One of my next projects (possibly not until I'm further along in my Archival Studies MLIS degree) will be creating a "virtual cedar chest" website, highlighting each family artifact on a blog with ownership and location information so everyone in the family knows what’s hiding in grandma’s attic. Here's why this is important...
Artifact and Memory in the Digital Age
(adapted from a presentation I gave in August 2011 as an Exponent panelist on Mormon Women and Material Culture, now available in a book here)
I find it fascinating that two of my pioneer ancestors whose stories and lives are best known to the family are the same two for whom we have physical heirlooms. Is Mary Sorensen remembered for her exciting pioneer stories because her sampler hangs at my aunt’s house and her stories get told upon seeing it, or did Mary’s wonderful experiences cause her descendants to preserve the sampler? Does seeing Elizabeth Fox’s treasured plate brought from England displayed on my grandmother’s shelf remind us of Elizabeth’s sacrifices and life, or did the plate get saved to remember Elizabeth’s story? And for the ancestral women for whom I have no physical evidence, how does that impact my relationship to them and to telling their story? As a de facto family historian and curator, examining these questions has helped me better understand and undertake my obligations to share these heirlooms and lives with others in a virtual world.
My second-great-grandmother Mary Sorensen was a teenager when she and her family crossed the plains in 1862. She had attended a Dames Sewing School in Denmark, and brought a sampler with her to work on the journey. After finishing the alphabet portion, she embroidered the initials of her younger half-brothers who died crossing the plains. The top part of the sampler remains bright—her Danish thread was more colorfast. The lower portion sewn with inferior American thread has since faded. Not only did this sampler showcase Mary’s skill with the needle and serve as a memorial for her dead siblings, it also symbolizes her feelings towards her heritage: Mary was proud to be a Dane. She loved to read of the early Viking exploits, and would square her shoulders and tell her grandchildren, blue eyes shining, “Always remember, ve is Wikings, and ve don’t cry!” The Danish threads remained bright both in her sampler and in her life.
My third-great-grandmother Elizabeth Fox was a young mother in England who joined the LDS Church in 1851. After her conversion, her husband became abusive and then abandoned the family. Elizabeth worked at a factory to save money to bring her two children to America, and family legend says that she threw her wedding ring in the ocean as the ship sailed. She brought two green Majorca plates across the plains with her. Elizabeth remarried in Idaho, where she was heavily involved in early Relief Society efforts. She remained a proper English lady, known for her Yorkshire Christmas puddings, her fine furniture, and her flower garden.
Elizabeth’s plates passed down to her daughter’s daughter’s daughter, my grandmother. A century after its transatlantic voyage, one of the plates was broken during my rebellious uncle’s high school rock band practice in the 1960s. What had remained strong through generations can and did break, and prophetically, so did the religious and family ties in my uncle’s life. I see the broken (now glued) plate and the whole plate as somehow indicative of Elizabeth’s life. She had two marriages, one broken and one not, yet both were part of her life story. The brilliant green color of the plates invites attention, as has her life.
One ancestor who really touched my heart a couple years ago was my fourth-great-grandmother Rebecca Rogers. I had never seen a picture of her or anything she had owned. Without passing down artifacts, she has been forgotten, but I had just come across a brief account of her life. Rebecca was a servant girl in England who was pregnant when she eloped with the wealthy second son of her employer, but they were then cut off from his family. She was widowed when pregnant with her seventh child, and the family later joined the Church. Rebecca sent her children ahead to America and finally made the journey herself as a 65 year old grandmother. Crossing late in the season, her hands and feet were frozen by the snows in Wyoming, and she died the day after arriving in the Salt Lake valley.
I wept for this woman and wanted to give her a gift of some kind, so one day I went to her grave in the Salt Lake City Cemetery with a bouquet of flowers. There I was surprised to learn that she was buried in the paupers’ section with no headstone. I organized a family effort to put up a marker to honor this woman, who had come to mean so much to me. As a result of that, I believe, Rebecca gave a gift back: my aunt came across a photo of her that has been unknown for many years. This is a treasure to me!
As artifacts are physical, tangible items, they connect with one of the five love languages identified as gift-giving, which happens to be strong in my own personality. I have wanted to share my ancestors’ stories with other descendants, and have also felt the desire to give these ancestors gifts themselves. Although this was impossible (except in a few cases where we have repaired or placed tombstones), I have been able to fulfill this desire through creating this ancestral birthday blog. At the end of each birthday post, I suggested a virtual gift for each ancestor, and invited comments as “gift ideas.” These ranged from the meaningful to the humorous. Picking “the perfect gift” has been an intriguing way for me to think about their lives and personalities.
As I spotlighted each ancestor on their birthday, I felt that I brought them back to life in a way, resuscitating their memories for others in a new generation to make their acquaintance. I have been especially thrilled that my oldest daughters are faithful readers of my blog and come up with clever gift ideas for their ancestors. They aren’t going to pull out old xeroxed life histories from our basement files, and they may not even pull a family history book off the shelf, but they will read an email and a blog post on their Google Reader. For that reason, the picture I chose for the blog banner is a party tree—to remember these ancestors as real people, who celebrated birthdays and enjoyed parties and gifts.
By giving everyone their day in the sun, I feel that I have somewhat leveled the ancestral inequality in our family that has come through fame, artifacts, and writings. Those ancestors who kept journals, or were prominent during mortality, or who passed down samplers, plates, and gilt-framed portraits have necessarily over the years become better-known and remembered. If you need a story for a talk or for trek, you turn to them. But now I hope, Rebecca Rogers is as well loved in our family as Mary Sorensen and Elizabeth Fox, and I hope for a similar effect with others I have been digging out of their figurative graves. And these ancestors and their stories will live again, and live on.
A particular virtue of digital age is repackaging, and here one can find stories, photos, and even links to ordering books about these ancestors in a different format from earlier generations. I have also been pleased to have distant cousins email me from various branches of the family who have found my blog online. In each family or generation there may only be one heirloom sampler or pioneer plate, but in this day and age, I am hopeful that all descendants will be able to share these artifacts virtually.