There’s a spot in my house, as you walk up the stairs to the second floor and make the turn on the landing, where, if the conditions are right, it smells like my grandparents’ house.
It’s the smell of tiny dust particles suspended in the air, warmed by the bright sun that shines through the windows that overlook the driveway (and my neighbor’s house). It’s a quick scent of a sleeping dog and wooden banisters polished smooth by a hundred years of hands grasping on the way up and on the way down. It’s the smell of plaster walls and dark attics and creaking stairs, if creaking stairs have a smell. Which I think they do.
It only lasts a moment – less than a second – but when I smell it I’m transported to their house in Pittsfield, MA, an ancient triplex row house where my mother grew up, where her father lived. It’s the house her grandparents and great grandparents and great great grandparents either lived in or next to or around the corner from.
I think the smell of my grandparents’ house is actually the spirit of all of those people who slept, ate, laughed, cried and lived in those rooms for more than a hundred years. And as I’ve been tracing my family tree, those spirits have come alive for me in a way I didn’t expect.
It’s one thing to create a family tree – a bracketed chart that lists the basic details of my grandfather’s parents, their parents, their parents and their parents.
But those simple details – date of birth, date of death, date of marriage – don’t even begin to share the information I’ve amassed about their children, siblings, family. Where they lived, where they worked, how they died, and what the world was like when they walked the earth.
Take one set of my great, great, great grandparents on my mother’s side, for example.
When Michael Larkin and his wife Catherine Touhey came here from Ireland in the mid-1800s, they had in tow a small child three years old or younger; I know that because, according to census records, their oldest daughter Mary was born in Ireland in 1857. Their next child was born August 19, 1960 in Pittsfield, MA; he died eleven months later.
So they traveled sometime between 1857 and 1860. I don’t know what the travel was like or how long it took or where they landed. But take a moment to imagine the land they now called home, as it was in the late 1850s and early 1860s.
On March 4, 1857 James Buchanan is been sworn in as the 15th President of the United States. Expansion to the West is in full swing; in the decade preceding the Larkin’s arrival, California is admitted to the Union; the Territories of Kansas, Nebraska, Utah, Washington, and Oregon are organized; the United States has purchased what is now Arizona and New Mexico. In 1858, Minnesota and Oregon are admitted to the Union.
We know the family is here in 1860, when the country is on the brink of Civil War. In 1860, South Carolina secedes from the Union, followed in January 1861 by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. In February 1861, The Confederate States of America is formed and Jefferson Davis is sworn in as the 1st President of the Confederate States of America. The Apache declare war on the Union.
In March 1861, Abraham Lincoln is sworn in as the 16th President of the United States. In May, he declares a state of insurrection in the Southern states – and we’re at war.
Throughout this time, states and territories are coming and going – Kansas is admitted to the Union in January 1861 as the first states begin to secede. Nevada is organized the day before Texas secedes in February 1861. The Colorado and Dakota Territories are organized as Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennesee ready to secede (in April, May and June 1861, respectively).
In short, America is being formed and unformed and reformed again, on an almost daily basis.
While these history-making events are taking place in America, from August 1860 to August 1861 in Pittsfield, MA, the Larkins have – and lose – a son.
I wonder what it would have been like, to arrive in a new land – probably speaking a different language, with few resources and at least one small child in tow and possibly another on the way. What was life like in Pittsfield as the nation readied for war? Did the Larkins even understand what was taking place?
We know they lived and worked and raised a family amidst the national turmoil. In 1863, my great great grandmother Annie was born, joining two older sisters; she would be one of eight children born to Catherine Larkin, six of whom lived.
We know Michael - along with most of my relatives on this side of the family, including my grandfather - worked in the woolen mills. What did they make? Where did the products go? How did the common laborers who worked the looms and operated the machinery affect the growth of their city, of their state, of the nation with the products they produced?
These are the things I think about as I trace my roots.
When I walk up my stairs and catch a scent of my grandparents’ house, I think I’m being reminded of the spirits of the ancestors who lived in their house. You won’t find their names in history books; they were not movers and shakers or world changers. They were just regular people who lived regular lives, and they leave behind traces of their own history, traces that may not have been newsworthy, but are still part of what is America.