Friday, March 30, 2012

Part 3: The Why, How, and Wonder

My grandmother, Myrtle Richards Sundberg, and Clayton Simons - relatives and friends throughout life.
Entry 3: The Why, How, and Wonder

My recent foray into the past began just after my dad’s death. It’s funny how death draws me to the family tree; perhaps I have a deep-seeded need to feel connected at these times. I believe my search to be a part of my personal grieving process. Somehow knowing that I am but one person in a long line of family that has been and that will be, is comforting to me. So, I tacked posters to my office wall, joined Ancestry,com and was off on the journey to connect with my past. In that strange way “the universe” has of speaking to us, it was not my dad’s family whose path I ventured on, but rather my mother’s branch of the tree beckoned. Was it the familiarity of them that drew me to their lives in particular? There is no answer to that yet, but I remain open to all the possibilities.
I combed through old photos, scanned from the black-paged album that was shedding its pages in my mother’s closet. The barrage of questioning began as I strove to squeeze as much information from my mother as possible. Never one to tell a detailed-laden story, replete with whose second cousin married the neighbor in 1938, she is hesitant to pull details from her memory. There is nothing wrong with her recall; rather I think she holds her life close, perhaps not realizing the treasures she holds. I learned that if I provided a key word or name, a valued anecdote might spring forth. Mentioning Hjalmer G(J)erling gave me a story of her young excitement that there was enough boiled dinner in the pot so he could stay for a family dinner. Gems like this would have been told by my dad so many times that we could and would have recited the details with him. But my mother is different. The other day she casually mentioned that my grandfather had provided for his parents during the depression years. Had it not been for him, she said, they would not have had food. This was a new swathe in her family portrait and made me realize how much she holds that still needs to be painted onto the canvas.
As I began the process of uncovering my mother’s family, I had that special paper of old to guide me as I searched for the names and dates of the Simons’ branch. It held more information than the little I knew about her Millmans and Richards, so I naïvely thought I would fill in those hand drawn Simons’ tree boxes with ease. The word naïve is entirely accurate here as I was a novice, easily shrugging off advice to look carefully at siblings and the details of census records. I just wanted to move that family tree to its tallest branch. I was fanatical about collecting a quantity of greats in front of the words grandmother and grandfather. I paid for marriage licenses, death certificates and learned that parish clerks in Devon and Cornwall would willingly supply me with information, in exchange for a few well-deserved words of gratitude. I was not yet infatuated with the richness of these lives. I just wanted to move from the 1900s to the 1800s to the 1700s. But one woman stood in my way: Mary Ann Simons.
This nexus of personal connections and irrepressible roadblocks likely resulted in my feelings of closeness to this great great grandmother. She was my mysterious matriarch; yet, she was a barricade, the gatekeeper that prevented me from traveling back in time along this family line. Her name had been in front of me for so long, but that was it. It ended with the pencil scrawl at the top of that paper. She seemed to have no life until she left England bound for Vermont. Who was she? She called to me, but I could not hear clearly. There was no maiden name, no census record that made sense before she stepped onto the boat as Mrs. Symons and alighted with a new spelling, Mrs. Simons. As I set out to ascertain the details of this life, I grew close to Mary Ann, even talking to her as I waited for search engines to spider through records or for emails to arrive from parish clerks. I learned to listen for her voice with every click of the mouse. I had to dig deep into what life was like in Cornwall in the 1860s if I ever wanted to understand her. To answer my “who” question, I had to first ask others: where, what, how, and why. Ever so slowly, I grew into a qualitative genealogist, thanks to the mysterious Mrs. Symons. 
Traveling back to her past...

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