I sew garments for girls and women who are nothing more than names on a page, and think about family connections and how we claim ownership of the past. My hands repeat the same gestures that my ancestors' hands would have performed over 300 years ago. The work is slow, careful and contemplative.
I have a small stack of papers, given to me when I was in my late teens, that were written by my ancestor the Reverend George Henry Johnson in the 1800's. In it he documents the family history, beginning in the mid-1600's when members of my family came from England to settle in America. The text is part dry genealogy, with dates and long lists of names, and part informal letter, as the author addresses one of his siblings. The Reverend George wrote with fondness about his childhood on the old homestead in Southborough, Massachusetts, reminiscing about the old millstone where his mother used to dry her milk pans, the ruins of the old mill that he used to wade past in Stony Brook, the red house everyone used to call "Uncle Josiah's". I'm fascinated with these papers and the small slice of personal history they reveal.
I have much more information about the men in my family - they were farmers, millers, brick makers, blacksmiths, doctors, school teachers, deacons and ministers. There is not much documentation about the women, except the year of their births, marriages and deaths, and the number and names of the children they bore.
With the exception of a few of the men, what's missing across the board are the details that make these people (both the women and the men) whole, complex human beings. I can't really comprehend the difficulties they faced settling in wilderness so far from home and family. I want to imagine they were kind and good people, but many of the men were soldiers, and there is no documentation about who they may have exploited or abused or killed, as white people settling here. I only know that they stayed, and 13 generations later here I sit, less than an hour away from that family's first homestead in America. I pour through these papers, each time hoping to catch details that might give me clues to who these people were. To some extent I think the unknown is what's most appealing, because I can fill in the gaps with my own fiction, try to put myself in their shoes, and imagine what it all might have been like. With this series I am giving personas to the names in these papers. In some cases I am trying to understand the experience of women living in a relative isolation. In other cases I'm trying to grasp the experience not of struggle, but of just living - farming, keeping children alive, going to church, interacting, socializing with others in their tiny community.
May it Be a Comfort to You
When Uncle Josiah was a Boy