Monday, August 31, 2009

The Thrill of Genealogy!

I can almost hear some of you gasping right now. “The thrill of genealogy?!” you are crying out in disbelief, “Genealogy has to be about as exciting as watching paint dry!”

If you feel that way, I would guess that you’ve never actually done much genealogical research – at least not to the point of making any meaningful discovery. Frankly, until I became an “accidental genealogist” I felt exactly the same way. I really couldn’t understand what my cousin, Al Hadad, or other genealogy-bugs I knew saw in tracking down the names of their dead ancestors. And I certainly couldn't picture myself devoting several hours a week to ancestral research.

It took a couple of months of research before my excitement began to develop, but now I have experienced three distinct kinds of excitement in genealogy. And it was these experiences that led me to blog about it, hoping that others would catch my enthusiasm and enjoy similar experiences themselves.

The first type of excitement I experienced was what I will call “the excitement of accomplishment.” This occurred a couple of months into my research the first time I found – and conclusively confirmed – a “missing link” in my ancestry. When weeks of hitting dead-ends or erroneous information are finally redeemed by learning the identity of a previously unknown ancestor, there is a rush of excitement equivalent to scoring a touchdown or winning a race – the joy of effort duly rewarded. As time has passed I’ve found that the greater the effort and the more time invested in the search, the greater the feeling when it is finally rewarded.

The next form of excitement I experienced is what I now call “the thrill of discovery.” For me, it has been a distinctly different feeling than the excitement of accomplishment. Perhaps the best way of describing it is through example. My first experience of this emotion was at the discovery that my 5th great-grandfather, Stephen Jenner, had served in the American Revolution after his family had been forced to flee the approaching British Army in the dead of night. As I read of their experience in The History of Pittsford, Vt. I could almost feel the fear and grief Stephen must have felt as he led his family in the darkness of a July night in 1777 and it brought me to tears. But it was also a moment of exhilaration in the discovery that my own ancestors had actively participated in the creation of our nation -- for me the equivalent of digging up an artifact on an expedition with Indiana Jones! Now I experience a similar excitement each time I discover a significant accomplishment or travail of one of my ancestors.

The third type of excitement came much later in my genealogical journey and, although it is the least important and meaningful of the three, it is still an excitement I do feel and enjoy. I call it the “excitement of celebrity” and it comes from discovering that you are descended from someone truly famous. As I have previously blogged, I had been told since childhood that I was a descendant of Dr. Edward Jenner, the creator of smallpox vaccine. So it was no small disappointment when my own research proved this tale to be false. It was at least a year later before I discovered that I had ancestors of equal or greater fame and accomplishment. The first of these I found while tracing my Jenner (maternal grandmother’s) line back seven generations to the Baldwin line, then another seven generations to Dormer, three more generations to fitzAlan, the Earls of Arundel, six additional generations to de Mortimer, and three more generations to Gwladus Ddu ferch Llywelyn, whose mother was Joan Plantagenet, Lady of Wales, an illegitimate daughter of John “Lackland” Plantagenet, King of England and Lord of Ireland [pictured at top], better known as “Wicked King John” the arch-enemy (in fiction only) of beloved Robin Hood and much-despised rival of his brother, Richard the Lionheart.

Not only had I discovered that I was descended from one of the most (in)famous of all British monarchs, but I made the discovery the same day that I received a complaint from my ex-wife that my daughter was “acting like she thinks she is a princess”! My reply that she is, in fact, a descendant of royalty did not meet with immediate pleasure, but has since (with my daughter’s improved behavior) been accepted with the humour I originally intended.

I have since made many similar discoveries, learning that I am descended also from Eleanor d’Aquitaine, Charlemagne, Charles “le Martel” de Poitiers, and countless others of great fame and accomplishment from medieval times. Each such discovery brings its own unique twinge of excitement, despite my knowing that hundreds of millions of others are also descended from these celebrities.

So, if you have not yet delved into your family history and folklore, I urge you to do so. Otherwise, you will never know what sort of excitement awaits you!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Move Over, Jerry Springer!

[Guilford Green, burial site of John Parmelee Jr.]

Do you remember those weird guests Jerry Spinger used to have on his show? The ones that married their own cousins and were having an affair with their in-laws? The ones that made everyone ask, "Where does he find those people?!" Well, he could have taped one of his shows in Guilford, Connecticut around 1660, and some of my ancestors would have been on it!

When my daughter and I took our genealogy road-trip this past June, we never dreamed we would stumble onto our own episode of The Jerry Springer Show. We had gathered all the information we could find in Woodbury, Connecticut, and were now working our way backward in time, following the parents and grandparents of our ancestors who had left other Connecticut colonies to found the town of Woodbury. One of these was Hannah Parmelee, my 6th great-grandmother, who had married Samuel Jenner II in Woodbury.

Most online genealogical records list Newtown, Connecticut as her place of birth. So Michaela and I had driven from Woodbury down to Newtown. At the Town Hall, we found that Hannah's father, Stephen Parmelee, is listed in Book 1 of the Newtown land records as one of its earliest settlers and landowners. But he did not arrive in Newtown until 1710, and Hannah was born in 1706. Clearly, she had been born elsewhere. Hannah's mother, Elizabeth Baldwin, had been born in Milford and her father was born in Guilford. Milford was closer to Newtown, so that was our next stop. I had to obtain credentials as a card-carrying genealogist in order to gain access to the town records in Milford -- only to return the next day and learn that Hannah had not been born there, either. So, next it was off to Guilford. And there we hit paydirt!

The people at the Guilford Town Hall directed us to the Edith B. Nettleton Historical Room at the Guilford Free Library, where the extraordinarily helpful staff went out of their way to assist us. We reviewed local and family histories, plat maps of the original township, cemetery records, and more -- including some information we never expected and weren't sure we really wanted to know.

Hannah was indeed born in Guilford in 1706. Her father, Stephen, had also been born there in 1669 -- the first of our Parmelee line born on American soil. The town began in 1639 as a plantation from the New Haven Colony. A plantation was essentially a spin-off of an existing colony. It established a separate charter and became a colony in its own right in the mid-1640s. Among its earliest settlers were John Parmelee Jr. (1612-1688), who arrived in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1635 and was among the signers of the original Guilford Plantation Covenant on 1st June 1639. John would later marry Hannah Plaine and become the father of Stephen Parmelee, so John and Hannah are my 8th great-grandparents. This is where it starts getting weird.

When Michaela and I arrived in Guilford, we knew we had a mystery to solve about Hannah Plaine. There were several conflicting dates given for her birth and death in online genealogical records. Some showed her birth as 1594; others as 1621. Some had her dying in 1658; others in 1687. So various combinations had her lifespan as being 1594-1658, 1621-1658, and 1621-1687. Only the latter dates seemed plausible, since Stephen was born in 1669. So we had already concluded that there must have been two Hannah Plaines and that records showing John Parmelee's marriage to the older Hannah Plaine were erroneous.

Well, we were wrong!

Yes, there were two Hannah Plaines. And John Parmelee married them both! You see, William Plaine (1590-1649) was also one of the signors of the original Guilford Plantation Covenant. But it is likely that he came to America with his wife, Hannah (1594-1658) and his daughter, Hannah (1621-1687) to escape his past, because he had committed sodomy in England. Perhaps he could have gotten a fresh start in the New World and escaped prosecution for his crime, but he just couldn't keep his hands off young boys. So in 1649 he was tried and convicted of both the sodomy he had committed in England and the "corruption of youth" he had pursued in Guilford. He was hanged for his crimes on 1st June 1649 -- the first and only Guilford citizen ever executed for a crime. Yeah, weird!

John Parmelee's first wife, Rebecca, died in September 1651, when their son was but six years old, so John married the widow, Hannah Plaine later that same year. Hannah died in March 1658. Now here's where it gets really weird -- or "icky", as my daughter calls it. John married his step-daughter, Hannah Plaine, in February 1659. The two had nine children, including my 7th great-grandfather, Stephen.

So my 9th great-grandmother, Hannah (whose maiden name was probably Plum), was also my 8th step-great-grandmother. And my 8th great-grandmother was the step-daughter of my 8th great-greatfather. Can you hear me singing "I'm my own grampa" right now???

Move over, Jerry Springer! My ancestors are just as weird as your guests!

Friday, August 14, 2009

My Umpty-Great Grandparents

Despite my exalted status as a genuine, card-carrying genealogist, there are still many issues I wrestle with that are probably old-hat to more experienced members of the profession. One of these issues is what to call my "umpty-great" grandparents.

This dilemma arose fairly early in my ancestral research. On both my parents' sides of the family, I already knew my ancestors back to my own great-grandparents, so I knew their names and what to call them. As I worked my way backward on the Pellman side, I could get no further than my great-great-grandfather, William Henry Pellman, so again no problem. Thanks to the excellent genealogical work of my late cousin, Al Hadad, I had also compiled the list of Schimmels, Meiers, and Trums back to my great-great-grandparents in each line. The issue arose when I started tracing the Jenner side of the family and got beyond Moses Johnson Jenner, my great-great-great-grandfather. Saying or typing three "greats" wasn't all that problematic, but when trying to describe my Revolutionary War patriot ancestor, Stephen Jenner, I started getting tongue-tied. Stephen was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather -- that's five "greats" -- and I tended to lose track of where I was, both typing and saying it.

When my daughter and I were preparing for our visit to his burial site, I remember how silly I felt saying, "We're going to try to find the grave of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather who fought in the American Revolution," as I counted on my fingers. And it got downright ridiculous when I said we were also going to Woodbury "to find the grave of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel Jenner I." Typing it just now I accidentally put in one too many "greats" and had to go back and delete it! First I tried abbreviating it to "gr-gr-gr-gr-gr-gr-great-grandfather," but that just sounded even siller -- as if I'd suddenly developed a severe stammer. Then I tried "my seven-times-great grandfather," but someone actually asked me, "What makes him seven times as great as your other grandfather?" So, I finally settled on "umpty-great" because more people seemed to understand what I meant, and I don't think they really cared whether he had five, six, or seven "greats" in front of "grandfather". They really only needed to understand it was a direct ancestor several generations before me.

Things reached a surreal level of ridiculousness when I learned that I was descended from Charlemagne and tried to figure out a meaningful way to explain that there should be 38 "greats" in front of grandfather! A single exclamation point seems inadequate to describe how ludicrous that seemed to me, so I actually considered following my previous sentence with 38 exclamation points for appropriate emaphasis. One thing I knew for certain: I wasn't about to say or write "great" 38 times in front of grandfather. No way!

The Internet hasn't been a great deal of help in resolving this problem so far. On various genealogy websites -- and I have visited hundreds of them -- I have encountered numerous forms of short-hand notation for umpty-great grandparents, including (for Charlemagne):
  • "38-times-great-grandfather"

  • "38x-great-grandfather"

  • "38-great-grandfather"

  • "38-g grandfather"

  • "38th generation great-grandfather"

  • "38th great-grandfather"

  • and the extremely succinct "38ggf"
None of these seems entirely satisfactory. Each has pros and cons. 38ggf, for example, is compact and suitable for a short-hand notation while doing research, but seems a disrespectfully brief description to give a man of Charlemagne's importance. 38th great-grandfather is okay, but seems grammatically confusing, as if Charlemagne #38 out of what should be no more than four great-grandfathers. 38th generation great-grandfather is probably the most descriptive of the alternatives, but again seems technically incorrect, since Charlemagne is actually in the 39th generation prior to me. 38-g grandfather only saves four letters, so I would prefer to just type 38-great-grandfather and leave no doubt what that g stands for (I wouldn't want anyone thinking he only weighed 38 grams!). 38x-great-grandfather sounds vaguely like poor Charlemagne might be my ex-38th-great-grandfather -- as if I would kick him out of the family! And, while 38-times-great-grandfather seems to me the most technically correct shorthand, it still leaves the possibility that some of my non-genealogy-buff friends and family would get the impression that Charlemagne had been my great-grandfather 38 times. Would they wonder if he was ever going to try for 39?

So I'm hoping that some sagacious member of the genealogical community can give me some suggestions on satisfactorily resolving this nomenclature issue. If you have any suggestions, please leave them as comments to this blog posting.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Genuine Card-Carrying Genealogist!

Two years ago I could not spell genealogist. Now I are one!

But it's not really my fault. You see, I never set out to be a genealogist. From my earliest interest to the present moment, genealogy has never been more than a pastime -- a fascinating hobby. It's not my life's work, by any means ... although it has done a lot of work in my life!

Researching my ancestry has changed me in some very fundamental ways these past two years. It has reshaped my thinking about the history of our nation and our world as I have come to see and understand history as a family matter, rather than just a bunch of meaningless names, places, and dates in a history book. It has caused me to re-evaluate my role in society as my understanding of my family's role in shaping society has become clearer to me. And it has redefined my concept of family and familial relationships.

I still don't really consider myself a genealogist. Its my avocation; not my vocation. I still picture myself as a rank amateur, lacking the tools and experience I think a real genealogist should have. But the state of Connecticutt doesn't see me that way. They consider me a licensed, card-carrying genealogist! Here's how it happened:

This past June, my daughter and I set out for New England on our second genealogical road-trip together. It's pretty much like a road-trip straight out of Animal House. We just throw a bunch of random clothes into suitcases, toss them in the back of my car, figure out which way we are heading, and take off down the road with very little idea of where we are going or what we will do when we get there. Having few preconceived expectations pretty much ensures that we won't be disappointed with the results!

All we really depart with is a list of ancestors we want to research further and the names of the towns in which we know they either were born, lived, or died. Then we simply go to those towns and see what we can find out about them. Now, honestly, does that sound professional to you? Me neither! But the results have been two of the most enjoyable and relaxing vacations I've ever taken, some wonderful experiences shared with my daughter, and some spectacularly meaningful discoveries about our family tree.

So, on the second day of our trip we arrived in Woodbury, Connecticut. Woodbury is the final resting place of Samuel Jenner I, who was our immigrant ancestor on my paternal grandmother's side of the family and the person whose mysteries sparked much of my interest in genealogy (see A Tale of Two Samuels). I had alrady read the passages in William Cothren's History of Ancient Woodbury about the Jenner family, so we knew that Samuel Jenner I had acquired land in Woodbury in 1682, married Hannah Hinman in 1684, that the couple had all their children in Woodbury -- beginning with Sarah Jenner in 1685 -- and that Samuel had died in Woodbury in 1738. Or was approach was simple and direct: wander around, visit as many landmarks and resources as possible, and ask endless questions of anyone who would listen. So we visited the library, town hall, historical society, graveyards, historical landmarks, and tried to drive up and down every street in the area. We spoke with librarians, town officials, historical society members, and practically everyone we met. And we were given practically unlimited access to any information we wanted.

When we finished at Woodbury, we next went to Newtown, Connecticutt. Again, we spent hours in the vault at the town clerk's office, in the genealogy section of the library, and pestered everyone who didn't run away from us. But when we got to Milford, Connecticutt it was a very different story!

The town clerk at Milford insisted that I had to be a genuine, authentic, bona fide, card-carrying professional genealogist in order to view the records of my own ancestors or anyone else. She claimed it was state law. When I asked what I had to do to become a licensed genealogist, she told me that all I had to do was join any genealogical society that issued membership cards to its members.

An hour-and-a-half later I was standing in the offices of the Connecticut Society of Genealogists. And what I expected to be a total waste of a half day of our trip turned out to be one of its highlights. The people at the CSG couldn't have been more helpful to us. My membership fee was the best $35.00 I spent on the entire trip! We walked out with more information on our ancestors in one afternoon than I had gathered in months of web-surfing. And most importantly, I walked out with that magical blue card pictured at the top of this post.

I am now -- at least in the eyes of the town clerk of Milford, if not the entire state of Connecticut -- a genuine, authentic, bona fide, fully-licensed, certified, qualified, and ordained professional genealogist!

Ironically, I don't feel the least bit more qualified now that I have that card in my wallet than I did before I received it. But I must be, because the town clerk in Milford gave me the "keys to the kingdom" -- full, unsupervised access to the records vault at Town Hall. I didn't have to pass any test. I wasn't fingerprinted. I didn't even have to show my birth certificate or driver's license to prove that I am really me. All I had to do was plunk down my $35.00. Now, of course, I know exactly what transpired. If I did abscond with the identities of half the residents of Milford and defraud them, the town clerk can glibly claim to have done "due diligence" in requiring me to show my card and point the gnarled finger of blame at the CSG for not having properly vetted me. It's bureaucratic responsibility-shirking, pure and simple! On the other hand, there are only two kinds of people who would make a 3-hour round trip to Hartford and pay a $35.00 fee to obtain a genealogist's identification card: a true genealogist or a crook.

Good thing for the town of Milford that I'm not both!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Fountain of Youth

[Vivian Grace (Jenner) Pellman (1887-1973)]

Every so often my genealogical research makes me stop and think. As my family tree began to sprout more branches, I noticed a pattern emerging that gave me one such pause: a lot of my ancestors lived much longer than I would have expected. With all the recent debate and uproar over health care and health care reform, it has made me re-examine not just my thinking, but my lifestyle.

To fully understand how significant this was to me, you have to know that about six years ago I was diagnosed as a Type 2 diabetic. My doctor also informed me that I had numerous risk factors for coronary artery disease and pretty much led me to believe that I might keel over at any moment from a heart attack or stroke -- especially if I didn't choke down about a dozen pills a day and dramatically alter my eating and exercise habits. It was after I had been on this regimen about three years -- off and on, at least -- that I began to notice the longevity of my ancestors.

As I traced the various branches of my family and dutifully recorded their birth and death dates, I saw that my father, John A. Pellman (1920-2001) had lived over 81 years, my grandfather, John Guss Pellman (1891-1970) had lived 79 years, George Frederick Pellman (1868-1943) 75 years, William Henry Pellman (1827-1901) 73 years. And these weren't people who had lived lives of luxury and pampering. My father suffered from tuberculosis as a child, and endured the Great Depression and the Second World War. My grandfather had grown up in a frontier town, served in World War I, and suffered through the Great Depression. His father had been the son of a sharecropper and a frontier lawman. And his father was a tenant farmer who had fought three years of civil warfare in Prussia, another three years in the Civil War (see The Ravages of War), and entered the Oklahoma Land Rush at the age of 68.

At first I was tempted to conclude that the Pellmans were simply hardy stock ... until I noticed that the same was true of the Jenner side of my family. My grandmother, Vivian Grace Jenner (1887-1973), who is pictured above, had lived 86 years. Her father, Almond Lewis Jenner (1863-1946) 83 years. His father, Moses German Jenner (1833-1907) 74 years. And so on, back to Samuel Jenner I (c. 1650-1738) who lived at least 85 years during colonial times!

This just didn't make sense. I had always been told that average life expectancy prior to the 20th century was about 40 years, yet most of my ancestors had lived nearly double that. And the same was true of every other branch of my family. With rare exception, the men were living 75 or more years -- even in the 16th century and earlier. But, I soon noticed the same was not true of the women in my family. True, many lived well into their 70s and 80s, like Hannah Hinman (1666-1743), Hannah Parmelee (1706-1780), and Mercy Lewis (1679-1761). But many others died quite young, like Gabriella Phelps (1870-1927), Elizabeth Wallis (1652-1689), Louisa Wise (1834-1864), and Diantha Cady (1810-1837).

Gradually, the pattern began to reveal itself. The women who survived past the age of 40 tended to live well into their 70s or beyond. There were only a handful who died in their 50s or 60s. It was either young or old, and very little in between.

As I related in Tears in the Graveyard, we have discovered that about one-third of the children born to our pre-20th century ancestors did not survive to reach adulthood. Many died within days of their birth, many others from typhoid or influenza, and a few from drowning or fatal injuries. The males who reached adulthood either lived long, full lives or they were killed in battle or by other injuries. Very few of the men succumbed to disease as adults. The women were less fortunate. Quite a few died of complications from childbirth before the age of 40. Another signifcant cause of death was disease -- expecially typhoid and influenza. But those who reached 40 usually lived at least another 30 years.

So, yes, the average lifespan was indeed about 40 years. But, like so many statistics, the average doesn't reveal the truth. The truth is that the people who survived the dangers of childhood and the women who survived the rigors of childbirth and child-rearing lived just as long -- if not longer -- than people live today. And they did it without regular health care, annual check-ups, health insurance, HMOs, PPOs, and MediCare!

What was their secret? What was their "fountain of youth"? Simple: constant activity and good food.

Instead of sitting behind a desk for eight hours, then spending a half-hour in the gym, they worked steadily all day long. Sure, they did hard work, too. But they didn't spend the entire day felling timber and digging up stumps. Most of their work was planting, tilling, weeding, grinding -- moderate work that kept them active the entire day.

And they didn't eat low-fat yogurt, Omega-3 fatty acids, and endive salads with basalmic vinegar dressing. They ate meat, potatoes, bread, and fruits or vegetables when they were in season. Meat could be salted, smoked, or cured; potatoes, turnips, and carrots would keep in the root cellar; and grains could be stored in bins and cannisters, so they could be eaten year-round. But fruits and vegetables were mostly seasonal additions to their diets. They did not follow the "food pyramid". They didn't have vitamins and supplements. And they cooked with plenty of butter, salt, and lard! They broke almost every dietary rule we are told will keep us healthy today. But what they also didn't have were steroids, colorings, flavorings, and chemical additives in their food. It was natural, whole food -- nothing more. Salt, brine, and wood smoke were their primary preservatives; not chemicals.

All of the wonders of science and medicine have not added one day to our lifespan! People are not living longer than they did 200 years ago; just more of them are living as long. That's an important distinction to understand as we look at the issues of health care and retirement in the 21st century world. And the enormous costs of medical care we are burdened with are chiefly the result of excessive leisure in our lives. Our grandparents were right when they told us, "A little hard work never hurt anyone."

As we examine the issues surrounding health care, instead of asking how we can reduce the cost of the healthcare our unhealthy lives require, we should be asking ourselves how much we are willing to pay in added health care costs for our unhealthy lifestyles. That's the message my ancestors sent me this week.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Noble Endeavor

As I've mentioned in several previous posts, I had long believed that I was a descendent of Dr. Edward Jenner, the discoverer of smallpox vaccination. I also knew that I was a descendent of a frontier lawman (George Frederick Pellman) and a respected British judge (William Willis, QC), as well as the famous (well, notorious) border reivers of clan Kerr. As a youngster, it was a source of great pride that I was descended from someone famous, and I'm sure I bragged endlessly about my family heritage. When I read Ivanhoe and the tales of King Arthur, I imagined that somewhere in the distant past there had been a Sir Percival Willis (or something of that sort), who had been a gallant medieval knight, rescuing damsels in distress and slaying dragons, who had been one of my ancestors.

As I reached my teenage years that childish pride gave way to something a little more noble -- a sense of purpose and duty stemming from a family legacy of people who, if not really famous, had accomplished things of genuine importance in their lives. I remember approaching adulthood with a strong sense of obligation, if not outright destiny, to accomplish great things. I've certainly fallen well short of those expectations, but my genealogical research has proven to be much more than just another in a long list of life's disappointments and failures.

A few months into my research, I discovered that through the Jenner side of my family (my paternal grandmother's side) I was related to Alec Baldwin and the other Baldwin brothers. In making that discovery, I had traced the Baldwin line back to Richard Baldwin I (1503 - 1552) and Ellen Pooke (1507 - 1565), who were my first common ancestors with the famous acting family. Richard Baldwin's mother was Agnes Dormer, daughter of Lord Geoffrey Dormer, Baron of Wing, whose arms are shown above.

50 years after first imagining that I might be descended from an English knight or noble came the discovery that I actually am! The surprise, however, was that it was not on my English mother's side of the family, as I had so long suspected, but on my very American father's side!

This led to a whole series of discoveries in quick succession. The first of these discoveries is the one that made the rest of the process so quick: every family of European nobility is related to practically every other family of European nobility -- and those relationships are extremely well documented. With hindsight the reason for this seems obvious: the rich and powerful families of Europe used marriages to form alliances and accumulate greater wealth. Since noble birth was the key to a noble marriage, meticulous records have been kept for centuries of most noble births and marriages. Because of this, it has actually been quicker and easier to trace more than a 1,000 years of my noble European ancestry than it was to trace the first 200 years of my American ancestry. Most of it is listed in Wikipedia!

It had taken me well over a year to trace the Jenners back to the 17th century, then the Baldwins back to the early 16th century. In the process, I had accumulated about 150 people in my family tree, but the majority of branches -- dozens of them -- had reached dead-ends around the year 1800. Within just a couple more weeks after discovering my lineage to Geoffery Dormer (my 14th-great-grandfather), my tree had grown to over 1,000 individuals and I had traced one line back more than 1,500 years!

As of today, my known family tree includes nearly 3,500 people, the majority of whom are European nobility -- barons and baronesses, margraves and margravines, counts, countesses, and earls, dukes and duchesses, kings and queens, and even several emperors! They range across most of medieval Europe, from the British Isles to Scandinavia, to continental Europe, and northern Africa. They include some of the most famous names in world history, like Charlemagne and William the Conqueror. They also include people of amazing character and accomplishment, like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Sir William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, as well as a full compliment of cowards, fiends, and monumental failures. Their lives unfold the entire pageant of medieval history: conquests, plunder, assassinations, truces, alliances, crusades, defeat, and bloody revenge.

Just as American history came alive for me when it became the story of my family, so has European and Middle Eastern history now become personal and vital when viewed for what it really is: centuries of family squabbles. And not just any family, but my family!

In future posts, I will share with you some of the more interesting members of this amazing family.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What IS a Family? (Part 2)

In my blog, What IS a Family? (Part 1), I wrote about several of my Jenner ancestors who had been raised by step-parents, including Samuel Jenner I (7x-great-grandfather), Moses German Jenner (2x-great-grandfather), and Almond Lewis Jenner (great-grandfather). In each case, one of their parents had died while they were in infancy and they had been raised by a step-parent. In each case, these children had never truly known -- and probably had no memory of -- their deceased biological parent. So the step-parent had been the only father or mother they had known. The inescapable conclusion is that a family is not merely biological, but consists of those people who love and care for each other and invest themselves in nurturing each other.

This lesson was brought home in a remarkable and powerful way just a few days after I posted my Part 1 blog. On Saturday, August 2nd, I was blessed to attend a birthday party for my "sister", Lisa. If you look carefully at her photo, paying close attention to the details, you may notice that there is not a strong family resemblence. This is because we are not biologically brother and sister.

I have known Lisa since around 1965, along with her brothers, Terry and Kevin, and her sisters, Claudia and Shari. I have no biological siblings, so the five of them became the brothers and sisters for which I was desperately longing. They filled a huge void in my life. They provided me with all the joys and heartaches, all the squabbles, the sibling rivalries, the playmates -- everything that was missing in my life as an only child. Lisa's parents, George and Betty, truly adopted me in every way except filing the legal papers. I can't count the number of hours I spent and the meals I ate in their home. For about ten years, I spent more time at their home than with my biological parents! Lisa could not be any more my sister if we had been born of the same parents.

And this fact was driven home at her birthday party last Saturday. At one point, the festivities were quieted and her Mom stepped up to the microphone and said a few words of praise and love for her daughter. Then she invited others to do the same. One after another, about a dozen people came forward and each had a similar tale to tell -- of how Lisa had become a surrogate mother, daughter, or big sister to them, how she had "adopted" each of them and showered them with love and care, even in the midst of her own struggles as a single mother and cancer survivor. What emerged was an amazing portrait of a strong, independent woman of character with a tender heart who became family to almost everyone with whom she has come in contact.

There is no official place in which to put Lisa and her family on my family tree. They don't meet the qualifications for a place in my genealogy. Nevertheless, they are as much family as anyone else in my family tree and one of these days I'm going to figure out how to give them their rightful place in my genealogical records. Until then ...

Happy Birthday, Lisa!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A True Heroine

July 30th was my Mom’s 90th birthday. You may be surprised to learn that she is part of my family tree, too. She had a lot to do with my interest in genealogy – just not so much with my early research. Until I started researching my family history I thought I knew a lot about her side of the family. While I was growing up, she regaled me with stories of her English and Scottish forebears. We had photos and other memorabilia throughout the house of her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, as well as many of the places they had lived and traveled. She took me to the British Isles twice during my childhood to make sure I had met my English and Scottish relatives and visited the homelands of my British ancestors. I still have many of the souvenirs I collected on those journeys: Kerr tartan ties, a Scottish tam, English coins, and vibrant memories.

She was born Violet Joyce Willis in Chepstow, Monmouthshire. Monmouthshire is a sort of no man’s land. Sometimes it’s listed as a county in Wales; other times as a county in England. From what I can gather of its history, it has gone back and forth between England and Wales several times over the centuries, as various medieval kingdoms expanded and contracted by conquest. She was the first of two children of Leonard John Willis, my namesake, and Winnifred Violet Kerr, so culturally she is half English, half Scottish, and a naturalized American.

Her earliest memories are not of Chepstow, but of the six-acre farm the family purchased in Laindon, Essex, when she was still quite young. She grew up with few of the amenities we now take for granted. No running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Even as a child of 7 or 8, her mornings began shortly after sunrise with chores: feeding chickens, collecting eggs, pumping a bucket of water, and the like. Of course ,there was school and plenty of fun, but she grew up understanding the value and necessity of hard work and priorities. But the farm failed, so the family moved to Sydenham in the late 1920s.

As Britain entered the Great Depression, work was hard to come by, but eventually her father found employment with the Craven A Tobacco Company as a groundskeeper at its employee recreation facilities in Edgware, Middlesex. There, Mum made several lifelong friends and life was happy and stable for awhile … until Hitler began his conquest of Europe in the late 1930s. Once again, her father lost his job, and they moved back to Sydenham. Mum, in her late teens, went to work as a secretary for the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway, then Britain’s largest railway company, commuting daily from Sydenham to the company’s headquarters in Euston.
When the Second World War broke out in late 1939, Mum went to work for the United Glass Bottle Company in London, making “Molotov cocktails” for the war effort. The family could not afford a bomb shelter, so her brother, Ray, dug a 6-by-6-by-6 foot pit in their backyard and covered it with corrugated tin roofing and about two feet of dirt. The family all survived the London Blitz of 1940-41, in which more than 45,000 London civilians were killed and over a million homes destroyed, but a house whose rear garden bordered theirs was demolished by a direct hit from a bomb that killed the entire family. Mum realized that dropped from about 10,000 feet, a mere gust of wind had meant the difference between that bomb striking her neighbors’ house or her own!

Her father died of prostate cancer in July, 1942, which made her eligible for conscription – the British term for being drafted. So, on advice of her employers Mum applied for a secretarial position at the American Embassy. She was hired, but assigned to the Ordnance Division, Transportation Corps of the U.S. Army. Initially, she was assigned to Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, where she met my father. Shortly after D-Day, however, she was read the Articles of War, put in uniform, and shipped off to France to coordinate the movement of ammunition into the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). When she arrived in Paris, German snipers were still active, so the windows were all blacked out in the building in which she worked. She had been working in Paris for several days before the city was officially “liberated” by the triumphant arrival of Generals Montgomery and Patton – and she still has the photographs to prove she was there first.

Of her contribution to the war effort, she has this to say: “Patton ran out of gasoline, but he never ran out of bullets, because that was my job!”

After the German surrender, her offices were relocated to Frankfurt, Germany. Dad returned to the United States and, after a period of pining for her, wrote her a letter proposing marriage. She accepted, and left for America with only £100 and what she could carry in a suitcase. She arrived in New York, cleared Customs and Immigration just in time to catch the last train out of Grand Central Station before the railroads went on strike. When she reached Chicago, she was put off the train by the strike. Traveler’s Aid eventually helped her reach Ogden, Utah, and from there she found her own way to Los Angeles, where she was met by her future husband.

After serving in uniform in a combat zone for nearly two years and making her own way across the North American continent, in a classic example of British understatement she describes herself as “a bit more adventuresome than my mother.” Really?

She was married to my father for 55 years, from 1946 until his passing in 2001. She worked as a secretary for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company for many years, then helped my father and his business partner run the Miles Motel in La Mesa, California until they sold it in 1957. After that, she was the classic stay-at-home mom of the 1950s and early 1960s, and life really was like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best for us. She was active in Sigma Alpha, a career-women’s sorority that supports disabled children, serving in a variety of local, regional, and national offices for decades. She was also an avid bridge player and golfer all the while she was raising me and serving as den mother to my Scout troop, Little League mom, PTA member, church board member, and all the rest.

She made sure I met people who were different from me, like the kids at the Cerebral Palsy Association, where she frequently volunteered. When I started making friends from different cultural and ethnic groups, she did everything she could to encourage me to experience life from their perspectives and not just my own. As a mother I can’t think of anything she could have done to make my childhood more enjoyable, enriching, or rewarding.

After I went out on my own, she remained active in her sorority and church, playing golf and bridge, and supporting my Dad. My father suffered a debilitating stroke in 1983, and for the next 18 years she served as his care-giver without let-up or complaint. She was once asked why she didn’t institutionalize him so she could get on with her own life, and her reply was direct and a perfect reflection of her character: “When I stood at the altar and said, ‘For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,’ I meant it.”

She’s still active and alert. Although she’s had a few of the health issues that come naturally at her age, she hasn’t let them stop her. She has a computer and stays in touch by email – although she can still use a real typewriter; not just a keyboard. She remains to this day one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.

We threw her a surprise party today at her favorite restaurant, the Olive Garden, where she is a regular and an obvious favorite with the staff. About 40 of her closest friends and family came to remind her how much she is loved and appreciated by everyone who knows her. She was showered with affection, cards, and gifts, but the highlight for me was a letter sent from Buckingham Palace by one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, which read in part:
The Queen was, however, most interested to hear of your mother’s service during the Second World War, and of the way in which her family has served the United Kingdom for generations. Her Majesty was … [also] pleased to hear about her special birthday. The Queen hopes that Mrs. Pellman will have a very happy day on 30th July.”

So let me add, Happy Birthday, Mom!