Day 7: Select a family heirloom (watch, quilt, Bible, etc.) and write a narrative about it. Where has it been? How did your ancestor acquire it, and what would it have encountered throughout the years? What important family milestones might it have witnessed?
In terms of money, the family heirloom that I am writing about is not valuable at all. In terms of helping me with my research it is absolutely priceless.
Tucked away in a dusty box in my mom’s basement was a small green book. It is maybe 4×6 in size and has seen better days, there is some discoloration to the cover of what was once a dark green. The words National Date Book are stamped on the cover and it is bound with thread.
Inside is a simple lined notebook with the month and day at the top of each page. The notebook belonged to my paternal grandmother, Madeline McVay McGee or Maime as she was known. Maime was good at keeping track of her life’s events, there is another notebook in which she lists her classmates and information about her high school graduation. The second half of that book lists every wedding gift and card that she received. I have always felt like Maime and I were kindred spirits and this is just another reason. I have always been a list maker, it helps to ground me and organize my thoughts. I have taken to Bullet Journaling and who knows – maybe someday my ancestor may come across it.
Like most people of her generation the notebook was used for more than one purpose. On the top of the page under the date there are names and years written in faded ink. The writing looks a little different than the rest of the book and I think it originally belonged someone else in the family. I don’t recognize most of the names the dates are from the 1870’s to early 1900’s.
Maime kept meticulous lists of every Christmas card that she sent and received beginning in 1936 and going until 1966 (Maime died in 1967). She even listed cards specifically sent to my father. It is a fascinating look into her world. There are many familiar names in the book and many more mysteries. Some of the people have addresses carefully written next to their names. Every single time I open this book I find something new. There are a few McVay’s listed – usually as “The Dick McVay’s” There are one of my brick walls. It was reassuring to see them listed, they did exist and one of these days I will track them down! Last year I found out who the “Art Hau’s” were and they unlocked many more of the names for me! Leo McGee is in the book – he was the author of a really informative family history that I use all the time. I was especially happy to see the “Jack McGee’s” of 703 Starin Ave, Buffalo listed. The Hau’s helped me to unlock this branch and amazingly – cousin John McGee is now on my Christmas card list…on Starin Ave in Buffalo!
The last part of notebook and by far my very favorite part is documentation of life events that happened each year starting in 1930. She documented the move from Warsaw to Batavia for my grandfather’s job in March of 1932 Her mother had a stroke and was living with them when they moved. She says: “Mother was still an invalid – stayed upstairs most of the time. It was a bitter cold day” By 1934 my great grandmother was recovered enough to move to New York City to live with her son, Madeline’s brother Wayne. Maime mentions going to visit them in NY and that my Grandfather tried to find work in a bank. She also mentions a trip to Chicago for the World’s Fair in 1934.
She records heart breaking things very matter of factly. Maime records the death of her sister in law Nora McGee Pierce in 1932. She wrote: Nora very sick all summer, died September 15, 1932. This had to be very hard on both of my grandparents. Nora was Norm’s only surviving sibling and they were close. The saddest entry is from 1934: “Very sick all winter. Mother came home from New York February 22. I went right to bed for two weeks. Then went to the hospital. Our baby was born March 6.” Her sweet son William was born and died on the same day.
She talks about my dad a lot – his various illnesses and how he missed quite a bit of school in his first year. Maime proudly records various professional achievements of my Grandfather’s. It is in these little details where I feel connected. This tiny book has given me a vivid glimpse into her life, details that I would never have known without her words. Its pages span the majority of her adult life. It records her life as a young mother, a widow, and a grandmother. It is concise and factual. It lovely to watch through the years as my mother’s parents and siblings begin to show up in her Christmas card lists.
This small book isn’t valuable, it isn’t beautiful, it probably never travelled outside of Batavia, NY. It pages though are incredible, they hold a family history of 34 years a few lines at a time. In the Christmas card lists you can follow couples having children and of those children growing up and starting families of their own. Wedding dates carefully recorded in the back section by year, addresses changing through the years. The book chronicles couples year after year until one year only one name is written.
I love my technology but there is something to be said for handwritten history. Imagining my Grandmother sitting at her desk – a desk that I still use just makes me happy. Some of the entries are written in pencil and are very faded, some are written in pen and are a little easier to read. For me it is a wonderful piece of history and is something I am truly grateful for.