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.
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“The thing that interests me most about family history is the gap between the things we think we know about our families and the realities.” – Jeremy Hardy
Remember that children’s game of Telephone (or Gossip) in which a message is passed on in a whisper to each of several people, so that the end version is often distorted from the original? Family stories are like that old game and can be even more distorted depending on how many narrators related the story to how many listeners. I recently found one example in Husband’s maternal family history concerning (ahem) One Child Left Behind.
The story was that Husband’s maternal grandmother, Catherine (Hrabal) Samson (1906-1987), had emigrated in 1910 as a child with her family from Czechoslovakia (or Czechia, Bohemia, Austria, or Moravia, depending on which U.S. Census you want to believe and what the international politics were at the time). Continue reading Bessie’s story→
Sometimes Real Truth jumps out from the first line of a Vita Brevis post and slaps me with a “duh” moment, although I think “wander” might be a slight understatement suggesting a lack of speed or single tracks. My mind has been wandering through some of the family stories as I try to decide how best to preserve them, lacking any hope of documentation as proof. Such stories have a habit of becoming altered, embellished, or denied by those who weren’t present at the first instance as they are passed through multiple generations. Lacking any audio recordings of my family storytellers, I’ve decided to write down as many as I can as I’ve heard them or experienced them to create an “oral” history in print. I could record myself telling them, but I believe, even in this digital age, that paper will last longer than the current technology. (Carving in stone might last longer, but that’s far beyond my ambitions.) I began my wandering through stories and random titles: Continue reading Wanderings→
I have said for years that I’m everyone’s cousin. Living where I do, among descendants of families who have been here as long, or almost as long, as mine, it’s easy to imagine how I can be related to so many people; six degrees of separation can be more than a social connection! Continue reading Some Pig!→
As a custodian of Our Old House, I’m always conscious of how to maintain it and still make twenty-first-century changes without drastically altering or (gasp) destroying the historic integrity of the property. Making those decisions is not always easy, especially when there is clearly no choice in the matter. Cue the drafty ancient windows, the continually-aging floorboards, the old garage with the “waving roof,” and the 90-foot rotting maple trees.
We still deal with the windows and the floors (not a level inch anywhere in this house!), but the garage is gone, and so are the trees, those huge maple trees that graced the front of the property, blocking dust, noise, snow, wind, and the hot summer sun while shading the front rooms. They provided sap for maple syrup and sugar for even the earliest generations of my family, bushels of leaves for mulch, and perches for multiple varieties of birds. Continue reading Tree begone→
Like so many people during this season, I’ve been (slowly) decorating Our Old House for Christmas. As I arranged the mini-“Dickens Village” on the kitchen hearth today, I realized that it was more than a little anachronistic. This old Maine farmhouse, built in 1788/89 by American Patriots, would never have seen such a British or Victorian display of Christmas! Continue reading A Christmas anachronism→
We all have them, those ancestors who seem to fade into the long-ago background of family history. Perhaps they’re not even our relatives, just names heard frequently but without context, or in a wedding guest book, a newspaper column, or in an obituary. The figures are distinguishable, but so unfamiliar that they are blurred whether pastel in color or in sepia or gray. Continue reading Pastel portraits→
If Our Old House builder, Asa Williams, had recently awakened from his 201-year eternal sleep, he would have seen, with fascinated but utter panic, the thunder of dragons that crawled up my driveway. (I think the blacksmith in Asa would find any fire-breathing dragons very useful … eventually.) As a patriot and devout Christian, he might have thought that Satan disguised as King George had unleashed his “great red dragon” on him personally. Continue reading Here be dragons→
There are Remembering Days when we remember stories about family lives for the benefit of our descendants. There are Researching Days when we hunt for clues to our ancestors’ lives and their stories. And there are Underwear Days, when Remembering and Researching get tangled up in a pile on the floor, just like those mornings when you can’t get your feet out of your underwear, lose your balance, and fall over (especially when some jokester flings open the bedroom door and yells “freeze, sucker!!”). Underwear Days. Continue reading Underwear Days→
I recently remarked to Son how it seemed to me that as I age my family history research becomes more like nostalgia, a walk down Memory Lane, and increasingly frequent but random reminiscences. Eschewing the expected age jokes, Son promptly provided me with several columns in the Maine Farmer newspaper written between October 1876 and May 1877 by one “D.C.” and entitled “Random Thoughts and Recollections.” D.C. wrote more than ten columns in the slightly purple style of the times about his memories of people, places, and events, a gold mine of information about places and people in the 1820s and 1830s, Augusta and Hallowell, Maine in particular. Continue reading Nostalgia→
While we at Our Old House maintain a certain amount of “isolation” during this pandemic, we have walked or snowshoed our property for exercise, noting as we passed the tracks the local wildlife has made. Coyotes, deer, rabbits, bobcats, foxes, and others roam our “back forty.” I began to think about the same tracks Our Old House builder Asa Williams would have encountered in the late eighteenth century, along with the occasional bear or wolf, hopefully not in the front yard. Grizzlies on the lawn? No thanks! Continue reading Mice tracks→