All posts by 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.

Over here, over there

Rex O. Church, ca. 1916

We are nearing the centennial of the end of World War I, and I’ve begun to think about what my ancestors experienced in the conflicts of their times and how they viewed the conflicts. I remember a photo of my paternal grandfather, Rex O. Church (1883–1956), in military uniform, a puzzling photo because I didn’t know he ever served, but I did know he never left Maine for active duty. How did he serve (or not), and what did he miss (or not)?

An annual report dated 1917 by the Maine Adjutant General lists Rex O. Church having earned the rank of Private on 3 June 1916 in Capt. Fred B. Perley’s Company M, Second Maine Infantry, Maine National Guard. Continue reading Over here, over there

Don’t fence me in

I grew up on this long-time family-owned property next door to my paternal grandparents, Rex Church (1883–1956) and Winifred Lee (1884–1980). I saw them almost every day until their deaths, ate lunches and holiday meals with them, slept overnight there with my cousins, and saw them only as my grandparents. I suspect that, like many other people, I’ve only come to really know them as I piece together family stories.

Long after my grandparents’ deaths, my brother and I took on the task of clearing out the house in preparation for his renovations. I began to learn more about my grandparents the more old photos we found between pages of every book or magazine (I’m not sure who was reading the collected speeches of Andrew Jackson, but there it was), and taking down framed photos, mostly of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Continue reading Don’t fence me in

Tell me no lies

Thomas and Shirley: a hint of a complex relationship.

While researching family stories for verification (and, let’s face it, amusement), I began to think that we all face the same questions: “Huh?” turns into “Why did he/she/they do that?,” which morphs into “What?!,” which then becomes “What were they thinking?!?!” We look for the truth but often find muddled facts, conflicting stories, and outright prevarications.

I discovered with the help of a maternal cousin that one of our ancestors, Shadrack Ireland (1718–1780), was something of a rogue/cad/religious nut. Sure enough, when I read about his life, history knows him as a pipe maker, carpenter, and “religious leader” who espoused Perfectionism at the time of The Great Awakening, a Christian revival in the 1730s and ‘40s. Continue reading Tell me no lies

Yesterday’s gone

1880 census page for Eben D. Roberts

Vita Brevis readers may remember from some of my older posts that my husband is an attorney who happens to be blind (he who I have disparaged occasionally with all love and affection). Recently he has been qualified as a candidate for the implantation of the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System.[1] Once the surgery is completed, he will perhaps be only the fifth person in Boston to receive the implant and certainly the first in Maine. While this extremely new technology will not restore his sight, it will give him the ability to “see” images as patterns of light. I will still be the 20-something blonde I’ve always been (HAH!), but will appear as a glowing configuration of dot matrix lights! Continue reading Yesterday’s gone

A-hunting we will go

For the most part, my ancestors travelled very little, inclined to stay on home ground, at home or on the farm. I’ve discovered, however, that as recreational travel became easier, some of my ancestors “went up country.”

Out of my squirrel bins came a large album clearly entitled “Illustrated Postcards.” At first I assumed it was nothing more than a collection of vintage postcards. Indeed it is that, but it is also a travel history, a list of friends and relatives, and at the very least an indication that my family members were all literate. Continue reading A-hunting we will go

Blue moon rising

A blue moon rose for me two years ago, prompting me to write a post called “Once in a blue moon” about two serendipitous events. One instance concerned my research to find the full story of Kenneth Maurer’s 1951 axe murder of his family, an event which took place in my husband’s early childhood home just before his parents bought the property. The serendipity that led me to those details has again come knocking! Continue reading Blue moon rising

‘Marry me’

From Susanna Howard’s estate papers

Oh, Susanna, will you marry me? And she said yes, three times, maybe four! I knew about the first three husbands, but who was the fourth, if indeed there was one?

The Susanna in this question is Susanna Johnson,[1] who married first in 1770 Lieut. Samuel Cony and had five children. After his death in 1779, she married Captain James Howard, a man forty-five years her senior with four children: John, Samuel, Margaret, and William. Then James and Susanna’s two children, Isabella and James, came along, creating a scandal and generations of legal wranglings over inheritance. After James’ death at age 85 in 1787, Susanna said yes again to a marriage proposal from William Brooks,[2] Husband Number Three. Continue reading ‘Marry me’

‘Lovely lady’

Many posts ago, I bemoaned the fact that I had (and have) many photographs of unknown people, animals, and landscapes. I have always been lucky enough to have all these albums and bins, even if I can’t put names to faces, or labels to albums. I’ve learned a little about how to date clothing and surroundings, hairstyles and hats, and poses and props.

So it was with smug satisfaction and great glee years before reality set in that I retrieved a negative from its tightly curled state. Knowing who it was, I had it developed, and a safety negative prepared. Continue reading ‘Lovely lady’

Use it up, wear it out

Growing up and living in my ancestors’ house has given me bins of memorabilia, a devastated checkbook, and changing perspectives and perceptions of their characters. The “how?” of what they did has often given way to the “why?,” not to mention the “what were they thinking?!”

Like most good early New England families, they routinely made do with what they had or made whatever they needed. That “make it do” mentality is clear throughout this house, and has been passed on through the generations. Continue reading Use it up, wear it out

Kerosene and other cookies

Grandma, Nana, Memaw, Nonna, Babushka: however they’re known, most cultures venerate grandmothers in some way, often through memories of food and its preparation. So it was that while working through a binder of cookie recipes for my annual Christmas Cookie-Baking Binge, I decided to find out what my grandmothers and great-grandmothers baked for Christmas goodies. After all, our ancestors connect to us with food. However, I come from a rather reticent family steeped more in routine than tradition, especially when it comes to holidays. I was starting from a point of nonspecific direction, a condition entirely too familiar. Continue reading Kerosene and other cookies