Thursday, October 28, 2010
Finding my Family
It all started with a small scrap of paper held in the possession of a grandmother. If that scrap of paper had been discarded or tossed onto the hot coals of the open fire by an over-zealous housekeeper, the details of my heritage would have been lost forever. You see, that scrap of paper contained a sketchy outline of a family tree, names of people, birth dates, places - all the information that I had been searching for, in order to discover more about my family history.
My daughter enjoys researching family history and had put considerable effort into researching her father's family history. It was not too difficult to unearth, members of his family had already documented the family history. My husband has Maori ancestry - famous warrior chiefs appear on his lineage, there are numerous records, books and paintings. She also researched her grandmother's family history and again there were records and distant relatives who had uploaded their findings onto the web. It was just fascinating - she was able to present the evidence to her grandmother and confirm that there were indeed convicts in the family. You can read more about her project in a previous post 'The Family Historian.'
Having completed this project she now wanted to know about my family history. I was able to tell her very little. My father's parents had died before I was born. I only knew my maternal grandparents and my mother's father had died long before I was born. Her mother had remarried and the man I knew as grandad died when I was around the age of ten. He was a lovely Christian man. He presented me with a copy of the book 'Mary's Bible' on my eighth birthday. He wrote inside the front cover. It is the only material possession I have from my grandparents. I have read this amazing story of the faith and courage of a young Welsh girl to my own children and keep the book in my memory box to pass on to my own children in the hope that one day they also will read it to their children.
I knew I had Christian heritage but how far back did that go? Longevity appeared to be a family trait. I know that God promises long life to those that trust in the Lord (Psalm 91.16) This fact and just a few childhood memories of visiting my grandparents' home were all I could share with my daughter. I told her about my grandmother's button box which kept me amused for hours - oh to have some of those vintage buttons now - I would stitch them onto a quilt and create an heirloom! And the most delicious home made cake I have ever tasted which came out of a cream enamelware tin from an old fashioned larder - if only I had that recipe today. And the little lawn surrounded by a rose garden which was just a sensory delight to a little girl who only had a concrete backyard to play in.
I wanted to know so much more about my family so I wrote to my uncle and aunt at the beginning of this year and told them about my daughter's family history project and her desire to add in the details of her mother's heritage. And this is how I learned about the scrap of paper!
My aunt told us how it was safely guarded, how it came into their possession and how they 'puzzled about it without much success'. Their eldest son, began searching churchyards and in one he found family graves, the dates on the stones matched up with those on the little scrap of paper!
He contacted the vicar and found out that the family had not only attended the church - they had built the church and were at rest in the crypt. My aunt and uncle were able to visit this country church - the family pews were still there and historical plaques about the family adorned the walls. They were also able to visit the family home where the family had resided for generations - as far back as 1550 when they were yeoman farmers. How exciting it must have been to visit these places. I hope to visit the same places if I have the opportunity to return to England for a trip one day. I have connections to places I never knew about!
She promised to photocopy and send on all the information that they had but in the meantime I had a name - my great grandfather's name, his date of birth and the place where he was buried. The most beautiful location in a region of England I have visited many times. To think I had sailed on the lake there, not knowing that my great grandfather was buried in a cemetery on its shores.
My curiosity aroused, I typed his full name into the google search box. And on the first page a result. My grandfather's name mentioned in a book. The dates and all the details matched - there was no mistake, this was my great grandfather being given special mention in a book about a famous family of America - the Fairbanks family. Why was my great grandfather's name in a book held in the libraries of America's most well known and prestigious universities? Fortunately, I did not have to travel to the US to read about my grandfather. The book out of copyright was now in the public domain in electronic format. I could freely browse its pages and read more about the family that was in fact, part of my heritage. My great grandmother was a Fairbanks, the daughter of a wealthy businessman in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My great grandfather was a military officer, he was in Canada to train Nova Scotian volunteers in the art of musketry. They married in Canada, spent time in India and eventually returned to England. Where in Canada did they meet? Perhaps they were introduced at one of the functions that his wife's father was known for, lavish affairs they must have been, for he 'entertained liberally and his hospitality was noted in military, naval and civic social circles.' I also read that my great great grandfather was 'held in the highest esteem by his fellow citizens.'
'The Genealogy of the Fairbanks family in America 1633-1897' by Lorenzo Sayles Fairbanks is one mighty volume. And how grateful I am to a man long passed who chose to record the history of his famous family. He did not just record lineage but gave details of character, occupations and exploits. No doubt my great grandfather was given mention on account of his distinguished military career but the author not only mentions the doctors, lawyers, ministers and politicians of the family but those he also considered to be of high standing who held more humble positions. He mentions a man 'noted for his tender affection of his children', a couple whose home was a centre for hospitality, content and good cheer and a good example of New England domestic life.' He had a strong regard for the wives, mentioning one 'whose energy and good judgment were equal to any emergency. Not many houses were better furnished or more home like than theirs.'
And there it was, the mention of the remarkable longevity of the Fairbanks family and their wives in Nova Scotia - the branch of the family my great grandmother belonged to.
With a little more research, I was able to trace my great grandmother's lineage to George Fairbanks, a man of 'sterling character and a model pioneer' the second son of the Puritan Jonathan Fairbanks, an original settler of New England. And to find out that the original Fairbanks family home is still there, in Dedham, Massachusetts, thought to be the oldest surviving timber framed house in America built around 1637-1641. The Fairbanks family in America Inc, own and preserve this historic building. Annual family reunions have been held there for the past 108 years! You can see pictures of the house and read more about its history here Perhaps one day I will have the opportunity to visit the house and even attend a family reunion! If you are visiting my blog and reside in New England you may have visited this historic home or you may even be a member of the family for its descendants are 'found in almost every state of the Union, Canada and Nova Scotia' according to the author. I would love to hear from you!
It was exciting to receive the package of printed materials from my aunt including a copy of that original precious scrap of paper. I also found out that my great grandfather's family history had been recorded in yet another rare book which contained not only his genealogy but also that of a Dr Johnson. I didn't take much note of that until I realized it was the Dr Johnson, Samuel Johnson the famous author, poet, essayist, moralist and lexicographer - the man who wrote the English dictionary published in 1755. How incredible to think that the family history I had been searching for was recorded in a book alongside that of a most famous man. The member of the family responsible for this work just happened to be a genealogist and a keen 'Johnsonian' as they are known.
It is so rewarding to research family history - it can be quite addictive too but it has given me a wonderful insight into history itself. I had connections not only to England and my birthplace but to the countries of Canada and America and real family connections to their colonial past. How much more interesting a trip to New England or Nova Scotia will be for me one day. I plan to visit all of the places my great grandfathers and grandmothers settled and resided in. I have the written information and now I am searching for photographs - I love to have old family photographs on display in my home. A visual reminder of a heritage. It's why I am keeping a family memory box, why I have books on my shelves that will be passed onto my children to read to their children, the stories that were read to them will influence another generation. I hope to ensure that they do have beautiful items to display in their homes that will remind them of me. Even if it is only a few of my favourite recipe books and a box of the laces and trims I used to embellish the bon bons I made for them each Christmas season. And that they know the story of their family - their heritage.
Today, as I once again browsed the pages of the book about the Fairbanks family in preparing to write this post, I became aware that what really matters most is people - there were so many people in this family who appeared to have understood this. The author speaks of the Christians 'widely known and beloved' and a family man who cared more for 'home associations than for office' and of a man who did not live for himself but for others. It challenged me to think about what I value most, what I live for and what I would want my children to say about me. The legacy I leave for my family will not be about the land that we owned, a house or material possessions. It will be about faith passed on, love poured out, the investment of time and the making of memories - the memories that I create. The atmosphere of the home is something that stays with someone for a long time. It is what I do this very day in my home that will make my name tomorrow. It was said about my great great great grandfather that he 'left his children the heritage of an upright and honourable name.' If it had not been for that little scrap of paper I might never have known this.
And as I conclude this post I hope that you were not bored by the details of my family history. It was so important for me that I put this all into, what is after all, my family journal that future generations of my family might read one day. I tend to lose scraps of paper - my grandmother did well to preserve her history! If you skipped through the details that's fine! But if you are still reading let me just ask one question. It is not 'Have you researched your family history?'
What are you leaving for your children? What will be your legacy?
'What thou lovest well is thy true heritage.'
- Ezra Pound
With Love and Joy,