By Janet Curley
As of last week, the renovations on the Holyoke Public Library were complete and it opened its doors once again. The library itself is a grand building originally built in 1900 with generous donations from the Skinner family. I remember going into the atrium as a child and looking at the the murals, added in the 1940′s, which lined the walls near the ceiling. They told the story of the history of Holyoke from its home to local Native Americans, to it’s establishment as a city, and through its industrial heyday as a mill town. The pride in the city is evident in the very structure of the library itself.
Today, the old structure is still there. The columned facade and the atrium with the murals all still stand, now turned into a reading room. However, the front entrance is now the back of the building. The stacks which occupied the rear of the building were removed and a modern new entrance and 3 story glass frame has been erected. The effort, I believe, is to create an inviting, light space which would be visible to the neighborhood. New computer rooms and community rooms were incorporated to keep up with the changing ways in which libraries can now serve the communities in which they are situated.
The neighborhood around the library has seen better days, to be sure. But as I drive along Chestnut Street towards the new entrance, I drive by a community garden, a parochial elementary school, a local church and new affordable housing which show an effort to be comfortable, not just utilitarian. The library renovations demonstrate an effort to be a part of the downtown and to be a public library. Although it will run into challenges that all public areas have, I appreciate the intention.
On its opening day, I walked through the older part of the library which, incidentally, is where the Holyoke History Room is located. I looked toward the old entrance. I tried to see it as it may have been seen on its first opening day. Perhaps my own great grandparents took a tour and marveled at the wood and stone work, leafed through new books and signed up for a library card.
Then I looked back toward the new entrance, bringing in the light of the day. Families were bringing their children to get their library cards and carefully walking through the new and old sections. Adults remembered their days in the stacks and down in the old children’s section. Now they walked up to the new children’s section which is a large airy space overlooking the new entrance. Parents were sharing their library experiences with their children while seeing how they would create their own experiences in this new space. I am glad that there was a decision to keep the historical building while investing in the future. Continuity in a community creates ownership and pride. Genealogy doesn’t just have to be about family history, but also about community history and I love being able to connect with it when I return to my hometown.
by Janet Curley
My genealogy buddy, Linda, is off on her own journey to see The Land of Her People – in this case, Germany. She is fortunate enough to be traveling with friends who are native Germans and will give her that special understanding of a country that staying in hotels can never quite accomplish. She will visit Lake Constance and tour the area where her family originated.
Only last month I was able to do that very thing in Ireland. There is something very profound about walking in the steps of people who came before you, looking across the same landscapes, eating the same food and listening to the same language. When I was there, I stopped and listened to the sounds of nature in the areas I knew they lived. Many things would have changed over the centuries, but the sounds and smells of the landscape would change very little. I heard the birds, so similar to the ones I know in Massachusetts, and listened to the sheep. I felt the breeze blowing across the fields and watched the clouds travel across the sky. I listened to the cadence of the Galway accent and tried to remember turns of phrase that would have survived. These are things that I know my ancestors would have experienced in much the same way I did.
Of course, they probably saw much of the familiar landscape as just a backdrop to growing up, raising families, working with neighbors, dealing with politics, tragedies, and losses, growing old and leaving this Earth. The details of how any of it impacted their senses would have been in a rare and quiet moment of reflection. I hope they had many of those moments… I was lucky enough to be able to take those moments and now think of them as links to my distant family.
I hope Linda finds those moments as well. Knowing her, I suspect she will. She will look out on the lake, hear the birds, smell the water, feel the breezes and taste the foods local to the region. Maybe she will be as fortunate as I was to walk in her family’s footsteps and really experience the land of her people.
by Janet Curley
The headstones were almost completely worn and illegible. Bob said we should look in the ruins of the old church and search the headstones with scissors engraved on them…the sign of a a tailor buried there. Tuesday was a beautiful day, sunny and warm as Maryann and I, with Bob, Bridie and her husband Pete, and the caretaker of the Kilmoylan Cemetery, scoured the ground looking for the headstone for John Curley – the last of my family who remained in Ireland. He had died in 1947, but even so, the stones that recent were extremely worn and difficult to read.
Bridie had corresponded with me while I planned my trip and met up with us in Abbeyknockmoy Ireland. She connected us with Bob, an eighty-something year old man who knew John Curley. “They were tailors.” He said. My heart leapt…exactly right…my great grandfather, John’s uncle, was a tailor as was his father. I felt like I was reaching across the generations as I talked with Bob who took time out of his day, as they all had, to help me locate evidence of my family.
Earlier, Maryann and I had tried to connect with the local parish priest to find records from the church, but were told he was away for 3 weeks. We would not be able to look throughout the records… If we didn’t find the headstone, I would not have much more than I came to Ireland with.
The six of us brushed away grass and sod, bent over the slabs of stone placed in the ground in the ruins of the church, but neither the name, nor the scissors were visible. Bob then decided to find Tom, another octogenarian, who created John’s headstone itself and attended the funeral. “I’ll be right back.”
There were other Curleys in the cemetery, but they were clearly not from my family. They were from a different part of the parish and the names were all wrong. This was confirmed by my search party. The caretaker told us that they had been identifying the names on the stones and will put them online within a few weeks. He didn’t recall my Curley, but was very interested in helping us find him.
Bob returned with Tom, “Tommy” to the locals. He walked up the hill swinging what looked like a thin cane. As he approached the ruins, he went directly to a stone and pointed at it with his stick. “There he is,” he said with certainty. The 6 of us cleared away the grass that covered the stone. It was still difficult to read. In fact the name was gone, but the outline of scissors were faintly visible. Tom talked about how John may not have been alone in the plot, sometimes family members would share it. It would be difficult to know who might also be there, but John most definitely was.
Tom turned to me and reached out the stick to me. Upon closer examination, I saw it was a very old yardstick. Tom handed it to me. “This was in your family. It was given to my family, survived a house fire in fact, and now you should have it.” I was speechless. I tried to protest the generosity, but he insisted that I take it. It is hard to describe how I felt holding the piece of my family’s history which was likely used by my great great grandfather in his tailor business 150 years ago. Imagine all that had to go right for this rather mundane piece of equipment to reach me. How many yardsticks has anyone kept through generations? The end of the stick had a bit if burnt wood, the slash marks showed evidence of brass which mostly had been worn away and the numbers were in an old script. It was a heavy wood, not the light pine we see in the States these days. The weight of it spoke of its utility and value.
I placed it on John’s grave and took a picture and we all posed for a picture. Then Bob and Tom led a small parade of cars down the road to an unsuspecting home owner, mowing his lawn and parked in his driveway. “This lady is looking for the place where her family lived – we’ll be just a moment.” The confused homeowner just nodded as I trod over his newly mowed lawn and approached the stone wall that marked the boundary of John’s land. His plot of land was overgrown, the house had fallen down back in the late 40s after he had died. Bob and Tom talked about John’s work with the local Franciscan monks in their monastery. “They built him that gate there across the road so he could bring his livestock over to feed on their land.” The gate still was there, an old iron gate hanging a bit askew. “He was a small man, with a thin face…couldn’t keep pence in his pocket.” Bob smiled. I must have looked puzzled. “He liked to go down to the local pub.” John had been single. He wasn’t a tailor apparently, but his father and grandfather were. He worked with the Franciscans. In fact his land was later added to the Franciscans property.
After talking a bit more, Tom and Bob shook hands with me and took their leave. I thanked Tom again for the yardstick. He shook me off. “Not a problem.” Bridie and Pete had Maryann and I over for tea where we recounted the surprises of the day and chatted about travel.
Without the generosity and time of these local folks in Abbeyknockmoy, I would have left the area empty handed. Instead, I can touch history and connect with my family 3 generations past. Thank you to everyone there and to Martin Curley who found Bridie and Pete for me.
by Janet Curley
During the last 6 months, I have focused my energy on exploring areas in my life that, while working, I did not have time to pursue. The primary venture has been my interest in genealogy. This blog, a suggestion from my career coach, has been one manifestation of this effort and one which I have thoroughly enjoyed as it brings in my love of writing as well. Another activity has been volunteering at the Holyoke Public Library’s Holyoke History Room. The public library itself is going through major renovations downtown (due to be finished this fall and promises to be quite a positive venture for the city), so the greater part of the library’s collection has been moved to the Holyoke City Hall. But the History Room has been living at the Holyoke Community College Library and that is where I have been volunteering two days a week since March.
If you love genealogy and have the time, I recommend getting involved in your local library, especially if it is in the city or town where your family settled. Even if it isn’t, the benefits of learning about history from the point of view of the patrons is invaluable. I have posted before that I had little involvement with my hometown. I feel I have some catching up to do as a Holyoker. It has been really interesting researching questions from patrons in areas that I never would have explored. The research fills out my understanding of the city’s history. Not only that, but the History Room has wonderful archival collections from the city. There are amazing 19th century photographs, scrapbooks, donated items from family collections, and local histories written by native Holyokers. The History Room’s archivist who is not from Holyoke, knows more about the city than I do and is teaching me a great deal.
While there, as a volunteer, I help to preserve old books by placing them in archival boxing. As I take each book, I marvel at the information inside each one. Sometimes I slow my pace to carefully peruse the contents. I learn something new every time. I take questions from visitors and try to help them find resources. Then I watch them have the same awe at touching history as I do. Yesterday, someone asked for a picture of a train station in Holyoke. Seems mundane enough… The picture that was found was a stunning picture taken in 1881 oriented from a high point in the Flats straight up Dwight Street towards the City Hall. If you looked carefully, you could see several horse and buggys parked on the streets. The streets were not yet paved and the sidewalks appeared to be wooden. No pedestrians…and I am told that pictures of city streets often looked deserted because the people were moving and the cameras of the day could not capture them due to the longer exposure, so people in the picture “disappear”. Fascinating…I love this stuff. I never would have asked for a picture of a train station…but I am glad someone else did so I could see my hometown from high above Dwight Street and how the city looked when my great grandfather travelled through it.
A couple of weeks ago I went out to breakfast with my friend, Linda. We talked about work, friends, family and our upcoming vacations. Linda is also my genealogy buddy so we also talked about our upcoming summer visits to our respective ancestral homes – hers to Germany and mine to Ireland. We both have high hopes of connecting with our familial past and coming home with some tangible evidence of their existence back in the old country.
After breakfast, Linda and I decided to go for a walk. Being two enthusiastic genealogical explorers we headed to the local cemetery! A cemetery is always a interesting place to visit, but this had additional perks. We visited the West Cemetery in Amherst, MA which is the resting place of Emily Dickinson and her family. Linda had been on a tour there before. We visited Emily. There were little notes and gifts left at her grave some which indicated how she had impacted someone’s life and other’s paying tribute to her talent. We walked through the historic sections. I could see well known local families, some of them now mainly known by the streets bearing their names. We walked through a section which had been reserved for the black families that lived in Amherst during the Civil War. They had run a tavern in town. As we finished our walk through, we found a pile of pamphlets in a box which described the cemetery and its inhabitants. Clearly we had started at the end! There was also a mural on a wall facing the cemetery described in the pamphlet giving faces to the names we had just walked by. Someone had clearly put their heart and soul into this project, allowing us to have a better understanding of the history of the town.
Historic cemeteries are so interesting! But one certainly doesn’t have to go to the famous ones to learn something about the history of the nation. Microcosms of our national history are present in the lives of the people who lived through every historical event. I recommend taking a stroll through your local cemetery, especially the oldest section. Try not to look for your own family names and see what else you learn. These are our families neighbors. What can they tell us about the lives they lived?
By Janet Curley
A few weeks ago I decided that I would get my DNA analysis from ancestry.com. I received the kit in the mail. It wasn’t the swab test that I had expected. I was instructed to provide a small amount of saliva in a vial. The package and website warn you that your results may be surprising and reveal origins that one may not have found in family history research. I began to think about the possibilities of finding something new. I had heard fellow genealogists state that they preferred other companies to do this analysis. They complained that Ancestry sent results which uniformly had a great percentage of one’s DNA from Scandinavia. But, I had already sent my spit in, so I was committed.
In truth, I was curious to see if the Vikings showed up in my results. It would make sense given that my family is from Ireland. In addition, my mother said that her family, the Mocklers, had origins in France and came over in 1066 to Ireland during the Norman invasion. I imagined that my results would have a bit of Europe, Scandinavia and mostly Ireland colored in. Truth be told, I was hoping for a surprising result – something exotic or scandalous. With much anticipation, I packaged the whole thing up and put it in the mail.
Yesterday I received the much anticipated email – my results were in! I clicked the “View my Results” button, my excitement building… Who would show up on the map??? Up they came…I received a pie chart, a map and a description of my ancestral origins… 97% British Isles, 3% “uncertain”. The map had a lonely blue blob surrounding Great Britain and Ireland and the description talked about Stonehenge, the Myth of King Arthur and the Famine. No Europe, no Vikings, no French. Apparently my ancestors sprang up out of the shamrocks and begat where they stood. Or perhaps I am directly descended from the Tuatha de Danaan. That may explain the 3% “uncertain” factor. One cannot identify a goddess in a mere saliva sample… Next to the results were a list of other Ancestry researchers with similar results, “potential 4th – 6th cousins”. One gal had 99% British Isles results, another inbred bunny… I looked up her tree. A couple of Irish names in there but nothing that would lead me to contact her and organize a family reunion.
Now, Reader, you may glean from my writing that I was disappointed by the results. You would be correct! I really was hoping for a bit of diversity. My monochrome pie chart tells me little that I didn’t know before. As I grew up, many of my friends talked about their multinational lineage. My parents always told me that everyone was Irish in my family, except for the possible Norman conquerer. So, with my young friends, I would boast that I was 100% Irish. And they would respond with some incredulity, “Really? Cool!” I have always been proud if that, don’t get me wrong, but I figured my DNA would go back a wee bit further and show some deeper, older ancestors. Well, now I can say that I am 97% Irish and back it up with a pie chart. I think I will stick with Danu as my 3% uncertain factor… Not everyone can claim a goddess as a gazillionth great grandmother….
By Janet Curley
When I was in college, the seniors picked out a long wall on their dormitory floor and as they began to get rejections from various jobs and graduate schools, they hung them up for all to see. They called it “The Ding Wall”. As a freshman I thought about how refreshing this approach was. I went to a competitive school-they didn’t talk about rejection or failing much. But seeing these letters proudly displayed took the pressure off a bit. As I looked at the letters and saw the names of very intelligent students parading down the hall, I realized it happened to everyone and would happen to me.
I am thinking of starting my very own genealogical Ding Wall. There have been so many letters that I have sent out to city clerks, church offices, distant cousins, and genealogical societies with tremendous excitement that I will make a breakthrough at last. Perhaps I will get the record that breaks through the brick wall. Or I will connect with the distant cousin who will have a treasure trove of information or who I can meet in a pub in Ireland and share a pint raised to our long dead ancestor. Instead some of these letters have either come back with my check uncashed with the ding letter attached or are completely unheeded. Not even a negative, just the lonely sound of crickets and of my broken genealogical heart…. This would be the antithesis to the Joyous Dance of Genealogical Discovery. This would be The Slow Walk to the Genealogical Ding Wall. The dejected genealogist…the brick wall undamaged and as thick as ever.
The most heartbreaking instance of this for me was the unanswered letters to second cousins that I had never known existed. We lived only mere few miles from each other and my father never told me. I reached out with such high hopes that I would meet the only second cousins I had on my father’s side, but my letters went unanswered. Perhaps it would have been too difficult for them to reconnect with the Curleys and they had their reasons. But for me there is an empty spot on my ding wall that represents that slow walk, right there next to uncashed checks and the “Sorry we can’t help you.” letters. I still hold out hope that someday they will respond or reach out with their own research. Every now and then I talk to a Holyoker who might know them in the hopes that I can get a good reference and perhaps encourage a response. But I don’t want to harass the poor people either. Perhaps these are the cousins that got away.
On the other hand, I have had the tremendous good fortune of connecting with 3rd cousins I never knew who are terrific people and have been valuable resources for further research. Not all is lost. And this blog has encouraged other researchers to see if we have even more distant connections which has been fantastic. As with the Ding Wall at school, it happens to us all and the successes are worth miles of Ding letters.