16 January 2013

Breakthrough

So I had a recent breakthrough of which I am still tingling with excitement.


This is John Clark and Nancy Bray. They are my great great great grandparents. They lived from the 1830's and on through the turn of the century. I had no idea this picture even existed until I made the rounds, so to speak, at Thanksgiving with all of the older members of my family. My great great Aunt Josie told me about this picture, and I already knew I had to come back down to see her. But that wasn't even the most valuable piece of information I found when we did go back.

Entering a relative's home to do an interview/exploration (for lack of a better word) can sometimes feel awkward. But they are some of the most important work you can do because of the things you discover--both in terms of knowledge that would be otherwise unknown because only they remember it, and for all the accidental discoveries. This visit was an example of both.

After making digital copies of many of her pictures with my fiance's camera phone, I had some quality photo finds.


My great great grandmother Laura Clark


My great grandmother, Violet Nancy Greene


And don't get me wrong, I was really grateful to have the chance. The photo of John and Nancy was already worth the hour-long drive down to Baltimore for me. But I could just feel in my bones that there was more. There was something else I needed to find, there was another reason I was there.

What do you do in that moment? That was my question. I don't remember that I prayed consciously, but the prayer of course was there in my heart. I could feel that there were people there waiting to be found. It's a feeling I can't describe, but I'm sure many genealogists know.

"Aunt Josie, do you have any other photo albums I could look at?" I asked.

"Yeah, down in that cabinet. I don't know where it is, but it's a small one," she kindly obliged me. She promptly went back to talking to (and flirting with) my fiance. The women in my family are so cute and so funny when they're 80.

I hit the box, with all of its assorted envelopes and unassuming articles. Maybe that photo album was what I was needing. I wasn't sure. But I knew I couldn't leave until I figured it out.

As I removed layers of increasingly interesting strata from the small cardboard box, I can across two more photo albums. One was about the size of a small address book, full of black and white pictures. The other was a medium sized album with no cover. But those weren't the finds of the day.

Underneath the albums were dozens of funeral programs, obituaries, and pieces of personal histories. I nearly died of excitement.

My favorite find was this lovely little score. It was written by Mary Ethel Ferguson, sister of Violet Greene and Aunt Josie. I don't know the occasion, but it is a beautiful tribute to their mother Laura Clark.



It's hard for me to describe the personal significance of this heartfelt expression of love--not just for their mother, but for God Himself. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the only member in my family. The rest of my family have their own private views of God and the importance of faith, but it isn't an open subject or motivating factor in their lives. We don't really have a religious identity as a family. This leaves me feeling alone and misunderstood, and craving the companionship of at least one person who understands my motivations and priorities. Couldn't there be just ONE person in my family who could understand? I've asked myself that before.

And, as it turns out, there are. And there may be many. They just happen to be dead.

Mary Ethel Greene Ferguson
And the reality is, faith as a tradition doesn't appear to have ever been absent from my family, nor did it "die off," as it may have previously appeared to me. It was simply carried off by other branches of the family tree, in the hearts of men and women I have never met. Ethel's writing is evidence enough of that, and I look forward to meeting her someday.

The funeral programs of all these deceased members of my family were interesting. Even though these deaths are separated by many years, and even different parts of Tennessee where this part of my family is from, many of the programs are printed on the same paper--all of them with the 23rd Psalm on them. I know that is unremarkable for funeral materials, but these funeral programs are identical--same green cover and everything. I'm wondering if it's a tradition of whatever church to which they belonged--perhaps of the same pastor whose name appears in many of them.

One day, I hope to make a journey to Tennessee and to discover what is left of them there. Now that I have their burial information, the chance of doing this is becoming a more concrete possibility. 

All because of one visit to an aging relative, one question, one hunch unignored.