When I was probably ten years old, I was looking through old pictures, like I ALWAYS did at my gran and grandad’s house, when I came across one that looked kinda like me. I hopped right off the floor, walked into the kitchen where my Gran was rocking in her rocking chair. That was what she did all the time. Rocked, smoked, drank whiskey. She also spoiled us half to death, made the best fried chicken and was saying “well shit” way before Leslie Jordan coined the phrase. Anyway, I said, “who is this?” To which she replied, “that’s your great Aunt Hermagene” and then, like always when looking through old pictures, I proceeded to ask a million questions about Great Aunt Hermagene.
“Aunt Herm” was my Grandad’s youngest sister, and was named after both her parents. Her dad was Herm and her mom was Imogene. She was one of the neatest women I’ve ever met and she and I both always got a kick out of that story of me finding her picture. We got our own picture together at my Grandad’s funeral in 2011. She passed away three years later at the age of 81. I’m sure there was a whole host of angels waitin’ for her.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to know the story of my family. The story of the people and the places that make me, ME. Both sets of grandparent’s did and still do indulge all the questions. I am sure at times, especially as a little girl, they got tired of the incessant “who is this, where is that, how are they related to me, tell me more, more, more”, but they never once acted like it bothered them. I am eternally grateful for that.
It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I started REALLY digging into the family tree. I’ve had an account with Ancestry for years and years. I have spent hours upon hours researching, building, studying all the branches of my tree. There is just something so powerful in knowing who came before. The roots of WHO I AM as a human on this Earth. My fascination with history, not just that of my own family, led me to getting a degree in it. Teaching it. Helping my students get started on their own family trees. Making connections with their ancestors in relation to what we were studying in class.
History comes to life when you know that YOUR family took part in it. That your 3x great-grandpa fought in the Civil War. Your grandparent’s lived through the Depression. You had family that came through Jamestown or New Orleans or Ellis Island all depending on what year they immigrated and from where. The Revolutionary War feels closer than over 200 years ago when you find out your 5x great grandpa received a pension because he was a Continental soldier.
When you can read actual marriage licenses. When you know that the same church that your grandparent’s were married in, is the same church their grandparent’s were married in and it’s still standing in that same sacred spot today.
When you can see death certificates, finding that your 2x great grandmother died of cancer. Or that all these years you wondered why your great-grandma was farmed out to various relatives and learn that it was because her own mother died and her dad couldn’t raise four girls on his own. Finding old draft cards. Knowing the hell that was to come for those men who were just boys not long before.
Knowing they could read or write, or that they couldn’t. Knowing they were farmers, coal miners, shoe makers and reading that mostly ALL the women in your family tree were “homemakers”, but knowing they were So. Much. More.
Looking at the census documents that reveal your ancestors owned slaves. Reading the old handwritten wills of those same ancestors and in them those Human. Beings. were “willed” to other family members. History is not always pretty. The sins of the past are often times not hard to find and live not only in the pages of our history books, but in various documents that make up the stories of “you” and me. And, like any transgression they shouldn’t be ignored or covered up, but they should see the light of day. That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow. That’s how we become better, kinder, more empathetic humans.
So, what inspired this blog post?
I wanted to write this post last year on St. Patrick’s Day but it seemed so silly and trivial to talk about ancestry and family trees when the world was bananas. It’s still bananas but we’ve all gotten our bearings a little since then and we’ve found more things to talk about than just scary viruses and scarcity of toilet paper.
23 & Me told me what I basically already knew. I’m a white girl. The majority of my DNA comes from England, Germany, Belgium, but my own research found ONE Irishmen in the mix. Not that it changes me being anything other than a white girl, but it makes saying “top of the mornin’ to ya” on St. Patty’s Day feel a little more authentic. Like it’s in my blood and just rolls off the tongue. I’m laughing as I type this.
So, who was he?
He was Patrick Cassidy, my 5th great-grandfather, from Newry, County Down, Ireland. Born in 1738, he immigrated to Pennsylvania (sometime in the 1760’s I think) and eventually founded the town of Newry, Pennsylvania in 1793. He married Mary Mooney in 1770. She was born in Maryland. I have no actual evidence she was Irish, although I’m guessing she was. He was a prominent citizen, fought in the Revolutionary War, was a frontier surveyor and later became a county commissioner. It’s been fun discovering all of the documents on Ancestry about him and his legacy.
Last year, when we were down visiting my grandparent’s, my dad took us to an old Irish cemetery. It quite literally was back down a gravel drive, in the middle of a clearing in the woods. If you didn’t know it was there, you would never find it in a million years. It was fascinating reading all of the headstones, or at least the ones that were still legible. These people were the founders of that little Irish settlement in the hills of Southern Indiana. They came over from Ireland and their headstones all reflected that as you read which county in Ireland they were born. It really was something to see.
I can’t help but look at old pictures, old headstones, names written in documents and think WHO was this person? Not just in relation to me, but as a human being. Who were they? What struggles did they endure? Were they happy? How tough must their lives have been. Certainly so much harder than my own. Did they love? Were they loved? Did they worry about failing as a mother? As a father? Were they kind? Generous? Because, they lived. And because they lived, I am here. How powerful is that?
I’ll leave you with an Irish blessing on this gorgeous March day and hope that if you haven’t already, you dive into your own family history. See what treasures you find!
May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rain fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”Old Irish Blessing
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
As always, thanks for reading!