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How Family Stories Fill in the Gaps: A Case Study - Treasure Chest of Memories

During a single afternoon visit with an eighty-three-year old cousin back in 1996, my mother confirmed family traditions that put my grandmother’s life—and her stories—in context.  Usually, when family stories fill in the gaps by research, we’re pleasantly surprised.  I have mixed feeling; my grandma’s cousin’s information shone a dim light on my great-grandfather’s parenting.

Family Stories Fill in the Gaps of Research

If you look at the available records of my great-grandfather, Joseph Arthur Savoy, you wouldn’t find what I see as the most telling story of his life, his relationship with his eldest daughter.

Family history auto-generated “narrative” reports would describe his life along these lines:

Born in 1873 either in Quebec Canada or New Bedford, Cn. (What, or more precisely, where the clerk thought Cn represented is still open to debate.) At age 28, in 1901, he married Mary Susan Clark. In 1903, he married Mariah Sinclair. He worked as a cabinet-maker in Richmond Virginia, from 1910 forward.

Needless to say, when a “life-story” is left without context, it’s not only dry; it’s misleading.

Missing Poignancies:

The death of his first wife on 20 April 1902 occurred three days after the birth of his first child, my grandmother.

Hazel Savoy

My Grandmother, Hazel Mary Savoy

On the 1910 Census, his 8-year-and 3-days-old daughter Hazel was not listed in his Richmond, Virginia household.[1]  A good researcher could easily find that she resided with her grandparents in Lunenburg County.[2]

They might cock their heads a little and say Hmmm, but they would have a hard time ferreting out the reasons for her separation without the benefit of family stories. Hazel’s three-year old half-brother, Henry, appears on the record. Joseph was working as a cabinet maker in the furniture industry and had the means to take in both is brother William and his sister-in-law Grace.

Grandma’s children remembered Grandma saying she moved to Lunenburg County, Virginia, when she was about twelve, which would have been about 1914. Yet census records appear to indicate that the move took place much earlier.

Luckily, grandma’s cousin, Mary Hubbard was able to clear up the mystery. In 1996, mom wrote notes about their visit. (Sadly, not verbatim)

Mama [Hazel] lived with her Grandparents Van field Clark and Ann Overton Clark until her grandfather died. At that time, she was nine years old and her grandmother gave up the Old Home Place and went to live with her son, Jasper Clark. At this time, the year 1911 … there was not room in Great Uncle Jasper’s home, as he had a very large family. Mama [Hazel] returned to Richmond to live with her father and step mother. When she returned to Lunenburg County for a visit, the plan was for her to return to her father’s home. They simply did not come back for her … She then went to live with various relatives.  First, Bessie Gee, a cousin. Later, Aunt Jane Royall, her grandmother’s sister. Some time was spent with cousin Nevel Gee, Aunt Ellen’s father in law, and Bernard Gee’s family; I am unable to put that in a complete time sequence.

This not only explains why she wasn’t living with her father in 1910. I now understand why we have a photo from 1912 of my grandmother with her half-brother. Hazel and half brother Henry SavoyMost of all, it explains her intimate knowledge of the many, many family members she wrote about.(See The “First Treasure Chest of Memories”)

Family Stories Fill in the Gaps

Assuming you have them. Which we don’t always.

I’m still waiting for the account of why my great-grandfather left his daughter to be raised by his in-laws for the nine-years of her life. I know he tried to reach out to his granddaughters when they were young adults, but I don’t know what explanations he offered for his treatment of this mother.

However, I’m grateful for that one afternoon when my mom chatted with “Cousin Mary.” I’m doubly grateful she wrote down her notes.

It tells me that may own story—my blood line—includes an imperfect man (okay, a complete SOB) who would abandon his daughter. It also demonstrates that the discord in my family’s song was drowned out by the harmonies of love from grandma’s dirt-poor relatives who took her in and loved her whole. I know they did because I knew my grandmother.  The melody of her life, her home, and her children was laughter.

Your Turn

When have family stories filled in the gaps of your research?

When have family stories sent you on a research mission? I’d love to hear it!

©2017 Laura Hedgecock

[1] 1910 United States Federal Census, enumerated 20 April 1910; Census Place: Richmond Clay Ward, Richmond (Independent City), Virginia; Roll: T624_1644; Page: 9B; Enumeration District: 0069; FHL microfilm: 1375657
[2] 1910 United States Federal Census,  Year: 1910; Census Place: Pleasant Grove, Lunenburg, Virginia; Roll: T624_1634; Page: 8A; Enumeration District: 0046; FHL microfilm: 1375647.

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