It had been an incredible year. I graduated from college, my boyfriend and I were talking about marriage, my sister gave birth to twins.
|Harley and Elsie Brown with their children|
(personal archives of Jen Baldwin)
My grandmother, Elsie Helen (Tober) Brown, passed away.
I was happy for her, that she got to meet her first great-grandchildren, but I was missing her, knowing that she would not be at my wedding. While away at school, the two of us spent a lot of time getting to know each other, through letters. I took up golf, one of her passions, so we finally had something to connect us as adults, and I loved every minute of becoming friends with her. I consoled myself with the collection of letters I had received, carefully crafted on her faithful typewriter.
After finals, I was able to visit her grave for the first time. I was there most of the day, talking to her, and for some reason I felt the need to bring those letters with me. I read them out loud, sitting next to her headstone in the rare spring Pacific Northwest sunshine. Crying intermittently, laughing occasionally. On my way home, my father called me. He was at Grandma’s house with his two siblings, and they asked me to stop there. It was an odd call, very mysterious; he wouldn’t tell me much, and I knew that cleaning the house was something the three of them wanted to do together, without the rest of the family there.
|Civil War Letter from one of the Lawrence sons|
(personal archives of Jen Baldwin)
When I arrived, they had four letters spread out on the table. They were old, I knew that right away, and my Aunt simply said, “Take a look.” So, I sat down and started reading. They were letters addressed to two women: Sarah and Frances Lawrence. I was soon able to detect that Sarah was the mother of the authors and Frances was the sister. They were all dated within the span of the Civil War. Quickly, my father, uncle and aunt were sitting there with me, offering hot coffee, which nobody touched for fear of spilling, and a notepad.
They told me that they didn’t know where the letters came from, or why Grandma had them in her house. No one knew anything about them. We got my Great-Uncle Boone on the phone, and he said the same thing, “no idea.” My Dad looked at me and asked the question that would start my quest into our family history, “do you think you could look it up on that internet thing?” The World Wide Web was just getting going at that time, and the generation before me had no idea what to do with it. (Yet. They are now all experts on Facebook.)
My Dad is a photographer, so he took the letters back to his studio and went to work. Pretty soon I had a full transcription, along with the notes I had taken on that day in June. Within hours of getting home, I knew that Frances, or Frankie, was my great-grandmother, and her three brothers: John, Warren and Mortimer, were all Civil War veterans. We soon learned a great deal about Frankie and her husband, Capt. Oscar F. Brown, also a veteran, and their family. My summer that year was filled with trips to cemeteries, long after dinner conversations at every household I could get to that was somehow related to me. I spent hours pleading with Great Uncle Boone to let me into some of his stash of family photos and artifacts. (He never let me in, by the way. He was not fond of his father, and just refused to relive those memories. I’m still not quite sure what is hidden away in his attic.) It was an incredible experience, and it rapidly turned to self-education on the hobby of genealogy. My family was speechless at the amount of information we were able to accumulate so quickly. My boyfriend was in awe of the amount of paper work quickly filling up a desk, then a box, then a file cabinet in our apartment.
By September, I had purchased my first version of Family Tree Maker, and I was well on my way. I had already gone to one free class at the library for “Beginning Genealogy” and had scheduled more. NARA had supplied me with the first of many pension files, and requests for vital records were being sent out by the bag full.
So, when was my true moment? That day, sitting in the sun next to Grandma’s resting place. With those letters. I’ll never really know what inspired me to take them to the cemetery that morning, but I believe it was Elsie, telling me in her special way that I had a lot of letters to read that day. She has been with me every step of the way, and she continues to inspire me now as I (sigh) finally follow my heart and transition from the hobbyist to the professional genealogist. Oh, and those twin nieces? They are now ten years old, and that boyfriend? He’s been my loving husband for several years and we have a family of our own. My little girl will someday own a collection of letters, talking about a country at war, college classes and golf.
Having spent the last twelve years researching her own family, Jen Baldwin has turned her passion of family history into a professional research business for the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado. Carrying a variety of roles for the genealogical community, she currently administers the Summit County, Colorado Trails to the Past website, author's "Ancestral Breezes", a genealogy blog, and is a member of the National Genealogical Society. Additionally, she is a regular contributor to the digi-mag "The In-Depth Genealogist" writing a monthly column on genealogical resources around the United States. She can also be found writing as the Breckenridge Genealogy Examiner. You can contact Jen via her blog at ancestralbreezes.blogspot.com, email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Facebook and Twitter