Treasure Chest Thursday: Garden Keepsakes

This link about hand-me-down plants got me to thinking about garden treasures. Like an heirloom rose, the article is a little loose and rambling, but thoroughly charming.

Although I don’t have any heirloom plants myself, I love the idea of a garden with living ties to our ancestors. When I lived in Evanston, Ill., I saw the woman across the street digging around one fine morning. Responding to my nosy inquiry, she proudly explained she’d traveled to her parents’ house an hour away to obtain a slip of a rosebush originally planted by her grandmother. Her parents were preparing to retire south and the family didn’t want to lose this bit of plant heritage.

Here in our New Jersey garden, we inherited some elegantly shaped flowerbeds that were probably dug more than fifty years ago, based on what we were told by a woman who had lived in the house as a little girl. Sadly, we haven’t done much with them. Our insurmountable problem is deep, deep shade which only the hostas truly love. Nearly all the direct sun is blocked by an enormous evergreen tree in the yard next door – one of those former Christmas trees planted by some well-meaning family decades ago.

I’m sure it, too, was charming once. It isn’t now. Our poor neighbor tried to get the township to consider cutting it down to use as the municipal Christmas tree, and it was rejected on the grounds of being ugly. It drops ugly pinecones, too (although my kids get paid by my wonderful neighbor for picking them up so we don’t all trip over them).

However, it does give us one gorgeous dividend. The ancient hydrangea that anchors one end of my garden LOVES the pine needles that wash over it with numbing regularity. Each summer we get spectacular deep, nearly violet blooms that by rights ought to be powder blue. (One of my other neighbors has a cutting of this very plant, and powder-blue blossoms are what she gets.)

So the unlovely heirloom pine tree is giving my lovely heirloom hydrangea a beauty boost. It’s a little drama I get to watch each summer in my own backyard, and I’m sure it’ll be part of my daughters’ family memories, too. Along with the @#$! pinecones.


Treasure Chest Thursday: Letter Full of Memories

The word is out that I’m a sucker for old stuff, so I’m a leading candidate for a call when people are cleaning out their filing cabinets. Not that I mind. Can anyone appreciate orphaned manila folders the way I do?

Several years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a manila folder labeled LYNCH SURNAME, containing some of my father-in-law’s genealogy notes. It isn’t a thick folder because my father-in-law wasn’t the genealogist of record in his  generation. That would be his cousin Eileen, whose career as a dedicated researcher and volunteer probably warrants its own book, never mind a separate blog post.

The treasure of the folder is a draft of a letter that I presume my father-in-law eventually sent in response to a query by  his genealogist cousin about their Beatty forebears. It contains some interesting notes on the family, along with a couple of priceless anecdotes.

• “I never knew my granddad Beatty except as ‘Dick’ Beatty. He was a singing teacher and used singing books w/numbers instead of the musical symbols as is used today. I have seen some of these books.” (This doesn’t sound exactly like shape note singing, which my father-in-law mentioned his grandfather teaching, and which does use note symbols  — but I sure wish I’d seen these books, too!)

• “I think I mentioned to you the occurrence where Jim Bob crawled up into a hollow tree and Bill having seen his father chop rabbits out of a tree, proceeded to start chopping about where Jim Bob’s head was. Their mother our grandmother missed the boys and went looking for them. She found them before Bill cut too deeply into the tree and almost surely would have killed Jim Bob.”

That last story sounds like it came straight out of a novel, which is not surprising. Stories like that don’t grow on trees. Even hollow ones.

Treasure Chest Thursday: Voices from the Past

A cassette tape isn’t the most elegant heirloom — not in the same league as an Art Deco brooch, for sure.

Still, among the most precious items in my family history treasure chest are two audio tapes. Made more than two decades apart with two different voices, they don’t have a lot in common. Except that each is an irreplaceable record of a voice from the past.

The first tape was probably made sometime in the 1970s and features singing by my father, who died in 1983. It’s a mix of Irish-tenor classics, including “Danny Boy.” Dad had a great voice, and I’m sure he had a blast performing for posterity. About ten years after my father died, it was given by a dental-school classmate of his to one of my cousins, who passed it on to us, and copies were made for all seven of my dad’s children.

For ten years after that, I never listened to it. I would start to play it, then stop. I can’t tell you why. After all, one of the saddest moments in grieving a loved one is the point at which you realize you no longer remember exactly how their voice sounded — it’s like losing them all over again. And here I was with my father’s voice on tape, not able to push the Play button. Maybe I was afraid that somehow his voice wouldn’t sound as wonderful as I remembered.

Anyway, on to the second tape. This one is of my father-in-law; it was made by my husband a few years before his father died, of a conversation they had together about my father-in-law’s boyhood. This tape became very important even before my father-in-law actually passed, because not long after it was made, he suffered a stroke that affected his speech — not 100 percent, but enough so that detailed conversations were difficult. I recently rediscovered the tape when I found it in a box of odds and ends  my kids had tossed together and decided to claim for their own. It is now rescued and marked: Do Not Touch On Pain of Death.

You may be wondering whether I ever did listen to Tape No. 1. The answer is yes — after my father-in-law died, and my mother-in-law asked me if I would sing “Danny Boy” at his memorial service.

Of course I thought about the tape. I also thought about how my dad owned “Danny Boy” in our family, and what he’d think about me singing it — he was particular about getting it right. And I thought that probably now was the time to listen to the tape, to get a couple of pointers from the master so I could do my best for my mother-in-law.

So yes, I finally listened to the tape. And my dad sounded just as good as I remembered. He still owns “Danny Boy.” Although I must say, my version isn’t too shabby, either.

Treasure Chest Thursday: Ancestral Decoupage

Postcard + log = decoupage, a classic 1970s craft.

This treasure sits at the crossroads of 1970s kitsch and family history. I have had it since the age of 14, when my parents and I acquired it on a visit to Oberailsfeld, the chief village of the district in which my German grandparents grew up. They were christened at St. Burkhard’s, the church whose tower dominates the villagescape.

One of my great-aunts gave the plaque to my mother, who said I could have it as a memento of the trip. And I have had it ever since.

My plaque has survived my many interstate moves, just barely. It was actually intact right up to my last move, the first time I switched states with a tiny child in tow. It kills me that I left it to the mercy of the movers — I knew better, believe me — but somehow my powers of concentration and organization weren’t what they used to be (imagine that!).  And indeed, the plaque had a rough time. It lost some birches and a piece of the sky. But the village is still intact:

Oberailsfeld, a little closer up. See the church?

Decoupage on random bits of lumber is a faded art, I’m afraid. Once upon a time, you couldn’t graduate high school without doing a decoupage project, either by choice or force. And craft shops overflowed with them.

I don’t see a lot of decoupage around these days, except at church jumble sales, so I assume it’s fallen out of fashion. But I still love my plaque, chips and all. It started out as a connection to an ancestral village, but now that my parents have both passed away, it’s also a connection to a long-ago time shared with them.

Treasure Chest Thursday: The Genealogy List

The technical term for the treasured sheets of paper might be “handwritten genealogy.” However, in my neck of the woods it is Aunt Catherine’s List, as in: “You’re working on the family tree? You really ought to get hold of Aunt Catherine’s list.”

A sliver of The List.

Aunt Catherine was my father’s oldest sister, and keeper of the family flame. The List is just that, a list of everyone she remembered in our family, starting with my Haigney great-great grandparents and my Kelleher great-grandparents and continuing down the line. Every time a cousin was born, they were added to The List.

I remain forever regretful that my interest in genealogy didn’t take off until after Aunt Catherine passed away, and that I never got the chance to talk with her in any depth about family history. But The List survives!

The List is a combination of first-hand account and family tradition. My aunt was born in 1914, three years after great-great grandfather Haigney died. But many of the relatives on the sheet, including my paternal great-grandparents, were alive well into her adult years, and of course the running tally of cousins is completely hers.

So far, the information on The List has held up to scrutiny pretty well. Through it, I learned about two siblings of Grandfather Haigney who died young. The death certificate for one of these children has helped me pinpoint where my grandfather and his parents must have been living in 1900, a past source of research frustration. The List also names two children of Great-great-grandfather Haigney who died in infancy, an assertion that likely explains the large age gap between his first and second surviving sons.

Treasure though it is, The List is not the final word. As Elizabeth Shown Mills has observed: “We must mentally appraise the credibility of each detail in each document on a fact-by-fact, circumstance-by-circumstance basis.”  With that as a guideline, The List should provide me with hours of interesting appraisals for some time to come.

Treasure Chest Thursday: The Soldiers’ Home

For Treasure Chest Thursday, a postcard from my files of the New York State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home, circa 1885:

Soldiers' and Sailors' Home

The Bath, N.Y. Soldiers' and Sailors' Home.

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Homes, set up to provide for the flow of aging and infirm Civil War veterans, were forerunners of today’s Veterans Administration. My great-great grandfather, Martin Haigney, lived in two of them, off and on, from about 1900 until he died in 1911. This is the one in Bath, N.Y., where he was a resident until shortly before his death.

I owe this particular treasure to Robert E. Yott, who has written From Soldiers’ Home to Medical Center, a history of the Bath facility. Mr. Yott’s book has a lot of details about the history of the home, a great help in visualizing what daily life might have been like for my great-great-grandpa and other veterans like him who lived there. has an index of records for these homes: U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938 (subscription required, or you can do a 14-day trial membership).