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52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Quick and Dirty Catching up! (Week 11 [luck] and Week 12 [popular] and Week 13 [Nearly Forgotten])

I’ve been swamped with school work the past couple of weeks, especially as our university transitioned all our courses to online, stay-at-home learning. They were prepared and the transition went smoothly, even for a luddite like me, but it was still a lot to handle in addition, of course, to preparing for the whole shelter-in-place for the next couple of weeks. It’s only now that I have a chance to sit down and catch up. So without further ado, let’s get started. These may be a bit short and to the point, but that’s better than nothing!

Week 11: Luck

I don’t actually associate luck with my family. I know we have it, we’re survivors but when I think of luck, I think of great success or fame or fortune and that’s not my family. They were, depending on which line one explores, lower landed gentry, peasant farmers, craftsmen, or clergy. We’re still here though so I guess that counts for something!

Actually, if I had to say who was lucky in my family, I’d say myself. Even through the most grueling moments in my life, the darkest and roughest, there’s been a glimmer, a lifeline. The Gods provide. I’m grateful for that and maybe I need to recognize it a bit more often. I’m lucky.

Week 12: Popular

Well, they’re not my blood ancestors obviously, but they are a family of spirits that I honor with deep love and affection so what the hell. For popularity, you can’t get more popular than the family of spirits I term my ‘masked ones’: the castrati and also the various ballet dancers that I honor (the latter because I was a ballet dancer, that is my professional lineage, and these were the men and women who inspired me when I worked in that field). Men like Carestini, Cafarelli, Senesino, Atto Melani and women like Marie Salle, Olga Spessivtseva, Marie Taglioni, et al. Now I do have one opera singer in my line (my maternal great grandmother) and one pianist (my adopted mom) but none strove for a career like these luminaries. I’m grateful for what I know of their struggles and trials and it is their popularity and success that has carried those stories down to us now.

Week 13: Nearly Forgotten

I’ll tell the story of the death of my third great grandfather William Seymour Baldwin (1823-1864). He lived in Hardy County, West Virginia and died there too on October 16. I received the story from a distant cousin, who himself is an avid and skilled genealogist. It was taken from a family bible belonging to the Pratt family, from a record written by S.Y. Simmons, Esq. in 1896. If it hadn’t been for my distant cousin being willing to share this information, or for S.E. sharing it with him, this story would have been lost to my family. Here we go:

“”Issac Pratt was killed on Walker’s Ridge while in pursuit of his horse, by some roughs who had formed themselves into a company in the late war. He was unarmed and they took him prisoner.” S.Y. Simmons says “Seymour Baldwin was with him and was killed also. I sent for them and had them brought home and buried in Snodgrass Cemetery.” According to older Pratt family members living in WV a man by the name of Klein was believed to be responsible for these deaths.”

According to a story told in West Virginia –When a man by the name of Klein and his family moved into the area many, many years later, the Pratts living nearby made his life so miserable that he and his family moved in three days. The older Pratt members living in that area still have no use for the Kleins. Received from S.E., Moorefield, WV.”

So, my three times great grandfather was killed by a band of roving thugs while helping his friend retrieve a stolen horse. No good deed goes unpunished, apparently.

There’s a lot left unsaid in the description. Was Seymour armed (one would hope that when going to retrieve stolen property, one would take a rifle at the very least)? How were they killed (beaten? Shot? Stabbed?)? Was Seymour ex-military? If you’ll note, the Civil War had just ended when all this happened. It wasn’t uncommon for (often run-away) southern soldiers to form small criminal bands. We can tell from the story that Seymour wasn’t part of such a band but did he himself have military service? Had he just returned from war? So much left to research!

Maybe one day I’ll get to visit his grave.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 10 (Strong woman)

When this prompt came up, I knew immediately about whom I would write: my adopted mom Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza (1950-2010). She formed me, healed me, loved me, and sustained me in ways large and small for the all too brief time that she was in my life (up to and including formally/legally adopting me). She was my miracle mother and it’s actually because of her that I was able to eventually make peace with my bio-mother. It’s because of her that I became a human being, that I learned to move in the world, that I gained enough footing to be able to reach out to give others a boost up too. Like some soul deep kintsugi, she carefully put me back together, smoothing out or maybe honing my roughest edges, and breathing life and color and brightness into a life I’d long thought dismal and grey.

We began our friendship, which quickly morphed into a mother-daughter relationship (that’s just how it was, a blessing) in 2004. She had read a poem that I wrote that was included in an anthology and wrote to the publisher who eventually forwarded the letter to me. Her handwriting was so beautiful that I was almost afraid to open the letter. Her regular, every day writing looked like medieval calligraphy! (no joke). The letter itself asked about other things I had written and my theological perspective on a particular issue within our religious community (I’m a theologian) and of course I wrote back, sending her a few pieces. Things blossomed very, very quickly and within the year we’d met in person. I have binders, at least a dozen, of hand written letters that she wrote me and after she died (in 2010), I inherited her binders of my letters too. Even though we were visiting in person all the time, traveling together, and talking on the phone several times a day, we still maintained a lively written correspondence. She was the single most devout person I have ever known. She’s actually venerated as a saint in (at least) two religious traditions.

There’s the famous verse from Corinthians, “love is patient, love is kind,” to which I would add, love rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. I owe my life to this woman, just as much as if she’d given birth to me. She rescued my heart and soul from a profound despair and darkness and …she was my mom. I miss her every day. I won’t say much about her life because she herself was very private and would not have liked it. She was Swiss, attended the music conservatory in Basel, absolutely could not sing lol, taught piano for decades, spoke eight languages fluently, and read at least one more, loved animals, was an avid gardener, and had a calling to contemplative devotion that I flatly envy. She quite simply loved her Gods. They were her reason for being. I think the burden of living, what she once called the pain of the world, was very, very hard for her, but she bore it with dignity doing what she could when she could in order to make it better. I had been a priest for over a decade when we met but she taught me how to pray. She taught me what it meant to be devout. She taught me that integrity and devotion were both choices that we make again and again and again each day of our lives. She taught me the grace of endurance. For all of this and more, I am grateful. Her soul was a star held aloft in the hands of the Gods and its brightness continues to guide me daily. More I shall leave to those who knew her.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 8 (disaster)

I’ve put off writing about this because it’s such an ugly story and had such terrible consequences for my grandfather, and by extension his children, and by further extension me. I will preface this by saying that I respect my ancestors. They were imperfect, often wounded human beings, flailing about in the anguish of their humanity. I get that. I don’t judge them, or at the very least I try hard not to do so. I am no better when I am in pain. That being said, brace yourselves.

I don’t know very much about my great great grandmother Edna Baldwin. She was an opera singer, played the piano (I’ve been told both professionally in Baltimore) but she was a cypher. I know she had a vicious temper (hey grandma, me too), was very volatile, and tried to hide her background. I’ve found outright lies on her children’s birth certificates about where she was born. It reads like she is trying to hide her origins and I have no idea why (suspicions, but no clear proof). Her marriage (if they were actually married…) to my great grandfather Perry Barnes Hanna was passionate, violent (on both sides), and short lived. He had a penchant for alcohol and both for physical violence and she for the latter (she went after him with a knife once, and family stories point to both of them being equally ill-matched) She apparently had two children with him, my grandfather Roland Isaac Hanna and his older brother Van.

When Roland was six and Van nine, Edna took them to a local park. She told her sons that they should wait a moment and she’d be right back. Then, with no explanation, she left. She never came back. Both boys were adopted out to separate families. Roland was used as farm labor, living in conditions close to brutal, indentured servitude. He was brilliant – and since I’m sure I’ll talk about him later during this project, I won’t go into too much detail about him now save to say that this destroyed him. I don’t think he ever recovered emotionally. Later, as a teenager, he sought out his mother and showed up at her door. When she answered, he told her, “I’m your son, Roland.” She closed the door on him with the words, “I have no son Roland.” While Van detested her, Roland never stopped trying to win her love.

That one act: her abandonment of her children, damaged three generations. Roland grew up into a harsh man, a brilliant polymath married to a woman who could no way match him intellectually (my grandmother, was a very devout woman, but they were not well matched intellectually in any way, shape, or form). He was so abusive to his wife and children, that one uncle told me, “Every night he’d beat us with a coal shovel until we pissed or bled” and my aunt remembers her deep fear coming home from school every day, wondering if they’d find their mother dead on the floor. My bio-mother was his least favorite child and he was the harshest with her. This left her cold, contemptuous, depressed, and angry. She was not physically abusive, but she was unloving, emotionally abusive, and mean (to me, not to my brother – he thinks she was the most amazing mother in the world and it’s a point of contention between us that I don’t agree. I do think that she did the absolute best she could and for that, she has my respect).  I was blessed to have an adopted mom, and to have made peace with my bio-mom before she died. I understand why she was as she was: it was a deep, deep pain and sense of being unloved. Her father and mother divorced in the 50s and before he died in the 90s, he tried to make peace with her, but she was having none of it. The wounds were still too fresh. He destroyed her trust in the world and her ability to believe herself worthy of happiness, as his has been destroyed the day his mother left him in the park.

Years ago, I remember standing in front of my ancestor shrine and meditating on Edna Baldwin and I said aloud, “I just don’t understand your choice” (i.e. to abandon her children). Clear as a bell ringing through my mind and heart I heard her voice, “You assume I had one” (a choice.). I pray for them all, honoring them amongst my dead, doing regular elevations. There are stories there that I do not know and pain I cannot fully understand and my job is to hold it, honor them, and do what I can by way of our ancestral techniques (like elevation, story-telling, prayer, etc.) to heal what I am able to heal, for the living and the dead.

Hurt and pain echoe through generations continuing to do their damage. Nothing goes away. It must be faced, acknowledged, wrestled with, dealt with, and ultimately – hopefully with the grace of our Gods – healed. Disasters happen but I think we are made, forged and honed in how we meet them. We happen too, we become, even in the midst of generations of ancestral pain and that is an opening for the glory of our Gods.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Week 8 (Prosperity)

When this topic came up in the genealogy challenge, I immediately thought of my maternal third great grandmother Rachel Bobo. She was born in 1824 and died 1908 having spent her entire life (as far as I can tell) in Hardy County, West Virginia. She married a farmer, William Seymour Baldwin (1823-1864) in 1839 and they had a passel of children including my great great grandfather Isaac Hamilton Baldwin.

RachelBoboBaldwin copy

(yes, the birth date is off on the photo – welcome to genealogy)

The first time I saw her last name, I was amused so of course, I had to research it even further. It’s a French name that can also be spelled Beaubeau, Baubeau, or Bobeau – keeping in mind that there was no standardization with the spelling of names until well into the early 20thcentury). Turns out, Rachel is descended from Gabriel Bobo, an Huguenot immigrant to VA c. 1681. Originally from St. Sauvant, he was fleeing religious persecution in Catholic France. The Edict of Nantes, issued in 1598 had given Huguenots the right to practice their faith free of persecution but this was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685 leading to government sanctioned persecution, pressure to convert to Catholicism, imprisonment, and violence. Many Huguenots fled to Britain and Denmark (and some, eventually to the American Colonies). I was surprised to learn that they had a reputation for being fine craftsmen of various sorts, though I can’t tell if that was also the case with Rachel’s family. I do know she was tough and you can see it in her face too. My impression from her photo and the stories that I have of her is that this is a woman possessed of grit.

Rachel’s Grandfather, Leonard Ludwick fought in the Revolutionary war and I’m amused by the names she chose to give some of her children: Andrew Jackson Baldwin, Isaac Hamilton Baldwin, etc. Obviously, this was a generation proud to be part of the new America. It doesn’t seem like she or her husband were literate but they sure made certain that their children were. Her son Isaac, my second great grandfather was a mechanic, and his daughter was, at least for part of her life, an opera singer.  One can see an upward educational trend.

It may seem strange to write about Rachel on a week focused on “prosperity,” but she and her husband worked hard and it’s clear that they did so in order to give their children something better than they themselves had. I wonder what the word “prosperity” meant to her and I very much wonder what I can learn from how she lived her life and her values.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Week 7 (Favorite Discovery)

This is a hard one because each time I learn something new about my ancestral lines, I get excited. Each discovery is my favorite one. That being said, I think the thing that I’ve been focusing on recently the most, that just tickles me pink, lol, is something I’ve mentioned before; namely, that my 11thgreat grandfather is Jakob Boehme, seventeenth century theologian, mystic philosopher, and gadfly to the establishment.


Given that I myself am a theologian, I like knowing that I’m carrying on a family tradition: pushing the boundaries within my religious community. Boehme is not the only clergy person or theologian in my maternal line, but he’s the one that I found the most surprising.

For more info on him, see the wiki article here.

For you, my readers, for those of you who’ve done genealogical work as part of your ancestor practice, what has been your favorite discovery?

52 Ancestors 52 Weeks – Week 6 (Same Name)

I actually don’t have any ancestors that I know of who share my first name. I was, however, very nearly named Ursula after my paternal grandmother, so I’ll share her story this week. (I think I would have liked sharing her name as an adult—it means “little bear”—but I’m not sure I’d have been overly thrilled with it as a child).

lith fam

(Ursula and Karl with their children Julia and John)

Ursula Blasis was born in 1888 in Kurliu, Lithuania (though unlike her husband Karolys, she listed “Russian” rather than “Lithuanian” on her immigration forms, making me wonder if one of her parents was Russian – I haven’t been able to find out anything about them yet) and immigrated to the US in 1910. She had three children: my aunt Julia (1912-1999), my dad John (1917-2005), and my uncle Joseph (1921-2011).

She was married to Karalys (or Karl) Dabravalskas (1882-1973), a dairy farmer and carpenter. This is the story that my dad told me of their courtship. Apparently, Karl was originally betrothed to Ursula’s older sister. My impression from what my dad told me was that this was, more or less, an arranged marriage. So, Karalys immigrated to the US, settled in Albany, NY and got himself settled and set up and then sent for his bride to be. She, however, decided she didn’t want to leave Lithuania so without telling him beforehand sent her younger sister Ursula over. Once she was here, in those days, one couldn’t just send her back so they married and that was that.

While I didn’t know my grandfather (he died when I was less than a year old), I do have memories of my grandmother. She was birdlike and thin, spoke very little English, and was very affectionate. She scared me as a child – she always wanted to hold and pet me but even as a child I wasn’t much for being crowded and as a very small child I thought she was Baba Yaga! Now I wish that I had had the opportunity to know her when I was just a bit older. I think she was very tough and very brave.

She is buried in Albany and I visit her grave regularly (as well as that of her husband, my aunt Julia, and her husband Kurt Wagner). It’s probably time I visit again. It’s been awhile…


52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 5 (So Far Away)

This week, I want to talk about a group of men that I honor as ancestors, even though they never had physical children. For years now, I have honored the baroque castrati as a group of honored dead on my ancestor shrine. I love them, I truly do and they’ve become an integral part of my spiritual practice of honoring the dead.

Music has always been an important part of my life. I spent the first quarter of my life as a professional ballet dancer (retired in my early twenties due to injury). That was the first way by which I was introduced to ecstatic spirituality. It was the first way I ever touched the sacred. It’s an art intimately connected to that of music. One of the first really famous ballet dancers, Marie Salle, who was herself a gifted choreographer, worked with Handel and his castrati in London. Ballet and opera evolved one from the other. There’s a lineage there and in a very small way, I was part of that. Even now, when I listen to music it takes me out of myself and brings me to a place where I throw myself far more deeply into holy work. It’s a visceral, full body experience. It roars through my blood and then carries me to the spirits and worlds I seek. It was from the castrati that I really came to understand what an important journey maker music has always been for me. Now I use it consciously in my work and often under their auspices. I am grateful.

Anyway, for those who may not know – since I do have a number of new readers –the castrati were singers, first in church choirs and then in the opera, who were castrated before puberty to preserve their voices. So, they were adult men with the chest and lung capacity of adult men, but the vocal chords of prepubescent boys. They were sopranos, mezzos (both classed as “soprano” in their day) and altos and their voices were ethereal wonders. We don’t know exactly what they sounded like. There is a recording of the very last famous castrato, but he was well past his prime during the recording, had never been an operatic virtuoso, and turn of the century recording technology lacked the capacity for recording the fullness of his voice. What we get is warped and thin. The same thing occurs with female opera singers who were recorded in the first decade of the 1900s too. All we really have are descriptions from those who heard these men. They were the rock stars of their day. One woman, upon hearing the famous castrato Farinelli sing was moved to such ecstasies by the sound that she burst out with an enthusiastic, if slightly blasphemous, “one God, one Farinelli!”

Now, we usually think of the castrati as belonging to the the baroque era but they worked roughly through the 16th to 19th centuries. In reality, even longer — the first castrated singer that I’ve encountered (thanks to the work of scholar Neil Moran) is the 5th century Brisson, who was choir master in the Byzantine court of Empress Eudoxia. We know that the Byzantines had castrati in their choirs though there is no indication of an industry that castrated boys purely for their vocal potential. That comes later in the 16th century in the Vatican states where women were forbidden from performing on stage (because of a prohibition in Paul). The last well-known castrato was A. Moreschi who died in 1922. He’s the one who was recorded. Today, their repertoire, which created opera as we know it, is usually performed by women or counter-tenors. I prefer the latter (I like lower female voices, probably because I’m a tenor myself and higher male voices. Female sopranos tend to annoy me—the quality of the sound is different from a man singing in the same range. I’d rather listen to a female contralto but in the end, I’m glad for all the vocal instruments we have). By the way, that Byzantine choir master Brisson was a bad ass. He is recorded (by the 6th c. historian Socrates) as getting into fist fights with religious heretics lol.

Anyway, I consider these men, men like Atto Melani, Cafarelli, Carestini, and Senesino to be part of my ancestral house. I honor them regularly. They have immortality like the heroes of old, and it is up to those of us who recognize the beauty and sacrality in what they did to serve the function of progeny: that of remembering those who came before us. So, I hail them, regularly and very soon, I will complete a small novena book for them too. I will conclude this with one of the prayers I give them. May they always be remembered, valued, and praised – both those who were famous, and those who broke in the process.

Prayer for the castrati
By Galina Krasskova

Your predecessors haunted the courts and choirs of Constantinople.
The enchantment of your voices was heard from Italy to Spain,
England to Germany, and well beyond even to farthest Russia.
The ghostly memory of your glory haunts every operatic stage,
everywhere in the world today and that is good. We should not forget.
We should never forget the debt our artists owe to each of you,
with every voice lifted in song, every note resonant in modern throats.

You rose up from the ashes of Rome,
glittering jewels in the crown of the world,
bright, hard, glorious, unbreakable.
You shone like the sun
with the glory of the moon at your backs:
magic, allure, erotic power.
Your voices tore open the heavens
and left frenzied desire in their wake.
No king was ever more feted.
No saint ever more reverenced.

Let us taste anew that frenzy–
pouring ourselves out in offerings to you.
White, cold and unyielding,
beautiful angels,
with hearts hungry
and less than angelic,
each of your voices a blade,
inviting longing, revealing desire,
leaving ecstasy in its wake.

I praise you today and every day.
Your names sanctify my lips.

(from the forthcoming “Viva ‘il coltello: In Honor of the castrati” by G. Krasskova, Sanngetall Press).

The closest we can get is the modern counter tenor. Here are three of my favorites.

Andreas Scholl singing Bizet’s “Habanera” (he’s known for his interpretation of Bach and his voice is exactly the same vocal range as the castrato Senesino. He also went to the same conservatory in Basel as my adopted mom. I just get a kick out of him singing “Carmen” so I chose that one instead of Bach).

Michael Maniaci singing Mozart’s “Exsultate” (written for the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini).

Philippe Jaroussky singing Gluck’s “Che faro senza Euridice” (originally sung by the castrato Gaetano Guadagni).

Jakub Jozef Orlinski singing Hasse’s “Mea tormenta, properate!”

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 4 (Close to Home)

I grew up amongst my maternal kin. Rather, I should say, I grew up amongst the Shoff and Heffner descendants. There wasn’t much awareness of continuity or genealogy in the immediate family – for instance I was in my forties before I realized my great grandfather and great-great grandmother were buried not 20 minutes from my childhood home—and with one exception, my maternal grandmother’s children seem to want to cut themselves off from their heritage. There’s something emotionally unsettled and rootless in them, a brittleness that I put down to that conscious abrogation of their ancestry. I could speculate on why they feel that way, but that’s not where I want to go in this post. Rather I’d like to focus on connection.

There is a cemetery, St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran in Chanceford Twnship, PA where I am related to 98% of the inhabitants and if I looked closely enough, I could probably find connections to the remaining 2% as well. So many of my direct descendants are there. Visiting was overwhelming. I’ve been to cemeteries before where I had one or two relatives buried but never six+ generations of my maternal line! It was one of the richest and yet most disorienting moments I’ve ever had in my genealogy work! I sank down in the grass in front of my great, great, great grandparents’ (Elizabeth Oberlander and Jesse Runkle) stones and it felt like a homecoming. I wanted to stay there for hours and hours.

My friend MAG was with me (she took the picture of the cemetery shown here) and helped me to stay focused. She’s a good handler lol! It was blistering hot and all I could think of was finding relatives but she made sure I stayed hydrated and kept an eye on me as I staggered from grave to grave. She was a trooper too. When we started out, we knew the cemetery was off route 425 but not the exact address. When we found it after about an hour of driving around, the sense of “this one is mine” was so strong it knocked the breath out of me. (I found this page, by a librarian and genealogist talking about the cemetery for those interested). 

My third great grandparents are there, second great grandparents, my second cousin twice removed who died in WWI, his parents, assorted Revolutionary and Civil War dead to whom I’m related. There’s a list of the burials MAG found as I was staggering through the cemetery and when I started reading through it, I think all I could say over and over was ‘Oh my Gods. Oh my Gods. Oh my Gods.” Shoffs, Runkles, Oberlanders, Heffners, Smeltzers oh my. (Even as I typed this up I went off on a genealogical expedition through cemetery records. I had to stop myself lol).

Not belonging to an Abrahamic religion, I often ponder the fact that we have no universal “holy land” comparable to what Jerusalem is for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. One could say that all land is holy to us but that, I think, is a cop out. This cemetery is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a place that felt holy on an inter-generational level, on a deeply sacred level and it was a joy.

Processed with Snapseed.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week Three (long line)

One of the prompts for this particular week on the official facebook page for this project asks if there is an occupation that seems to recur in one’s family tree. Ironically, there is and it’s one that I myself am pursuing too: theologian/clergy.

On my maternal line (through her father), my 7thgreat grandfather is Alexander Underwood (1688-1767), a Quaker minister who settled in Pennsylvania. I’ve actually been in the Meeting House that he helped to build in Warrington Township. He was apparently very prominent in his community and travelled frequently to help build up Quaker communities in the colonies.Processed with Snapseed. (Warrington Meeting House — my photo).

I’m descended through his daughter Ann Underwood, who married Stephen Ailes. Their son Stephen Ailes (1750-1828) and his wife Elizabeth Swayne (1751-1820) had a son Stephen Ailes (1771-1816) – my family has never been overly creative with naming their children lol. It’s a pain in the ass as a genealogist—who married Sarah Byland (1773-1830) had a daughter Esther Ailes (1798-1887) who married James Andrew Hanna (1800-1874) and their son Stephen John Hanna (1832-1897) was my great great grandfather. I’ve been able to visit his grave and the graves of his wife Elizabeth Johnson, their son Perry Hanna, and his son, my grandfather Roland Hanna within the past couple of years. It looks like Stephen John Hanna was a farmer primarily (quite common on both sides of my family as well).

Bohme-woodcut-Hugo-BurknerAlso on my maternal line (this time through her mother), theologian and mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) is my 11thgreat grandfather. This was really exciting when I discovered this. He was considered rather controversial in his time but had tremendous influence on German romanticism. He was trained as a shoemaker but read extensively, becoming effectively self-taught. He was a visionary and mystic and wrote extensively on various theological topics like angels, theodicy, and theological anthropology. He wrote several books including “Forty Questions on the soul,” “The Incarnation of Jesus Christ,” “The Six Mystical Points,” “The Signature of All Things,” and “On Election to Grace.” His work is still in print today. He engaged with leading clergy of his day and also leading religious controversies. There are strong Platonic elements in his work. His work also birthed a theosophical religious movement called Behmenism (an English corruption of his name) which influenced Romantic poets and artists including William Blake.

So, I am descended from Jakob Boehme through his son Jakob Boehm (1599-1670) –there was no regulated spelling of names until the early 20thcentury, so I tend to alternate spellings depending on the document with which I’m dealing. He had a son also Jacob Boehme (1643-1734) who married Barbara Karrer (1637-1737) and they had a son also named Jacob (1668-1692) who married Anna Marie Sherer (1671-1750) and they had a son of the same name (1693-1781) who married Barbara Kendig (1695-1780). They were my immigrant ancestors on this particular line, coming to Pennsylvania in the 18thcentury, and they had a daughter Magdalena (1738-1804). She married Frederick Shoff (1732-1800), himself an immigrant from the Palatine and they had a son Jacob Shoff (1765-1838). He married Nancy Hess (1775-1810) and by this time that particularly family line was already well ensconced in Chanceford township in PA (there’s a Lutheran graveyard there where I’m literally related to 98% of the inhabitants and If I looked hard enough, I’m pretty sure I am probably related to the other 2% by marriage!). It looks like by he and his father were too young and too old respectively to have fought in the American Revolution (I have other maternal relatives who did that). Anyway, their son David Shoff (1800-1881) married Barbara Smeltzer (1801-1844). Their son Christian Shoff (1815 – ?) married Catherine Markley (1793-1859). He fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union. His son Rudolph Reuben Shoff (1842-1886) married Mary Jane Adams (1846-1936) and their son Hugh Clay Shoff (1873-1957) married Lucinda Alice Heffner (1875-1952). They are my maternal great grandparents. Their daughter Linnie May Shoff (1909-1987) married Roland Isaac Hanna (1903-1991) though they later divorced. Their daughter Mary Ann (1947-2012) is my biological mother. Whew!mommom at 15(Linnie Hanna as a young woman, c. 16). 

Throughout the line, at least through my great-grandparents’ generation, there has always been a strong thread of interest in things spiritual. My great-grandfather’s sister, if my grandmother’s stories are correct (and given some of what I learned from her and later researched and checked, I think they are) was a spiritualist of some note in the family. My great-grandmother was apparently “very, very spiritual” (as far as her grandchildren’s accounts go). My grandmother herself was a mystic and visionary – I know that from my own time with her– and it’s from her that I learned the importance of devotion and prayer. I myself have been a priest within my religious tradition for almost 30 years (a terrifying thought lol) and I’m pursuing a PhD in theology.

Likewise, lest I forget to mention them, also on my maternal line, we’re descended from Huegenots who immigrated rather than betray their religious principles. We also had several Swiss immigrants who were Mennonites. I’ll admit to having little patience with Protestantism (I’d rather deal with converts from Catholicism any day in our tradition, since there are elements of prayer, devotion, and shrine work that seem to come easier to them and the Protestant focus on the written word has had problematic influence in my own polytheistic tradition) but I’m proud that my ancestors would not be swayed from what their conscience at the time dictated.

 Basically, I’m descended from a long line of people who had no problem stirring the religious pot and causing trouble and I’m happy to say I uphold that particular family tradition proudly. Lol.

Screenshot 2019-12-25 20.51.41

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 2 (favorite photo)

I don’t know if this is a favorite photo per se, but it was certainly one that I was overjoyed to acquire.

edna baldwin perry hanna

This is my great grandmother (maternal father’s side) Edna Baldwin (with her then husband and my great grandfather Perry Barnes Hanna). She haunted my family for years (metaphorically speaking lol). There is tragedy and loss and bitterness and so much there in her life on which I wish I had clarity; she was really the lynch pin that set the tone for not just her children but theirs as well and by extension my generation too. Intergenerational pain and trauma but also courage and perseverance and the ability to survive with all the viciousness that sometimes entails. While parts of her story are bleak, I respect her and I honor her as one of my disir (protective female ancestors).

Edna was born c. 1879 in Hardy, WV to Jane Newhouse Baldwin and Isaac Hamilton Baldwin. She was one of at least a dozen children. The 1900 census lists her father as a car repairer. All I know of Edna is that she got the hell out of WV as soon as she could. She married Perry Barnes Hanna, my great grandfather (though I haven’t found their wedding certificate yet), and had three children by him (I have my doubts that the first child was his. The boy looks significantly mixed race (most likely part Native– my husband is half Blackfoot so it jumped out at me immediately) and I really do wonder if that’s why she left Hardy County to begin with, attitudes being what they were then in small, 19th c. towns. I looked at the photo I finally got of the two brothers and immediately blurted out: “No way they have the same father!” In 1900 that would have been an issue, a serious one, but I digress. (I am a genealogist. Mysteries like this drive me absolutely crazy. I want to know. Everything my dead tried to hide, I want to ferret out lol. I’ve had intensive email correspondence with an archivist in Hardy county – amazingly wonderful woman – and we came to the conclusion that Edna lied on her second son’s birth certificate. There, she said she was born in Alabama. Census records place her at less than a year old in Hardy County and I have far more documentation for her parents than I do for her. We thought, all the evidence considered, that she was trying to hide her background and town/county/state of origin. Like me, did she just move as far away as she could at the first opportunity when she was of age or is there more to the story? I will probably never know but I also won’t stop looking).

My grandfather, apparently her second son was born in 1903. Her relationship with Perry was volatile. My aunt told me that her father (my grandfather Roland) told her that once the two of them were fighting and Edna threw a knife at Perry, the latter saved only because he held up a thick newspaper to block it. He himself was, according to his son, an alcoholic (family lore says Perry was a pediatrician but I’ve searched the census records and find zero evidence of that. The only place it’s mentioned is in his mother’s obit. My grandfather told his children that Perry had to give up medicine due to his drinking so maybe that is the case. Certainly Roland believed it was and remained a committed tea-totaler for his entire life). At any rate, their marriage did not last (haven’t found the divorce decree either but I will) and when Roland was six and her older son Van nine, she abandoned them in a local park in Baltimore. She told them to wait there, that she’d be right back but never, ever came back. That’s all I’ll say on that, because I cannot imagine the horror and terror and pain of those two little boys.

They were adopted by different families and Roland’s was less than kind to him, using him more as farm labor than anything else. He was brilliant, however, a polymath who started out as a surveyor and ended up a self-taught civil engineer (still possible in those days). He helped build dams, including the Conowingo dam near where I grew up. He taught himself to play the violin and could play anything he heard by ear. He was a math whiz. While he reconnected somewhat with his mother as an adult, the relationship was never warm and his older brother Van flat out refused to have anything to do with her (this is, at least, what I’ve been able to pry from Roland’s children, my aunts and uncles). Roland himself was physically brutal to his own wife and children. He and my grandmother eventually divorced at a time when that was simply not done. He, by family account, went off to live in the woods. She was scared of him even after he was out of the picture I think. Before he died he did try to make amends to the family, especially to my bio-mom who was, it seems his least favorite child, but I think for her it was a matter of too little too late. He died in 1991. It really shows how one generation can open the door to trauma that just travels down the line. There is no “away” for things like this unless they’re looked at hard in the face and dealt with. On a lighter note, let me just add that I did not get his math gene. LOL. Quite the opposite in fact as I have dyscalculia but he instilled in his oldest daughter a love of learning and she passed that onto me.

Edna was a pianist and opera singer in Baltimore. More than that, I haven’t been able to find out. Family records indicate that she trained a niece to sing but the girl gave it up to get married, pissing Edna off (something with which I quite concur…art is a grace and a blessing. If you have it, use it BUT it highlights the choices women were forced to make at the turn of the century. When I first found out about Edna leaving her children I had to wonder why. Was she turning into someone she felt might hurt them? Was she herself abused in her family? Certainly, it seems like she might have been by her husband even if it also sounds as though she gave as good as she got. Abuse travels down through family lines after all. Maybe she thought it safer for her children to give them up. Was she bitter about being held back in her aspirations as a singer? Was it something else? It hurts me to think of those children and for a long time I had hostility for her because of this but the more I study history the more I realize that in 1909, the year she would have abandoned her children, there were zero resources for a woman fleeing a drunk and probably abusive husband. Maybe it was the best she could do. There’s too much I don’t know and I’m hesitant to judge ancestors who may very well have been doing the absolute very best that they could with a lack of resources we cannot imagine. I do recall standing at my ancestor shrine once a couple of years ago thinking about her and I said out loud, “I don’t understand how you could make that choice” and ringing like a bell, clear and loud in my mind, heart, and soul I heard: “you assume I had one.” It brings home to me my privilege as a woman in 2020 with resources and in a city and country that has far, far more options – not just for women in danger but for a woman who wants to work, to be educated, to do things, to go places, to live, and maybe to not have children (reliable birth control is a wonderful thing). I’m lucky, but I’m lucky in part because of women like Edna and the other Mothers of my ancestral line who suffered and sometimes did brutal things to keep their souls from being broken; and yes, that may have meant breaking someone else, and that had consequences, sometimes painful ones for the next generations but maybe it would have been even worse if those choices hadn’t been made. It’s way too easy for us to judge. I’d rather learn and pray and elevate their wounded spirits because they are my strength and I’m here because of them, and sometimes I see more of myself than I would like in some of the choices Edna made and I wonder if I would have done better or worse in her place. (I was a ballet dancer through my early twenties professionally. I didn’t and don’t have children and never wanted to have children but I wonder what I would have done in 1909 in her place and sometimes I don’t like the answer).

Eventually she married again, Ernest O. Armiger and they had a daughter Dorothy. I have a copy of a letter that Edna wrote in the thirties. She was excited for the New Deal, supporting herself by working as a seamstress through the depression, and deeply invested in workers’ rights. She even wrote at least one article for a magazine, though I’ve not been able to get a copy (yet). She died of heart trouble in Maryland in 1944.

She was never close to my grandfather, for all he always craved her love. One of her letters to her brother Lynn mentions all of her children and updates Lynn on the goings-on…except she doesn’t mention Roland. She did visit him at least once. My oldest aunt was about two at the time. She came, met all the children and then left. My aunt remembers her as an elegant woman, describing exactly the woman in the photograph above. My aunt thought that she herself must have been about five but I don’t think that’s possible with the time line. This would have been when my aunt was between 2-4 though so my thought is that maybe she didn’t remember the visit but was told about it by her mom later, and shown the photo as a child, which imprinted on her memory. She told me that she was held on Edna’s lap and was impressed with how elegant she seemed. I remember things from when I was 2 ½-3 so it’s entirely possible my aunt does recall this. It’s just within the realm of what I would consider possible. For that visit, I don’t think my grandfather was there, but he was sent overseas in WWII so he may still have been on active duty. Edna was only 64 when she died. From her death certificate, she was cremated but I have no idea what happened to her ashes so for me, that is where her story stops.

My youngest aunt sent me photocopies of the photo (and others, including one of Van and Roland as children). The man pictured with her in this photo is my great grandfather Perry Barnes Hanna. So, while it’s not my favorite photograph, I had been searching for an image of her for at least a decade and by happenstance and ancestral blessing, it was there all along, just waiting for me to ask the right person for it to fall into my hands. I am grateful.