Your questions answered

asa-williams-1 The Asa Williams House, ca. 1912

Sometimes we all, like Tennessee Williams, depend on the kindness of strangers – whether we realize it or not. While I’ve always shared my family research and stories, it has been only recently that I’ve come to understand how initiative, serendipity, and luck work together.

Four families – all my cousins – have lived in My Old House for the last 227 years, fine New England families who undoubtedly followed the old axiom “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” It’s understandable then that there are few things left from the early days, but surprising all the same that there are so few photographs of this house when I am wealthy with photos of my great-great-great-great-grandfather George Read’s house, right next door. For decades I had been unable to find any photos of my Asa Williams House prior to 1944. Even the WPA’s 1938 tax photos were unavailable. What I was able to find were mostly after the mid-1950s. Locating descendants who might have such photos is always difficult considering privacy issues and the fact that those I might ask have passed on.

asa-williams-2 Ca. 1926

Enter the strangers. While working with a Washington State researcher on my Cony/Cummings family lines, I came across a public family tree on which included the families of the Asa Williams House. I sent off a blind email to the family tree owner asking for clarification of a family name, and oh! by the way  . . .

An answer came within a couple of days which began an exchange with Andy and his father Jerry, distant cousins who so very kindly provided me with two photos taken about 1912 and 1926, judging from the group of ladies and the car in the yard. They were the gold of my year, a gift for which I cannot give enough thanks.



asa-williams-3 Before 1897

But serendipity wasn’t done with me. A few years later (yes, years), I received an unexpected call from a complete stranger. Shirley, who was Jerry's first cousin, called asking to visit me at my house. She explained that when she was five years old she had lived in My Old House with her grandmother, Lora Packard Saunders, the same cousin who had deeded this house to my parents. Jerry had given my contact information to Shirley, who hoped to once again see the house before its sale.


asa-williams-4 The barn

During her visit, she produced a magnificent family history scrapbook she had compiled as part of her research, and then allowed me to scan a few photos of the house, the original barn, and some of our mutual relatives seated with some of my paternal relatives, none of which I’d ever seen. Shirley and I are still in touch, she helping me to correct and verify my data, while I help her to clarify our somewhat convoluted common lineage.


grace-cony-1 Grace Cony, Lora Packard, and friends

Deciding whether the strangers or the serendipity came first is a little like asking whether the chicken came before the egg. I don’t think it matters: roast the chicken and fry the egg! Give serendipity a fighting chance. Unasked questions garner no answers, no connections, and no results. With a little lateral thinking, a lot of luck, a bit of synchronicity, and some undeniable serendipity, I have gained connections to some generous people, and through their kindness I’ve received some materials I had sought for decades.

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.View all posts by Jan Doerr