Southern California Genealogical Society

Point of View: When Memory Plays Us False
By Jean Chapman Snow

Oh, better than the minting
Of a gold-crowned king
Is the safe-kept memory
Of a lovely thing.

Do you know having an older sibling may cause problems? Though your family memories may differ, creating timelines may help solve those differences.

My sister is five-and-a-half years older than I am. When we were growing up, I saw her as my bossy older sister, and didn't much like being bossed, though I must have been a pesky kid sister.

Sadly, she had flown the nest by the time I grew up enough to become her friend, marrying the August before I went away to college. Now I'm sorry we live on opposite coasts because we've become good friends. During my rare visits back East, we enjoy reminiscing about our childhood. And I often telephone her. She chuckles when I cry, "I need to pick your brain again," as I write family tales.

One day, gabbing on the phone, I mentioned the wonderful dollhouse that Mother and Dad had made for me.

It was a treasure, with four rooms and a front porch with a railing around it. The front door had a brass doorknob and tiny brass hinges for opening it. One side of the shingled roof was hinged, and lifted up to reveal a large attic.

Mother told me she and Dad spent hours cutting out those shingles from heavy cardboard, then painting them green. The dollhouse had isinglass windows (remember that stuff?), and perhaps most wonderful of all-a tiny round electric bulb in the ceiling of each room that actually lighted!

And such beautiful furniture! I remember a tiny metal gas stove whose oven door opened, a round baby walker with a toddler to go in it, and teensy "silverware" and dishes, made of pewter. In the living room and bedroom there were Oriental rugs, the kind that used to come in cigar boxes. Eleanor remembered that the bathtub and sink had really excellent fixtures that turned.

After Dad lost his business in New York City during the Depression, we moved to the summer cottage on Lake Oscawana (Putnam County, N.Y.). I was about six then, and the dollhouse was put up in the attic crawl space with other rarely used items. Often, I'd go up there to play with it. Getting there was not easy. I'd drag in stepladder, open it beneath a removable Celotex (remember that?) panel in the ceiling, then climb up 'till I could lift the panel and move it to the side. After that came the hard part.

I'd lean my arms on the edge of the opening, grab a couple of beams, and with a mighty jump, pull myself up, knees scrabbling for purchase. The attic had only about four square feet of flooring, so I had to be careful not to plunge a foot or knee through the Celotex. Though hoisting myself up wasn't easy, once there, I was alone in my special hideout.

And, oh, that doll house! If I took it to "Antiques Roadshow" today, I know they'd tell me it was worth a lot. What a wonderful family heirloom it would have been, and how my three girls would have loved it! Unfortunately, when they sold that house and moved, Mother gave it to the kindergarten.

During a phone call to Eleanor one day, I moaned about the loss of my dollhouse. For a moment there was dead silence on the line. Then came the shocker:
"That wasn't your doll house. Mother and Dad made it for me!"

Her dollhouse? My childhood memories wrong? But she had to be right, for it made sense.

"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards," the Queen remarked.

Then there's Oswald, the pig. I suppose it was around 1933, when I was ten. I can clearly see in my mind's eye the Tompkins Corners Church fair. We must have had din­ner there, because I remember delicious hamburgers and corn-on-the-cob. Long tables and benches filled the old open shed where old-time parishioners parked their horses and carriages in bad weather.

Local farmer George Travis had donated a piglet to be raffled off. After dinner, someone asked me to stand on one of the benches to pull the winner's name out of the hat. I was so excited about doing that, but even more excited when I pulled out my own name!

At this distant remove, I wonder if I really did pull my own name, or was someone being kind because they knew we had little money. The piglet was ours, however. Eleanor and I immediately named him Oswald, though Mother and Dad called him Butch (had we realized at the time, a most ominous name!).

We were then renting Willie Post's old farmhouse, and my mind's eye again sees the pig pen beside the barn. As soon as we arrived home from school, Eleanor and I would run back to the pen. Upon seeing us, Oswald would squeal and grunt with joy. He knew we'd give him acorns and apples, and dig up earthworms, one of his favorite foods.

That fall, Oswald lived up to his other name when Mother and Dad had him butchered. They said the pork chops that first night were absolutely delicious. Eleanor and I were so heartbroken, we couldn't eat a bite.

Last year while visiting my sister's art class, I men­tioned the pig and the farm.

"That wasn't Willie Post's farm!" she exclaimed. "We were still living in the cottage at Lake Oscawana!"

"Oh, no, no!" I replied. "I can see it clearly. The pig pen was right beside the barn."

"You're wrong," Eleanor said emphatically. "He was just up the hill behind the cottage."

By now Eleanor's friends were chuckling at our heated though still polite exchange. I grumbled a bit to myself, sure I was correct, but dropped the subject. Later I began to make a timeline of dates I was sure of, and realized-darn it!-she was right again.

OI call back yesterday, bid time return.'
TIMELINES ARE A GREAT TOOL for genealogical work. Most of you, no doubt, carefully list birth, marriage, death, and census records for an ancestor. But have you created a timeline that includes every detail you've found?

A timeline might include historical, social, or other events which may have influenced the family: droughts, depressions, epidemics. I'm sure you've discovered tidbits that don't belong to the standard records you keep, though you may put them in the notes feature of your computer program. You may be surprised what else you may dis­cover if you put all in a timeline.

My November/December 2002 Searcher column shows a census timeline for Jabez Chapman. Here's an example of what I've added:

Scanning a film of a Cooperstown newspaper, I came across an ad: "WANTED a journeyman blacksmith. One who is a good workman and a man of steady habits will find employment by applying at the shop of the sub-scriber, near the Hay Scales. JABEZ CHAPMAN Cooperstown Nov 19 1827."

I copied that into his time line, and noted that I now have another clue to research. If I can find the Hay Scales (and what were they?), that would tell me where his blacksmith shop was. Even though he's "only" a collateral, as I add notes about deeds, mortgages, how much his house was worth and so on to his timeline, his personality begins to take shape for me. Now I have a great fondness for this rather canny Jabez, my great-grandfather's half-brother.

HOW CAN WE ADD DETAILS to a timeline? Research, research, research! Example: the 1875 New York Census gives some information about wages; blacksmiths, for example, earned about $30 a month.

For my immediate family's timeline, I entered a photo (dated 1926) of me with our Boston terrier, Lucky, in front of the cottage then in the process of being built. Neither Eleanor nor I remembered when the property was bought or the cottage built, but the photo gives an approximation. Could I find a deed? A mortgage? I'll cer­tainly try!

Curiosity about the Chrysler touring car we had, and when Dad might have bought it, led me to an encyclope­dia of old cars. I am not sure what exact year or model ours was, but one photo looks like what I remember. It may have been the 1926 Chrysler Imperial with its side curtains, which had-yes!-isinglass windows. I still remember the thrill, after we'd moved to the cottage, of running down the dirt road to meet Dad so I could ride home on the running board. Maybe I could find the car registration or Dad's license to add to my knowledge and the time line.

As you find details about an ancestor, enter them into a timeline. As you create timelines, you may ferret out more clues to follow up.

Is memory playing you false? Use timelines to help you discover the truth.

©Jean Chapman Snow. Used with permission.

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