20 October 2006

Meeting Ellen

There's a lot of paternalism about genealogy. The surnames that motivate most family historians are paternal--understandably so, since those names stay the same (well, nearly, given the vicissitudes of spelling and immigration). Male decisions seem to have motivated most of the migratory shifts that make my genealogy what it is-the choices that brought French, Irish, German, English, Welsh, etc. etc. all together to ultimately produce me and Peter. When you input "occupation" for an ancestor, you're adding in an array of arcane pursuits: carpenter, farmer, miner, cigar roller, paper maker, railroad station agent--but usually the women's are pretty basic: "keeping house" was the nineteenth-century census shorthand for being a mother and a wife. I always picture those beleaguered 1800s women clutching a broom as the census taker enters the house. Yup, there she is, keeping house...just like all the other women on this block. Then the census taker scribbles it in the occupation box with a knowing sigh. I then force myself to comprehend what those women's occupations meant: tending home and hearth for a dozen or more children, preparing meals over an actual fire, sewing clothing, darning, washing everything in sight, tending to injuries, worrying, probably pregnant again, dispensing love in a harsh world.

If you've read this blog for awhile, you already know that I'm a major grandmother fan. So when I started out mining data for family history purposes, my motivation was actually much more maternal than it was paternal. Both my grampy and my dad had lost their mothers suddenly and tragically, and they talked about them in vivid ways. Who were these women? Where did they come from?

It's been six years now since I set my mind, my heart, and my computer to the task of gathering my family--and Pete's--into a full-blown databased entity. Six years of meet-ups with excited cousins...weepy moments in musty record rooms when the piece of data confirms a family legend...long, lonely nights of data entry, the sounds of my household swirling behind me as I type and type and type...triumphant print-outs that show my progress.

And last night, I met my mother's mother's mother's mother. Ellen Finn, of County Cork, Ireland.

Well, I knew about her before. But a key piece of photographic evidence seems to indicate that now, I have seen her at three stages of her life:

The image on the right was just given to me by an elder cousin who stated that this was his grandmother, Ellen Finn. And the other two images had previously been given to me by cousins who shrugged and said, "I don't know who this is. Maybe you can figure it out."

Before I met Ellen photographically, I had assembled her life story from family lore and stark data. She was one of three (if not four) siblings in her family to emigrate from a famine-stricken location to, of all places, northern Maine. She made this journey by way of the Baie des Chaleurs, which curves around the northern portion of New Brunswick, Canada. Ellen arrived in Maine circa 1851, around age 17. Within the year she had married my great-great-grandfather, William Emmett Brown, also a recent Irish immigrant. They established a household that overlooked a shimmering lake encircled by pines and birches and maples...not a Vacationland lake, mind you, but a lake teeming with fish to feed a family. Then, Ellen's husband set about defining the town government structure of what became Eagle Lake, Maine. He was also a healer (both faith- and medicine-based), and took frequent journeys with a horse and a buggy full of remedies to southern Maine and Massachusetts, where presumably people paid him to feel better from rheumatism, pleurisy, dropsy, hysteria, and other ailments of the era.

Ellen, true to census form, kept house while William roamed. She bore him at least 10 children. I believe that she wielded a broom fiercely, and probably took a few swipes at that dreamer husband of hers when he got a wild idea about traveling south again. 

Eventually, William opened Eagle Lake's first pharmacy, which apparently brought some level of prosperity because Ellen got a servant. In fact, some of my living cousins are the children of the young maid named Delia who took care of the Brown household. Delia was about 14 when she started that job; she was 15 when one of Ellen and William's sons took her for his bride. (For a glimpse of turn-of-the-century mores, please note that he was 25. And that in their wedding picture, he looks dashing and daring, and she looks blue-eyed-pretty and a little stunned.) 

Delia always told her children that Ellen was fiery. That she had a thick Irish brogue, which even applied to French phrases like Baie des Chaleurs (which Ellen referred to as theBay dee Chaloor.) Probably Ellen's stiff demeanor came from a lifetime of sacrifices. She left County Cork and never saw her parents or her homeland again. She adapted to a place that was freezing cold for much of the year, where 98% of the people were native French speakers, and where her husband was out-and-about in pursuit of business, politics, and, bizarrely, the instinct to heal. She lost a number of children in her lifetime, including her youngest son, who was forced to flee west when a local girl accused him of getting her pregnant. The son, Edmund, swore it was not his child. Ellen and her children rallied behind him and shipped him off to Minnesota, where Ellen's brother Thomas resided. Ellen must have lamented his departure terribly...for just one year prior, her husband had died.

Here's something else I have learned about Ellen: she had a soft side. Maybe she didn't want us to know that--I mean, look at the way she glares out of those photos that bring her to us. But what betrayed her was her beautiful singing voice. Numerous grandchildren remembered being held in Ellen's arms in a rocking chair, while she sang to them in Gaelic. Some reported that Ellen had aspired to be a professional singer, before the boat came and hauled her away to northern Maine for the rest of her days. I feel certain that her lilting voice is what endeared her to William Emmett Brown, the dreamer who needed a practical partner.

Perhaps the baby in her arms, above, was one of the grandchildren whose night fears she soothed with a clear and lovely voice. Keeping house, indeed, for all of us who descend from her.

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