I’ve been convinced for awhile that I’m the only American NOT on Ancestry.com. That’s because I was sure I’d never need it. Most of my relatives on several sides of my family are descended from people who came over on what must have been the second boat after the Mayflower. They went up in the hills of Vermont and stayed there where there was little to do but farm, fight in all of America’s wars and compile extensive genealogies of the family. Most of these family histories reside in thick leather-bound printed volumes. So who needs Ancestry.com? Apparently, we do.
See, there seems to be one branch of the family, on my mother’s mother’s side, who didn’t get the memo about compiling and publishing a family history. At least until about 1910. That’s when my mother’s great aunt decided this would be her life’s work. This formidable woman, a spinster named Carrie Ada Lynds, decided her mission would be to compile a Lynds family history: from Samuel Lynds who came up to Vermont — then a part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony — before the Revolution to found the family farmstead around Plymouth Notch Vermont. I’m told there is a picture of Great Great Aunt Carrie floating around somewhere and I’m anxious to find it. If she’s anything like her sister Jessie — my Great Grandmother — she would be a sight to see. Seems Jessie was sort of the Wife of Bath of Vermont. She married and divorced a series of husbands from the late 1800s to the mid-1920s, getting a little richer with each one. She was also over six feet tall and fearless. At one point, she owned and ran a livery stable. Family lore tells it that a neighborhood boy once was careening down a mountain road in a buckboard with a runaway team of horses. Jessie stepped out into the road, grabbed the reins of the stampeding horses, stopping them cold and saving the boy.
Her sister Carrie, by contrast, never married, but I like to think she was also a six foot tall Amazon. She was certainly fearless as she, in her self-proclaimed role as family historian, hitched up a horse to a buckboard and went gallivanting around New England seeking relatives, interviewing old Civil War comrades of her father and uncle, and writing down who begat who. Her notebooks, full of her spidery cramped handwritten notes, exist as much-xeroxed, nearly illegible copies. Guess whose desk they’ve landed on? Yes, as the relative who lives in Silicon Valley, I’ve been nominated to “put this on the Interwebs.” So that’s how I’m spending most of the month of December — and I imagine many months after that — trying to decipher Great Great Aunt Carrie’s idiosyncratic family timelines that follow one family line from the Revolution to the 1930s, then abruptly skips back to someone in the late 1700s and forward again to some Civil War veteran. Compound the confusion with the fact that the family seemed to recycle names with great regularity. So there are several Levis, Bennetts, Johns and Samuels in every generation. I’ll just think I’ve figured out that one particular Levi is the Civil War vet when I realize, no, this is the Levi who was in the French and Indian Wars.
Here’s what I’m starting to suspect about Great Great Aunt Carrie. I don’t think we can blame a lack of education for her slapdash approach. Most of the “family history” is just page after page of random notes about family members whose names she’s not too scrupulous about spelling in the same way. I think this whole family history thing was an elaborate cover story for a spinster who didn’t want to live the life that status used to entail. So rather than keeping house for one of her unmarried brothers, she spent her time tootling around the region in a buckboard, seeing new towns and perhaps meeting possible husbands. I suspect the latter because she was especially attentive to hunting up old Civil War comrades of her father and uncle. After all, if you are a Vermont spinster, a guy with an Army pension who might not bother you for long could look like a pretty attractive deal. Well, good for Great Great Aunt Carrie. I’m just sorry that husband plan didn’t seem to work out.
I’m pretty sure Great Great Aunt Carrie would absolutely HATE Ancestry.com. What’s the fun of being hunched over a computer trying to read through census records from the 1800s when you could be trundling through six counties and three states foisting yourself on distant relatives under the guise of Family Historian? So even though I’ve been cursing Great Great Aunt Carrie’s name, I have to admit to grudging admiration for her.
And you have to respect how she’s upped the ante on the old fear of the holidays: that you’ll be thrown together with a passel of objectionable relatives. Whatever crazy uncle is visiting your house this holiday season, just think of me with the ghosts of hundreds of ornery old Vermont farmers, probably arguing the politics of the Civil and Revolutionary War (I haven’t even gotten to the ones who were in the Spanish American War, and World Wars I and II or the one who was Calvin Coolidge.) Think of the confusion as someone tries to ask Uncle Levi if he wants some pumpkin pie, only to be answered by a chorus of Levis from six generations. Shockingly, I have more than a few female relatives who were marrying and divorcing with abandon in the 1800s. And presiding over the whole gathering, I’m imagining two six foot tall Amazon sisters — one with too many husbands, the other without even one (although not, I suspect, from lack of trying.)
Yeah, Christmas. Relatives. It’s the same old story. With a new twist at my house.
Note: the dour granite-backed Yankees in the picture at the top of the post are actually from one of the branches of the family that believed in compiling printed leather-bound genealogies. Great Great Aunt Carrie’s accompanying pictures are all jumbled in a plastic tub that I haven’t had the heart to go through yet.