Despite being one of seven half-siblings, I am an only child. My family tree is unique. My father was an only child, despite being one of ten brothers–the rest being halves and steps. Who then cares about our pedigree? I do and one day one of the offspring of those half siblings may care. That possibility, however, is not what makes me dig to understand my ancestors. Curiosity and challenge keep me poking into histories and census records. Just how did I get to be who I am and what parts of this endless family puzzle can I fit into place?
Here’s one part. One hundred years ago, nice round number, all eight of my great grandparents were living in Rhode Island, in the northwest corner of Little Rhody. The atmosphere, for them, was one of hard work and modest gains. They were mill workers, farmers, clerks, housewives, horse handlers. Today I’m taking my great grandmother out for the afternoon. No, she’s not a zombie and I have no clue about her appearance or her behavior. I do know that she saw her father shot dead in the street when she was six, her mother’s remarriage and her own subsequent work, along with five of her siblings, in a dreary cotton mill in Georgiaville, a village in Smithfield RI. By the time Annie was fourteen she was working and apparently did so until she married eight years later. She saw her only daughter married and divorced (a heartbreak probably for an Irish Catholic mother at the turn of the 19th century) and her only son dead from TB at the age of twenty-six, leaving a widow and toddler son. The widow returned to her own family and I find little evidence that Annie had a chance to enjoy her grandchild, my father.
So, today, I’m taking Annie and her story to a party at Pomegranate Place, a gorgeous place where women gather in Denver. We will share stories about women we admire, and without ever having met her, I admire Annie J Reynolds Hill. She endured tragedy and hardship. She outlived her husband by seven years, apparently living independently until her own death at the age of 67. So here’s to Annie. The least I can do is keep her memory alive.