Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Mothers Unknown

In traditional genealogy, lines are followed through the father, just as, in history, inheritance passed from father to son, lands and goods passed down with the surname. Daughters became wives of other men, taking their names and letting go of the ones their fathers gifted them. I am lucky that there have been sons in every generation of my father’s line that go straight back into the time when what we call England was made up of small tribal villages. An unbroken lineage snaking through time.

Until now. Until me.

In researching the branches connecting to that paternal line, and cobbling together the line of my mother, I have come upon so many nameless women, so many unknown mothers whose birth names were forgotten in the wedding of herself to her husband. It saddens me. I long to know their names, their paths. I want to find the lands their people worked, travelled and crossed.

I am not a son of my father. If I were, I wonder if the names unknown would pull at me as tautly as they do. I would like to think they would. But in this lifetime I am a woman who does not wish to be forgotten, so I hold those who have been gently in my heart. I have no children of my own to pass my name onto. I will not have children of my own to pass my name unto. Since I cannot be creator, I will be excavator. Since I will not be mother, I will be rememberer. I will carry the history of the surname that is half of me.

I am a daughter seeking the names of my fathers and my mothers.

The other of me is my mother, who took my father’s name when they became a family. It’s a tradition with varying answers as to why and when it started. I could not find a clean or clear reason to offer. Women were seen as less than men, unable to care for themselves and necessary for procreation. A daughter left her family to become part of her husband’s lineage. For many women, it was a match of mutual respect and she was happy to head a household in unsettling times for women. If she was lucky, she found happiness and love in her marriage. Those who were not lucky were property of the husband, in times when women did not know they could expect more.

Thankfully, most of us don’t think that way anymore. But in looking up my genealogy I find a whole lot of “Mrs. Husband Mister” in the place of the name of the wife, the mother unknown. I have been grateful for uncovering church documents where members, marriages and baptisms or christenings provide names of mothers. I have been painstakingly inserting them into my files, my ever-growing branches of names. Each new name has been a small doorway allowing me to widen the generation of family members and trace other roads backwards into time, into the bloodline that lives within me.

I am my father and I am my mother.

It’s not just my feminist views that make me desire the names of the women responsible for my being here. It’s not just my irritation at centuries of male-centered authority that place the fathers in greater importance that frustrates me. Within me, within my spirit and the anima that draws breath, I am half my mother and half my father. At the moment of conception- at each tiny big bang- we are each half male-spirit and half female-spirit at creation, whatever gender later presents itself. Each line of my ancestors is as important as the other.

The blood in my veins that belongs to Samuel Walker is equal in measure to the blood of his unknown wife that will never be known in me. There are so very many tendrils of anonymity hanging off the men in my history. In all our histories.

I reach out to the names of the mothers unknown, who end in me.

The Tribe of Lost Surnames
Ellen born 1836, married Burke.
Malvina born 1829, married Tenney.
Susan born ~1800, married Hill.
Mary/Polly born ~1780, married Riddle.
Margaret born ~1690, married Hannah.
Mehitable born 1631, married Briscoe.
Agnes born 1622, married Holbrook.
Alice born 1620, married Eaton.
Anne born 1617, married Bird.
Mary born 1610, married Wolfe.
Deborah born 1599, married Moulton.
Mary born 1596, married Pond.
Elizabeth born 1595, married Dyer.
Christian born 1530, married Clapp.
Allyse born 1502, married Clapp.
Margery born 1240, married Eaton.
Matilda born 1210, married Eaton.
Alice born 1180, married de Eaton.

The Tribe of Unknown Mothers
Woman born ~1610, married Gillett.
Woman born ~1620, married Grove.
Woman born 1615, married Dutcher.
Woman born ~1600, married Canfield.
Woman born ~1581, married Bryan.
Woman born 1578, married Gylette.
Woman born ~1575, married Briscoe.
Woman born 1560, married Kempe.
Woman born 1550, married Pond.
Woman born ~1550, married Nichols.
Woman born 1520, married De Gylette.
Woman born 1520, married Goodere.
Woman born 1520, married Cooke.
Woman born ~1520, married Ford.
Woman born ~1480, married Fford.
Woman born 1465, married Moulton.
Woman born ~1455, married de Forde.
Woman born 1415, married Moulton.
Woman born ~1360, married Eaton.
Woman born ~1330, married Eaton.
Woman born ~1300, married Eaton.
Woman born ~1273, married Eaton.
Woman born ~1150, married Eaton.
Woman born ~1120, married Eaton.

I hold your spirit in me, the spirit that was held in body and took breath from air in the time that you lived. What is a name but a label we apply to ourselves? It speaks not to your temperament or beauty. It speaks no word, but life. The you in me and my blood and the air we breathe that I use to speak as we walk through the world.

I hold your spirit. I speak your life. I thank you for me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Body After Death

It has been over a month since the tragic 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan and the country is still struggling to ease the effects of the aftermath. As of yesterday, the death toll, according to Japan’s National Police Agency, stands at 14,001 dead with 13,660 people still unaccounted for. Both of those are staggering numbers, especially for a country where 99.9% of their dead are cremated.

Japan doesn’t have enough facilities or fuel to handle that number of remains and they don’t have enough dry ice to keep the bodies in cold storage until they can be attended to. It’s been heartbreaking to watch the pictures of people finding their loved ones dead among rubble that used to be home. And harder still to watch them temporarily bury bodies that will prolong the process of grief.

What is amazing to me is the adaptability of a people who, amidst the magnitude of their physical and personal loss, can be spiritually flexible. Their beliefs have softened and bent with the wind the same way the Japanese learned to adapt their architecture to better absorb the shock of earthquakes. The government has designated areas for mass burial, with bodies wrapped in cloth or covered in simple coffins, tagged and marked for exhumation and cremation at a later time. How will this affect their grieving?

The cremation ceremony they undertake is quite beautiful to me, separated from the normal trappings of expense that the death industry has become. Two hours after the cremation, the family returns and what is left of the body is laid out. The bodies are heated in a manner that allows bone fragments to remain. The family takes turns picking out the bones with chopsticks beginning with the feet bones and ending with the head bones, placing them in an urn. I imagine it’s a hard undertaking, but also see how it could allow a tangible closure in sending your loved one off, caring for what remains of them… and I wonder whether they will still be able to participate in that portion of the ritual. Or, with so many dead, if they will have to further compromise their ritual grieving.

How we treat our dead and the way we send them off is a relevant topic for many cultures. What we’re seeing in Japan is a microcosm of the question we will all face someday- what happens when the dead more room?  How will we accommodate and allow for necessity and spirituality to coexist?

Greece’s laws reflect that very concern. The Greek Orthodox religion believes that bodies must be buried whole and complete for resurrection to occur. There are few permanent plots that can be purchased, at large expense. Instead, they have rental plots with leases of a maximum 3 years. At the end of that time, a family member must be present to witness the exhumation, the opening of the coffin (holding decomposing corpses) and then the transfer of remains into a small container for storage in an ossuary. If no one is there to bear witness, or payments stop being made, the bodies are placed in a mass grave and disposed of with chemicals.

Cremation, considered a pagan custom to the church, was illegal until 2006, when necessity and a look to the future began to take precedence, but as of last year, the country has yet to see the building of a crematorium within its borders.

Other European countries like France and Italy also lease plots, for a period of 10-50 years, at which point a family might renew the lease or choose to have the remains interred in a charnal house. In Sweden, caskets are dug up and the pit deepened so a second, new casket may be laid on top of the older one. The United Kingdom is starting to attempt something similar with remains that are over 100 years old as a way to handle lack of space.

How long before we start to feel that pressure in America? Now might just be the perfect time to start thinking outside the box. So what choices and options do we have?

I am learning that not every state has the same laws governing the disposal of the dead.
When burying my Grandmother and Grandfather we had the expense of the casket as well as the air-tight concrete vault that the casket was buried in, to insure that the embalming chemicals wouldn’t leech into the earth. The thought of it made me claustrophobic, that I might turn to soup and fade into dust without sharing the nutrients of my flesh with the earth? Why don’t we just throw ourselves in the ground and decompose, feeding the earth with our flesh? What I found on the Greensprings Natural Cemetery site is that there is no state that requires embalming for burial. There are no states that require vaults either, but many cemeteries do. Better yet, according to the World Health Organization, burial is only necessary if the person died of a communicable disease. Technically, smell withstanding, there’s no reason to seal the dead from the elements.

Having recently watched a Tibetan sky burial on the Discovery Channel, I would choose that method. After all of the animals I have consumed in my lifetime, I would love to have my body fed to the vultures, picked clean at the highest peak, feeding another carnivorous species. Yes, please. That’s my kind of karma.

  • Green burials are making a strong movement and are available in some states, where the cemeteries look more like parks and nature preserves and your body slowly decomposes in the ground.
  • Donate your body to science, so that future doctors and scientists can learn skills and make advances.
  • There’s also, where you send in your cremated remains and they compress it like coal to form diamond-gems of your loved one and set them in jewelry.

The reality is that the idea of a permanent resting place for the dead is recent. As far back as the Middle Ages, bodies were dug up and moved into charnal houses to make room for more dead to be buried. Embalming, something that we think of as part of the death process in America, was invented during the Civil War to keep decomposition at bay so that bodies could be shipped home for burial. And it allows people time to plan services and wait for out-of-town family where the body is to be shown.

It’s important to know why we do the things we do and why we have the laws we have, so that we can make informed decisions for the changes we will need to make in our future. This also brings up an ethical question that archaeologists and religious officials struggle with: how long are burial sites sacred and are they made less sacred by their removal/transfer? Where does what you want for yourself and your loved ones sit with your spiritual beliefs?

Can we afford to give anything weighted permanence in a world that is constantly shifting and changing?

Links to explore:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Discovering the Apple Actually Fell From a Different Tree

It happens.

My father inherited genealogical information from his extended family and has been tracking down and verifying information all my life. In an interesting twist, we discovered this last holiday that we are not descended from Francis Eaton, like we had believed. That story had been passed down through the family, like many stories are until they are proven true or false. After Christmas I removed Francis and Sarah, cut and pasted them from my database into a separate folder, and turned towards discovering the new men and women who came before me.

What we learned is that our Eaton line came to this country through John Eaton of Kent, England who settled at Dedham, Massachusetts. My first thought was- cool! My second thought was, and I just published that piece about my Mayflower ancestors; the ones I’ve been actively honoring since my teenage years. I momentarily found myself in that unsettling place of having what I knew as the truth shift to hold more names and more mysteries. So Francis and Sarah were not my path back to England. When I asked myself, does that matter now? The short answer to that was no.

Bloodline or not, I find no awkwardness in having honored people who lived and took breath and walked the earth, for they walked it in tandem with genetic ancestors of mine. The timelines overlap in footsteps across the Massachusetts shore. Francis and Sarah are someone’s ancestors, with many descendents in fact, and I don’t discriminate in the spirit world. In my actions I have adopted their energy into my family. I have built a connection to Sarah Eaton of the Mayflower, mother of Samuel, who died that first winter. She is my gateway and doorway to all of the ancestors of my blood who travelled to the unknown land. And in the revelation of a new line, my known family grew and expanded, with names unfurling.

Thomas Eaton and Elizabeth Parker, Thomas Eaton and Lydia Gay, Nathaniel Gay and Lydia Starr, John Eaton and Alice (unknown), John Eaton and Abigail Gilson, Nicholas Eaton and Katherine Master, William Eaton and Jane Hussey, Sir Henry Eaton and Jane Cressett, Lewis/Louis Eaton and Anna Savage, Nicholas Eaton and Katerina Talbott, Georgis Eaton and Jane Brereton… Humphrey Eaton, Robert Eaton, John de Eaton, Peter de Eaton, Peter de Eaton and Margaret (unknown), William Eaton and Matilda (unknown), Peter de Eaton and Alice (unknown), back to Robert de Eaton, born about 1120 AD.

His parentage is unverifiable but the stories place him into myth, the Great-Great Grandson of the historical Banquo, who Macbeth slayed and Shakespeare made famous. Robert is allegedly the Great-Grandson of the youngest of Banquo’s issue, Fleance, who fled to Wales and married a princess there. In every family tree there are princes and kings and princesses and queens. I found mine in both Anna Savage and Katerina Talbott, whose lines trace back to Charlemagne, through that of their noblemen fathers.

These women were ancestresses of Nicholas Eaton of Dover, England, father of John Eaton, the only son of his to seek out the new world. He married a widow ten years his elder, with two children of her own. They moved to Watertown, Massachusetts together where he was pivotal in then helping found Dedham.

Powder House Rock, on a parcel of land John Eaton owned on Dedham Island.
His name first appears in a document about the new meeting house: “to be in length 36 Foote and 20 foote bredth & … in ye studs 12 foote. 18.11.1637. Thomas Wright, John Dwight, Nicholas Phillips and John Eaton have undertaken to fell Pynes and Oake for it.”
John helped build the first bridge over the Charles River and acquired a few plots of land during his time in Dedham: "Land in the Island Playne 23: "two pcels in the great plaine 19; by South Plaine, at foule Meadow; Right in an Island in the swamp."

These Eatons of Dover came by way of Eyton in Shropeshire, and of Eyton–on-the-Weald-Moors. And before that, of Wales. I have learned that my English blood is rich with Welsh ancestry. The further inward we journey through our blood, the farther backwards we go in time and the further down through the layers of rockbed we dig into history. The truth is, we walk on the earth every day, across sidewalks and roads laid out over what used to be dirt ways and horse paths, and before that was wild and undisturbed land.

Beneath your feet are the echoes of those who have walked this world before us.
Beneath your feet are the bones of my ancestors.
Beneath my soles are the bones of yours.

There is telling of still another connection to the Mayflower through the line of John Alden but until proven, it’s just another story for my notes, another possibility. I’m not looking for treasure. I have no end goal in this, no one I’m hoping to discover, just the joy of the uncovering what was buried and lost.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Genealogy Tips and Links

I touched a bit on genealogy in my post “Family Trees” from January 5, 2011. At the time, I had just started another undertaking of excavating more names from some foggy branches. Between my on-line research and my father’s hands-on interviews with relatives and document searches we have made progress. I have uncovered names in my mother’s family and my father discovered a large discrepancy on his side that changed the path of an entire line (see next week’s post for that story).

Before you start researching, you should write down everything you know about your family, including the stories and whispers that you have no proof for. You’d be surprised at the little detail that may be the clue that verifies whether or not you’re on the right track. One of the benefits of the computer age is the current availability of genealogical information online.

You can start by doing basic internet searches with names and birth dates to see if you get any hits on family trees that other people have uploaded onto the various sites offering free membership. I’ve found a couple of leads that route. You can also do an on-line search for the Historical Societies of the towns or counties you know relatives lived in and see what kind of documentation they have uploaded for public use.

The genealogical giant is a marvel- if you can afford the money to join. I would recommend waiting until you have a fairly good list of possible names and dates and then subscribe for a short-term membership to the site when you have a chunk of time to devote to plugging in data and doing census searches. But for those people just starting out, there are plenty of options available to aid you. The pages I have used the most are,, and a new one introduced to me by a friend which has proven invaluable and has almost as much verified data as Ancestry, I included the links at the end of this piece.

Happy Spelunking!
A good place to start is with the name of a great-grandparent, mainly because the latest 1930/1940 census reports won’t be released until sometime around now and will need to filter through transcribers. I was able to find census reports for my great-grandparents, including ones were they were listed as children, which gave me their parents’ names and vital information. One generation at a time, I followed the thread backwards.

We have discovered it is important to copy down any information that might be possible, even if something doesn’t quite match. These old records have been indexed by humans trying to translate the handwriting. I’ve seen a lot of it and some of it isn’t clear, resulting in some contradicting birth dates and misspelled names. When I was looking for the name Burke, I found census reports for the same family under “Berk” and “Burk.” What I learned in my search is that people often spelled words the way they heard them and/or thought they were meant to be spelled. I find it’s more useful to start with a loose search.

For example, when I was looking for Thomas Burke, father of Frank Burke, I plugged in Thomas’ name with an approximate date of birth for 20 years prior to Frank’s birth. I got over 5,000 hits. I edited the search, adding that Thomas had a son named Frank, which cut the search down to 3,000. According to a census report I found, Frank’s father was born in Ireland, so I refined the search again. It brought me to a Thomas and Ellen Burke, who lived in the town I was looking for, with sons named William and Frank. Bingo!

I copied all of that information down, and based on a census report, plugged in Thomas’ real birth date which brought the pertinent documents closer, and is where I found a census for a Frank and Mary Berk, with sons William and Frank Berk, in the same town. When I pulled up the original document, the census taker had in fact written “Berk”- it wasn’t a transcription error. But all the vital data matched, as did the address they were living at.

It can be daunting, when you are getting names thrown at you. For some people it’s easier to pick an ancestor and trace them down, as opposed to moving upstream into the wave of lines coming down at you. There are so many doors to the labyrinth of your ancestors. Do you follow the father or the mother? It’s easy the first time, but every level the number multiplies. Two sets of grandparents, four sets of great grandparents, eight sets of great-great grandparents. It’s almost a blessing that only a couple of my lines can be traced more than thirteen generations, and none of them fully.

Until you can verify your data, I would hold onto the file of “possibles.” You may find an error in the future that makes what you thought was probably true wrong… and the right path could lie in those notes and will save you a lot of backtracking.

I had been taking notes on our Zabriskie ancestor of New Jersey and all of his lines because we were missing the link to him, even though the family stories were sure he was our ancestor. Only, according to my findings, the son we were supposedly descended from did not have a daughter by the name of our ancestress. Which for me didn’t mean it wasn’t true. Even the most dedicated archivists sometimes miss something. We thought we were descended from the second son, but found our ancestress to be the daughter of the first. And through that revelation, discovered the truth behind a family folktale.

There was a story handed down of a polish princess running from revolution in Prussia who fell in love with a Frenchman in Hackensack, NJ. Research into the last King of Poland proved a relation to the last King of Poland to be impossible, but led me to an Albrecht Zabriskie of NJ who made claims of relation to Jan Sobieski, the elected King who was beheaded. When I found Albrecht’s granddaughter Fytje Zabriski, commonly called Sophie, and her husband Petrus Lozier, I was sure I had made the right find. He was called Petrus Lozier in the Slavic community, but was born Peter de Lozier, grandson of Nicholas La Sueur of Dieppe, France.

The story of the Polish princess and Frenchman, at its core, was true. My best piece of advice to you would be, don’t be afraid take an intuitive leap. You will, of course, want to check for verified information with documents you can get copies of, although you shouldn’t discount a source simply because the verification is suspect. Things get lost. Sometimes, with research and a little bit of luck, they can be found again.

Genealogy Links:
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