The Washerwoman’s Genes

March 27, 2007

Some Profiles

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:46 am

I’ve been reading around in Uncle Win’s genealogical book, published in 1989, Some Profiles of our S— Family. I was curious, in particular, about how he conducted his research, because it was all done before the explosion of online records. The book appears to be typewritten (professionally and competently), not word processed, and the diagrams and charts likewise completed on a typewriter.

Uncle Win’s sources include journals and memoirs, both published and unpublished, as well as letters, family Bibles, family-held genealogical records, entries in the Dictionary of American Biography, addresses, obituaries, and other records created by family members about their own lives or those of relations. Titles include the charming “Our Alpine Honeymoon” (1913), “The Revolutionary History of Fort Number Eight” (1897), and “An Appreciation by the Rector of the Church of the Holy Communion “ (1914). As Win points out in his forward, the family has had the “good fortune to had have several family members interested in genealogy” so that “books and records have passed down” (1).

So complete are these records in establishing the history of the family, it appears that Win did not use the census, deeds, church books, or even vital records in compiling his history.

Of course, this book is not about my family—Uncle Win is my husband’s uncle, not my own. Some Profiles dramatically illustrates the chasm between the classes regarding the past. Descended from John Winthrop, Conrad Weiser, Muhlenbergs, and Baldwins, among others, my husband’s family has (seemingly forever) been educated, professional, upper-class. They have been leaders: lawyers, ministers, company owners. They had the literacy, the leisure, the funding, to write, record, store, and publish a growing archive of material about the family and the times in which they lived. Descended even from notables about whom commercial or scholarly books have been penned, their lives intertwine with events in the larger world. Win writes about property and businesses acquired and divested, estates passed on, memberships in clubs and societies, all as if these things were most natural and normal.

I had mentioned to Win, not long ago, that I was conducting my own family research, and he seemed not to understand when I mentioned census records and the Family History Library—my first clue that not all family research is created equal.

If I had one letter—what would that mean to me?

One letter: written in the hand unique to my ancestor, in ink now sepia, perhaps, written in the spelling and sentences of their time—the very scrawl on the page an emanation of soul into the physical world. But I can’t describe the impact on me of writings that don’t exist—only the longing for them. I can be sure only that a description of self and circumstances would move me, that such a letter would swell the enigma of personality, and leave me wanting—more.

All emanations have gone up in smoke. Surely they did write: Josephine back to William and their mother Jeannette in Port Ewen; Jeannette to all of them down in Brooklyn. The younger Josephine to her grandmother, perhaps, and to her friends and her cousins scattered across the city. By the twentieth century, surely, someone might think to save something. Where are, for example, my Dad’s letters back from the war?—for surely he wrote some. I wonder, even, what happened to the letters that I wrote, on that thin blue paper once used for “air mail” letters, back to my dad when I traveled to Europe on the proceeds of my summers waiting tables?

None have survived. Not from or to my parents, or anyone else contemporary, or between any two names in my genealogy. But they did write. Those who could, did, certainly. I have this memory: my mother getting post cards from her sisters a few towns away. And this: she would sit at the kitchen table to write to one or the other, in ballpoint pen on the white 5 x 7 pads we kept by the phone for messages.

And I mean “gone up in smoke” literally. Once read, postcards, greeting cards, notes of whatever kind, were disposed of. A rip in half, a toe to the pedal of the kitchen trash, a hand pushing the paper down into the can.

The prosperous classes have something else, beyond resources and time, that prompts their copious self-expression and family documentation, even memorialization—something missing in the people who work and struggle and get by: a self-image.

I don’t mean my forebears were lacking a self—or depth or even introspection—but rather, they were absent the sense that who they were amounted to more than a hill of beans to a stranger or even to a descendent. I surmise this from knowing my parents, and their parents. Reticence was gospel; self-effacement the rule, quietness the treasure of a person. And when a life was done, it was done, and people went on with the rest of theirs; a home was dissolved, the things scattered, the papers chucked, all but the cemetery deeds. A person became a name and dates incised on polished stone, and, they prayed, a soul in heaven.


Intersection of Parallel Universes

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:39 am

Among the homes and apartments mentioned by my “uncle-in-law,” Win, in his family history is a vacation house: “In the summers, they rented at Greenwich, Connecticut, or at M—, Long Island, before the completion of their large summer home in M— in 1915” (9).

As Win grew up and the depression curtailed the family’s resources, this home became their main one. In fact, Win largely grew up there and went to elementary school in the town.

Strangely, M— is also the town where I was raised, many decades after Win’s youth there. We went to the same elementary school. At his time, it was the only school in the town, situated on the main street, quite far from his family’s house near the bay in the southern end of town. [Sometime I must ask him how he was transported to school.] I attended the school because it was walking distance from my house—a small Cape Cod built by my dad on a 50’ x 100’ lot. My little joke with Win has been that we went to the same school, he when it was new, and I when it was old!

Win summarizes his transition in and out of the New York suburbs:

By 1926, my parents must have realized the impossibility of maintaining two homes and the need to recoup some funds, so they sold the 39th Street [Manhattan] brownstone and settled into the M— house. Sister and I were sent to private schools in Garden City, while brother Henry was enrolled at St. Mark’s School at Southboro, Massachusetts.

After the fourth grade at St. Mary’s at Garden City, I went to M—‘s public school for three or four years and was then enrolled at St. Mark’s for the first form (7th grade). . .

During these lean years, father never let his financial concerns show in front of his children. He was ever one to enjoy outings at Jones Beach with his family and to socialize with his many M—friends.

Years later, while waiting to be called to fight in World War II, Win returned for a visit to his hometown, and in his book he quotes from the journal he kept at that time:

Good old M—! Our house [built by my parents in 1915 and rented to others since father’s death seven years ago] stands across the road from a small privately owned lake, noted mainly for its seaweed and bullrushes and one huge weeping willow. The lake empties through a small dam into one of the millions of creeks of the Great South Bay. We used to catch lots of eels, crabs, and snappers in the creeks in the old days. Mussels lined the banks of the small tributary creeks, but we never thought of them as edible. Meadows and swamps extended along the shores in great patches and probably still do where they haven’t been laid out in blocks and promoted by indefatigable real estate operators (or simply optimists).

I had friends in that south part of town when I was in high school, and their homes were new, built on landfill by those “indefatigable real estate operators.” But they were hardly “laid out in blocks”; rather, these developments were prototypes, I suppose, of today’s McMansions, with swirling streets confusingly lapping around, and houses with features I’d never imagined: atriums, loft bedrooms, walk-in closets, two-story family rooms, gourmet kitchens with islands, pendulum lights, wall ovens and stone-floored patios, and possessions I simply didn’t know were available: grand pianos, original oil paintings by New York artists, sectional sofas, pedigreed dogs. Simply: my public high school was as excellent as it was because of the taxes paid by the engineer-, physician-, and stockbroker-parents of the kids in my classes.

The particular niche in the layout of M— where Win grew up was unknown to me: an older neighborhood surrounded by the homes of the nouveau riche erected on acres of landfill. We drove out, my husband and I, some years ago, to see our respective ancestral homes, and while the S— house still stands, and is still elite, clearly some of its grounds have been sold off for new construction. Win’s expectation that the “meadows and swamps” he knew probably still existed in 1989 was surely over-optimistic.

Further journal entries reveal both the oncoming suburbanization of the town and the lingering lifestyle of the old social set.

In June of 1942, Win writes, he and his sister

. . .came out to M— to join mother. Her apartment is right across the street from the little tennis club to which our old “social community” belonged. The apartment is part of the house that the Swansen family rented in the old days. Mr. Swansen[‘s] . . . son Ed went to Kindergarten with me here in M— and later was my St. Andrews School and Yale roommate.

Mother and I went out to dinner with the Kanes, old friends of the family. We dined at the Shore Terrace, a new and swanky night club in M— complete with orchestra, floor show, and tables for a hundred or more! And then to think back to when I used to go to the public school here, and to when I heard Mr. Kane tell of how his father came to M— in 1892 and how for a couple years they had no gas or electricity and had to pump their own water! When Mr. Kane built his present house about 1900, M— was a village of not even 200 people. Those were the days when everyone in the village knew everyone else and the whole village would have parties down by the bay. Now he hardly knows a soul as he stands with the crowd taking the morning train for New York.

Though much of Win’s descriptions refer to a town and neighborhood alien to my experience there, I did have a bolt of recognition when he described the library as it existed in 1942:

M—‘s new population uses the same library which was functioning when I was born – a tiny one-room affair which used to be supported privately at an annual cost of $300. It is now under the Board of Education and has a budget of $5,000. I don’t know how this shanty can gobble up so much money in a year.

In my day, this library was still a shanty, although it had several narrow extensions also crammed with books. I remember my mother taking me there and my studious perusal of shelf after shelf of plastic-sheathed books. It was on wooded grounds next to the Catholic Church, itself on a large plot harboring a tan brick steepled ediface, a grade school, an old-house turned rectory, a nun’s quarters, and an extensive parking lot. By the time I left town, a new, modern library had been constructed on land at the other side of the church. When we visited M— in the ‘90s, the shanty was still standing and in use in some official capacity. A lot of people loved that old shack, I think, notwithstanding Win’s scorn.

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