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Uncle Win’s sources include journals and memoirs, both published and unpublished, as well as letters, family Bibles, family-held genealogical records, entries in the Dictionary of American Biography, addresses, obituaries, and other records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.


1 Comment »

  1. Oh wait. Yes, I have. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have it in me right now to type it all out again. Besides, it was just ramblings anyway. You didn’t want to hear me go on and on about this, right?

    Comment by Boy George — May 23, 2007 @ 4:04 pm |Reply

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