Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Sense of Place

With temperatures here in northern California sneaking up into the seventies, the urge to be outside catching some sun is overwhelming. Along with that change of venue comes the predictable: a great desire to get some blooms into those flower pots on my front porch.

What we do with the space that surrounds us tells almost as much about us as our conversations with friends or our habits around family. What do we do with the “margins” surrounding our lives? Do we fill them up to over-brimming? Leave the space stark, devoid of any clues? Or strike a workable balance?

Sometimes, those telltale margins shift through our ages and stages. When I was a crazy college kid, writing letters back home (yes, back when we only had wood-burning telephones—and let me tell you, they were expensive!), I filled up every square inch of paper. I was known as “The Empty Space Fiend.”

Now that you know that, it will probably come as no surprise to you to learn that the first time I laid eyes on the stark d├ęcor featured in a Pottery Barn catalog, my immediate thought was, “And people live in these places?!” (In their defense, to the original sterile palette, they have since added books, cushions, and other comfy signs of life.)

Of course, what I did with my margins during those stages of life was heavily influenced by the necessities of my economic standing. By the time, long after graduation, that I finally emerged from Starving Student status, I had entered the realm of two-jobs-plus-overtime. Oh, and I started my first business. There was no margin.

Lately, the phrase, “sense of place” has been reverberating in my mind. I first was impressed with this concept when reading Melissa Mannon’s blog, ArchivesInfo. Two years ago, she posted some brief comments prompted by the same thoughts I mentioned above. For Melissa, being “connected to a space” was an important orienting factor: “It is when I un-tether from [my] surroundings that I feel out of sorts.” Artwork on her walls and flowers outside her picture windows were important aspects anchoring her with a sense of place.

While making a place for yourself may seem to be the realm of the artist or the interior decorator, we each have a way of handling the space around us. It’s our way of claiming a toe-hold on what surrounds us—our environment.

Whether you’ve given that concept some thought or not, I want to encourage you to not only think of yourself here, but to consider what you might glean about your ancestors by the telltale signs they left behind: the pictures they chose to hang on their walls, the books they chose to surround themselves with.

Actually, the very places they chose to call home can tell us much about them—not only their personality but their circumstances as well. The space they claimed from the area surrounding them—and what they subsequently did with that space—reveals something about their personality, their view of their life situation, their economic and social standing and, perhaps, even more.

I think of my Polish-American ancestors, likely thrust, upon arrival in the New World, into the squalor that was the nineteenth century Brooklyn of the teeming immigrant masses. What made them seek to escape to the better neighborhoods of Queens borough to the north? What about my husband’s immigrant Catholic forebears, settling originally near the coastlands of Maryland—what led them to choose the relative risks of the wilderness of Ohio at the dawn of the 1800s? And what Sense of Place were my Southern relatives seeking, as they moved, generation by generation, farther south and then farther west?

All these people were surrounding themselves with what they hoped would make life better for them: more farmland, a bigger house, a quieter community—or a busier city.

While life in past ages may have seemed (to us, at least) simpler, people have always filled their lives with stuff. I can’t help but think of the Bean family, making the long and risky journey “around the Horn” from Maine to San Francisco—and hauling their beautiful furniture with them. Even the ones who left it all behind soon found ways to replace what they couldn’t take with them. Why? Their “Sense of Place” radar demanded it of them. We all need a way to make our space feel like home.

Some of us are fortunate enough to be the proud possessors of those items that once gave our ancestors that Sense of Place. While it might not have been a silver service, it would still have served the same purpose. Whether a framed needlepoint creation or a quilt for the bed, each piece fulfilled that important function of claiming and taming a small portion of the environment to call one's own. It is in how that turf was claimed that the tokens reveal something to us of our ancestors’ preferences and, ultimately, of their personality.

Above: Johannes Vermeer, "The Geographer," 1669 oil on canvas; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. 70s? Here in Virginia, we're facing record lows. Brrr ~ so I'll just huddle up next to the warmth of my computer and contemplate my surroundings. I don't have to look far to be reminded of my ancestors - from the lowliest wooden spoon to a silver tea service, from a hand-crafted table to a smart corner cabinet. Not just comforting but also inspiring.

    1. If I remember correctly, Wendy, you have blogged about some of these family treasures. Not that I'm jealous or anything...

  2. Could I come to visit and maybe clean your kitchen? 70 degrees...oh yes plant something!! Marine heliotrope you will love it and maybe snapdragons...and the darkest purple petunias you can find. Colorful pots...for sure. I don't plant anything...only in my head. I get what you say about sense of place...right now for me that is so many projects and which are the most important to do? I am still working on the Farm Diaries for future generations in out family. 8 years to go:)

    1. Oh, do, Far Side! I would love it!

      The spring color is only just now starting to show itself--and only thanks to the greenhouse-grown transplants my neighbors have already set out. Gardening for me has been an epic fail in the last few years, but I'm really looking forward to putting some color in around here this year. In the meantime, a walk around the loop, or a trip into town gives me just the dose of spring brightness I need for now.

      Keep plugging on your Farm Diaries project. I know it is a challenge with the difficult handwriting--but I bet you get a sense of place from all the descriptions on those pages. They might seem stark and all business, but that's just the looks of life back then, I think. Reading reports like that help us get a feel for what things were like, rather than ride on our own assumptions. Diaries and journals are the best for that.

  3. We've been having temps in the 60's and 70's around here. It really is springlike and above average for this time of year. It's beautiful, but we sure could use some rain.

    I too have a few items that I inherited from an ancestor - my paternal grandmother. One is very utilitarian and I use it all the time. It's a wooden bin to keep potatoes and onions in. She was a collector of dolls and I have one of them under a clear plastic case in our living room. It's a large doll standing about two feet tall. But more important than these items, I inherited her Books of Remembrance that my father had. She gave them to him and I inherited them from him after he passed away.

    1. How special to have these items, Jana--and to know that one day, you too will pass them along to someone in the family who will cherish them.

      It is so interesting to see what can be extrapolated from knowing that these were important items to a specific relative. How interesting to see the wide range of tokens of her life that your grandmother bestowed upon you: everything from utilitarian, everyday, helpers to keepsakes and treasures. I'm sure, with each item, there come many stories as well--all the better through which to share them.

  4. Interesting - reminds me of an article by historian Katie Barclay, where space and place was shown to have been key to negotiations for power positions within the family (often extended families lived together) in nineteenth-century rural Ireland. Where people sat at the kitchen table during matchmaking negotiations was even shown to have signified agreement (or not) to the marriage contract.

    1. Sounds like a fascinating article, Dara. I'll never forget the presentation we heard, during our research trip to Ireland last October, when a speaker discussed the details of that matchmaking negotiation. While the presentation was memorable, it also pointed out to me the care we need to take in not overlaying our assumptions upon the people of other places and other time frames.

  5. Thanks for the mention Jacqi. I was recently teaching my students a research lesson and discussed how to ask questions and how to be curious about the past. The lesson related to Shakespeare. I related how an English teacher once told me that Shakespeare willed his second best bed to his wife. I asked students what questions this prompted:
    "Why his second best bed?"
    "Who was his wife?"
    "What happened to his first best bed?"
    "Why were beds so important that they willed them down?"
    Our "stuff" tells so much about us and our ancestors. I can just picture Shakespeare's bedroom and space!

    1. Melissa, I'm delighted to share your work!

      Thanks for sharing that story. Not only does it point out the value of what we can learn from others' "stuff," it helps us realize the thinking process necessary to do so.

      You are absolutely on target about the importance of questions. Realizing what questions we can ask ourselves about our genealogical research is sometimes our only key to circumventing our "brick wall" research quandaries.


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