When you travel down the ancestral highway, the things that cross your path sometimes happen in at the most unusual moments.
I’ve always had a curious relationship with the ancestors on my mother’s side, a sense of longing to know them better, physically touch them. I spent much of my childhood time with my dad’s parents, learning to bake at my grandmother’s side, picking vegetables with my grandfather on their farm.
But my mother’s mom died several months before I was born and my grandfather was a rather gruff guy who died when I was 10, taking with him many family secrets. Most of my thoughts about them were filtered through the memories told by my mother and her sisters.
I’d like to think the creative streak that runs in our family came down through Minnie. Her craft was sewing and she would do it hour after hour. All of us kids had little cats made from material that had the front of the cat on one side and the back on the other. Mom would say those cats would line the window sill, straight as soldiers in a row.
As I’ve done some genealogical research over the past year, bits of Minnie’s life have been filled in as I’ve learned a little more about her parents. (I still can’t figure out when they emigrated to America, though! There’s always more to discover. Trying to find records on people named “Wood” and “Granger” in England in the 1800s is not, I’ve learned, a piece of cake!) My fascination with her has continued to grow. Yet the only physical connection I had to this little woman, apart from countless photos, was a stuffed cat.
That is, until one serendipitous moment. Collecting vintage postcards is a passion of mine. I use some in my art, others remind me of places I’ve been or, in the case of the “up north” cards, of the area where my summer house is and where, a short walk away, my mother and her sisters spent their summers with Minnie. I always looked for photo cards that might show the resort where the cottage stood but those that had included house itself were non-existent, perhaps because it was set back further onto the land and in wide shots, the trees blocked it.
As I was going through the alphabetical city list of cards, I picked up those that included lake views and, as usual, most of the cards didn’t appeal. They were too recent. Or they were area attractions that held little personal meaning. They were not the spots on the lake I longed to find.
That is, until I saw one that had a somewhat familiar look. The writing on the front said “Wah Wah Soo,” which was the area of the cottage and it looked like — just at the very top of the card — a bit of the old cottage was visible. Although I didn’t notice it on first glance, I would later discover that an “X” was drawn at the top of the card, with a line dipping into the trees and pointing to a house set back from the shore. It looked very familiar.
I turned it over, surprised to find it had been addressed to my grandparents’ next door neighbor, the woman who served as my baby sitter until I was three. I looked at the faded handwriting in pencil, the date, “Thu., 1940.”
X marks the spot. We have been quite comfortable up here this summer. It hasn’t been too warm here. We will be seeing you all before very long. Love, Minnie L.”
What magical thing brought me to this show — one I often skip — on this day? What led me to this very spot and what was it that brought my grandmother’s handwriting — the first time I had ever seen her handwriting — into my own hands?
Tears ran down my face and I didn’t care who saw.
I’ve long wondered how one can feel so connected to someone they never met. It’s more than a bloodline. It is more than an interest in crafty things or a love of the cottage. I find it deeper and inexplicable. And yet, it is as tangible as the photograph I can touch.
Are we guided by the spirits who have come before us? Do we hear their voices in our heads when we do something we know they’d love? Does their guidance help us form our thoughts and actions, thought we think those thoughts and actions are ours alone?
We’ll never know but I would like to think that’s so. For it seems that Minnie is one of the guides in my life. And with every bit of research — the name on the census document, the death certificate, the marriage license — she becomes more and more real.
My genealogical journey has just started. In less than a year I have found ancestors who were persecuted and died for their religion, another who died in an asylum. I have found farmers and beekeepers, confectioners and shoemakers. I have learned about women who died young leaving large families behind and children who died all too soon. I have even discovered that a dear friend with whom I’d had no sense of family connection was my fifth cousin. But that’s another story.
It has become a quest, this walk down the ancestral highway. It is a dive down the rabbit hole of family trees with deep roots. It can be dark and frustrating and often confusing with information coming from all directions, some spot on, some far off. And yet, with each computer key I tap, there is a sense of those spirit guides, urging me to tell their stories.
And so, down the rabbit hole we go.
About the Author: Jeanie Croope
After a long career in public broadcasting, Jeanie Croope is now doing all the things she loves — art, photography, writing, cooking, reading wonderful books and discovering a multitude of new creative passions. You can find her blogging about life and all the things she loves at The Marmelade Gypsy.