Last week I finally got to take a much-anticipated field trip to the Soda House at Hagley Museum, where they keep the historical DuPont company archives.
Many of the 19th Century powder mill records are available online, but not all. As a descendent of several powder mill families, I’ve been dying to see the ones that have not been scanned, in the hopes of resolving some long-standing mysteries.
We brought my wheelchair so I could lie down if needed, but I opted not to use it – laid my head on the table a lot, and otherwise pushed through more than I maybe should have, but I didn’t want to break the momentum, nor leave without getting what I came for.
Sadly, I did not find the McGuffin I need to unlock history, but I did find a great deal of new information, and came away with a more detailed understanding of the relationship my ancestors had with the mill, spanning multiple generations.
I have to say it was quite a feeling, to handle 160-year-old ledgers, to see my surname in some bookkeeper’s careful cursive, to touch the “x” where a great-great Irish uncle marked his consent, to discover my great-grandfather’s name (which is of course my father’s name) in those pages, earning $4.00 a month at age eleven, fourteen, sixteen, trying to step up to fill the shoes of an older brother maimed in a cooper fire… it’s humbling, and has a way of quieting the spirit.
Speaking of quiet, we also visited the family grave at St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine, which we didn’t even know was ours until I had some lucky research breakthroughs this past Christmas.
One couldn’t ask for a better day to visit, nor for a nicer spot in the cemetery for the repose of one’s ancestors.
I was so moved by the toning of the churchbell that I tried to record it–instead I missed it, hit record only when I thought I was done, so here’s a clip of me putting my phone down to enjoy the peace of the moment.
The stone is set off by itself beneath a venerable old tree. It has a view of the blue sky and the canary yellow walls of the church. It’s right by the stone walkway leading up to the chapel, where the President of the United States walks on his way to Mass, along with countless descendants of those brave and hard-working Irish who are memorialized at the entrance.
Officially, the grave belongs to two children, my great-great uncle and aunt, as theirs are the only names on the surviving headstone. After much investigative research I’m quite certain my great-great-great grandmother is down there too, along with whatever they buried of her husband and brother-in-law in lieu of a body. Someday I’d like to petition for the right to add a marker with their names on it, but for now it’s enough to have found them, to know they’re there, and to finally have the chance to pay my respects.
It was a poignant time for such a thing, right after Lughnassadh and tucked between my brother’s Fiftieth birthday (just as he begins hospice for Stage Four lung cancer) and the third anniversary of our mother’s death. Family is heavy on my mind these days, for obvious reasons. There’s a part of me that feels as if a race is on to solve all the still-outstanding mysteries, wishing I had all the answers to our family story while I still have family left to tell. Wishing I’d known what I know now much earlier. Wondering WTF it all means, in the scheme of things.
The only thing that separates us from the bones of our ancestors is earth and time.