All posts by Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

Finding Hattie

Recently, while leafing through an old album of my father’s family, I came across two large adjacent cabinet card photos of a couple I didn’t know labeled “Hattie Gordon” and “Lawrence Gordon.” There is only one Hattie Gordon (Harriett Frances Gordon Cony, 1849–1922) in my family tree, and this lady is not she; there is no Lawrence Gordon, either. Had I missed some cousins? An aunt or uncle, long-lost or abandoned? Maybe they were just good friends of the family. The questions began circling. No one I asked recognized these people or their names. Of course, I had to figure out who they were and why they were in this album (organizing materials can wait, right?). Continue reading Finding Hattie

A scrapbook love letter

My mother’s letter

I grew up in a normal home with two parents, one older brother, various dogs, cats (house and barn varieties), and a one-time parakeet. Like most people with that background, I thought I knew my parents and their individual backgrounds well, especially because my mother was careful to instill in me an appreciation of both lines of the family history.

In the early-mid 1930s, my mother was teaching and boarding with the principal of her school where My Father The Milkman delivered the semi-weekly bottles. It was a bottle of milk that began my parents’ relationship and a 1938 marriage lasting for more than 57 years, until my father’s death in 1995. Continue reading A scrapbook love letter

Earthly remains

Of all the things we leave behind when our time is done, the most important, of course, is ourselves, the least and the most of our lives. While cultures vary in the veneration of ancestors, my staunch Puritan ancestors held to the rites of our New England traditions.

Yet one of the most fascinating yet unsettling museums I’ve experienced is the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato,[1] the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato, Mexico. And what better time to visit that museum than on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead? We walked with local families up the hill to the cemetery next to the museum where it is customary to picnic, decorate the family grave site, and pay homage to one’s ancestors. Continue reading Earthly remains

What’s left behind

Facts can be so unsatisfying. Colorless (but critical) records of lives, people, places, and events, when facts are viewed in the context of heirlooms, memorabilia, or artifacts, things left behind by our ancestors, our past is better illuminated and gives us insight into older generations, providing a foundation for family stories. Readers of my posts on Vita Brevis will recognize my pursuit of and passion for those stories. Whether the facts give rise to the stories, or whether the stories begin by seeking the underlying facts, is something of a chicken-or-the-egg question, a fractal of genealogical research, repeating and replicating patterns of family interactions and history. Continue reading What’s left behind

The house by the side of the road

When my brother was little (long ago and not far away), he would lull himself to sleep by reciting the phrase on an antique cross-stitched sampler of a house which hung on the wall over his bed: “Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man.” This simple sampler makes me think about how many things change yet remain the same in my neighborhood.

I have come to understand that my family history is intrinsically linked to the houses my ancestors built as well as the area in which they built them, two inseparable elements which complement each other, and which provide fodder for my “family stories.” Continue reading The house by the side of the road

A block buster

blocks-1 blocks-2

Most of us will remember the childhood Alphabet Song used to teach children their letters (hum along if you’d like): “A-B-C-D-E-F-G… Now I’ve learned my ABCs, tell me what you think of me.” Vita Brevis has given a new variation on this “alpha-tradition.”

In my post “If This House Could Talk,” I mentioned my grandfather Rex Church (1883–1956) and his childhood handmade wooden alphabet blocks. The photo I provided showed only the four blocks representing the surname initials of the four families who have lived in My Old House since its construction in 1789. Continue reading A block buster

A letter home

hannah-1
A letter from Hannah (Brown) Libby.

The bins of my family memorabilia (my “squirrel bins”) occasionally allow a real gem or two to escape, those things I hope to find but which seldom surface: diaries, journals, or letters.

One such gem is a faded, handwritten letter dated Boise City, May 15, 1870. Written by Hannah (Brown) Libby to “Dear Mother Libby,” it is a poignant expression of homesickness while trying to maintain a positive outlook, an offer of more questions to be answered than answers given. I was intrigued, especially because this Hannah and “Mother Libby” are two faceless women in my long lineage. I have no photo of either woman, no other correspondence, writings, or stories. Continue reading A letter home

Christmas cookies

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One early December a few years ago, my son asked if I would fill a cookie basket for his new landlord’s two little boys. I was making multiple dozens of cookies at the time, so I stuffed a green wooden Christmas basket for them and sent it off.

The following July when my son was visiting his landlord, the youngest boy approached carrying the basket as if to say “Please, Sir, may we have more?” Since then, the basket finds its way back to me in summer, and I overfill it for them every Christmas. It’s a new tradition of sorts, however short-lived it might be. Continue reading Christmas cookies

The spitting image

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“Ready to roll”

Oral histories are always interesting, often fun, and sometimes “tall,” especially when it comes to snow stories: “I had to walk to school, three miles up hill each way, barefoot in deep snow…” Snow in New England is just a fact of life, and one my ancestors took in stride even when the snowfall was excessive. My somewhat reticent father told me only a few stories, mostly with the admonition to “don’t publish until after I’m gone!!” The story of one “adventure” he and his older brother had one winter came without restriction: Continue reading The spitting image

‘If this house could talk’

Eunice's fireplace
Eunice Williams’s fireplace

My grandfather’s childhood wooden alphabet letters stand on my kitchen fireplace mantel, designating the four families in my “family thicket” who have lived in this house since its construction in 1789: Williams, Saunders, Church, and Doerr. Researching our ancestors is one thing, researching house histories is another, but often they are irrevocably intertwined.

Researching the life and family of Asa Williams, the cordwainer, tanner, blacksmith, and farmer who built My Old House, means that I also research the house itself. Through vital records, census records, and local histories combined with deeds and probate records, I have tried to find the stories, from Asa’s purchase of the land in 1777 to the shoe last which fell out of my ceiling. Continue reading ‘If this house could talk’