As I was growing up, the story was that my family was English with a spot of Irish and Scot. “Sea captains” my mother said. My dad’s family was Quaker. They opened one of the first breweries in Wilmington, Delaware. My grandfather left meeting in the late 1800’s to marry an Episcopal woman. (Marrying out of meeting was unacceptable.)
My great aunt, who I remember well, remained a Quaker and used the old speech – Thees and Thous instead of you. She was funny and a great teller of stories, some risque! Toward the end of her life, she spoke in awe of all she had witnessed. She rode away from her wedding in a horse drawn carriage fording the Brandywine River on the way home but flew to her last Friends General Conference Gathering in a jet.
My mother’s family lived in Indiana. They were fun and playful. Gatherings included lots of laughter, drinking and food. Mom said her family – five children and her parents – were their own party. She must have been sad to leave them for the more staid East.
I’ve been researching family history. I’ve found many more Irish than English ancestors and no sea captains (trading opium for slaves – thank God!) I love what I am finding and things I now remember. My dad’s expressions had Irish written all over them. When I enter the house, I say “In again, Finnigan!” just like he did. The expression comes from the Irish children’s song, Michael Finnegan. He also said things were “higgledy-piggledy” if they were sloppy. This word is from the 1500s. I still use his “icebox” and “Now you’re cooking with gas” – expressions that have long since outlived their meaning.
Dad sang many songs to us when we were little. My favorite was “A Little Bit of Heaven”, a 1914 song.
Sure, a little bit of heaven fell from out the sky one day
And nestled in the ocean in a spot so far away
And when the angels found it, sure it looked so sweet and fair
They said suppose we leave it, for it looks so peaceful there
So they sprinkled it with star dust just to make the shamrocks grow
‘Tis the only place you’ll find them no matter where you go
Then they dotted it with silver, to make it’s lakes so grand
And when they had it finished sure they called it Ireland
I identify with my heritage. The Quaker, which goes back to English roots, feels solid and true. The Irish delights me. The Scottish connection is from Glen Orchy, home to the MacGregor clan. They were a fiery clan, which included Rob Roy among their number. Use of their name was abolished in 1603 by James VI under penalty of death.
History becomes more real as I get older. Time is shorter. The stories about my great, great grandmother, Nora Tobin, who came to America from Ireland at age 16 to be a governess, resonate with me. When the mother of the children she was teaching died, she married their father and had children of her own. (Her husband had 23 children by three different wives. Hard to imagine!) After his death, she moved her three children to New York City and became a seamstress. The building where she lived still stands.
My favorite family name has always been Caleb. It was my uncle’s name and my grandfather’s. I’ve found another favorite, Swithin. He was my fifth great grandfather, who emigrated to Delaware from Wiltshire, England in the 1600s.
My middle name is Mercer. Dad said his people came from needle makers in Birmingham, England. Mercer means a dealer in fabrics. All my life I’ve loved fabrics, yarn, sewing, spinning. My hands are rarely free of something to work on. Is this genetics? Coincidence? Or a long thread of love and experience reaching back through the centuries?