Visiting My Ancestors

I can’t tell you exactly when I decided to write about history. The extent to which what came before impacts who we are now slowly crawled into my consciousness, probably with age.

My mother understood. Before she died in 2011 she did everything she could to share her own understanding of history and its importance with her family. As an undergrad at the UW my mother took a course from Giovanni Costigan, a class she loved so much she added a history minor to her English degree. Giovanni Costigan was an Irish storyteller, and in his classes history came alive.

Mom wished that I could study with Professor Costigan, who was still a professor emeritus when I was at the UW. I wish I could have, too. More, though, I wish that I could ask her questions now.

My grandmother, Mary Jeannette Gray, was also a (half) Irish storyteller. Her mother’s parents both immigrated from Ireland in the 1830s. On Mary’s father’s side our ancestry leads back to the great migration of the early 1600s. Mary and her husband, my grandfather, Dayton Williams, were both descendants of William and Mary Brewster, of Mayflower fame. I doubt they knew that. By the time they met, 300 years had passed since the founding of the Plymouth Colony, and there was no online genealogy industry for tracing one’s family tree.

In 300 years that tree had seen a lot of transplanting as the family moved west. Mary’s father, Smith William Gray, moved from Michigan to Minnesota in the 1870’s. Twenty-some years later, in 1898, he left his own wife and children behind in Minnesota to join the gold rush in the Alaska, several moths before my grandmother was born. They soon followed to Seattle, but Smith Gray had abandoned them. Stories from her father and his Mayflower past were not anything Mary Gray knew.

But I know. The more I find out about my ancestors (including Smith William Gray), the more I realize how much their lives have influenced me. Researching and retelling the stories I am finding is a way of bringing forth unspoken parts of myself.

One of these stories, about a young woman named Constance Hopkins, my 9th great-grandmother, has just been published by a new online magazine dedicated to historical fiction. I’m quite proud of it, of course, mostly because when I started writing it I had no idea where it was going to go, and the voice of the story was not one I had ever heard coming out of my pen.

You can find the story here: Constance Hopkins, Age Fourteen. Enjoy! And please share it! That’s how magazines like this survive.

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