It’s only recently that I became acquainted with my great grandparents, Thomas and Maria Chapman. Ever since I have been putting together this summer of Nourishing Roots, I have been delving into genealogical sources so as to organize a travel itinerary. My cousin and her husband, Lauren and Randy Briggs, have done an amazing job of compiling our family history. I am very much in their debt for research on my father’s side of the family. Lauren helped me to trace my grandfather‘s lineage back to his parents. Her mother, Florence Chapman Littauer, is an awesome source of information as well. I was so glad to be able to attend her 90th birthday party this past April where I pried her for details of her father’s side of the family. His background has been a mystery to me. I’ve known that Exeter was the name of the town where my grandfather, Walter, lived before meeting and marrying my grandmother. Since he didn’t get married until his mid forties he lived a significant portion of his life in that town before they began their married life. Lauren told me that Exeter, New Hampshire was the place where they had lived after moving to the United States from Rochdale, England. It’s the place where Thomas, Maria and their baby, Maria, were buried. So this past weekend I made my last out-of-state trip to the East Coast. Having spent time in Chicago two weeks ago delving into my mother’s side of the family, this trip would be all about my father.
I’ve been struck quite often this summer with the proximity of locations related to any one part of the family. In other words, they lived out their lives in a relatively small geographical orbit. Of course, that is the case in many parts of the world still today. In our fast-paced society where some jobs require air travel on a regular basis we forget that many contemporary populations are born, live their days, die and are buried in the same town. I headed to New England with the names of three towns in mind: Haverhill, Merrimac and Exeter. Exeter, the northernmost of the three, is in New Hampshire while the other two towns are in Massachusetts. The distance between Haverhill and Exeter is just 19 miles, 26 miles if you stop at the mid-point of Merrimac. One marathon race covers the distance between my father’s kinfolk. These three towns hold the childhood memories of my father’s parents, Walter Chapman and Katie MacDougall, and the town where they raised their three children. While I have known the stories associated with my dad’s upbringing in Haverhill, this past weekend we stepped into the neighborhoods of my great grandparents.
Thomas and Maria, my great grandparents on my paternal grandfather’s side, were from Rochdale, England. I wrote about them in my blog post entitled Placing Walter. They were just one year apart in age. My grandfather, Walter, was their oldest child, born in 1878 in Rochdale. Their second child was a son named Arthur, born in 1882. They courageously traveled to America when the boys were young and settled in the area of Exeter. The next thing I know about them is that they had a daughter, named after her mother, in 1892 when their boys would have been 14 and 10 years old. Sadly the little girl died just a couple of months after she was born. Her mother, my great grandmother Maria, died not long after. I don’t know any more details about either of their deaths. Heartache is proposed as a cause of death for 36 year old Maria who lost her sweet daughter. This means that her husband, my great grandfather, was a widower and single parent to two young boys when he was just 37 years old.
Thomas was a harness maker. His work required him to travel to farmers who needed equipment for their work animals. With the death of his wife he lost the caretaker to his children. When I imagine the emotional impact the death of the two Marias had on their household, I think of the movie, Billy Elliot. It’s a beautiful film in which an English family comprised of a father and two sons is marked by the absence of the mother who has died. There is a grandmother who lives with them and she suffers from dementia. 12-year-old Billy is often left in charge of her, which is no easy task. In the movie the heartache of losing the mother is palpable. There are no hugs, no tender words of encouragement, no dinner table laughter with the mother gone. Life has changed for Billy’s family and there’s no going back. Similarly, when Thomas lost Maria, his job required him to continue traveling. He had to find a setting in which his boys would be safe and nurtured while he was on the road. He could no longer provide that for them in his home.
In the good old days, which are never as golden as we like to think, there were women who ran boarding houses. They rented out a bedroom and provided meals for their tenants. Typically these were suitable accommodations for single men who worked during the day and needed a place to call home at night. My 14-year-old grandfather, Walter, and his younger brother Arthur, age 10, were placed in the care of the owners at 6 High Street in Exeter. I find it heartbreaking to think of two young boys leaving for school each day without either parent to hug them or wish them well. No matter how kind the owner of the boarding house, in no way could she replace their mother. The memory of holding a sweet baby sister not so long before must have stayed fresh in their young minds. We pulled up to the boarding house which is still standing. We believe they had a back bedroom. The home sits on the edge of the Exeter River. Not a bad place for two boys to spend their after-school hours. That’s the extent of my knowledge about my grandfather’s boyhood. I suspect he enjoyed a loving home until his mother died and then much of the color to his life drained away. All I know of Thomas’ life is that he died on New Year’s Day, 1909 at the age of 54. The stated cause of death on his certificate is alcoholism. In looking at his life circumstances I can certainly understand how he might have turned to alcohol to ease the grief from losing his cherished family. But I’m deeply saddened to think that he sought solace from alcohol rather than family or the church where he had nurtured his faith in earlier years. It leaves many unanswered questions for me about the impact of his disease on his sons, Walter and Arthur. These are questions I will never have answered.
The next stop chronologically on my East Coast trip was to track my paternal grandmother’s family. They were from Merrimac, Massachusetts. My cousin and her husband led us to 15 Orchard St. where my great grandparents’ home proudly stands. It is now blue whereas in the era of James and Florence MacDougall, it was white. My calling card on this Nourishing Roots journey has been to shamelessly stand in front of strangers’ homes because of their treasured association to our ancestors. We take pictures, compare the house to old photos and have lengthy conversations. Two cars full of relatives did this at 15 Orchard St. in Merrimac. A shadowy figure stood in the living room window when we first arrived, no doubt jarred by the fact that a symphony of voices were talking animatedly in her front yard. My two sweet nieces, who look as harmless as one can imagine, waved at her and she waved back. But she never did emerge from the house in spite of our efforts to explain why we were there. The house sits on a lovely lot. I can imagine my grandmother, Katie, enjoying the woods and the flowers along with her seven siblings. When my father was a boy, he would go to this grandmothers’ house for holiday meals. There is a picture of my great grandmother, Florence, sitting by a sideboard in the elegant dining room. My grandmother often spent time with her extended family at her birth home. I have a photograph of her in the house turning toward the camera. She stands in front of a tall music cabinet that her father James, a cabinet maker, made. That’s a treasured connection to my MacDougall heritage that I have in my living room now. The neighborhood still holds architectural gems of homes from the late 1800s when my grandmother would have played along those streets. It was not difficult to imagine children calling out to each other and knocking on each other’s doors to play games and climb trees in lush green yards.
From there we stopped at the Merrimac Congregational Church. The front doors and pillars are grand. They still host worship services at 10 o’clock each Sunday. I’m always encouraged to learn that churches where my ancestors worshiped are still building up the Body of Christ today. More than 20 years ago we had a family reunion in Massachusetts and the membership at the Merrimac church allowed us to lead them in worship. My father preached, his cousin, Ed Clark, played the organ and I was able to lead the congregational prayers. The funny part was that I could hardly understand the prayer requests directed my way in a heavy Boston brogue. I picked up enough of what they said to know that they were sharing heavy concerns. One was for Norma with a brain tumor. However, voiced with the local accent, it became “Nohma with th’ brain tumah.” My siblings still laugh at my strained effort to be both compassionate and accurate in my praying. On this trip we simply looked at the church from the outside and tried to imagine my grandmother and her family bustling into services each Sunday from their nearby home with seven children scrubbed and “gussied up” for another Sunday’s service.
The final place to visit was the Locust Grove Cemetery in Merrimac. My great grandparents, James and Florence, are buried along with five of their eight children. After having explored my MacDougall roots in their clan homeland of Oban, Scotland, it was interesting to see the Scottish name etched on so many tombstones in a Massachusetts cemetery. Thomas and Maria are buried just 13 miles from Florence and James. Both pairs of parents have the name of a daughter on their tombstone. Baby Maria, just a couple of months old, is listed with her parents. James and Florence have the name of their daughter, Sadie, inscribed on their stone. Sadie was a piano teacher in Merrimac. In that worship service we led 20 years ago my father asked how many people in that congregation had taken piano lessons from her. Even though that was several decades removed from the ending of her career, quite a few hands went up. She also taught music to kindergartners and I have some of her instruments on the wall in my living room. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 16 which would have been in the early 1900s. They performed a surgical mastectomy on her at that time, using the family dining room table for the operation! I can hardly imagine what that must have been like for a 16-year-old girl. Fortunately the surgery, as primitive as it may seem to us now, was successful and she lived a long life.
The musicality of James and Florence’s family was passed on not just to Sadie but to other family members. A cherished item hanging on the wall above the piano in my childhood home was the violin case from my grandmother. She played the instrument into her adult years. My father was a music major at the University of Massachusetts and sang as part of his ministry for the 50 years he served in churches. There is a wonderful picture of my great grandfather, James, wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipes. I imagine the sounds of singing and instruments wafting out of the windows of their home on Orchard Street as the children did their obligatory practicing. One of the fond memories I have of my grandmother is her willingness to sit beside the piano while we did our practicing, her toe always tapping to our discordant efforts at melody while we simply counted the seconds before the practice time was up.
In three weeks’ time, first in Chicago and now in New England, I have seen the final resting places of three pairs of great grandparents. I need to figure out where the one remaining couple on my mother’s side, William and Katharine Seymour, is buried. For some reason knowing these places matters to me. Perhaps it’s because of my own military upbringing that I value the impact of location. By the time I left home for St. Olaf College I had lived in six different places, two of which were overseas. I could never get too attached to any one place because we moved almost every four years. For me family has always meant people not place. But rediscovering where my ancestors lived and worshiped, worked and played has given me a deeper understanding of their lives. In Scotland my sisters and I talked about how clean and invigorating the MacDougall air felt as we breathed it in. In Sawbridgeworth, England we admired the quaint town in which our ancestors went about their daily tasks. In Rochdale, England we walked into the City Hall, dedicated just a few years before my grandfather was born. It was easy to imagine that my great grandmother, Maria, must have walked through this stately building with her young son, admiring the beauty of this city landmark. I feel blessed to have walked in the footsteps of my ancestors in so many places. To know where their bodies lie, bones wearied from challenging lives, gives me peace. I think of the passage from Revelation 14:13 that I have offered many times at memorial services and am grateful for the lasting impact of each generation:
“‘Blessed are the dead who from now on die in Christ.’ ‘Yes.’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.'” Amen!