Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Visit With Relatives Back Through Time, by Susan Kinsella

I had the most wonderful visit last week with my great-great-great-grand-aunt, Hannah Davis! She died more than 150 years ago but that didn’t prevent me from catching up on the family news and having a good cry with her, as well.
You see, Hannah wrote a letter to her sister Phebe Taylor in 1830 and it was saved by family members down through the years. Phebe was my great-grandfather’s grandmother. My own grandmother, Ethel Taylor, saved this and other letters from being thrown out when my Grandpa (Lloyd) Taylor’s family was closing up his father’s home.  Eventually these letters reached my mother, Aunt CB, who continues taking the archiving responsibility seriously.

The thing is, although my mother had noted that the letter was to Gideon (and Phebe) Taylor (BW Taylor’s grandparents; BW was Lloyd, Floyd and Florence Taylor’s father), and she had carefully preserved it in acid-free protective materials, she had never had time to read its difficult writing in full. When I visited my parents for my Dad’s birthday (October 15, 2013, in case you still want to send birthday wishes!), I suggested that my mother pull out one of the archived letters so I could transcribe it.
I thought I’d be able to do 2 or 3 letters while in Rochester for this visit but, oh my, they require a lot of work! The writing is faded and often tiny, with some different writing conventions from what we see today. Spellings and punctuation are often erratic, the paper is brown and blotched from “foxing” (“age spots” often found on vintage papers), and there are ink blotches, tears and holes in the paper, as well. Mom, Pat, Tom, Jim and Julie have all done the tediously heroic work of reading and transcribing family journals and letters, for the benefit of all of us. This was the first time that I had tackled one so old. But what a treasure!
First I noted the characteristics of the letter. It was on a sheet of paper 16x12.5 inches, which is similar to a traditional paper size that was developed by the Arabs who standardized papermaking more than 1,000 years ago. It is about the size of two sheets of copy paper laid side by side. The paper had been folded in half so that it looked like two pages of a big book.
On one side is a long letter written by Hannah to Phebe, in two columns, one on each page of the folded paper. On the other side, half the paper holds two additional short letters, one from Daniel Walbridge, Hannah and Phebe’s brother, and the other from his wife, Roxana. The remaining half of the paper on this side was used to create the “envelope” for the letter – basically, the letter was folded so that all the writing was on the inside and just an envelope-sized outside blank area showed, which was then addressed to the recipient. In this case, the letter is addressed to “All” (perhaps general delivery?) in “Batavia, Gennesee Co.” in New York State, and mailed from Wolcott, Vermont on December 21, 1830. The postmaster has written “25” into the top right corner, indicating he was paid 25 cents, a pretty hefty stamp rate for those days (about $4.50 in today’s dollars) but typical for letters that would travel over 400 miles.
Hannah’s letter is the primary one, dated December 13, 1830, “Tuesday evening.” Her handwriting is beautiful, so elegant and regular, with well-balanced horizontal lines. She was 25 or 26 at the time, writing to her sister Phebe, who was 11 years older. Hannah and Phebe were sisters in the Walbridge family, which lived in the Wolcott, VT area, a town the Taylors had founded years before with a dramatic snowshoe trip in to homestead what was then wilderness. Phebe had married Gideon Morehouse Taylor (referred to as “Morehouse” in Hannah’s letter) and they had moved to the Batavia/Oakfield area in western New York.
Hannah starts out assuring Phebe that “we are all well and hope these lines will find you enjoying the same blessing.” But then she plunges right into telling Phebe that “sickness and death is in our land and has come very near to us. It has entered our house and taken our dear little infant from us.” As a mother myself, immediately upon reading that, my eyes filled with tears for Hannah.
Hannah tries to be positive, as it seems she felt her religious upbringing expected. But it is clear that she is grieving her baby, her first child, and she returns to referencing him throughout the letter’s other news. She must have received a letter from Phebe earlier in the year because she exclaims, “Dear sister, O how I rejoice to hear that you had the privilege of writing with your babe in your arms but it has pleased the Lord to take mine to himself. How can I tell you the painful feeling my heart bore when I saw the flower begin to fade. You are a mother, you can realize how strong by nature we are tied to our children . . . .”
She continues with asking for Phebe’s “prayers that I may not complain with the dealings of God” and asks about her sister’s religious news. But she cannot hide how heartbroken she is. Her baby had died only a few days before, living just “eight weeks and two days when he left this world.” He had lain in distress and pain for two days and had several convulsions. Then, she says, “Saturday, between four and five, he with a smile gave up his breath. I had named him for father [Oliver].” How anguishing!
Hannah then goes on to fill Phebe in on family news. “I visited at father’s last Friday. They were all well. Father was making a sled. Mother was sewing. Cynthia and Elvira [Hannah and Phebe’s sisters] were piecing up bedquilts. Betsey [another sister] has a daughter about four months old.” She reports on friends who have married, including those for whom “I had the pleasure to see the knot tied. They were married at an evening lecture.” (No doubt this was a religious meeting.)
Then Hannah worries that she “shall weary you before you read one half [of the letter], but if I could see you I could talk faster than I write.” Isn’t that always the truth! She says she’s looking forward to seeing Phebe next fall and assures her that, “I have long neglected writing but you must not think you are forgotten.” She signs it, “I remain your affectionate sister Hannah Davis.”
The next day, Daniel Walbridge, their brother, two years younger than Phebe and 9 years older than Hannah, adds a shorter letter on the other side of the paper. He, too, assures Phebe that “we are all well” and describes a sweet domestic scene. “I have been to work with a yoke of steers today. Now I am setting in our new house by the fire in the kitchen. . . . We moved in it in the fall. It is all done but the plastering.”
Daniel goes on to say, “Roxana (his wife) is sewing by the fire and Martha and the rest of the children are in bed after a long time . . . . Near my house the snow is not more than three or four inches deep.” Then comes the bad news: there was a disaster at the grist mill that mustered all the local men to help the mill owner keep up with his farm work, and last fall, Aunt Polly died, “gone the way of all the earth.”
After Daniel’s note, his wife, Roxana, adds a short message, saying that, “Hannah and Daniel have left me a little room and I will try to fill it up with something they have not written.” She tells of visiting her family and friends in Peacham, VT in July. However, “although I had the privilege of seeing them, yet my own Father has not the pleasure of seeing me nor never will he again behold his children or any of the surrounding beauties of nature since the Lord has seen fit to take from him his only remaining eye.” Apparently he already had one blind eye and then had gotten hit in the face with the branches from some bushes, which caused an infection in the other eye, which left him completely blind.
Each of the women – Hannah, Phebe and Roxana – had had a baby that year. Hannah’s did not survive, although she later had two more children, one who again was named Oliver and this time lived, and another son, named Pardon. They could not have known, though, that Daniel would die five years later, at 39, and Hannah’s husband, Michael Davis, would die three years after that, only 38 himself. Hannah is listed in the 1840 census; Pat says women were listed only if they were heads of household because their husbands had died. Hannah is not included in the 1850 census and her sons born after this letter are listed then as living with an uncle’s family, so it appears that she died before 1850. She would have been no more than mid-40s, in that case.
But I sit here, reading her letter again, 183 years after she wrote it. Presumably, she has no idea of me. But I feel as though I have been sitting before the fire in the stone hearth in her kitchen, drinking tea with her and catching up with all the family news. And I am so grateful that Aunt Hannah wrote to her sister about her life, and that her sister and the family members after her saved this letter, so that I – her great-great-great-grand-niece – could cry with her about her baby, hear the news about her family, and feel as though her life touched mine nearly two centuries later.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Uncle Harold and Algonquin Tales

Tim writes in an email today:

“Rosemary and I stopped in to see Uncle Harold last weekend.  He was in great spirits and seemed to enjoy telling stories about the old days.  He definitely has not lost any mental capacity or memory. We only stayed for about twenty minutes but we got a lot of good stories, and laughs, out of him.  He still remembers many of his old funny sayings and then snickers quietly under his breath after he says them.  In many ways he is still the old Uncle Harold.”

So, as I pondered Uncle Harold stories and how he always greets me as ‘Patrick’, I thought I would pull up one of the oldies but goodies about him. This story was written by Uncle Jack five years ago for the cousins blog:

An Algonquin Tale

Uncle Harold

 We made an annual visit to Algonquin Park for a couple of decades. During those years, we had some good times, we had some bad times. Let me tell you about one of the bad times, at least from Uncle Harold’s point of view.

One constant of our trips was our “Paddle Pain Reliever” which accompanied us on every voyage. This was our code word for the booze each of us packed which was unpacked and drunk after every long canoe journey.  Each of us had our favorite variety of Paddle Pain Reliever. Mine was Jamison’s Irish Whiskey, Dick Lochner’s was Southern Comfort, and Harold Taylor’s was Rum. All of us knew this was Harold’s favorite so on our trip to the park in 1983, Jim Kinsella decided he would play a trick on his Uncle. He took Aunt Barb into his confidence and this is what they did. We could not take glass bottles into the park so we had to pour our booze into a plastic bottle instead. So as Uncle Harold was getting prepared for the big trip, Aunt Barb volunteered to help and she poured tea into the plastic bottle instead of Harold’s favorite rum. To make it a bit more realistic, Jim added a shot of rum to the mixture.  

Uncle Jack Kinsella, Uncle Dick Lochner, Uncle Harold Taylor, Tim Kinsella, Uncle Ken Smith (Back Row)
Chris Kinsella, Sue Kinsella, Jim Kinsella ( Front Row)

Off we went and I must admit the canoe trip from the jump off point to the St. Andrew’s campsite was a very difficult one—lots of low water which meant dragging the canoes, lots of beaver dams which meant lifting the canoes over the damn things, and in one case a moose ran in front of Harold’s canoe and almost stepped in the middle of it.  Needless to say, when we finally arrived at our campsite, we were very tired and very thankful to be there. After setting up our tents, the number one thought on everyone’s mind was, “I need a good big shot of Paddle Pain Reliever.”

So we all retrieved our favorite plastic bottle, filled our cups with some ice cubes and poured ourselves a generous quantity of liquid.  As Harold took a humongous sip of his “rum” all eyes were on him to see what his reaction would be. He got a happy look on his face and announced, “Man, that’s good!” We all looked at each other and had the same horrible thought, “Did Aunt Barb double cross us? Did she really put rum in the bottle instead of tea as she had told us?” 

Paddle Pain Reliever

On his next drink, Harold said, “This is good but I’m not getting the buzz I usually do.” At this point, Jim felt sorry for his uncle, brought out the real bottle of rum and told him the whole story. Harold sat there and let it sink in and said, “Not to worry,” and then proceeded to have a few samples of the “real” stuff. We didn’t keep track of how many “samples” we each had but Harold had enough that he again recounted the story of Adin’s pigs that left the Solid Shaft in the haystack. Later on, he announced, “OK, you Yahoos got me that time, but beware, that’s not the end of it!”

Later, while Jim, Tim and Chris were out canoeing, Harold sneaked over to their tent and put large sticks under the floor of the tent where they would be sleeping. As it turned out, these were discovered shortly after they turned in and were quickly removed. All agreed their motto against Harold was, “We don’t get mad, we get even.”

At most Algonquin campsites, the John was a covered structure. At this one, it was just an open one—you just sat on a board with a hole in it, open to the world!. Not really a problem because it was in an area with lots of trees and brush so it wasn’t like going to the John in the middle of the four corners of Waterloo.  The boys decided this was the place where they would get even.

In order to allow time to set up the trick, I suggested we walk over to a nearby waterfall where we could slide down on boat cushions. Everyone thought that was a great idea so off we went, except for Tim and Jim who were finishing up washing dishes. In reality they remained behind so they could set up a trick for Harold which consisted of a bucket of water suspended from a long rope directly over the toilet.

Harold Shoots the Chute

After everyone returned from an entertaining time at the falls, all of us knowing about the bucket of water, couldn’t wait for the next day when we expected Harold to perform his morning constitution. The odd thing was, he didn’t do it early in the morning as was his custom. In fact the spirit didn’t move him that entire morning. We began to suspect that he had seen the rope holding the bucket (which was quite easy to spot). But no, as it turned out, Harold ( as we later found out) was suffering from a touch of constipation.

Finally, that afternoon he announced the time had arrived and he had to pay a visit to the John. We all watched as he walked past the rope holding the bucket and never glanced at it. Tim waited until he felt the moment was right, crept to the rope and gave it a great yank as he loudly shouted “We don’t get mad, we get even!!”

The plan was to have just water pour down on Harold’s head but the knot wasn’t tied too securely so not only did the water fall down but the bucket did also. It couldn’t have been better planned. The entire amount of water fell directly on Harold’s head and the bucket landed next to him with a loud bang.

If he had had a problem going, the water and bang did the job for him. After he realized what had happened, he gave out a loud laugh and said, “Well, I got soaked, but the good part of it was the roll of toilet paper next to me didn’t get a drop of water on it.”  He then announced, “Remember boys, I will get even— if I live long enough!”
Tim Kinsella—I Don’t Get Mad!

When this story first appeared five years ago, Tim commented after the story was posted:

“By the way, there was another version of the famous saying "I don't get mad, I get even" that was heard during this trip. After Harold tried various tricks to get back at us boys, all to no avail, we told him his version of the saying must be: "I don't get even, I get mad" - that of course made him laugh harder and try harder but he never matched our coup with the water bucket.”

And, Uncle Harold commented:

“OK, after reading the tales about that famous canoe trip I have to agree they were mostly true. But it gave short shrift to the story of the moose that almost stepped into our canoe. Ken Smith and I were in the lead canoe, Ken in the front, me in the rear. We were going up a very windy river that wound its way across a large marshy area. Suddenly I spied a large moose who I could see had every intention of crossing the river in front of us. Ken apparently didn't see it. I thought it would be great to be near the moose when he crossed in front of us so I started paddling as fast as I could. Finally, Ken saw the moose and he calculated the path he was on would take him across the center of our canoe so he started paddling backwards as fast as he could. The net result was we were both paddling as fast as we could and the canoe was standing still. Anyways, the moose crossed just in front of us and continued on to the other side of the marsh.


Uncle Harold--Thinking of you,