The Washerwoman’s Genes

June 15, 2006

My Black Sheep

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:24 am

Somewhere along the way, this spring, my joy in reclaiming the ghosts shifted to something else: something less elemental, something more complex. The writing has come more slowly; the pieces less concise, the conclusions less “knocked home,” less upticked, less bright.

Cornelius is to blame. I’ve known for months that Jannette had been divorced, that the absence of husband in her life after 1860 was not from widowhood but from abandonment. I had even seen the 1860 census record of a CB in New Paltz, with a baby wife. I was holding off putting all the pieces together. It seemed somehow impossible that an antecedent of my upright grandma Josie, that her grandfather, in fact, could have been a randy bastard.

Then: the transcription records for the New Paltz Rural Cemetery. The discovery of the name: Mrs. Hannah J., wife of Cornelius. Then, the trip to Ulster County in March, finding the Terpenning Ground, the graves of my great-great-great grandparents and that of my great-grandmother’s twin, and then, lastly, finding the family plot of Cornelius’ second family in the New Paltz Rural Cemetery.

Seeing his grave left me cold. He came close to making it into my century: d. 1899. His tombstone is a modern one, cut most likely at the death of Hannah in 1910: thick, machine-incised, the lettering even, wide, sharp. His tombstone says “FATHER” across the top, father to the daughter of Hannah who buried them, father to Mary, who put a matching “MOTHER” across the top of Hannah’s stone. (Hannah and Cornelius are not in adjoining graves, however. Cornelius is “up a row” and to the right of hers in the plot. Mean something? I’m sure there’s more to the story of the second marriage.)

Seeing this other family, the family that replaced the one I am descended from, left me cold.

There’s a genealogical website for Black Sheep ancestors. Cornelius may be mine. I requested a search for the divorce papers. They are not in the Ulster County records; I have been recommended to search in Kingston. I am starting to read about divorce in nineteeth-century New York, finding out it was so difficult in that state that most people went to the Midwest to dissolve a marriage. One always wonders with these antecedents: did they do things by the book?

In the paper recently (May 2006) there was an article about an Afghani immigrant who was splashed with lye and killed outside his fried chicken restaurant in the Bronx. The assailant, the article said, may have been a family member, irate at the man’s having put aside his first wife with the intention of marrying a new one in Pakistan. It is hard to conceive that a man in Port Ewen might leave a family there and start another one in New Paltz—this is hardly New York and Pakistan. Yet a divorce was so difficult. The new wife, age 19 to Cornelius’s 47, was pregnant in 1860; by 1870 they had a ten-year-old daughter. They must have been officially married. Yet one wonders—wonders, wonders, the daily regimen of historical researchers.

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