Catching up here, both on my 31 Days of Devotion to the God Dagr and also on my 52 Ancestors in 52 Days. I love doing these, but I can never seem to keep up in a timely manner these days. Oh well, better late than never!
First, let’s start with the 31 Days of Devotion to Dagr:
- Share any Music that makes you think of this deity (August 3).
I really suck at making play lists. I was hoping to have one for Dagr, but I just don’t think of organizing music in my brain that way. If anyone has one, feel free to post in the comments. I’m still working to get my sorted!
- Share A quote, a poem, or piece of writing that you think this deity resonates strongly with (August 4).
William Carlos Williams’ “Summer Song” and “Spring Storm” (Sort of if only because of their topic)
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” (though I also very strongly associate this with Loki).
Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Summer Sun”
and finally, this excerpt from Hafiz:
“The Sun Never Says
Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe Me.”
Look what happens with
A love like that,
It lights the Whole Sky.”
– From “The Gift,” by Hafiz
(translation by D.Ladinsky)
Now, onto my 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Project. I think we’re up to Week 31 and 32.
Week 31 (July 29-Aug. 4): Large
Two of my ancestors stand out here because of the remarkable size of their families. The first is my maternal great-grandmother (1875-1952). Her name was Lucinda Alice Shoff, nee Heffner. Like so many of my maternal ancestors, she grew up in Pennsylvania not too far from the man who would eventually become her husband (Hugh Clay Shoff). When married, she moved to Conowingo, Maryland, her entire world bracketed by the Susquehanna river and generations of Swiss and German ancestors who settled the area. She was deeply loved by her grand-children (and as far as I know her children too, though I only really knew her daughter, my grandmother Linnie Hanna), perceptive, kind, and apparently strong as an ox since she had 17 (seventeen!!!!) children. She and Hugh Clay Shoff (1873-1957) married in 1892 – I’d always wondered how they met until I looked at the census on day and realized they grew up nearly next door to each other. She had two sets of triplets and one set of twins. I find it a little mindboggling. Not all of them reached adulthood – one set of twins for example, was stillborn (they were buried on property my parents later owned, named Faith, Hope, and – I kid you not – Death according to family lore)—but the majority did reach adulthood, no mean feat. Of the ones who lived, their names are John Shoff, Elmer Shoff, Howard Shoff, Chester Shoff, Virginia, Luther, Linnie (my grandmother), Violet, and Rose. I think there was also a Charles, Emerson, Mary, Huey, and possibly a Louise…give or take one. I only really knew my Grandmother growing up. For whatever reason, we had almost no contact with the rest of the family. I met Rose Adams (nee Shoff) once, possibly Violet – I was so small I can’t remember—also Olive Shoff (nee Shultz) who married Charles. I remember I was very, very small, maybe three or four when I met her. She had all these knickknacks in a glass cabinet that just fascinated me at that age. I also went trick or treating one year at Hugh’s house. He was nicknamed “Bo,” ostensibly because his father’s name was also Hugh.
The second is my third great-grandmother Elizabeth Runkle nee Oberlander (1824-1900). Like Lucinda, she also grew up in Chanceford Township, PA. She married Jesse C. Runkle (1821-1894) in 1839 and they had thirteen children. Here is the amazing thing for the time: all thirteen lived to adulthood. I hadn’t thought about this at all, certainly not enough to consider it a remarkable feat until a cousin, a serious genealogist pointed this out. You know, we look at pictures of our ancestors, or these collections of facts, and they often look staid and straight laced but I wonder about their lives. What were their hopes, their dreams? Were they satisfied with their lives or is that a luxury that we have looking it from several generations past? I want to know what Elizabeth was like as a young girl, what her courtship was like, what challenges she and her husband faced as they made their lives together in those first few years. Hell, I want to know the how and why of each of their children’s names! One odd fact that I did learn about Elizabeth’s husband Jesse: he died on Christmas day exactly one hundred years from the year our immigrant Runkle ancestors (Jacob 1724-94) died.
Let’s see if I can name all her children: Mary Ann, Catharine (my great great grandmother – she married W. Henry Heffner and one of their children was Lucinda), Sarah Elizabeth, George Washington, Samuel, John, Rebecca Jane, Susanna Ann, Margaret, William James, Jesse David, Henry Franklin, Emma Lucinda. I find it interesting that as far as I can tell, in neither her case nor that of Lucinda Shoff was the first boy named after the father. They all had a namesake, but I don’t think it was the eldest boy.
I never felt much like I had anything in common with these women, for whom children and household formed the bulk of their lives, but over the years as I have run my own household, I realize just how tremendously difficult their work was, and how important and I am grateful they were strong and capable in their work. I know from family oral history that Lucinda was the real heart and soul of her very large clan. She is remembered by her grandchildren with deep, abiding love.
Week 32 (Aug. 5-11): Small
I was a little stumped with this topic, so I asked my husband, “Thinking about my 52 ancestors in 52 weeks project, when I bring up the topic “small,” what comes to mind? He suggested I think about a small artifact and talk about that. I like that idea because so often ancestral pieces are memory pieces, they provide a physical conduit to those who came before us. They’re treasures, not because of what they may be constructed of, but because they are a physical means of connection to ancestors we may have never met. So, I’ll tell a story.
My grandmother Linnie Hanna was beloved by her family. When she died, her children lost their fucking minds. Though she had been a devout Catholic all her adult life, two of her children who had converted to Protestant religions decided they didn’t want her body in the church for the funeral mass because it ‘made them uncomfortable.’ I was a child at the time or I’d have had some words because she was entitled to the funeral she wanted according to the religion she followed and our comfort or discomfort with it was utterly irrelevant. The Monseigneur worked with the family and allowed it though it was against Catholic practice. Fine. Then my grandmother’s youngest son took it up on himself to empty out her house without telling anyone. He kept key pieces for himself and sold everything else to a local antique store. There was only one problem: that store was across the street from the ballet studio where I worked. In between rehearsals one day, I went over to browse and found all my grandmother’s things. I called my bio mom who came down. She was horrified. The poor old lady who owned the shop was ready to cry she was so upset. She couldn’t afford to give us everything back, which I understand, but she gave us as much of a discount as she could afford on key pieces. So, one of the few things I have of my grandmother, who pretty much raised me while my parents worked, is a small trinket box. I’m lucky to have a couple of her afghans that she knitted too, and a few tchotchkes that she gave me when I was small. My cousin, that particular uncle’s daughter, with whom I rarely got along, did me a major solid. She ran into the house and pressed a few pieces of jewelry into my hand shortly after my grandmother died: stuff my grandmother wore all the time, a ring, a small pot metal heart that said ‘I love you grandma’ that I’d given her when I was small, and her cross. I’m grateful for that. My grandmother’s death tore those siblings apart, due to the small mindedness of many of them in their grief. My uncle tried the same trick with my bio mom – throwing her stuff out rather than selling it – but I had been there first for the funeral and salvaged key pieces as did my brother. Trash is trash and every family has at least one person who qualifies.
(Linnie May Sarah Catharine Shoff Hanna and the box and pot metal pendant I mention above. The spoon is her baby spoon, which she’d given me when I was small).
Week 29: Newsworthy
I had to think long and hard about what was newsworthy and it finally occurred to me the other day that maybe I should tell the little bit that I know about my third third great-grandfather William Seymour Baldwin (1823-1864). William was born and raised in Hardy County, West Virginia and according to the 1850 census was a farmer. After the civil war, a neighbor by the name of Isaac Pratt, a friend, had a horse stolen by a group of horse thief. Apparently, these horse thieves had formed themselves into a gang at the end of the Civil War and were causing trouble. When Isaac went to retrieve his horse, William went to help him, and in doing so was shot and killed. I think this did make the local news at the time. He’s buried in Snodgrass Graveyard in Hardy County, WV and maybe one of these days I’ll get to visit him.
Week 30: The Old Country
Throughout my childhood whenever I asked my bio mom about our genealogy, she would say that her father always told her he was “Scots-Irish” and that was all she knew. Of course, I’ve since researched her maternal line and found all the German and Swiss ancestors there, but for a long time I wasn’t able to make much headway on her father’s side. It was only in the past few years that line opened up at all to me and surprise, surprise: we actually do have Scottish ancestry (and a bit of Irish).
My grandfather Roland Hanna is descended from the Irish immigrant James Hanna (1725-1798), a man who fought in the Revolutionary War as part of the Pennsylvania militia in Captain John Graham’s first battalion. James came from Ulster, Ireland. These Irish Hannas apparently trace their lineage back to the Scottish clan Hannay. The Clan history may be found here.
My impression is this clan was a rather fractious bunch. LOL. They held a clan seat at Sorbie but feuded with the Kennedys, Dunbars, and Murrays eventually getting outlawed because of their feuding. According to the history given at the site above, a portion of the clan moved to Ireland. Some eventually came to America and my ancestor James Hanna was one such immigrant. I really like the clan motto: Per Ardua ad Alta (through difficulties to the heights).
Again, I’m still playing catch up, so these will be short and sweet vignettes. Once I get caught up, I’ll start writing longer meditations on my ancestors again but the spring term just kicked my butt, what with the transition to online classes and a heavy course load.
Week 25 (June 17-23): Unexpected
One of the things that stood out to me, really smacked me in the face, as I was delving into my maternal line, was the number of clergy and religious rebels. It’s almost like theology and pissing people off go hand in hand in my line. Ha ha. I’m upholding the family tradition.
Just off the top of my head, there’s Rev. Alexander Underwood (1688-1767), my seventh great grandfather. He was a Quaker and instrumental in helping to build the Quaker community in PA. I had the pleasure of visiting a Quaker meeting house in Warrington, PA, that he helped to build with his own hands. I wrote about that previously here.
My favorite is my eleventh great grandfather Jakob Boehm (or Boehme), the sixteenth century Swiss mystic and theologian. Apparently, his written work was considered scandalous. He had a tremendous influence on German Romanticism, theosophy, even Hegel. He also wrote about angels, alchemy, and some of what he wrote in “De Tribus Principiis” seems to anticipate themes that we see again in the 19th and early 20th century occultists (though I’m sure he would never, ever have defined himself thusly). I had no idea what a big deal he was in early modern theology (I’m a medievalist focusing on early Christianity) until he came up in conversation with a Protestant colleague and I mentioned, ‘Oh, he’s my 11th great grandfather’ and the poor guy’s jaw hit the floor. That was kind of cool. One of the difficulties in beginning a practice of ancestor veneration is finding commonalities and points of connection with our dead. I’m no exception to that. It was immensely satisfying to find theologians in my line, even if they do belong to a religious movement that I don’t follow. They were pious and thoughtful and their devotion to their God guided their lives and I can appreciate that, and it gives me a way to further my reverence and veneration of them.
Of course, I also had Mennonites, some of whom were clergy, and Hueguenots – all of whom came to this country to escape persecution in their own. I might disagree with their religious positions, but I appreciate their commitment and devotion. They were tough, stubborn, and deeply committed to living their faith. I hope I have inherited half their grit!
Week 26 (June 24-30): Middle
This one is particular difficult topic. The obvious thing to write about is middle child, but with each foremother having upwards of a dozen plus children, who constitutes the middle? Lol. Dr. Henry Gates, Jr, who hosts a popular genealogy show on PBS said once in an episode, ‘Genealogy giveth, and genealogy taketh away.” He’s so, so right. I grew up thinking that I was the eldest child in my family. Through genealogy work, I’ve discovered that I have two older sisters, one of whom I believe is deceased, and then of course I always knew I had a younger brother (we grew up together). Suddenly I went from being the eldest child, to being the middle child. Ha ha. I do not have the stereotypical temperament for a middle child. I’m definitely just a little type A. LOL
Week 27 (July 1-7): Solo
I had to stare at this week’s topic for a long time before I decided what to write. I’m still not completely satisfied with my choice because it highlights for me how much I don’t know about the ancestors on both sides of my family. I really wish I had their stories, particularly of personal challenges met and overcome. It makes me all the more grateful for those living relatives to whom I can speak, tease out their stories, and talk to them about their challenges. My aunt, LBH (she’s very private so I’m not going to use her name here) for instance. She left a small town of Conowingo when she was 18 and moved to DC to start working at the Pentagon. She worked there for forty years and loved every minute of it (except for 9/11. She was in the office that was hit. She said she’d gone out to deliver some papers and came back, saw the plane flying low and thought, “that’s way too low. Something’s wrong.” She turned on her heel and walked out and so was out of that office wing when the plane hit. Thank the Gods she trusted her gut!). But she was eighteen when she moved to Washington. That was a huge culture shock for a backwater young woman who ‘d grown up in a very poor family. She had courage. My bio mom was supposed to go with her, the plan being they’d both start working at the Pentagon but at the last minute backed out. She worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground where she met my father instead. I appreciate that courage. I remember when I moved to New York to dance. I closed the door to my shoebox of an apartment that first night thinking, “What have I done?” It’s a terrifying thing to leave everything you know behind and then the experiences you have, outside the expectations and experience of family that you left, ensure you’ll never be able to comfortably fit at home again. Maybe if one never fit really before, that’s no big deal but I imagine it was a tremendous sacrifice to some and I want those stories. In the meantime, I honor them, doing my best by those living, and telling the stories of those dead.
Week 28 (July 8-14): Multiple
My great grandmother (my bio mother’s maternal grandmother) Lucinda Alice Shoff (nee Heffner) had seventeen children. That included several sets of twins and at least two sets of triplets. One set was stillborn, and I grew upon land where they were buried. I know only two things about them – and I count them as honored ancestors: firstly, when they were born dead, they were named Faith, Hope, and Death (no joke. This is what my grandmother told me about her siblings). Secondly, they were buried in a corner of property that had once belonged to my grandfather but eventually was sold off. By chance, the house that I grew up in, that my parents bought when I was maybe a year old, rested on land that held the bones of these three little ancestors.
I never used to think about the hard work involved in making sure that your children reached adulthood until someone said to me (about my third great grandmother Elizabeth Runkle, nee Oberlander 1824-1900), “Oh that is amazing: she had sixteen children and they all lived to adulthood.” (I have to add that I love how she listed her profession on census records as “keeping house.” There is something quaint and yet proud about that phrasing, an acknowledgement of the essential and fundamental work that she was doing). She married at sixteen – not unusual for the time and place and in which she lived—and I am here because of her, because she kept sixteen children alive, keeping house, maintaining a farm, and raising them up right. Respect.
That’s all for now. I think, mirabile dictu, that I may be caught up so next week look for a longer account of one of my dead. If any of you are participating in this challenge, or if you just want to talk about one of your ancestors, if one of the prompts inspires you, please please feel free to so in the comments.
Oh my Gods, I am so very far behind in this challenge. The end of term, especially moving to working from home in the wake of Covid really kicked my butt. This is going to be one of my quick and dirty catch-ups, really more of a brief pastiche for each week’s ancestor than a full blog post for each. I’m too far behind to be picky! So… * deep breath * here goes.
Week 14 (April 1-7): Water: my maternal grandfather Roland Isaac Hanna (1903-1991)
For all of his faults, and according to family lore they were many, my maternal grandfather was also an autodidact. He taught himself how to play the violin and could pick up any melody by ear. He was also a self-taught civil engineer in a day and age where that was still possible. Let’s just say that the math gene skipped both his children’s and my generation lol. Anyway, apparently, he was so good his employers wanted him to move to Brazil to work on high end projects there, but my grandmother refused to go. I placed him with water because he helped build the Conowingo dam and Hydroelectric station. Bridging Cecil and Harford counties in Maryland and crossing the Susquehanna, it was quite impressive when I was a small child and my childhood home (where my younger brother now lives with his family) was less than five minutes away.
(Conowingo Dam, Conowingo, MD)
Week 15 (April 8-14): Fire : my fifth great maternal grandfather James Hanna (1725-1798)
James Hanna fought in the Revolutionary War as a private in captain John Graham’s militia company, 1stbattalion from Chester County, PA. He was from Ulster, Ireland and died in Lancaster, PA having survived the war by at least fifteen years. I put him under ‘fire’ because he’s descended from the Scottish Hannay clan and they were, from what I could find historically, hellions. Lol. Apparently, they were kicked out of Scotland for feuding whereupon many of the clan went to Ireland. It seems to me like fighting and war are pretty fiery pursuits and I know this line had its temper (which I seem to have inherited in spades). The clan motto is ‘Per ardua ad alta’ (‘through difficulties to the heights’).
Week 16 (April 15-21): Air: Rev. John Bachman (1790-1874)
I’m still connecting the dots with this particular ancestor, but I believe I’m related to him (4thgreat uncle) through my mother’s paternal line. He was a Lutheran minister and naturalist. He worked with Audubon and had several animals named after him including a bird, Bachman’s Warbler. I thought that last was pretty cool. I’m still trying to fully confirm the genealogy – we have Bachmans all over that particular line but I’m 90% sure at this point.
Week 17 (April 22-28): Land: Johann Georg Haeffner (1698-1775)
My 7thgreat grandfather was born in Eberstaedt, Germany on October 17, 1698. He was one of my “immigrant” ancestors, meaning he was the first in a given line to immigrate to the US. He immigrated, I believe in 1749. His wife was named Maria Barbara Orstel (1698-1756) and they probably married in 1721 (I need to confirm this – I don’t trust it till I’ve seen the documents). I could have chosen any of my immigrant ancestors for this particular week’s posting, I suppose, but I settled on my Germans and Swiss because they were fairly well off. They were tradesmen or in the case of a couple threads of my German ancestry, gentry yet they chose to give that up to come to the US. I always found that surprising. I suppose it shouldn’t be. The more I research, the more I realize that for some, it was religious freedom (I have quite a few Mennonites, Quakers, and Hueguenots in my maternal line) and for others, they didn’t want to fight and die for someone else, and I’m sure I’ll discover still more reasons as I stumble across more genealogical records. I really wish I knew more about them as people (and this is doubly so for the women. Sometimes I don’t even have their full names!). All I have in many cases are dates, names and nothing more. As an interesting aside, Johann and my husband share the same birthdate.
Week 18 (April 29 –May 5): Where there’s a Will: my maternal great grandmother (my mother’s paternal grandmother): Edna Baldwin (ab. 1879-1944).
Edna Baldwin was willful as fuck. I don’t know her, but just from what has come down to me through family accounts, I think it’s safe to say she had a very strong will. She was self-made and ruthlessly so. She left her small town in Hardy, WV and moved to Baltimore (though apparently she and her first husband moved around. My grandfather as born in Alabama!). She was an opera singer for a time, and later in life, during the depression, worked as a seamstress. She lived by her own rules and took very little crap from anyone.
Week 19 (May 6-12): Service: 1stcousin twice removed private S. Wesley Heffner (30 April 1898-June 1918).
He was a young man who went to France with Pershing’s troops to fight in WWI and didn’t come back again. This may well be the only surviving photo of him. It’s odd looking at it because he bears a very strong resemblance to my brother. Wesley lived in York County, PA and is buried in a cemetery where he is related to nearly everyone there. His mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, great-grandmother and great-grandfather and a passel of other ancestors lie nearby. I do not know if his body lies in the grave or if it is just a headstone. He is very much remembered and honored.
Week 20 (may 13-19): Travel: my adopted mom Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza (1950-2010)
For someone who was born in Paris, grew up partly in Venezuela, partly in Italy, and travelled all over the world from the time she was small pretty much until she died, my adopted mom hated traveling. She always told me that she loathed it and always had, even though I think she counted herself very lucky to have had the opportunity and experience. She liked to be in her home, tending her shrines, working in her garden, in relative solitude the best. Still, it was through her that I was able to travel a bit and I am likewise grateful for that. She opened the world to me.
Week 21 (May 20 – 26): Tombstone: 3rdgreat grandmother Rachael J. Bobo (1824-1908)
This is my Appalachian 3rdgreat grandmother, directly descended from Gabriel Bobo, my Huguenot immigrant ancestor who came to VA in 1681 fleeing religious persecution. She is listed in the census as illiterate but she made damned sure her children got an education and her grandchildren entered the professions. She was born and died in West VA (Hardy County) and there is no indication she ever left it. I have no idea where her grave lies but oh, I wish I did so I could go, touch her stone, kneel on the soil and pay my respects.
Week 22 (May 27 – June 2): Uncertain: paternal grandfather Karalys (Karl) Dabravalskas (1882-1973)
I never met my grandfather as he died when I was less than a year old. For all that his last name seems unique to American eyes, I’ve not had much luck researching his line or that of his wife (Ursula Blazis). I have been told by a cousin that Karalys’s parents were named, no joke, Adam (Adomas) and Eve (Eva). LOL. I would love to know if this is true.
(Ursula Blazis Dabravalskas, Julia Dabravalskas (Standing), John Dabravalskas (small boy standing between his parents), Karalys Dabravalskas)
Week 23 (June 3-9): Wedding: Ursula Blazis and Karalys Dabravalskas
I heard this story about my paternal grandparents from both my mom and my dad. Apparently, Karalys had an arranged marriage with the eldest Blazis daughter. He came over to the US to get himself settled, started his dairy farm, etc. etc. and sent for his bride-to-be. She, however, decided she didn’t want to leave Lithuania and, without telling him first, the family sent the younger daughter Ursula. Well, she gets off the boat and what is the man to do? In those days, you didn’t send her back! So, he married her. They fought like cats and dogs apparently, according to my bio-mom but had three children, one of whom was my dad John Paul.
Week 24 (June 10-16): Handed Down: my maternal great grandmother Lucinda Alice Shoff nee Heffner
One of the things that I am always fascinated with is the handing down of names. It’s such a deeply personal connection with one’s ancestor. My family apparently bickered over what to name me. May aunt wanted to call me Victoria (which I would have liked). I was nearly named Ursula after my paternal grandmother. I ended up with a name I disliked deeply and changed it at eighteen – good riddance. When my second niece was born, my brother asked me if there were any girl’s names really common in our maternal line and I told him: Catherine, Mary, Lucinda, Alice. There are other names too, of course, but those are probably the most common, followed closely by Elizabeth. No one can ever accuse any of my maternal lines of being particularly creative with their names (the Hanna line in particular is all James, John, and Stephen. Like, mix it up guys. Give me a George, a Robert, anything else! Y’all are a naming nightmare for your descendants who are genealogists lol). (image of Hugh Shoff and Lucinda Alice Heffner Shoff).
My great grandmother’s two names were passed down to her grandchildren and I think Alice is a lovely name, with a sweet, quaint charm. My relative hated it though, so much so that for her privacy I won’t say which relative it is. Fortunately for her, in those days, when confirmed as a Catholic, one could take one’s confirmation name in place of one’s middle name so she did that. Still, I the names carry the memory and as they pass down through the family accrue layers of memory. My aunt, also named after her grandmother remembers Lucinda Heffner Shoff as a deeply religious woman, kind, loving, firm. My aunt absolutely adored her namesake and the feeling was mutual. She told me that she always felt warm and loved and safe when she was with her grandma and that when Lucinda Heffner died, it was devastating. Lucinda Alice had seventeen (17) children, including several sets of twins and triplets and most of them lived to adulthood. One of them was my grandmother Linnie May.
I would love to hear the stories of the names that have passed down in each of your families, of your own name, and the names that you yourself have gifted to your children. The stories are important.
I’ll stop here for now. I still have a couple of weeks to catch up on but boy am I tapped out. This was like ancestor stories lightning round! This will teach me to procrastinate. Ha ha. Feel free to share your own ancestral stories in the comments. It’s always a good day to remember our honored dead.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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?
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).
(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…