November 2. All Soul’s Day. Another church adapted holiday with roots that stretch back to an ancient pagan festival. The Festival of the Dead celebrated the day loved ones were believed to return to eat a meal with their families. An extra place was set at the table and people placed a candle in the window to guide those soul home. Children would go door to door asking for food to feed the dead souls. What they collected was distributed to the poor.
I like this pagan version of All Soul’s Day. Who wouldn’t want to share a meal with an ancestor or two? So many who came before have been forgotten. It only takes one or two, or if we are lucky, three generations for us to lose our family histories. Once those stories are gone, it is difficult to impossible to get them back again. Tracing my family tree (and the family trees of many others) has shown me how fleeting is our time here on earth.
My family tree is filled with lost souls. Names, birth dates, marriage dates, death dates. So many people who lived long lives filled with love and happiness, pain and sorrow now amount to no more than a few dates written on a sheet of paper. Some of their faces stare out from old photos. Dozens of photos packed in a box are pictures with no names. I’m grateful to have those names and numbers. I’m grateful for the photographs even though I don’t know whose faces they are. But their lost lives also make me sad. And so, I dig.
I dig for connections and stories. I read through old town histories looking for any sliver of information about someone I may be connected to and to get a feeling for the time and places in which these people lived. I talk to far flung 2nd and 3rd and even 4th and 5th cousins for any family stories or photos they may have that are new to me. Sometimes I get lucky. Scraps of information struggle to become stories as I use time and place and a bit of common sense logic to fill in the blanks and get to know someone a little better.
Lost souls like my great great great grandmother Hannah Barr. Hannah’s family were Pennsylvania Dutch having sailed to America from Switzerland and Germany. Hannah seems to have been passionate about politics. She and her husband, Jesse Morris, lived in a town on the West Virginia/Pennsylvania border that sheltered runaway slaves. Whether the couple were among those who helped, I don’t know. But they must have been deep sympathizers. Hannah named at least two of her sons after local leaders on the Underground Railroad. A third son was named for one of West Virginia’s early Democratic representatives.
Then there is Hannah’s mother-in-law, Margaret Moore. Margaret’s father was a doctor and this led Margaret to become a mid-wife. But how she had the time to deliver other women’s babies I can’t imagine. Margaret herself gave birth to 21 children! She is buried in Reader, WV. I’m told her tombstone is gone now but old-timers in the area have confirmed that the inscription on it read “Some mothers have children, some mothers have none, here lies the mother of 21.”
There was g-g-g-g-g-g-grandmother Rebecca Flowers who lost her young husband James Morris when he was barely 21. Left with an infant son to raise on her own, Rebecca remarried to John Lincoln and years later became known as the great grandmother of our 16th president.
The infant, Jonathan Morris, grew to have children of his own. Jonathan’s son Isaac was a trader on the Ohio River. Returning from a trip to New Orleans Isaac was attacked and robbed. His throat was cut and he was left for dead. Isaac survived and recovered, though it is said that his speech was forever impaired.
William Wyckoff was a postmaster. Elisha Rose was a maker of wooden bowls. Emanuel and Rachel Amos suffered the loss of at least 5 children over a 10-year period. The Workmans were among the earliest pioneers in Ohio when Indian attacks were a constant fear. So many names attached only to tiny scraps of stories. So many more names attached to nothing but dates. And for many, only a blank line where a name should be.
Label your photographs. You know who is in the pictures. But your great grandchildren won’t.
Write your history. Hide it away if you feel the need so that it can’t be found until after you are gone. But put your words on paper. You grandchildren and especially your great great great great grandchildren will love you for it.
Happy All Souls Day.