All posts by Amy Whorf McGuiggan

Amy Whorf McGuiggan

About Amy Whorf McGuiggan

Amy Whorf McGuiggan recently published Finding Emma: My Search For the Family My Grandfather Never Knew; she is also the author of My Provincetown: Memories of a Cape Cod Childhood; Christmas in New England; and Take Me Out to the Ball Game: The Story of the Sensational Baseball Song. Past projects have included curating, researching, and writing the exhibition Forgotten Port: Provincetown’s Whaling Heritage (for the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum) and Albert Edel: Moments in Time, Pictures of Place (for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum).

A colonial goldmine

Sarah Fayerweather cookbook. Images courtesy of Colonial North America at Harvard Library

Last year when I wrote about zinc headstones for Vita Brevis, I mentioned that after seeing my very first example of “white bronze,” I began seeing them regularly in various cemeteries. What were the odds, I asked? Well, it turns out that once we have been made aware of something, that something pops up frequently because our brains are unconsciously in search of another example. It’s called frequency illusion.

Which brings me to the recent daylong seminar at NEHGS – “Seventeenth-Century English Research with the Society of Genealogists UK” – that I had the pleasure of attending. Continue reading A colonial goldmine

The youngest volunteer

Those of us who love the informalities and irregularities of older cemeteries know that there are surprises and delights at every turn. On our rambles (mine, at least), progress is slow as we meander, waylaid and stopped in our tracks by the transcendent folksy beauty of carvings; by messages of remembrance, love, and loss; by wisdoms, life philosophies, and, occasionally, a mischievous bit of humor that momentarily lifts us from our solemnity.

In the older cemeteries, even when we’ve seen the classic motifs a hundred times before, or feasted on the opulence of Victorian-era monuments, there is always another example that seems to swallow our attention from a distance. We make a beeline to it, certain that it is the headstone of all headstones, the pièce de résistance, only to have another one come along that sets the bar even higher. Continue reading The youngest volunteer

Christmas for the horses

Photos courtesy of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

The other night I tuned into one of my favorite programs, the always interesting and informative American Experience. I’ve been a devotee for most of the 30 years that the series has been produced. Taken as a whole, the series reminds me of one of those exquisite, perfectly-put-together album quilts of yesteryear, made by many hands, each block of eye-catching fabric elaborately designed, intricately sewn, and an expression and remembrance of the world as it was. Continue reading Christmas for the horses

Long settled

The Benjamin Lincoln House in Hingham.

Twenty or so years ago a lady who exuded friendliness came strolling along the Bathing Beach in Hingham where I have been a daily summer swimmer for the better part of thirty years. Back then, as one of several dozen regulars who called ourselves “Beach Bums,” we congregated at high tide to collectively share that little slice of sand and salt water, each enjoying it in our own way. With her folded towel tucked under her arm, the lady approached us, clearly ready for a swim, and introduced herself as Rosie. It wasn’t long before she was a beloved member of the group, a group that has now sadly dwindled. Rosie and I, and two or three others, are the last regulars. Continue reading Long settled

Provincetown and the Boston Post canes

Having been occupied with a project these last few months, not only have I been away from Vita Brevis for far too long, but I’ve allowed issues of the Weekly Genealogist to pile up in my in box. In truth, I do open them each week to add my vote to the survey, but until the other day I had not had the opportunity to read them start to finish. While each issue is always brimming with interesting things, I particularly enjoy the Stories of Interest. And so, as I binged on my backlog of six weeks, a story from October 2 about the town of Ashland, Massachusetts recovering its long lost Boston Post cane caught my eye. Continue reading Provincetown and the Boston Post canes

What’s in a name?

‘What’s in a name?’ asked Juliet of Romeo, concluding that the name of something does not define what it really is. A rose, after all, by any other name would smell as sweet, but for family genealogists, a rose by any other name can become an obstacle to progress and success. Naturally, we go in search of a name as we expect it to be, as we’ve always known it to be and, in doing so – in not considering all the possible variations or that any given spelling may not necessarily be the “correct” spelling – we may overlook vital clues and new pathways for our research. I suspect that most family genealogists who stay at their research beyond the “low hanging fruit” stage, who don’t give up too soon, eventually double back and realize their earlier oversights. Continue reading What’s in a name?

My day in court

During the late summer of 2011, having then recently been afflicted with genealogy fever, I found myself day after day at the Massachusetts State Archives in front of a microfilm reader. I’m one of those lucky descendants whose ancestors, for the most part, were born in Massachusetts and remained rooted in Massachusetts, so I quickly amassed a binder full of vital records and began learning details about my great-great-greats. Continue reading My day in court

Heart of a priest

Prayer card. Courtesy Knights of Columbus

We hear so often about how uncivil the public discourse has become. Everyone is talking past one another and no one seems to be listening. No one understands, or tries to understand, the other. Our collective manners leave much to be desired and grace seems to have taken a holiday. (This is not a political screed, I promise!)

Perhaps, then, it is a most apropos moment for a relic of the Catholic Church to be making a national tour of the United States. Though I was raised in the Catholic faith, I confess that I am ignorant about much of Church ritual, in particular the veneration of relics and their miracle healing. I had mostly understood the word relic (or relict) in the context of early cemeteries. From the Latin word reliquiae, relic means remains, or left behind. Continue reading Heart of a priest

White bronze

During a walk in the historic cemetery in my town, I spied a headstone perched at the edge of one of the steep terraced slopes. It caught my attention not only because it seemed ready to topple over the edge, but also because it was different: it appeared to glow with a bluish color in the spring sunlight. With a kind of eagerness, I suspected that it might be one of the “trendy” monuments that I had read about and that had had a brief popularity during the Victorian Era.

I made my way up the hill, reached the monument, and proceeded to apply the proof test by knocking on the surface (hoping and praying that no one would knock back!) and, indeed, it was hollow. I had found, quite inadvertently, my first example of a grave marker made of cast zinc. Continue reading White bronze

Past is present

S-4 Memorial in the garden of St. Mary of the Harbor, Provincetown.

When I was a kid enjoying idyllic summers in Provincetown, a familiar face in the West End of town where I stayed was that of Johnny Oliver, born in Provincetown in 1899 to Manuel Oliver, who had emigrated from Brava, Cape Verde, and Mary Boatman, born in Provincetown to Portuguese parents. During my childhood, there were any number of “characters” in Provincetown, those otherwise regular, hardworking folks who just seemed to have a rhythm all their own. Johnny was one of them.

He was old enough to be my Dad’s father, but he and my Dad, who had grown up in Provincetown, seemed to hit it off and I often saw them jawing out in the street, Johnny always animated no matter what story he was telling, and my Dad enjoying every minute of it. Continue reading Past is present