Category Archives: Genealogy

Grandma Lived in a Shed: Using Maps to Research a Family Story

Rear view, including shed. Former Bonneau home on Cottage Street, Danielson, Connecticut. Photo taken in April 2014 by Julianne Mangin.
Rear view, including shed. Former Bonneau home on Cottage Street, Danielson, Connecticut. Photo taken in April 2014 by Julianne Mangin.

Here’s another snippet of family history from Mom, one that sent me on an unexpected genealogical journey.

When my mother was a little girl, she lived with her family in a shed behind a relative’s house. Her sister, Pauline, was born there.

When I asked Mom why Grandma’s family was living in a shed, she just shrugged and said, “That’s what I was told.” She didn’t know where the shed was or which relative had owned it. At first, I suspected that this story was another one of those crazy things Grandma had told her a long time ago, and which she simply took at face value. I imagined that my grandmother, who suffered at times from hallucinations and delusions due to schizophrenia, had exaggerated her living conditions. Perhaps it was small, rickety house, I thought, but surely not a shed! At the time, I hadn’t realized how poor Grandma’s family had been. But as I pieced together their story, the impoverished conditions under which they had lived became ever more evident. After a while, the story about Grandma Beatrice living in a shed didn’t seem so preposterous.

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Family Myth Busting

Genealogical Tree, published by Daughaday & Becker, Philadelphia, ca. 1859. From the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-01537.
Genealogical Tree, published by Daughaday & Becker, Philadelphia, ca. 1859. From the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-01537.

I had been a reluctant genealogist most of my life until I realized genealogy’s power to unlock family secrets and make sense of the stories Mom told me about her family. Such was the case with my great-grandfather, Philippe Metthe.   (“Metthe,” a French-Canadian surname, is pronounced in English as “Metty”). Mom told me that he had left his wife, Graziella, which caused her to go insane. By looking at her patient record from Norwich State Hospital, I learned that this was not true. Philippe visited Graziella after she was committed, and when he couldn’t, he wrote letters inquiring about her condition. Mom also said that Philippe had gone back to Canada, but beyond that statement, she had no more details.  When I finally took up the role of family genealogist in my mid-fifties, I suspected there would be some family myth busting involved.
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From Reluctant Genealogist to Relentless Family Historian

Mom as Family Historian

Selfie with my grandparents, November 2016 (taken after I became interested in genealogy)
Selfie with my grandparents, November 2016

You might think, with all the energy Mom spent on researching her family tree, that her stories would have become more detailed and connected than before. But Mom continued to tell the same old tales, which were unaltered by anything that she might have uncovered in her genealogical research. For that reason, genealogy didn’t interest me during the years that Mom was actively pursuing birth certificates and census records. Looking at the pedigree charts and family group sheets, filled out in Mom’s distinctive scrawl, I was unable to make any more sense of the past than I had by listening to her stories. Continue reading From Reluctant Genealogist to Relentless Family Historian