“Did you know,” asked my brother Sean, “that our great-grandfather died in a poor house?”
Sean had been to visit our uncle, Joe, our father’s much-younger brother, and Uncle Joe had been sharing family history facts that maybe weren’t so well-known. Some were about endearing personality quirks. But—a poor house? That was a little more serious. That smacked of Dickens and gray Gothic grimness. Our great-grandfather had living children, after all–our grandfather among them. How, in his final years, did he wind up in an institution for people who had hit rock-bottom, who had absolutely nowhere else to go?
Then I thought I remembered that the county home–the ‘old folks home’–in the county where Sean and I grew up had once been the poor house. It struck me that maybe the poor house had once been the place where the elderly were sent when their families could not care for them. Behind this ruminating is a hope that maybe things were not so bad there.
This week, I’m going to learn as much as I can about poor houses in western New York State in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It seems like something I need to understand. Because the fact of our great-grandfather’s institutionalization has some sort of impact on all of us. Having consigned his father to an institution, for instance, it may have been easier for our grandfather to place his own children in orphanages when their mother died.
My father’s years in Father Baker’s Home for Children surely shaped the man he became. We could see it, for example, in the melancholy that descended before the holidays,–a kind of yearning for something long denied. The reality of Christmas always seemed, ultimately, to chase away the sadness, but at that time of year, my mother would warn us not to push our father.
“It’s hard for him,” she would say. “He has an image of an unattainable perfect holiday in his head.”
It’s funny. When the December holidays approach, I always get a whiff of that as we prepare for Christmas–of the idea that other people are enjoying a perfect, harmonious, color-swirled, music-filled extravaganza. That my poor family is getting, somehow, a shorter stick than the others drawing in this competition. And then it dissipates in the brisk breeze of intrigue and baking and shopping and get-togethers with friends and family.
I wonder how my child-father felt about his grandpa being in the poor house. Was there shame and sadness; were those feelings renewed when he crossed through the orphanage gates to become a resident? Or was there relief in knowing there was safety, there was a warm bed and food on the table, and the wolf, for a while, was at bay?
My father is long gone–gone thirty years ago–and it is too late to ask him those questions. But it’s not too late to feel the impact of his thoughts and emotions–to be touched by the actions of others in generations before me.
We were a little full of ourselves when Mark completed the law school years and we struck out into a brand new town, into brand new territory.
“Look at us! Aren’t we daring?”
It was a wonderful time, full of growth and revelation, the forging of new relationships, the refining of beliefs and values. We evolved, because necessity demanded it, new definitions of home and the meaning of work in our lives, of family and of friendship, of where and how we fit into a community, and of what we owed the place that stretched and morphed to let us in.
We felt sometimes, I think, like we had invented the concept of the daring move to a brand new place.
And then one day it occurred to me that my parents had done much the same thing. And that our grandparents had been much, much bolder. Imagine Mark’s grandparents leaving Italy as young people in their late teens, striking out for a country where they didn’t even speak the lingua franca. Imagine my mother’s folks pulling up roots in Scotland, packing up babies and the few family heirlooms they could stuff into the limited luggage they could bring, and boarding a ship to an unknown city.
Maybe bold moves were part of our heritage, and maybe our move was much safer and far less thrilling than those of the people who’d that had gone before.
It was a humbling realization. Along with it came this: I might understand myself better if I understood my history better.
We hired some wonderful folks to paint our house this summer; yesterday, they put up the last shutter, and we all went out front, painters and inhabitants, and snapped cell phone photos. The transformation was striking.
Our neighbor Sandy has lived in her house for 16 years; it’s the first time, she says, the little house has been painted during that time.
Sixteen years ago, we wouldn’t have called Young Ministers Painting; sixteen years ago, we would have painted the house ourselves. Time and knees and energy have changed that situation.
But we did commit to painting the garage, the car port and the long fence that borders our backyard. And as we plunge into those jobs, we are learning something about the place in which we live and its history.
“Look at this,” Mark will say. “Why did they do it like this?” And he’ll get out a legal pad, sketch a new plan, because the way of hanging the door, or the way the wires are run, suits a need long-filled and gone. But pondering that need tells us something about the family who lived here before us. We consider whether the little garage was kind of a potting shed for the couple who lived here for many, many years; they were, neighbors and friends tell us, great gardeners. He grew the blooms; she arranged them creatively; they marched away with high honors from the county fair each year.
Knowing that, we look at the way the garage functions and think maybe we understand a little bit.
And standing at the garage wall and scraping is a literal act of peeling back the years. The garage was many colors before it reached sage green. It was creamy white and brick-red. It was never, as far as these layers tell us, Seriously Gray, which it’s becoming now. This color choice is new to us, new to the house, a new chapter in neighborhood history.
Acknowledging that we’ll never reach their level of horticultural excellence frees us to re-imagine the garage as a space for something else, and Mark builds shelves and re-wires the electric and moves his chop saw into the space.
There was a rectangular hole in the dining room floor right under where the table would practically go that puzzled us when we moved in. We pointed it out to our friend Susan.
She said, “That’s probably where the button to call the maid was.”
The maid! Mark and I looked at each other; this was a revelation about the family who’d lived here before us, and about the times they had lived in. Mark cut a piece of plywood and filled the void. We laid down an area rug and answer only each other’s summons for kitchen fare.
Knowing a little of the house’s history informs us; we understand, then, how and why things are configured. I honor those former habits. At that same time, knowing those practices are gone frees us to change the flow, to make the place our own.
My understanding of local history is hazy but growing clearer. This city was once two towns. The Civil War highlighted their differences.
In what was once Putnam, fiery abolitionists brought blazing orators to town, smuggled escaped slaves from hidey-holes to furtive river launches, defied their more conservative neighbors who gathered with torches and outcry. This side of the river, folks recall, was populated by people with different politics, people who upheld the status quo.
New research reveals that some of those folks were working behind a facade; Underground Railroad operatives did not hang ‘welcome’ signs by their front gate or leave diaries about their illicit and illegal acts of daring and kindness.
Devastating flood waters surged over both areas in the early 1900’s, and city planners with foresight and good communication limited loss of life and property–people knew, for instance, to turn off their kerosene lamps as the waters filled their living spaces. In that crisis, the two disparate parts of the city worked together. Those waters, some say, may have washed away some of the invisible walls separating people from the two areas.
But the long-ago distinctions between the two areas, now parts of one unified city, still have some impact; one can still see hazy outlines of those borders in the way some things are done.
It helps to delve into the history of your town.
Maybe it’s time of life; maybe it’s the fact of retirement and the flexibility to explore the unexplained puzzles of family life. Maybe it’s the transformation of the house, the change of the seasons, the surfacing of information. Probably it’s a confluence of all of these things.
But I am struck, more and more, by the need to embrace the present–to live fully and mindfully in this moment. There’s an imperative need, I think, regarding my son, 27 years old and disabled, to plan carefully for the future.
But there is a need, too, to understand the past, to come to grips with the forces and the wisdom and the ignorance, the faults and the talents, the mistakes and the triumphs, and the mundane habits of everyday life,–my own and those of people before me–that have brought me to where I am.
So this week, I will contribute in a small way to a community forum, with a wonderful, well-known speaker, on drug addiction and recovery–a present day plague whose roots we certainly need to understand. I’ll work on grants, and try to finalize reports for some community activities; I’ll get ready for meetings and take the boyo to get leeched at the hospital lab. I will bake lemon bars and I will shop for a pair of decent shoes, and I will follow a deep-seated, genetically imparted schedule, and change beds on Friday, mop floors on Saturday, cook up a fine family dinner on Sunday afternoon.
I’ll scrape the garage and help Mark paint.
And in the nooks and the crannies, I’ll explore. I have some local history research to do for a project in October–I need to track down some area lore and contemplate the impact on a forgotten local star who fascinates me. It will broaden my hazy understanding of local history–maybe opening some doors.
And I need to find out: What were poor houses back in the day? Were they the joyless, soul-sucking concrete asylums my imagination suggests, or was there comfort there? Why would a grown child consign an aging parent to such a place? I need a more complete understanding to assimilate the idea of my great-grandfather ending his days in that kind of a setting.
I want to know. I don’t want to be a leaf separated from its tree. I want to gain the whole picture, to understand the currents that swirled before and the eddies I navigate now.
And I want to be able to determine, at least in small part, which way the future will flow.