Sunday, November 8, 2015

Matrilineal Management

Anniversary dates can sometimes be subtle reminders of family now gone, but other times, they can just about smack you upside the head.

The other day, in our rush to get out of town, we almost missed a delightful email from someone we hadn't seen since last August. The email contained photographs and scans of handwritten notes—something I wanted to take more time to examine, once we made it to our destination. But because of the contents, I also wanted to connect with my mother's cousin. I knew she would want to see what I had just received.

Before heading out the front door, I tried forwarding the email—complete with those photos, of course—but apparently, had the wrong address. The email was promptly sent back to me with the twenty-first century equivalent of "addressee unknown" stamped boldly across the cover page.

"Oh, well, I'll call her when I'm on the road," I reasoned, and got on with packing and shipping that luggage out the door.

Being that I'm on the west coast and she is on the opposite side of the country, I caught her—I promise, I didn't plan this—right as she and her husband were sitting down to dinner. Isn't that just how such phone calls are destined to be? I quickly told her my mission—to snag an updated version of her email address—and tried to let her go.

"But what was in the email?" she protested. Cold dinner or no, she wanted to know.

Doing a quick mental tabulation, I realized that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that there were five scans included in the email. I hardly wanted to be the five thousand word cause of a delicious home-cooked meal going cold, and tried to assure her she would see for herself, as soon as we drove through the hills and arrived at our destination.

That didn't satisfy her. And so, I had to tell her the whole five thousand words' worth of story.

It actually didn't take that long. I explained that the email I had received was from the people we had met on our Florida trip, when we stopped at the Fort Meade Historical Society and Museum to search for any sign of our McClellan family in their treasures. Then, I began describing the photos I received.

I started with the first one—a photograph of a baby displayed in the artistic wrappings of a turn of the century blanket. The minute I told her that baby had won the "Beautiful Baby" award for 1916, she interrupted with gusto. That baby was her father, William Helms McClellan, born in 1915 and raised—at least in his early years—in the tiny municipality of Fort Meade while his father served as the town's dentist and, for a while, as their mayor as well.

Not only was my cousin a good guesser—figuring out the photo was of her father—but she had an additional surprise. Those were the very photographs she had donated to the museum a few years back. Now, somehow, they had made their way to me.

That little revelation stuck with me over the next few days. I started thinking of all the unfinished business on my matrilineal line—some of which I had deliberately put on hold until I could return to Florida to do further research, this time in the state archives and on site at the family's properties—and decided maybe now would be a good time to do some cleanup.

Then, wafting in to settle upon that introductory decision came thoughts of another matrilineal duty I've been neglecting: pursuit of the nexus with my mystery cousin, the adoptee who turned out to be one of my only two exact matches on my mtDNA test (the other match being, not helpfully, also an adoptee). My mystery cousin and I have both been pushing back on our matrilineal lines (now that he's met his birth mother), and though we've made it to the early 1800s, have yet to discover who that "most recent common ancestor" might have been.

Perhaps it's time to start back to work on my matrilineal line, I thought.

Something kept on lingering, though. And then I realized why my mind couldn't let go of this part of my family tree: it's November now. And that reminded me of that anniversary date. No wonder my mind has been circling around that maternal line. It's my mother's sister who died just two years ago in early November.

I took a look at Find A Grave to make sure of the date, and to my horror realized that my aunt's entry wasn't even there. I double checked on the cemetery listings, and while I could find my grandparents, I couldn't find my aunt.

Add another task to that matrilineal to-do list. Not only to add the entry, but to pull up my copy of the headstone photo. Those Find A Grave volunteers aren't just the ones "out there" doing the work. Those volunteers include people like you and me. We need to do this stuff, too.

I had been working on that matrilineal family tree behind the scenes, here and there, cleaning up shaky leafed hints where I found them, and, when finding old genealogical books with more information, tentatively adding names to the mix—pending adequate documentation, of course—but maybe now is the time to get back to examining that tree in earnest. Maybe it is a female descendant from yet an earlier generation who will be the key to that matrilineal match with my mystery cousin.

With fresh thoughts of our most recently lost member of that matrilineal line, perhaps now is the time to do so. In memoriam.

two sisters at their grandparents home in Tampa Florida in the mid 1930s

Above: Two sisters share a moment on the front steps of their maternal grandparents' home in Tampa, Florida, circa the mid 1930s; photograph from the private collection of the author.


  1. Imagine what would happen if everyone would put all their relatives in Find-A-Grave?

    That 138 million grave records would shoot up to 400 or 500 million records very quickly!

    1. Now, that's a seriously do-able thought, Iggy. Here's hoping we all join in! Think how much more useful Find A Grave would be with numbers that high!

  2. I just sent a correction today to a volunteer from a funeral I went to. Transcription errors happen...a pallbearer was missed in the list. It might not be real important now...but someday it may be:)

    1. Good thinking, Far Side. I guess it would take someone used to researching the past to be forward thinking enough to keep the future in mind.


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