The Washerwoman’s Genes

About: The Hands of a Genealogist

”Look at your long fingers! Such big hands! You must be a pianist!”

Over and over, I heard this comment when I was growing up. I didn’t know what to make of it; we didn’t have a piano! Nobody in the family even sang. But apparently I had the hands for piano, and I was told so by strangers and teachers and friends’ parents and who knows who else. My hands were BIG: attention-getting BIG.

So were my mom’s. And my dad’s. But they were grown-ups, and people talked to them about a lot more interesting things than their hands.

Time passed, and eventually I realized that big hands come in useful if it’s 1900 and you’re going to do the laundry. In fact, you might get assigned the laundry if you have hands like me, like my mom, or like my grandma Jennie Dowd Slaven.

Jennie was an Irish immigrant; she met and married an Irishman and together they worked on an estate in the Five Towns area of Long Island. James was a gardener, and she a washerwoman. James died after four children were born, and she continued on, supporting her children with her hands. She retired and electric washers took over, and the era of the family laundress was ended.

I know a fair amount about Jennie Slaven; I knew her, in fact, when I was a young child. She lived across the yard, in an old stone cottage with a fireplace; she drank strong tea and left the spoon in cup as she drank. She had a brogue, which as I child I could imitate fairly well, though now the sound of her voice in my head has dimmed.

Sometime I plan to do more research into the Dowds and Slavens, but my current ancestry studies are focusing on my other grandmother, my dad’s mother. Her family was in America the longest of any of my grandparents, and I’ve been following her line back from Brooklyn into the colonial past. To my surprise, census records showed that her mother had been born in Esopus, N.Y., near Kingston in the Hudson Valley. No one had ever told me that I had roots on the “mainland”; I and all my forebears, I had previously thought, were from Long Island.

Soon I identified my great-great grandparents in Esopus and were able to follow them in the censuses from 1840 onward. My grandmother’s grandmother, Jannette Quimby Burger, was a single mother after 1856 (when her last child was born): her husband Cornelius is not listed in the 1860 census. In 1870, only two children are left at home, my great-grandmother Josephine and her younger brother Willie. In 1880, young Josephine is gone. She is married and living in Brooklyn with her husband, Walter Scott Davis. Only Willie remains with his mother, although, oddly, he is also listed in Brooklyn, where he will live thereafter.

The federal census of 1870 is the first to mention an occupation for Jannette. And what was she? A washerwoman.

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