personal connection, though. Sometimes, it’s nice to use those genealogical research skills to find those of our family we are seeking among the living.

Friday, December 27, 2013


You know how, sometimes, you get a Christmas present or birthday gift and you just can’t use it, or you don’t really like it, but you never do anything with it? And then, an occasion pops up months later, when you’ve been invited to a celebration—maybe a birthday or Christmas—and you forgot to get a gift. So you dig around in that drawer where you stuck that old, unused present, pull it out, wrap it up, and voilà! You now have a repurposed gift to bestow on an unsuspecting third party.

My sympathies if that is the situation in which you find yourself, but that’s not the kind of re-gifting I want to talk about today.

As I go through my deceased aunt’s treasures of family photographs and keepsakes, I’ve discovered a different kind of re-gifting. It’s one my aunt probably never dreamed she’d be party to. It involves a long trail of re-giftings, actually—like, my mother sent it to her mother who, on her passing, bequeathed it to her other daughter, who had no idea what to do with it, so she just stuffed the whole bundle in a storage bin to take care of later.

And then, she died.

And I got it.

What was it?

It was a photograph of me, from a long time ago.

I hardly have any pictures from this stage of my life. As life sometimes goes, when my own father died, my distraught mother prepared to move out of our family home by, essentially, throwing out everything—including all the photos and eight millimeter films, too. Discovering this faded photograph does indeed become a gift—and a keepsake to help others remember this moment in our march of generations.

My mother must have sent it in a letter to her own mother, for the back of the photograph was inscribed in my grandmother’s handwriting. She identified me “and friend”—that older boy is not my brother, nor is the photo taken in my childhood home—and mentioned, “She has her Christmas present on.” My grandmother always sent clothing for Christmas and birthday presents; how well I remember the annual ritual at the conclusion of each occasion, when the rare long-distance phone call answered the question, “Does it fit?”

Apparently, the phone call after that particular Christmas answered her question in the affirmative.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

In the Holiday Aftermath—er, Afterglow

They say it’s insanity to repeat the same action, expecting different results in the next attempt. In 2012, we promised ourselves we wouldn’t schedule a business trip landing us back home only one week before Christmas. It certainly wasn’t a strategy that worked for us last year. Getting back home so late, we ended up with a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and that miserable feeling of never quite catching up with ourselves.

So, did we stay true to our resolution to never do that again? Of course not. It was as late on the Wednesday preceding Christmas as could possibly still be claimed as a Wednesday when our plane discharged its occupants back to a warm California welcome home.

Admittedly, we couldn’t quite help it. Exigent circumstances, I believe, would be the official lingo.

Or just call it the insanity of traveling to central Ohio in the middle of December.

Those exigent circumstances called for stuff like fixing the kitchen sink's garbage disposal unit at my aunt’s house. In the process to get the house ready for sale, that would be my husband’s department. Not accustomed to traveling with the tools needed to solve such dilemmas, he took his problem to the local hardware store.

“Oh, that would be an old lady garbage disposal unit,” the sales clerk told my bemused husband (who wasn’t sure which way to mentally edit that statement). The hardware store guy explained, “That’s when a little old lady never uses her sink’s disposal unit, but since she keeps running water down the drain, it rusts out the garbage disposal unit and it gets stuck anyway.”

Not being sure whether “old lady” would be considered a symptom leading to such dysfunctionality, my husband nevertheless took the sales clerk’s advice (“It’ll take either this tool or that one”), bought everything and headed out to complete his mission—but not before eyeing one of those bait-the-customer displays at the register while checking out.

It was a book.

He made a mental note of it. He and I both have a weakness for books.

As it turned out, one of the two suggested tools did indeed resolve the “old lady” problem, and the sink was back in working order in no time. Next time we headed back through town, we stopped to get our money back on that second, unneeded, tool. Taking care of that easy transaction put my husband, once again, in line of sight with that customer-bait display.

“Take a look at this,” he suggested, and pulled the book down for me to peruse while he completed his transaction.

Here we were in a town by the name of Dublin—mind you, not the Dublin, Ireland, that you undoubtedly thought of, the minute I mentioned that name, but a place with an Irish heritage nonetheless. And here I am, a sucker for local history and for examining the process researchers go through in producing their books on family history narratives.

I was snared! We bought the book: When Dublin Wasn’t Doublin by a local man named Tim Sells. How could we not have bought it? Turns out, it is written by a descendant of the family which founded this city of Dublin, Ohio—full of anecdotes of growing up in Dublin, coupled with the recounting of the early days of the town and surrounding area. This is the same area I’d been driving through on my visits to see my mom and aunt for the past two decades. Those historical markers, old houses, the small family cemetery sharing a surname from my own heritage—Davis—and many other local curiosities that had piqued my interest over the years were all here in this little self-published book. Turns out, Tim Sells' family had been around Dublin since 1808, handily qualifying them as First Families of Ohio material.

With our next few days in Ohio packed with a too-long to-do list, and an arrival home one week before Christmas demanding that we hit the ground running for the next seven days, guess what I never got the chance to do?

But now, in that blessed lull after the pandemonium of the Big Day, I look forward to some lazy afternoons when I can kick back in a favorite chair to lounge and take in some long-overdue reading.

I hope your Christmas was exactly what you hoped for, but I think I’m safe to say you probably have a few activities you’ve saved for your post-holiday wish list, too. Is there any quiet time on the schedule for you in the rest of this week? What are you looking forward to doing then?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Another Christmas

Looking at the mystery photographs and greeting cards of past generations kept by some members of my family, one thing is obvious: while we each celebrate the day in our own way, there are many similarities in how the day unfolds for each family. Those traditions and customs bind us together, give us something we hold in common.

The settings for the Christmas greetings I posted yesterday and today seem more similar than coincidence would expect. While yesterday’s card was dated 1952, and today’s features a family from 1953, the settings are almost exactly the same. I’m tempted to think these two parties are somehow related—but then I stop myself and think of how many people order the same photo greeting card styles from Costco, or J.C. Penney, or Sears. We may have more patterns from which to choose now, but the idea remains basically the same.

The family looking at you today signed the back of this card just before Christmas, 1953. The signature identifies them as Oliver, Mildred and Carol Ann Stepp.

You’d think that would present a researcher with straightforward marching orders. But that is not the case. Thanks to a spill causing the ink to run on the upper right portion of the signature, I can’t be sure the surname is Stepp. It might be Stapp. Magnifying that portion of the card doesn’t help dismiss that possibility.

Even with that alternate spelling, I haven’t been able to locate any information on Oliver, Mildred and their daughter. Perhaps this one will have to wait for the release of another census—if I can remember that long!

For now, whether you’ve sent your holiday greetings via black and white photo cards or in living color, I hope you have now set aside the hectic hours of preparation and are enjoying the fruit of your labors with those you hold dear.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Cards Past

Here’s to untraceable faces from Christmas cards of the past.

Mabel Gosline Christmas 1952 greeting card
Who is Mabel Gosline? You’d think that identification on the back of this Christmas greeting would present straightforward marching orders for an online search. Armed with Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, NewspaperArchive.com and others, I thought it would be child’s play to knock out all those toy soldier false leads in the twinkle of an eye.

But no, there are no false leads—well, other than several California Voters’ Registration listings for a Mrs. Mabel Gosline.

I don’t think this Christmas card is from a married Mabel Gosline. With the card dated 1952, showing a young woman of a marriageable age, I don’t think this Christmas greeting would be sent with a picture like this if it were representing a married woman. Back in 1952, a married woman would have proudly posed with her husband at her side.

Finding an unmarried Mabel Gosline presents an entirely different search, one at which I’ve not yet been successful.

This card comes from my collection inherited from the Bean family. Remember last year, about this time, when I started the series on that extended family? I would have loved to include this card in that series, but one thing held me back: I couldn’t figure out who Mabel Gosline was. Friend? Family? Direct descendant of a common ancestor? Third cousin fifteen times removed?

There is no way—at least up to this point, a year later—for me to tell.

So, now that the year has rolled around to that same point in time, Mabel is getting her fifteen minutes of fame. Why? She is reminding me of all those faces which, while not nameless, still present the diligent family history researcher with an unsolvable quandary.

If I’ve got them in my stack of mysteries, I know you do, too. So, in this season that calls us back to family and remembrances, don’t be shy about pulling out those photographs that still stump you. Maybe your visiting aunts and grandparents can provide the missing puzzle piece that connects your mystery picture with memories of times long gone.

Here’s to a Christmas that reconnects us with our past, that knits us back together with our heritage—even the forgotten parts.

1952 Christmas card with photograph of young woman by fireplace mantelpiece

Monday, December 23, 2013

Keeping Bygone Holiday Traditions Alive

Nikolay Pimonenko painting Carols
I remember Mr. Yung. He lived in one of those dark yet stately Victorian homes lining the street just north of my childhood church. At my age, I thought surely the man must have been in his nineties. The place he still called home had a front entryway that hadn’t been used for years—but the kitchen door that connected him to the outside world was easily accessed by simply going “around the back.”

With Christmastime approaching, someone in the youth group was casting about for an appropriate activity for the young ones to enjoy for that last December meeting.

“Let’s go Christmas caroling,” someone suggested.

The schedule was set and the meeting place designated turned out to be, of all places, Mr. Yung’s home. Of course, with so many young participants in need of transportation, parents were also invited to join the activity.

That was a good thing. Old houses like that can sometimes seem creepy to the kind of people once referred to as “youngsters.”

Back then, I was one of those “youngsters.” And this was one of those times I didn’t mind my mother hanging around.

My mom, predictably, knew exactly where the man’s house was. At the appointed time, she drove right up to the place and down the long rutted dirt passageway alongside the house. We stopped at the end of the building, got out of the car and headed toward the back porch.

Mr. Yung met us halfway. He hardly waited for introductions to be made to plant a fish-cold kiss on my cheek. A wet one. He was quite excited to see the swelling crowd assembling at his place.

You could tell this didn’t happen for him often.

A weak round of caroling for practice in front of our host and home base, and we were off on our musical rounds. We capped off the evening with hot chocolate, back at the old Victorian place.

It has been a long time since that caroling expedition with my youth group. In the interim, I’ve moved to another home and another church. I’ve changed schools, then colleges, then jobs. Somewhere along the way, I found myself in a role on the opposite end of the spectrum when someone spoke up again with the suggestion, “Let’s go caroling.”

Christmas caroling, these many years since, has become quite a different proposition. You can’t just go knocking at an elderly person’s door after dark and expect a warm welcome. These things have got to be planned in advance.

Even the words to what I’d assumed were well-known tunes had to be printed in little booklets to be carried with us. Which meant flashlights had to be remembered (we opted for those phony, battery-operated flickering candles—but hey, they were a convenient plus for the ambience).

What has amazed me, after all these years, is that while these are the same old songs with the same old words, to the changing parade of faces singing them in the candlelight, they are strangely new. The old melodies just aren’t sung much, anymore.

And yet, after it is all over—we’ve visited nearly two dozen shut-ins in homes, care facilities and even hospitals—people never fail to enthusiastically exclaim, “Let’s do this again!”

Once again, we’ve acquainted a new generation with a heart-warming tradition from our parents’ past.

Some things are just worth preserving and passing along.

Above right: "Carols" by eminent Ukrainian realist artist Mykola Pymonenko, circa late nineteenth century; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Adding a Hopeful Voice to Blog Caroling

Late at night, just before Christmas Eve last year, a phone call came in that rocked our home, our upcoming holidays and, actually, gave us a very different New Year than we could have imagined. The stranger speaking on the other end of the line was telling me that my aunt—my only surviving relative from the previous generation—had fallen and broken her neck.

The week prior to that, we had arrived home from a business trip back east, and were then trying to cobble together a hasty Christmas. With this dire news added to the mix, Christmas suddenly became a blur. The focus turned to getting back east as soon as possible, with hopes to do whatever necessary on behalf of my aunt. Packing away all those festive decorations after the end of the holiday became a blur; I still don't know where I packed those ornaments. The time had, indeed, become bleak.

Somewhere in the midst of the dazed activity, I managed to postin hopes of following footnoteMaven's Blog Caroling traditionmy comments on the Christmas carol that was ringing in my head through all that turmoil. While I had missed the deadline to participate for 2012, I still wanted to add my voice. I needed to add my voice to something uplifting, something promising.

As it has turned out, the entire year of 2013 was a challenging year. Just as the year started with news about my aunt, it closed out with the same. Christmas still seems to have that hazy aura; it may pass me by before I regain my composure. But this year, I don't want to miss raising my virtual voice and joining the Blog Caroling tradition.

Here, offered up once again after its original posting last December, is my contribution to footnoteMaven's holiday tradition:

As I take the time, in this holiday break between Christmas and New Year, to sift through family keepsakes that remind me of the season, I can’t help but notice the carols that automatically begin playing in my head.

During the Christmas season, whether I’m near a source of music or not, I have beautiful traditional tunes playing in my mind—whether they are classical (like the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker), ancient (O Come, O Come Emmanuel) or contemporary (thanks to Mel Tormé and even David Foster and Amy Grant).

When I found the card I want to share today, the music that automatically came to mind was the Gustav Holst setting to Christina Rossetti’s poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

This tiny card is not really a Christmas card. It is actually a keepsake from—or promoting—the Saint Vincent de Paul organization. On the reverse, someone from our family had written the name, “Wm. A. Stevens.” Of course, that name could have represented either Agnes Tully Stevens’ husband Will, or her son Bill—possibly even her grandson Bill. At this point, I guess I will never know.

The scene depicted on the card, though not a Christmas scene, carries the season’s message in helping others—particularly the less fortunate. Just looking at the stark surroundings and the cold colors in the background, I immediately think, “bleak”—prompting the music in my mind to strike up the melody for this very carol.

The scene also arrests me because, like those in our family’s heritage, I can’t help but think of those who don’t have the many blessings we count as our due. They are indeed blessings and gifts, given to us to pass along, both now and throughout the year ahead.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas: A Time for Gatherings

We’re entering the weekend before Christmas, a time when people set aside all thoughts—well, most, hopefully—of business and the pressures of the outside world. It’s a time when people’s thoughts turn toward home and family. With all the holiday shopping done, the gifts wrapped and tantalizingly on display, the Christmas cards all—well, at least that top forty, in my case—addressed and mailed, the western world may now heave a collective sigh of relief and get on with what we’ve all been waiting for: the festivities with family and friends.

While most holiday gatherings are peopled with faces from the present, I’ve noticed a few faces from the past slipping in and taking their place in a parade of memories.

Perhaps this is to be expected for those of us accustomed to thinking of those we claim in our heritage. After all, we tend to spend a lot of time with those no longer with us—except in the documents studiously collected for genealogical verification processes.

Some of the people gathering with us—in memory only—during this holiday season are those we knew and remember from years long gone: great-grandparents, great aunts and great uncles—then grandparents. And now, even parents and sometimes siblings, too. Like reruns from a eulogy of years past, much of what we recall are the good reports of these loved ones. When seen from such a distance, all the warts and bumps seem to fade away, and we remember with fondness the significance of their gift to our lives. We can celebrate them now.

Others we remember—and it takes a family historian to be able to do this—are those in our past whom we’ve never met. Those whose acquaintance has been made only on paper. It’s a one-way relationship facilitated by government records, newspaper archives, musty old books and even faded photographs. Sometimes, in the droning after-dinner conversation, these specters are resurrected through the words of an aging relative, when the chatter turns to “I remember” tales, passing vignettes of personal heritage from generation-before to generation-after. In the ether of transient talk, we evoke those remembered for another generation and allow them to join the gathering.

No matter where your holiday gatherings occur, and who is planning to attend them, may they be blessed with the contextual richness of those added generations, as you and your family pass along tales from your heritage to those who may carry their memory into the future.

Above left: Chromolithograph "Christmas Eve" produced by Joseph C. Hoover and Sons, Philadelphia, in the late 1800s; courtesy Library of Congress via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Got Your Christmas Cards
in the Mail Yet?

Coming home a week before the big day cramps my holiday style. There are Christmas cards yet to get in the mail.

The mail…thinking of the ailing mail delivery system, I wonder: Does the Post Office need the holidays like retail stores need a Black Friday? Does the season define the business’ bottom line?

I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for Christmas cards for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my mother would take all the cards we’d get—beginning with that first arrival right after Thanksgiving weekend from some grown-up Teacher’s Pet—and tape them to the pine banister at one end of our living room.

I’d count to see how many cards we received for the year—and how it lined up with the previous year’s count. And then, I’d look at the names.

Some names were familiar, like names of aunts and uncles and other relatives we didn’t see often. Back then, my grandparents and my Columbus aunt figured in that group.

But there were others—lots of others. Many were from families of students taught by my father in his music studio. Some were people I knew from our church. Others were business associates known only to my father. I’d usually have to ask my mother about those.

“Who’s Rudy Vallée?” I’d ask my mom. I thought that was a funny name to have. All I knew was it wasn’t anyone I had met before. And she would explain that he was someone my dad had once worked with, in that world of live performances and stage personalities. My dad had either arranged some music for him once, or played in a band with him—whatever the reason, from that time forward, we received a Christmas card from the man with a brief note in his own hand, sending personal greeting.

If only I had known…

I did get to saving Christmas letters after a while, when I was all grown up and on my own. Even though I knew these notes were machine duplicated—not those hand-written exercises of a bygone letter-writing era—I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. I set up a folder in my file cabinet and labeled it “Family Christmas Letters.” I made it my January ritual to stuff every family member’s mimeographed brag sheet into that folder.

Someday, I thought, I’d pull them all out, sort them by date into family groupings, and transcribe each set. What a running commentary on the unfolding timeline of family life for each branch of our extended family that would be!

Eventually, I bought a house of my own, and like my mother before me, found a spot on the far wall of my living room where I could post all the Christmas cards sent our way.

Some years, we get many. Some years, only a few. The ebb and flow of the aggregate for each season tells a story of its own—some years, life seems better than other years.

I found a little booklet among my aunt’s belongings the other day. It was an address book labeled, “Christmas Card List.” I took a look through it, wondering who peopled the merry seasons of my aunt’s life—wondering if, among all the many friends she had, there would be any whose names I recognized.

That brief journey through the Christmas Card Lists of the past put me in mind of the many faces flowing past us over the years. Like so much water under a bridge, friendships seem so transient anymore. Connections vaporize with the shifting of the slightest of circumstances.

Handwritten letters during the holidays are now replaced by computer-generated notes inserted in cards addressed on Avery labels, thanks to mail merge programs. Easy. I can’t let myself go to the convenience, though. Like a mid-winter ritual, I want the smell of a fresh-cut Noble Fir and mulled apple cider mixing with the sound of peaceful Christmas music wrapping around me during my hours at the writing desk. I want to transform the ink from the pen in my hand into at least a feeble attempt at reaching out and connecting with those of my family and friends far removed, with whom I am still close at heart.

Perhaps, tasked with a holiday anachronism like that, starting from a date as late as this, I may see my Christmas greetings hit the Post Office by, oh, maybe New Year’s Day.

Above left: a Victorian era Christmas greeting card simply wishing "A merry Christmas and a happy new year." Courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thoughts From a Travel-Weary Blogger

What can be said for cross-continental travel? There is no easy way to do it. Not even in this age of jet travel can we pretend it is convenient.

“It’s an adventure” is the euphemism often employed to browbeat me into succumbing to the hurry-up-and-wait, cattle-car ambience of airports. Not even my favorite airline can crack enough jokes to make all the frustration disappear.

So, after another week back in Columbus, Ohio, where I’ve been attending to the affairs of the last member of my family’s preceding generation, I’ve propped my eyelids open long enough to slip in the driveway of our own home at what felt strangely like five in the morning.

And no surprise. Somewhere—like back in the time zone I just left—it was five in the morning.

Ah, Columbus. You’ve given me decades worth of family memories for Christmases, Easters, and summer vacations. But no more. Yet, I can’t even say I’ll miss you—despite the sweet, gently falling snow every morning this past week. I’ve grown into a California gal, now.

It isn’t an easy transition, moving from tender-of-the-older-generation to being the older generation in the family. Hopefully, this oncoming generation will step up to the call with as much grace, can-do spirit and aplomb as the one we’ve just bid adieu.

And for those moments we simply can’t live up to the call? Well…there’s always ice cream. Even in the middle of December.

Photograph, above: Stopped in at my favorite ice cream parlor—Graeters—today before leaving Ohio and found this charming display. It's from the current Graeters ad campaign, but they have my vote for converting these prints into posters to sell to their customers.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nameless Faces

Two girls, whose likenesses have been captured for all to see, have nonetheless been passed down through history with the dubious fortune of having their names omitted.

By the very fact that they are included in my aunt’s possessions gives me the clue that they belong to the Davis family. Thankfully, the inclusion of the photographer’s stamp supports my contention—this is a photograph from that little town of my maternal grandfather’s origin: Erwin, Tennessee.

There is writing on the back of this cabinet card. That would be an encouraging note, except for the fact that the writing is so faint, I can’t read it. Perhaps with some technical prowess in magnifying the thing, I can decipher the secrets this card hides.

Perhaps, if it is from the Davis family of Erwin, it represents two of my grandfather’s sisters. Could it be Mabel and Lummie?

Or is it merely the gift of a neighbor or family friend, passing along a token of their friendship to the Davis family, in exchange for a like presentation?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

From Generation to Generation

While going through all the family memorabilia I’ve received from my aunt’s belongings, I can’t help but sense that déjà vu feeling. Have you ever experienced that, looking through family photos, and noticing that a grandparent’s baby pictures look just like your newest niece, nephew or grandchild?

Perhaps “history repeats itself” is a motto for genes, too.

I see these pictures of my mother and her sister—my aunt whose photos these were—and it brings to mind similarities between myself and my own sister.

While we don’t necessarily look exactly like these two, enjoying time together at their maternal grandparents’ home in Tampa, Florida, there is a certain similarity between these sets and times I remember in my own childhood.

Now, of course, I look at pictures of each of these women as adults and not only do I notice how different they looked as adults than as children, but I also have to admit that I don’t feel they look like either of the next generation’s siblings.

And yet, they are undeniably related. There is that similarity that, somehow, I can’t put my finger on, but can certainly see.

Somehow, some message of self gets passed along from generation to generation, sometimes hiding, sometimes coming straight out and shouting its appearance.

Now that we have the technology of photography for these several generations, we have that ability—and that blessing—to be able to line up a chronology of the family’s generations. We can, if we take the time to look, track that iteration of genetic identity from generation to generation. Sometimes surprised by the recognition of features we felt were our own identity—but now discover “came from” other specific relatives—we can sense that connection to past generations of relatives we may not have even met.

Monday, December 16, 2013

In Those Awkward Childhood Years

I always knew about the painful-yet-delightful episode in my mother’s life, when her parents had to leave her with her maternal grandparents in Florida while they brought her younger sister up north for specialized medical care at Johns Hopkins University.

It was a painful time, of course, because it meant separation from her own parents. Yet, my mother loved her grandparents—especially adored her maternal grandmother—and was full of stories about this independent business woman’s life and how she got to tag along during her grandmother’s daily routine as owner and manager of her own orange groves.

Just this week, I found yet more photographs among my aunt’s collections, and I wonder if these two capture that period in my mother’s life. Both these photos, meticulously labeled with name and age—including a count of how many months old—followed my grandmother’s habit, but were not penned in my grandmother’s distinctive handwriting.

I wonder: could they have been written by my mother’s grandmother? Would she be the one inscribing these photos because she was serving as surrogate mother at the time?

A specific note was made about the date being three months to the day after my mother’s eighth birthday. Seeing the addition of a doll to one photograph, and the costume change though these two photos were taken on the same day, I wonder if they represent belated birthday gifts, as this woman’s way to cajole my mother into feeling just a bit more at home in the residence of her grandparents.

After all, she was going to be there for a very long time.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

These Roots Grow Deep

the McClellan property in Wellborn Florida
I find it incredible to think that a descendant of a signer of the original Florida State Constitution would be a person who has never set foot in the state of Florida. But that is the case in my own situation.

How far-flung we as a people have become, that our lives today are so removed from that of our ancestors, not only in time, but in place.

How precious it would be to regain what archivist blogger Melissa Mannon calls “a sense of place.”

It was interesting capturing the vignettes of Florida visits of my maternal grandparents and their family, found among my aunt’s belongings last month.

There is my grandfather, in some February, 1949, photographs—though now in his fifties, looking as athletic as ever—spending time at the original McClellan property of his wife’s ancestors. The farm is now abandoned, and I believe it is no longer owned by anyone in the family, but these pictures capture a bit about what the place once was.

rowboat on Lake McClellanMy mother used to remember the farm hands getting up impossibly early (well, in the eyes of an urban dweller of the twenty-first century) to fish for their breakfast in the lake—a lake, once entirely surrounded by the McClellan property, which now actually bears the former owner’s name.

By 1949, my grandfather could take a row boat out there, on that lake, just as the farm hands had done for probably the last one hundred years.

Now, however, though the place is still there and the name recalls the memories, it is a place long abandoned by those who once benefitted from its bounty.

At least we still have the photographs.

standing by the palm trees in Miami Florida

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Remembering a Family Home

There were many road trips made, over the years, from the Davis home—wherever it might have been at the time—to Rubie Davis' maternal roots in Florida.

Among my aunt’s collection of photographs preserving memories of such trips were snapshots from long after her childhood, some presumably during her years as a student at Ohio State University.

I often wonder whether some of these trips—featuring scenes that just happened to be set on the campuses of rival football teams—were made in the late 1940s based on OSU’s game schedule. After all, my aunt was a devoted Buckeye fan.

One set of photos, taken in March of 1949, featured my aunt’s grandmother, Sara Broyles McClellan, first on the grounds of the University of Tampa, then in a setting far from her Tampa home.

Perhaps it was with a bit of nostalgia that my great grandmother took her place to pose in front of her former home in Fort Meade, Florida. You may have remembered a post I wrote about this home, upon discovering that an enterprising individual had taken up the challenge to rescue the home from demolition and rehab the building.

Though this photograph of Sara McClellan was taken in black and white, it’s interesting to compare the 1949 version of its façade with a photograph of the recent recreation.

I am still hoping, someday, to actually visit the place, standing in the same spot where my great grandmother posed almost sixty five years ago.

Friday, December 13, 2013

When “Back Home” Was a Farm

“Pretty smart cart you’re riding, miss.”

miniature cart for child

Could this be the precursor to the Dodge Ram?

Tucked away in my aunt’s papers was this photo. I would love to know the story behind it, but now, all I can do is guess. Unlike the many others among my grandmother’s photographs of her daughters, this one bears no label.

I had trouble at first, deciding whether this was a picture of my mother or my aunt, but settled on my mother as the subject for two reasons. First, though the “Dutch Boy” haircut was favored by my grandmother for both her girls, my mother’s hair was darker, even in childhood; my aunt’s hair had a blonde gleam to it. Then, too, this subject’s facial appearance more closely resembles that of my mother, especially around the eyes.

I wish I could tell, from what little of the house appeared in the photo, where the scene took place. There are so many possibilities. Though I tend to doubt it would be the Tampa setting of her maternal grandparents, there was always the possibility of a tourist stop along the drive to Mama and Papa’s home. Then, too, the old McClellan farm in Wellborn, Florida, could have been a stop on the way to Tampa.

Of course, though it may not have fit the setting for Mrs. W. D. Davis’ Tourist Home itself, in Erwin, Tennessee, I can’t imagine anyone there being very far from a farm.

Whether in Tennessee or Florida or any place in between, that special cart was made just right for a great childhood memory.

Now, if only someone would have told me a little bit more about it…

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Could This Be the Same Woman?

I think I met my great-grandmother today. And I’ve come away from that meeting with a far different outlook than I held before this chance encounter.

As I rummage through my aunt’s belongings, I’m stumbling upon many items which connect with wisps of memories passed along to me—tales my mother would share throughout my childhood, now blended with the more recent recollections offered by my aunt in her last few years.

In yesterday’s post, I included a photograph of my great-grandmother, Martha Cassandra Boothe Davis. It was one I’d seen so many times over the last ten years, thanks to a choice my aunt made to dig it out of its storage place and to put it out on a shelf where it could be appreciated.

As I go through the boxes and envelopes of old, old treasures, I came upon another photograph of a tall, slender, upright elderly woman.

At first glance, her steady glaze and thin, pursed lips don’t seem to communicate much—or, perhaps, send a message of detached sternness.

The photograph itself seems like an afterthought—not the traditional cabinet card of the time, with its rigid backing, but the cut photo paper slapped onto another slim cardboard backing, awkwardly aligned, almost neglectful in its careless juxtaposition. If there was any photographer’s insigne, it seemed to have been cut out of the presentation.

Thankfully, though the photographer’s art was lost in the picture’s transmission to our current times, our age permits tools to disassemble what the original photographer’s camera had captured. Using Photoshop, I blew up this mystery woman, not just to edit—though in the end, I left the full evidence of the misaligned layers for all to see—but to see if any details would emerge from this darkened scene.

Perhaps it is my imagination: is there a “D” that emerges in the lower right corner? Could that be part of the photographer’s identification?

As I increase the percentage of enlargement, I can see more details. The “stern” woman turns out not to be so austere, after all. With furs draped over her shoulders, she wears earrings and a locket placed at her neck which features the likeness of a woman. As I stare at this woman, yearning to know my great grandmother better, I wonder who it is that she seeks to honor through the wearing of that remembrance.

Perhaps her tightly-set lips are not pursed in disapproval of life, after all. Magnifying the details, it seems a softer ambience emerges—a light about her eyes, a quiet confidence, a strength not bereft of femininity’s touch.

As I draw closer to the possibility of liking her, of seeing the person behind the pose, I begin to wonder: is this the same person as was seen in the photograph yesterday? Or is she another?

And if another, who?

undated portrait of elderly woman from eastern Tennessee

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Just a Good Southern Home

A frequent rest stop for the Davis family, in those many journeys crisscrossing the continent in search of work during that difficult decade of the 1930s, was my grandfather’s hometown in Erwin, Tennessee. That newspaper clipping posted yesterday mentioned one such visit to the home of Mrs. Cassie Davis.

Cassie Davis standing outside her home in Erwin TN holding a white rabbit
I never met Cassie, though I feel as if I had. Every visit to my aunt’s home included a stay in the guest bedroom which included an unusual photograph of the woman—the one I’m featuring here today.

Yes, that is a rabbit she is holding. No, I don't know why.

“Cassie” was a nickname that actually came from my great-grandmother’s middle name—a naming pattern habit the Davis family had carried down through generations. Her full name was Martha Cassandra, and she was a Booth—or Boothe, depending on who was drawing up the document in question.

All I know of her, besides what I can glean from governmental records, comes from stories my mother told me and details I’ve noticed in the few photographs I’ve seen—the one here in her older years, and one from a much younger adulthood.

Cassie married at a rather old age for those times—she was twenty eight at the time of her wedding in 1885—to William David Davis. They were parents of six children, including my grandfather as baby of the family—and as the only one of a set of twins to survive. Another sister also died in childhood. Each child’s birth, marriage—and, in the case of two, death—were duly entered in the family Bible.

Before my grandfather even turned fourteen, his father passed away. In addition to the unbearable loss that must have meant to the young boy emotionally, it also introduced the imposition of some hard financial burdens. As widows in those earlier times often did, Cassie found ways to make ends meet by taking in boarders. Some census records indicate the presence of such lodgers, and I had assumed it was an informal arrangement on a case by case basis.

As I mentioned yesterday, it’s been interesting to connect the dots on these family stories with indicators I’ve unearthed through genealogical pursuits. The other day, in the papers I’ve inherited from my aunt’s belongings, I found what appears to be Cassie’s version of a business card for her establishment: the Mrs. W. D. Davis Tourist Home. The card came complete with a photo of Cassie's residence, located at “Cor. Main and First St., Route 19W and 23” in Erwin, Tennessee.

On the Asheville Highway, the location boasted “Gulf Gas and Oils—Lunches—Cold Drinks,” along with a “Day and Night Wrecker Service” and “Used Tires and Repair Shop.”

In that era before tag lines, the widowed Cassie Davis had created a tag line for her brand of lodging: “Just a Good Southern Home.”

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On the Road Again

two young daughters of Jack and Ruth Davis possibly in Tampa Florida
It’s been interesting, matching up the material I’ve already received from my grandmother’s belongings after her passing in 1993 with the photographs I now have from my aunt’s collection.

I’ve mentioned my grandmother’s “Little Brown Book” in the past: what was meant to serve as an address book but doubled as a reminder list and catch-all for odds and ends gleaned from newspapers over the years.

With the discovery, in her book, of one tiny news clipping—presumably from an Erwin, Tennessee, newspaper, though there is no name or date to show this—I receive confirmation of the family’s residence in Baltimore, and their ultimate destination in Florida.

I can’t help thinking back to that sad note in my mother’s own life, when her family left her in Florida with her grandparents while the rest of them returned to Baltimore, with its proximity to the Johns Hopkins University hospital for consultation on some health conditions for my aunt. Though my mother loved her grandparents—she was particularly close to her own grandmother—experiencing this turn of events as a young child, she couldn’t help but feel left behind.

Perhaps it was two little girls of about the same age as I found in this family photo who were traveling from Baltimore to Tampa, by way of the Smoky Mountains and the little town of Erwin, Tennessee.

Mr. and Mrs. Jack Davis and two little daughters arrived Friday from their home in Baltimore, Md., to be the guests of the former’s mother, Mrs. Cassie Davis at her home on North Main street. From here they will go on to Florida, where they will visit Mrs. Jack Davis’ parents.

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