In my mother’s house, there was a small placard stuck to the fridge near the breakfast nook. It was one of those silly magnets mom had probably picked up at Target a long time back, you know, before Y2K might have destroyed the world as we know it. A notion really, the placard was inscribed with one of those quasi-wise sayings that, along with our mother’s penchant for feeding all the neighborhood cats, spoke more about mom’s philosophy of life than she’d ever care to admit. The placard read:
In a few days’ time the blog will celebrate its fifth anniversary. Here, to review the year just ended, are some posts from the second half of 2018 demonstrating the range of material published at Vita Brevis.
In July, Meaghan E. H. Siekman wrote about her great-grandfather, the Chicago-born son of Czech immigrants who
spent his lifetime chasing the American dream and preserving a history which was not directly his own, as none of his ancestors ever lived in colonial America. Evidence of the importance of American history in his life can be found in his obituary, which focuses more on his collections [parts of which ended up in the Smithsonian Institution] and preservation work than his career in medicine. Continue reading 2018: the year in review concluded
When Isaac Gordon and his two younger brothers – Aron and one whose name is unknown – left their village in Poland and fled from the Nazis into the woods, it must have felt like stepping into another world. Polish resistance to the Nazis was fierce during World War II, and the dense Polish forests would be the training grounds, staging areas, and headquarters for all types of partisan groups and underground fighters. Isaac, a cattle-dealer in his early thirties from Vilna (Vilnius), could hardly have felt prepared for the type of life that he and his brothers would be embarking upon when they joined the resistance movement. Continue reading Notes from the underground
The 31 October edition of NEGHS’s Weekly Genealogist ran a quiz asking readers whether they had any ancestors who participated in organized sports as adults. It reminded me that this past Thanksgiving marks one hundred and twenty years since my great-grandfather first played in “The Big Game” between the University of California (Berkeley was its only campus at the time) and Stanford – this year’s game will be played tomorrow.
Fred Athearn played a variety of sports at Pomona College, and when he transferred to the University of California he was urged by both students and faculty to be part of their football team. Cal had never beaten Stanford, but they’d just hired a new coach from “Back East,” and hoped that this – plus new blood among the players – would yield better results. The stakes of this rivalry were now higher than ever, since U.S. Senator James D. Phalen had just offered to place a statue on the campus of whichever university won two successive games. Until that happened, the statue would remain on display in Golden Gate Park. Continue reading “Grandfather Mustache”
My earlier discussion of genealogical uncertainty focused on uncertain genealogical connections. This discussion will explore uncertainty in biographical information about ancestors or relatives.
Years ago, when I started exploring the ancestry of my father’s great-grandmother, Hannah Maria (Salisbury) Olmsted (1829–1887), I fairly soon found an abundance of information in Richard LeBaron Bowen’s four-volume Early Rehoboth: Documented Historical Studies. In particular, I learned the gruesome details of the death of my Salisbury immigrant ancestor William and his oldest son, John, brother of my ancestor Samuel Salisbury, in the contentious time at the beginning of King Philip’s War. Because of tense relations with the natives, most English colonists had left their homes and gathered in fortified garrisons. Continue reading Keeping up with the Joneses
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
This is a big year for honoring Fred McFeely Rogers, who – if not a family member – was a virtual neighbor to millions of us. The United States Postal Service is issuing a stamp in his memory this week, and I was touched to discover that an “icon” honors him near the pew he habitually occupied in a church my great-great-great-great-grandparents inadvertently helped found in 1838.
However, this story is about a very different Mr. Rogers, the first husband of the second wife of my great-grandmother’s sister’s first husband. Got that? I’ll rewind and explain: my great-grandmother’s sister, Kate Bottomes, married a man named William H. Rardon in 1891. By the 1900 census, Kate was divorced from Mr. Rardon; he married Lillian Vestalina (Roberts) Rogers in 1908. In August 1912, Lillian Rardon got some very interesting news: her first husband, James Wood Rogers, had been killed by government soldiers in Belgian Congo, on 8 October 1911. Continue reading Skipped out
Mrs. Gray’s diary entry for Easter Sunday 1865 continues.
61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, 16 April 1865: Vice President Johnson was sworn into office yester’y morning in place of our beloved President Lincoln. He is said to be a man of great natural ability but very uneducated. Has been very influential among the loyalists of Tennessee & the West. He was so disgracefully drunk on the 4th of March as to mortify and alarm us all very much. But we hear since that that was an accident – he is habitually a thoroughly temperate man, and was overcome then by what would have affected most men not at all, owing to his being so entirely unaccustomed to the use of stimulants. If he will but keep good advisers about him! And we will hope so. It is said his wife taught him to read and write after their marriage! Continue reading ‘Nothing from the Boston Courier’
I recently read one family historian’s method for gleaning her father-in-law’s stories: she would write questions on slips of paper and put them in a Mason jar. When her father-in-law visited, he’d choose one slip and question from the jar, and she would write down whatever story he told. It’s the kind of method I wish I’d thought of to entice my reticent family to talk!
We are always encouraged to ask our living family members about their personal stories, and in so doing we must take what they choose to tell. In recording these stories for posterity, however, we often must weigh the truth of what we’re told against what facts we might have, realizing that those facts might completely change the color and substance of the story and our perception of the teller. Continue reading Alternative facts
There is a family story that is slowly becoming legend as the generations pass. When the mood turns nostalgic and sentimental at family gatherings, someone will inevitably tell the story of the Sages and the train.
The story tells how my great-great-great-grandparents, James Sage and Sally Hastings, died at the same moment on 8 March 1914, when they were struck by a train in Libertyville, Illinois. They were returning home from visiting their son, who had just dropped them off at the station. As the train arrived, they attempted to cross the tracks to the far platform, but did not succeed. It is not surprising that they were unable to make it quickly across the tracks, for they were elderly, 79 and 77. It is also not surprising that they attempted it, too, as James Sage had been foolish around a train at least once before, losing a foot some years earlier, also in a train accident. Continue reading Even unto death