Stemmed, but Branching

If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.
        —Michael Crichton

“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.

The alchemy of realizing the history of family, home, and place works, I suspect, kind of magic.

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.


12 thoughts on “Stemmed, but Branching

  1. Thank you, Pam, for a thoughtful post. I have been contemplating trying to discover a why as well. When I was a 10 year-old my mom put my brother and I in a “children’s home” aka orphanage, for 8 months. She would never tell me why despite several attempts of questioning her. I recently have been thinking that at 75 I would like to know the ‘why.’ I may pursue this. Thanks for talking about this, you have given me some courage to try to do so.

    1. Carole, I know that there were many, many things not talked about in our family that got bigger and stronger and more ominous because they were surrounded by mystery and silence. I wish you success and peace on this journey of discovery.

  2. Pam, although your essay is delightfully personal, it touches upon many topics relevant for our time: care of the elderly, recovery of the past (both for the individual and collectively), and the necessity to live with faith that there *will be* a future worth having for the generations to come.

    As the years since I left academe have piled up, the worst, most damaging trend I’ve seen develop in the humanities is the idea that the past is unknowable, that our efforts to recover the truth of what happened to our ancestors (or to ourselves) is futile. I think such an attitude is a species of intellectual fatalism, akin to the religious fatalism one hears sometimes in private voices, like that of my mother, or public voices, like that of James Watt, Sec. of the Interior in the Reagan administration who said in a Congressional hearing that it doesn’t really matter what we do to our public lands and our environment, ’cause Jesus was coming back some day and He’d straighten us out. It probably wouldn’t have done any good to point out to Sec. Watt that Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of God is within you,” but I was disappointed that none of the members of Congress had the wit to remember this in the moment, and it often appears that none of them have such wit today.

    I, on the other hand, believe firmly that *some* knowledge of the past is recoverable and usable to us. I don’t know every cotton-pickin’ detail of Shakespeare’s life or Milton’s, or *all* the details of slavery or how dangerous current relations with North Korea may be, but I know enough to prevent others from manipulating me with questionable narratives in the present, and I know enough to *want to go forward* towards an unknown but exciting future. To cultivate this ability and this desire is why we teach our children history, both personal and collective, in the first place, and why we need to keep doing it.

    1. Yes! I played with the ‘doomed to repeat it’ quote, but it doesn’t quite fit here (and it worn soft with over-use!) I think some sense of the past is essential for young people to be anchored…and the vast knowledge of the ages–like Shakespeare, and I don’t know every detail either—is meaningless without context. I think many people get to my age and begin the process of recovering the past—but for some, that’s too late. We should make it a priority.

      It occurs to me this may be tied to a loss of oral storytelling, but that’s a whole different discussion….

      1. In my opinion, “doomed to repeat it” is inaccurate. Those who do not remember history are doomed to be manipulated in the present. Be that as it may, you wrote a fine essay, and I thank you for it!

  3. Great one Pam. I have an old postcard of Father Bakers I found in a antique store in southern OR several years ago. Stopped me dead in my tracks. I heard my mom yelling about sending me & my bothers to Father Bakers if we didn’t stop doing whatever it was we were doing. “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

  4. I agree that our history helps us know ourselves Pam, but we can never know it completely.

    My grandmother always used to say “I don’t mind which of my children will look after me, I just don’t want to go to The Workhouse” which I think is the same thing as the poorhouse. It was a major worry for her and the one thing that made me want to trace my forebears, most of whom were agricultural workers. Some of them, including children, ended up in the workhouse. Many were listed as “pauper” in the census. It was considered shameful to be “on the parish”, that is to say not self sufficient. But what were widows or even strong men to do if they had to make a living? In many cases they remarried, reclaimed those kids and had more! No social security in those days. . .

    It was no picnic, that’s for sure, but I hope and believe that there were kind people to be found in those establishments – even if they were only the inmates . . .

    Members of my own family interested in my quest wanted to know about who was in the military, who was related to the aristocracy and who had a successful career. Those who proudly claim such connections need to consider that a successful, wealthy or powerful great great grandfather is only one of 8 others who may well have been rogues. And that’s not even considering the female line, which is much harder to trace.

    Of course here in Australia it is quite the fashion to have a rogue or two in the family tree.

  5. Another fine post and very glad to see you online following recent events. I’m not reading well anyway and contextually and culturally not getting some of the referential Americanisms. Never mind. In England you probably know that the poor houses were where destitute people were sent when they were too ill to perform duties in the local workhouse. We had a really interesting BBC programme a couple of years ago about how things were in the UK workhouses before they were abolished. I can’t remember what I learnt at school (English history) about ‘The Poor Law’ but also harking back to olden days and word of mouth histories and looking for more light at the end of the tunnel. Best wishes to you and yours.

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