Saturday, March 10, 2012

Part 1: The Search Begins

Entry 1: The Search Begins

The treasured photo of became a major clue in my search.
I had puzzled over the names on the family tree for so many months, desperately trying to get “just one more back.” But I was never satisfied when that "one more" was revealed. I always wanted another. And then it hit me. I had become the genealogical equivalent of a quantitative researcher, a style that I had never embraced in my academic career. I was merely looking to place as many names on a chart as possible. Looking at my work, I realized it was too numeric, too sterile. I wanted to understand my family beyond their birth and death dates. I yearned to know who they were, why they made the choices they did, how their past had tumbled forward to affect my present, and would likely influence the future of my children and grandchildren. I wanted to put my qualitative skills to work.
When I felt the pull to do this, it was easy to choose the person to study. Mary Ann Simons had caused me the most frustration as I filled in the names and dates on my ever-growing chart. I had a handwritten family tree from the early 1900s but as it turned out, this voice from the past gave me the misplaced confidence that the Simons' branch would be the easiest to place on my family tree. It was one of the most frustrating. New names could not be found. Moving from place to place made the family difficult to track. When other branches revealed themselves with so little effort on my part, this one continued to hide in the shadows of poverty in mid-nineteenth century Cornwall. But more about this later.
Perhaps it was because I felt familiarity with this branch of my family tree that made these ancestors so compelling. The family gatherings at Helen Lake and the Christmas celebrations with the Simons’ branch conjured up the warm fuzzy feelings of my childhood. A faded framed photo (above) of Mary Ann's daughter, Harriet Simons, and family had hung in a prominent place in my home for so long. Its gold gilded frame a stark contrast to the forlorn faces that stood silently in front of an old black and white farmhouse. The picture had invited me into the family scene since it hung in my own grandmother's house. In it, Mary Ann's grandson, Thomas “Pa” Richards, held a large parrot, a precursor to our oft-discussed conversation of the “pet gene” shared by so many in today’s family.
Pa was the only one of my great grandparents I ever knew. Unlike his young, fresh face in the photo (above), my five-year-old self knew him as an old wrinkled man who sat in a chair and rarely moved. I visited him when I went to my grandparents’ house, but there were stark contrasts in that, too. He lived on their first floor, separated by what seemed to be dark, steep steps that took my little legs forever to climb. I remember standing at the top, looking down, feeling fright. While the upstairs was filled with light, sound, and the smells of my grandmother’s baking, below Pa’s quarters seemed to be a dark, dank smelling set of confusing rooms. By the time I knew him, those hands that once held the parrot and fed the many dogs he owned, were covered by translucent, age-spotted skin. And in the unusual way touch and smell have of allowing us to capture moments in time, I can still feel that hand, and I am taken back to him when I open the china cabinet that once stood in his home. That musty smell transports me to the late 1950s to Superior St in Ishpeming, Michigan.

"Pa" (Thomas Richards) Holds Me

1 comment:

  1. I will be an avid follower of your blog! Your writing is rich, vivid-beautiful. I see your mom's smile in the photo of your "Pa."