Years of research brought me to a place where I believed, I had exhausted all resources. They left nothing behind, I thought. Where great-great grandpa came from, went to the grave with him. EAB
Those who know me are aware of how preoccupied I am these days. I am working diligently to finish a narrative history of the Clark branch of my family. I have spent years researching and compiling records pertaining to my elusive great-great grandparents. Aside from bits of family tradition that made little sense from an historical perspective and vital records relevant to their children, I had very little information to begin my research. It was as if the first generation of Clarks in the United States dropped out the sky and landed in Northampton, Massachusetts.Years of research brought me to a place where I believed, I had exhausted all resources. They left nothing behind, I thought. Where great-great grandpa came from, went to the grave with him.
It was serendipity that led me to a collection of letters between family members which spanned over forty years. I knew the relatives that authored the letters. My only impetus to explore the collection was a faint, burning hope that I would find a clue buried somewhere between the lines of an old letter that would help me break down the impenetrable brick walls that kept me from finding my great-great grandfather. It was a long shot, but it was all that I had left.
I found myself on a cool spring morning in mid-April in a quiet corner, surrounded by stacks of boxes containing manila folders filled with old personal correspondence between several family members, who have been gone for many years. After skimming over a half dozen letters, I surmised that I was on a dead end street and my day was a waste. I simply did not care if it was raining on April 22, 1956 or if the snow was falling at six o’clock on New Year’s Eve in 1960. A few more letters and I am done, I thought. Not more than a minute later, I caught sight of my grandmother’s name scrawled in a letter written in 1955. The author had penned a clearly unflattering description of her and her children, which included my mother. I should have taken offense, but instead, it struck me as very funny. I read the paragraph aloud to Geo and we both laughed.
Over the years, I heard similar sentiments stated by my grandmother regarding family members. Apparently, there were few people in the family, who liked one another. I always wondered what provoked the issues between this brood of brothers, sisters and in-laws and as I browsed through through letter after letter, I realized that the cache of old and obviously very personal correspondence between mother, father and son was an uncensored peek into their thoughts and opinions on the ever present family strife, how they viewed important life events and the challenges and issues they faced in their daily walk. I felt as if I was peering at their world through their eyes. There were jaw dropping revelations about people close to me; allusions to the circumstances of the birth of a family member, a criminal case and the strange story of an in-law, who wound up in a psychiatric hospital due to the influence of a relative. I was quite certain the person who wrote about the circumstances of the committal never imagined that one day I would have access to such an admission. How bazaar! No, the news wasn’t good.
There is nothing new under the sun, I thought for the one millionth time. Sibling rivalry, jealousy, family disputes and tantalizing gossip between family members will always exist. Life is never perfect or painless and talk is always cheap. Still, I found some of the revelations in the letters very believable and stunning. I wondered how I would present this material in the narrative and if it would change how this family is remembered by those still living.
While there was vitriol and gossip contained in the letters, there were passages pertaining to mundane and ordinary daily events, as well; narratives about cold raw January evenings spent on the divan watching “the fights” and Sunday afternoon visits from family, who brought gifts of fresh eggs from the chickens they raised in the backyard; a remark about a good pot roast dinner and a touching description of the lavender dress my great-grandmother wore when the family buried her. I could see it all in my mind’s eye, even though, I was not there.
As I read on, images of my childhood and the carefree days I spent with my grandparents, drifted into my consciousness. I recalled my grandmother’s Hermit cookies and trips to Lilly Library to borrow books that set my imagination on fire. I remembered the sound of change rattling in my grandfather’s pockets when he walked and chocolate ice cream at a place called the “Two Cows.” So many perfect moments I had forgotten were mine again. Even though the news contained in the letters wasn’t good, I felt lifted and I thought to myself, how lucky I was to have been loved by such wonderful light-filled beings.
It was serendipity tugging at me or perhaps dumb luck that caused me to reach for the simple red spiral notebook wedged in the back of a box. To my utter surprise, it contained a draft of an unfinished family narrative that contained biographical information about my great-great grandfather! I now had new territory to explore and a new perspective from which to write.
At the end of the day, as I gathered up my belongings to leave, Geo and I both agreed that it was unbelievable that the letters and the notebook existed. I said a little prayer thanking God. The news wasn’t good, but I was leaving with an insightful glimpse into the challenges and issues of long departed family members and I had found a notebook filled with genealogical treasures. Moreover, I had found a lost part of my spirit.
Keep diggin' for those gems!
Elizabeth is a professional genealogist. She is a member of the National Genealogical Society, Association for Professional Genealogists and the New England Association of Professional Genealogists. You can send your research requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.