I’m supposed to be writing about skeletons in the family closet. I had this idea for a little story, but after struggling with it for a while I gave up. It’s just wasn’t flowing. I wonder what you do if you’re writing a book and it isn’t working. Do you stop working for a while, take the story in a completely different direction or just work on another chapter. It seems like you have fewer options when you’re writing a book. Some things just have to happen to move the plot along. Although, many of the author who spoke at the Books on the Nightstand retreat I attended mentioned that they were surprised by plot twists in their own writing, or by something a character did. I would be great to lose yourself in your writing like that. I’m afraid I’m more of the index card / time line / character outlines type of writer. That just doesn’t sound like as much fun.
Anyway… back to family skeletons. This winter my mother and I did some ancestry research. I don’t remember how we got started, but it was a great hobby for the cold weather months. The trouble was, while we learned about ancestor’s names, when they were born, when they died and where they had lived, we found out nothing about their lives or their stories. That’s what I want to know. Why did my great (times seven) grandparents day two days apart? Or why did their parents come to America from England? The details behind the facts are what fascinate me.
We did learn a couple of interesting tidbits. One of my great grandfathers (I think it was times ten) was a respected Colonel in the Revolutionary War and fought under George Washington. His house in New Hampshire is now a Bed and Breakfast and still bears his name. Another died at the battle of Bunker Hill.
I was actually kind of disappointed that we didn’t find any deep dark skeletons. We appear to boring New England folk from way back. Everyone came from England, with a couple of daring ancestors from Wales and Ireland. We got very excited when we came across a relative named Benito. He had to be from Italy, right? Nope, still from England!
We did have one skeleton close call. While researching my great grandfather on my maternal grandmother’s side, we found information about his first wife. We knew he had been divorced, so that wasn’t a shocker, although it probably was rather shocking when it happened. While looking through the information, I came to the brilliant conclusion that his first wife had been sixteen or so when they married. . After announcing this, I looked up and say that the blood had drained from my mother’s face. Her grandfather passed away when she was a young teenager and they had been very close. Growing up she would always tell me stories about how generous and kind he was. (One of her favorites is how he’d take my mother and her grandmother out to eat and encourage them to order anything on the menu. After they had ordered full meals he’d say, “I’ll just have a Western and a cup of coffee.”) I think that the thought of him marrying a minor really upset her. Luckily, I realized I had done the math wrong and they girl was actually nineteen. Still young, but legal at least! One skeleton avoided!
The story that intrigued me the most was of that great grandfather’s father, Kasper. My mother didn’t know that much about him, but we found a letter from what I believe was a sort of homeless shelter in Missoula Montana, written to his son, John, my great grandfather. It stated that Kasper had died destitute in Missoula (after a good meal the letter said) and had been buried. They were looking for John to send them money to cover the costs of the burial, I think. I keep wondering what he was doing in Montana when no one else in the family made it out of New England. And why he was broke and eating at a soup kitchen? I went online and found the exact location of his grave in the cemetery. I’d love to go see it someday, but it won’t answer my questions. I’ll probably never know Kasper’s story.
The other mystery is Kasper’s wife, Katrina. She came from Germany, or Austria. There seems to be a bit of discrepancy there. We were always told that part of the family was from Austria, but we found papers from the time of World War Two that declared them of German descent, but American citizens. That must have been a scary time to be from either Germany or Austria. I guess it would have made sense if they told people they were Austrian during the war and it stuck, but wasn’t Hitler Austrian? Another mystery… Now that I think about it, Katrina and Kasper’s stories would be interesting to imagine and write about. Stay tuned!
I also got a big kick out of the names of my ancestors. I seem to be related to an inordinate number of Mehitabels. I had never even heard of the name before. I mean really, what kind of name is Mehitabel anyway? There was one Mehitabel that had fourteen children and the last one was names Relief. Now that just makes me laugh! (By the way, I just looked up Mehitabel and apparently it means “God rejoices.”)
I have two great grandfathers on my maternal grandfather’s side named Nehemiah. I think one of them married a Mehitabel…
All in all, I think my family history is pretty tame. No major skeletons in our closets! But I’d love to be able to travel back in time and see a bit of their lives for myself. Hang out with Kasper in Missoula to see what he was up to, or congratulate Mehitabel on the birth of Relief… just to share their stories.