The death of my great-great-grandfather John E. Lee, and the circumstances surrounding it, has always fascinated me. His demise is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. Born in Michigan in 1843, John served in the Civil War, afterwards moving west with his wife Lucy and their children to the “North Park” area of Colorado. It was here in the mid-1870s that John and Lucy homesteaded, near the icy waters of the Michigan River, with John earning his living off the land as a skilled hunter and trapper. Continue reading Possibilities
My questions about him had been endless. He was, after all, the phantom in my ancestry, a great and impervious vapor, a Wizard of Oz if you will. He was my fleeting great-grandfather, the drawn curtain of my pedigree chart, his family lines going, well … nowhere. I don’t know that I ever really expected to find him, or to see his face. I certainly did not expect any DNA results to fall from the sky, making a picture of his smile even possible. Yet those DNA results did pull back the curtain (coming in just last week) and therein I was able to find his face, albeit grainy in brown and white, and sheepishly grinning down and away, as if to say he knew I’d been looking for him for a very, very long time. Indeed, I had been. Continue reading The hidden face
“In a Wonderland they lie, Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die: Ever drifting down the stream – Lingering in the golden gleam – Life, what is it but a dream?” – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
My mother is dying today. She is reposing, half-seated on “the community’s” divan, twitching and fidgeting, the vapors of her life coalescing, escaping in small electrical bursts. Utterances, half-heard under her breath, relay the signs of her ascension. Watching her now, knowing that she is treading her way through the muddy reeds outside Elysium, is gut-wrenching. It breaks my heart that she has been dealt this terrible curse of dwindling. She is, after all, a witch of sorts.
But hold your pitchforks! I call my mother a witch only out of the deepest respect, reverence, and love. Her devilish children and New England roots bestowed this title on her, a name of which she spoke with wry pride and amused regard. Continue reading The wintered leaf
This past Christmas weekend I was re-introduced to a medium of family history that may have gone out of style. No, I’m not talking about my own use of outdated published materials (yikes!) or any of my attempted genealogical gleanings (snore…) or even my possible faux pas in giving dad a DNA test for Christmas.
Rather, I am referring to a medium of family history generally associated with oral histories and a medium where we (almost…) never actually hear anyone speak! Continue reading Intermissions
The clickety-clack of my great-grandmother’s ‘old lady shoes’ resonated as I toddled after her down the narrow hallway to the old trunk. There, in that back bedroom she and I would sit in the dark brilliance of polished woods, with the old trunk somehow beckoning us as if the face of some minor deity or oracle. Indeed, my great-grandmother treated the old trunk as if it held all the wonders of the world, which, in many ways, it certainly did (and still does…). Continue reading The grafting trunk
I’ve always wanted to know more about the life of my great-grandmother Opal Young (1895–1978). To do this, I decided to see what researching her siblings might reveal about her. By and large, information about her siblings has been limited to meager ‘raw data.’ An interesting exception to this has been the life of my great-grandmother’s brother John Alfred Young (1890–1960). He is called Johnnie on the back of this Hitchcock-like cameo – it is the only known photograph to show him.
Johnnie Young came to California about the time his sister Opal did in the late 1920s. Their lives as children back in Kansas seems to have been pretty normal – other than there were a LOT of people living with them in the Young household. Continue reading Fadeaway
“Oh! Susanna…” No, thankfully, not Mr. Foster’s “Susanna”! Rather, this particular “Susanna” is one who has been bound up in the ‘primordial soup’ of my Chesapeake Bay ancestry for (at least) the last six generations. The identity of my Susanna has only come to light within the last several years. No one had ever heard of her before. She had been all but forgotten – since her death in 1863.
Oddly, the most evident clue that Susanna ever lived at all was hidden in plain sight. Her son, my great-great-grandfather John Henry Record, completed his pension application stating that his father had died when he was four years old – an event which coincided with his being “bound out.” He wrote these statements in the 1890s, and reading his words through the years it was generally assumed (given these terrible circumstances for a four-year-old boy) that his mother must have also been deceased at that date. In fact she was not. Continue reading Oh! Susanna!
He was never spoken of at his grandfather’s table, and no place setting ever arranged for him. Even so, he moved about our 1965 holiday home as if an ‘essential presence.’ I pictured him watching the Thanksgiving turkey being carved as the sweet potatoes were passed, and I saw him sympathize as “we the kids” cringed (and cried foul!) at my mother’s edict to enjoy all of my grandmother’s green Jell-O holiday concoction.
In his mind’s eye he must have watched us move about at Christmas, unwrapping the coveted “I wants” and the gifts of a childhood he should have had, but must have only wondered about. For you see, his place at his grandfather’s table had been given away – to me. Continue reading A place at the table
A year ago last summer I was contacted by a gentleman from Zeeland, Michigan. While out weekend bargain hunting, he had come across an antique photograph for sale at a local flea market. The gentleman wrote with empathy about family history, and he seemed to have at least a hobbyist’s eye for old pictures. His curiosity was piqued by this one particular picture, so he purchased it, no doubt saving it from the fate of some Michigan land fill. He said that the only identifier as to who the person in the photo might be were the words “Grandpa Burson” written on its back.
From what I could gather, the man from Zeeland enjoys following where the clues in any old pictures might take him. Continue reading Returning Elijah
Recently, on a trip to Long Beach, California, I did what most people do when they visit their home town. I did a bit of sightseeing. With my daughter and her fiancé, we hit the urban streets hoping to find the perfect little Italian restaurant. I hadn’t been downtown in literally decades, so it was interesting to see what about my old city had and hadn’t changed.
Naturally, the kids had to listen to me talk about ‘the old days,’ what used to be ‘here or there,’ and of course they had to hear tales of the old roller coaster that went way out over the ocean in a death-defying swirl of creaking bolts and lumber. (I’ve decided it’s sort of fun to watch the kids’ eyes glaze over…) However, a curious thing started to happen to me as we went up and down one of those streets. I became a little boy again. Continue reading A memory bank