Pittsfield, MA c.1860; lithograph of painting by artist James Colt Clapp
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. Continue reading