I’m on a mission, you see, to re-establish our rightful place in the annals of American history, in the founding and building of this great nation…”
by michael estabrook
Like most people, I’m curious to know who I am and where I’ve come from. Why am I here and what does it all mean? But discovering one’s roots and forebears is a tedious enterprise. There are so many “experts,” all having different biases about what to do to find the most accurate data and where to go to find relevant documents. There are census records, immigration lists, passenger lists, probate documents, military records, birth, death and marriage certificates, bibles and diaries, city, county and state directories. All of this is useful information which can put leaves on the branches of one’s family tree. But some of it is more useful than others.
The biggest haggling amongst the experts is over primary and secondary sources. Some experts demand primary sources (direct records from the time of a person’s life), whereas others feel secondary sources will suffice for most of our needs. But what if there are no primary sources? What if they’ve been lost in a tragic church fire or when the town hall got flooded? What then? Does this mean your family tree has no roots?
It’s impossible to know where to begin or where, indeed, the course will ultimately take you. It is all so confusing. It is all so frustrating. Yes, yes, I know all about it. The hunt is as satisfying as the kill. But no one wants to waste time tracking the wrong bloodline. You don’t want to end up in Grand Forks, North Dakota, or Talladega, Alabama, if you don’t belong there. And I did take a wrong turn in the beginning, of course; everyone does.
My wrong turn began when I found the Estabrook family in the Concord, Massachusetts, Library Special Collections Reading Room. The Estabrooks of Puritan New England extraction were a special lineage. The family escaped the brutality and injustice of religious persecution in England by coming over here and settling in New England in 1660. They became Harvard College graduates, Congregationalist ministers, wealthy land-owners and farmers. There was a ship’s captain, some war heroes, honored teachers, and plenty of revered matriarchs. I was flabbergasted at finding all this information. Could this be me? Could this be my family?
I spent the next two weeks rummaging through musty colonial period records, my heart thumping the whole while. I was so excited to have found my roots, so excited to know I had come from decent, well-bred, sturdy stock. I prattled on endlessly with the librarian, picking her ancient brains, and photocopying a seemingly inexhaustible cache of crumbling yellowed pages.
“My progenitor,” I say to my wife, as we’re walking through town, “the very first Estabrook to come over here 334 years ago,” I’m smiling, my noble jaw-line firm, “was the Very Reverend Joseph, and well,” I swing my arm over, point my genteel finger, “he’s buried up on that hill with the other forefathers of Concord, right there in the sacred corner of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. And he’s keeping a vigilant eye, yes he is, Pat, an ever vigilant eye on his flock.” My chest swells with pride.
“But you know, it’s a real sin there isn’t even a simple grave marker for him.” I sigh. “So I’ve decided to do something about that.” I squeeze my wife’s hand. Her breath is cold white in the morning January sun. “I’m going to erect a headstone, a monument carved in granite or slate.”
Her eyebrows rise, her hand goes limp. I clear my throat, ahem – “How much can it cost,” I shrug my thin, aristocratic shoulders, “a piece of carved slate, a thousand dollars, two, maybe three?”
She doesn’t say anything as we continue our trek along Founding Fathers Ridge hoping to find this unmarked grave beneath the snow, trying not to slip on the ice and break our necks.
A few days later I pay $70 to join the austere, esteemed New England Historic Genealogical Society, the oldest genealogical society in the world. It’s a magnificent six-story brick edifice, the cornerstone of Newbury Street.
“Hey, what do you think?” I ask my wife. “Maybe there’s an Estabrook room or wing or alcove or something.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” she nods her head, the red tinge in her hair gleaming in the sun’s soft light.
We get some leaflets, a tour, and some advice on how to proceed with my sacred quest to ferret out these overlooked Estabrooks. I’m on a mission, you see, to re-establish our rightful place in the annals of American history, in the founding and building of this great nation.
From the family history stacks we retrieve an ancient book, printed in 1891. Then we settle into a tranquil corner of the library. It’s splendid in here, with all the shiny oak, the tall windows, the bust of George Washington above the fireplace. I open the book to the index and discover my grandfather’s name. Yes, that’s him, same middle name, same birth date and town. He’s in here, yippee! I’m so happy and so excited. I turn to his section and find him listed on an ancestral chart which connects him back five generations – his father to his father to his father and so on. I discover immediately, in a matter of seconds, that the progenitor of my particular line of Estabrooks came over from England in 1796, not 1660. And he wasn’t a Harvard Graduate Minister either, but instead a sawyer on a ship.
The definition seems obvious enough, but to be certain I look it up – sawyer – a person whose work is sawing wood, as into planks and boards. I’m just a little dumbfounded. My immigrant ancestor wasn’t even a carpenter. He couldn’t make anything with the boards he cut, all he could do was cut them. And his son was a sawyer, too, and his son a machinist, and his son a shopkeeper, and his son a dockworker. And his son, my father, was a car mechanic, and his son, well, what can I say about me? I’m a marketing communications manager for a big company. I’m good to my family. I pay my taxes. I try to write a decent poem now and then. And I try, also, to pierce this shell of reality that has me trapped in the wrong place in time with nowhere to run. And the funny thing is I’m a terrible carpenter, always cut the wood wrong no matter how many times I measure it. And I don’t know the first thing about fixing cars, can’t even change the oil in my lawnmower (sorry Dad).
My wife squeezes my hand as she feels the air come out of me. And I notice the only true brightness, the only thing worth anything in this entire room, in the entire universe in fact, is the youthful beauty glowing still in her face.
(illustration: kurt eisenlohr)
“Seems I’ve been writing poetry for so long that Methuselah should be taking notice, but in reality, time is simply doing its thing streaking ahead blithely pulling all of us along for the wild ride whether we like it or not; reminds me, I’ve published 15 chapbooks over the years, the last one being “when Patti would fall asleep” by Liquid Paper Press in 2003, guess it’s time to work on another one.” — Michael Estabrook.
More from Michael Estabrook can be found in the Vault of Smoke.