When my grandmother was still alive, she gave me a meticulously organized blue binder, of photo- copies of documents pertaining to the lives of my ancestors. I’m not certain why I got the binder. Perhaps my grandmother was under the impression that I was the only one in my family naïve enough to take on the onus of keeping this information; perhaps she just wanted someone to have it in case anything were to happen to her; perhaps, though, she knew I would take an interest in its contents and devote a sizeable chunk of time to learning about those who came before me.
For a year or two, the binder sat on the shelf. I flipped through it on occasion, looking at documents and birthdates; I was interested, but it never gave me cause to read deeper, to try to see these people’s emotions and selves through the turgid prose of their wills and occasional missives. Another contributing factor is that the people I found in these pages weren’t particularly interesting. People lived, worked and died in central New Jersey, usually taking menial jobs including “farmer” and “laborer,” as indicated by flimsy photocopies of messily scribbled census records.
This half-hearted interest changed in 2010 when my grandmother suffered a stroke and died six months later. During those last six months, she lost much of her personal- ity. To me it was as if she were already gone. In an attempt to fill this vacuum in my emotional life, I began to pore over the binder more and more. Suddenly, I saw glimpses of what made my grand- mother and her parents and grand- parents who they were—the good and the bad. Her emotional coldness must have come from her absent father. Her grand- father, who raised her, was a hard working public servant and small town political figure and must have inspired her dogged work ethic. I realized I could know her through these sto- ries and documents. I wondered if this could be equally applicable to family members I had never met, even those from whom I am centuries removed.
After my grandmother’s death, we faced the daunting task of cleaning out the attic of a compulsive hoarder who bought far too many things. We had plenty of school artwork and relics of misbegotten decades of décor, but the thing that really intrigued me was a box—unmarked, unlabeled—filled to the brim with papers. After opening it, I realized I had stumbled across a real treasure. It was, in fact, not my grand- mother who was interested in genealogy, but rather my great-grandmother. Everything in my binder was just the organization of a small slice of what was in the box. I was daunted yet excited to read through the countless correspondences and family trees that she, Jean Hurley, had collected over the years. For the most part, these people were fairly average, but some really stood out. Some were brave, some were cowards, some were loyal, and some were philanderers, but each was an individual that I have come to know. I sometimes even came to love them as I squinted back into the past to meet my family.
From my grandmother’s side of the family, I feel I’ve come to really know four or five people, and although their behavior and actions have no bearing on who I am, I feel as if their lives have qualities that can inform the way that I live and relate to my past. I try to be tolerant and persistent.
Henry Wood was born in Lancashire in 1603 to a farming family. He fought with Cromwell in the English Civil War, but was quickly disenchanted with his stringently puritanical Christianity. As a result, he joined a burgeoning movement known as the Quakers, a pacifist sect. When the monarchy was restored, dissenting faiths became illegal and Henry was imprisoned for his faith and beaten until he bled from his eyes. For years this went on, until he stowed away on a ship bound for Philadelphia at the age of 83 and helped to established a Quaker settlement in New Jersey. He died three years later, but he always fought for what he believed.
John Worrall was a soldier in the British army during the American Revolution. His story is more troubling. He fathered two children by a prostitute in New York with- out supporting them. Although nothing can excuse that behavior, he also exhibited admirable revolutionary qualities and as a result deserted the British Army. He was chased by Redcoats following traces of his blood as he ran barefoot through the snow to the American camp. Although he couldn’t fight on account of the numerous frostbite-induced toe amputations, his behavior, good and bad, serves as an impetus to try to be respectful and honest. Clark Hurley, my great-great-great grandfather, volunteered to fight for the Union in the American Civil War and fought at the battles of Chancellorsville and Fredricksburg in December of 1862. His brother was killed, and he was wounded badly and had to spend his Christmas that year recuperating at a hospital in Washington. From his bed, he wrote home, regretting that he couldn’t be with his family and lamenting his woeful health. His letter is heartfelt, love and longing shine forth from the page, even in the presence of countless grammar and spelling mistakes. He was not an educated man, yet his words resonate with familial love. Eighty years later, during the Second World War, my great-grandmother furtively typed out letters from Santa Claus to give to her daughter, my grandmother. From these letters I learned that my great-grandmother gleaned the same things that I have from my family’s history. She was tolerant, respectful, kind, and fiercely loyal to her ideas. Through studying my family, I’ve not only grown closer to relatives long dead, but I’ve also gained an appreciation for what it means to try to be a good person, because as Santa (my great-grandmother) wrote, “The boys and girls in the war countries aren’t as lucky as you are this Christmas and you must remember them in what you say and do, and always remember to be good and kind and gentle.”