I’ve been doing some research on my ancestors, specifically those on my great-grandmother Zula Smith’s side. Yes, I know, Zula. Wish I could relate some fascinating explanation for her name, but I have none. And therein lies my dilemma: I possess a rich genealogical chart going back to the 1500s—compiled, coincidentally, by Mrs. Zula Smith who was endeavoring back in the 1930s to join the Daughters of the American Revolution—but I have no personal anecdotes, no stories passed down through the generations to bring these people to life. They are strangers to me, one-dimensional names, flat on a page.
From Zula’s family, I have names and dates and war service marginalia. The lines of these ancestors seem more like tentacles reaching out into space than earthy roots twining underground. I’ve added to her research, taking the family back 500 years to William Boardman (Borman) of Claydon in the county of Oxford in England, who likely was born before the turn of the 16th century. I’ve read about Claydon, which is grimly described as a tiny, impoverished parish. I can’t find any mention of my relatives, except for a will left behind by Felix Carter. Back on this side of the virtual Atlantic, I discovered a letter sent by Julian (Carter) Boreman (or Borman or Boardman—take your pick), daughter of Felix, to her son Samuel Boardman (or whatever) who had arrived in Ipswich, MA, in 1638. The letter, dated Feb. 5, 1641, “written in a fine hand and in red ink,” is short and sweet:
Good sonne, I have receaved your letter: whereby I understand that you are in good health, for which I give God thanks, as we are all—Praised be God for the same. Whereas you desire to see your brother Christopher with you, he is not ready for so great a journey, nor do I think he dare take upon him so dangerous a voyage. Your five sisters are all alive and in good health and remember their love to you. Your father hath been dead almost this two years, and thus troubleing you no further at this time, I rest, praying to God to bless you and your wife, unto whome we all kindly remember our loves.
Your ever loving mother,
Between the lines you can read how precarious life was at this time. The fact that she notes that Samuel’s sisters are still alive, for example, reveals this uncertainty. Julian uses the letter to break the news, at least two years old, of Samuel’s father’s death, but does so without much drama (had the pain of losing her husband waned?) and a pinch of obsequiousness (“troubleing you no further”). It tells, too, of the risk involved in traveling across the Atlantic and Julian’s reluctance to give up her son Christopher to that journey. That she could write a letter, directed as noted in the letter’s history, “to her very loveing sonne Samuel Boreman, Ipswich in New England give this with haste,” offers a glimpse of her education and standing in this small village.
Still, I want to know more. I always want to know more. My obsession with ancestors is not something I can explain easily. Am I looking for some link beyond our common DNA? Was some life-changing experience for Julian encoded on the genes that have passed down through generations to me? Is this fascination all really about me and my place in the world, my foot on the map? Am I navel gazing through history? Despite my wishing it were not so, that I am not so narcissistic, I can’t find a more plausible explanation, except maybe that I love studying American history. And while mathematically it may be true that going back 20 generations will produce a million ancestors, it is that finely tangled thread from the present to the past that I find magical.