Saturday, June 29, 2024

A Sense of Place


I just spent the night in a hundred year old hotel downtown in the city we're currently visiting. Somebody with lots of investable money and sharp business sense repurposed what would otherwise have disintegrated into a city eyesore, by providing a sense of place which combines the elegant ambience of the hotel's 1920s birthright with delightfully modern conveniences. Added bonus: the hotel was originally the brainchild of a local businesswoman, for whom the hotel was originally named, and her inspiration was carried forward in this reincarnation by respected design firm Stonehill Taylor.

You can easily glean a sense of place for this storied building in the writing of those who've stayed at this hotel perched on the well-known route of New Year's Rose Parade. Granted, recounting the history of a place—how it came into being, and who was behind the metamorphosis—is a type of handling we'd more likely expect for well-known destinations, and by entities skilled in crafting that type of public relations outreach. But what about the farm where your great-grandfather grew up? Or the shop your family managed during the Civil War? 

When we are pursuing the story of an ancestor, it helps to develop a sense of place concerning where that family member once lived and worked. Especially when the building is no longer in existence, it can be challenging to recreate the sense of place that ancestor might quickly have recognized: the sights, the sounds, even the smell of the rooms or during a special time of year.

It is now so much easier to gain access to pictures of those special family places than it was in pre-Internet times. I remember, during the earliest years of online genealogy forums, mentioning that I was traveling to Chicago to visit family, and receiving requests to drive by an ancestor's home to grab a photo to email to a forum member. Now, if you're lucky, a county governmental office might have put such files up on their website for anyone to see. Or a local historical society might have a picture in their archives.

Pictures, however, are just the start, if you want to paint the scene in a way that helps others gain that sense of place for your ancestor's home. Some agricultural records—schedules from censuses, for instance—or tax records can help gain a sense of just what that ancestor's daily routine might have included. Building from there, local history books—many which are now uploaded to Internet Archive, for instance—can give a more general sense. And don't forget the reminder of what we call the "F.A.N. Club": your ancestors' neighbors and associates may have information tucked away in archives which would tell much the same story, an ingredient you can blend in with your own family's information.

I remember older relatives sharing stories from their childhood, another glimpse into the past that, while sometimes prone to mistaken assumptions, can also be helpful in gaining that sense of place. My mother would share stories about hearing her elders mention that the floor of their Tennessee ancestors' home was only a dirt floor, for instance, or how those elders on the Florida side of the family would spend lazy summer evenings out on the front porch, droning on about politics. When I looked into the facts which I could glean from documentation, the records did support those recollections—and gave me a fuller sense of the place where those ancestors' once lived, and the sense of the lifestyle they kept.

We often focus so carefully on the details required in a pedigree chart—the complete names, dates of birth and death—and introduce the same for spouses, in the case of a family marriage. But when we're done, what else can we discover about a relative? What can we learn about those ancestors so we can bring their story to life in a memorable way and pass that story down to future generations. While the newspaper reporter's rule of thumb—the who, what, where, when, and how or why—can be helpful, I also like to rely on those five senses we all respond to. Being able to incorporate sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings to the story of the ancestor you want to remember can go a long way in bringing that ancestor's story to life. And allow it to become memorable.  

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