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’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.

Yesterday’s gone

1880 census page for Eben D. Roberts

Vita Brevis readers may remember from some of my older posts that my husband is an attorney who happens to be blind (he who I have disparaged occasionally with all love and affection). Recently he has been qualified as a candidate for the implantation of the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System.[1] Once the surgery is completed, he will perhaps be only the fifth person in Boston to receive the implant and certainly the first in Maine. While this extremely new technology will not restore his sight, it will give him the ability to “see” images as patterns of light. I will still be the 20-something blonde I’ve always been (HAH!), but will appear as a glowing configuration of dot matrix lights! Continue reading Yesterday’s gone

A-hunting we will go

For the most part, my ancestors travelled very little, inclined to stay on home ground, at home or on the farm. I’ve discovered, however, that as recreational travel became easier, some of my ancestors “went up country.”

Out of my squirrel bins came a large album clearly entitled “Illustrated Postcards.” At first I assumed it was nothing more than a collection of vintage postcards. Indeed it is that, but it is also a travel history, a list of friends and relatives, and at the very least an indication that my family members were all literate. Continue reading A-hunting we will go

Blue moon rising

A blue moon rose for me two years ago, prompting me to write a post called “Once in a blue moon” about two serendipitous events. One instance concerned my research to find the full story of Kenneth Maurer’s 1951 axe murder of his family, an event which took place in my husband’s early childhood home just before his parents bought the property. The serendipity that led me to those details has again come knocking! Continue reading Blue moon rising

‘Marry me’

From Susanna Howard’s estate papers

Oh, Susanna, will you marry me? And she said yes, three times, maybe four! I knew about the first three husbands, but who was the fourth, if indeed there was one?

The Susanna in this question is Susanna Johnson,[1] who married first in 1770 Lieut. Samuel Cony and had five children. After his death in 1779, she married Captain James Howard, a man forty-five years her senior with four children: John, Samuel, Margaret, and William. Then James and Susanna’s two children, Isabella and James, came along, creating a scandal and generations of legal wranglings over inheritance. After James’ death at age 85 in 1787, Susanna said yes again to a marriage proposal from William Brooks,[2] Husband Number Three. Continue reading ‘Marry me’

‘Lovely lady’

Many posts ago, I bemoaned the fact that I had (and have) many photographs of unknown people, animals, and landscapes. I have always been lucky enough to have all these albums and bins, even if I can’t put names to faces, or labels to albums. I’ve learned a little about how to date clothing and surroundings, hairstyles and hats, and poses and props.

So it was with smug satisfaction and great glee years before reality set in that I retrieved a negative from its tightly curled state. Knowing who it was, I had it developed, and a safety negative prepared. Continue reading ‘Lovely lady’

Use it up, wear it out

Growing up and living in my ancestors’ house has given me bins of memorabilia, a devastated checkbook, and changing perspectives and perceptions of their characters. The “how?” of what they did has often given way to the “why?,” not to mention the “what were they thinking?!”

Like most good early New England families, they routinely made do with what they had or made whatever they needed. That “make it do” mentality is clear throughout this house, and has been passed on through the generations. Continue reading Use it up, wear it out

Kerosene and other cookies

Grandma, Nana, Memaw, Nonna, Babushka: however they’re known, most cultures venerate grandmothers in some way, often through memories of food and its preparation. So it was that while working through a binder of cookie recipes for my annual Christmas Cookie-Baking Binge, I decided to find out what my grandmothers and great-grandmothers baked for Christmas goodies. After all, our ancestors connect to us with food. However, I come from a rather reticent family steeped more in routine than tradition, especially when it comes to holidays. I was starting from a point of nonspecific direction, a condition entirely too familiar. Continue reading Kerosene and other cookies

Alternative facts

I recently read one family historian’s method for gleaning her father-in-law’s stories: she would write questions on slips of paper and put them in a Mason jar. When her father-in-law visited, he’d choose one slip and question from the jar, and she would write down whatever story he told. It’s the kind of method I wish I’d thought of to entice my reticent family to talk!

We are always encouraged to ask our living family members about their personal stories, and in so doing we must take what they choose to tell. In recording these stories for posterity, however, we often must weigh the truth of what we’re told against what facts we might have, realizing that those facts might completely change the color and substance of the story and our perception of the teller. Continue reading Alternative facts

Things lost and found

As a member of my local historic preservation commission, as well as my family’s de facto family historian and custodian of All Things Family Memorabilia, I often encounter the decision of what to preserve, what to donate or sell, and what to demolish. Historic preservation of buildings is a complex and sometimes contentious topic best left for other writers. But what about all those smaller treasures our ancestors left for us, assuming that we would value them, cherish them, and preserve them as they had (even if we don’t know what or who they are)? Continue reading Things lost and found

Things that go bump in the night

Finding Disneyland

As genealogists and family history researchers, we deal with what our ancestors have left behind. But what about the ancestors who stayed behind? We all know that when we blissfully, stoically, and persistently work at finding and understanding our forebears, they will look over our shoulders, tweak our brains, and sometimes yank on our chains to get their stories told. Mine serve up apple pie and coffee!! Continue reading Things that go bump in the night