Blair Family Fiction

In the span of a heartbeat…

Dear Rosa,

How close I came to never being born, how stunning that in the span of a heartbeat, one life ended and sent another onto a different journey.

Genealogy can be very dry, very boring stuff. I’ve watched my children’s eyes glass over when I make a new discovery. It’s only when I put that discovery in perspective that they understand.

This is important, what I’m doing. It means something, if only to me.

So, in typical Sue-fashion, I’ll share that little discovery in the form of a story.

A preface; I’m sorry for the sadness, and I don’t mean to be morose, truly, it’s just so damned rotten that this had to happen…

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Henry Lucius Ferry rubbed his face, trying to restore calm when all he really wanted to do was scream. To say it’d been a long, dreadful three days would be such an understatement as to cause a man to lose control. And control was all he had left.

Calamity had struck his new family. He watched his wife of one year, a lovely woman of but twenty-six, Blanche Adams struggle through every breath. He listened to each one and prayed it would be followed by another. Come morning of the third day, Henry sensed a shift in her spirit and had sent for the doctor once again.

Damn it, isn’t one death enough? He thought and stifled that scream. Lawrence, his child, had died in his arms. The infant would never grow up, never know his father or mother, never know how much he was loved. And Blanche, his Blanche, now lay struggling from exhaustion. The birth, it seemed, would cost another…

Henry turned at the sound of the door opening, grateful to see it was the doctor, hopeful the man would find a way to restore his wife, or at least bring comfort as she died.

This was Henry’s time of trial and one so many others had faced. So why did he feel so numb? And how would he carry on, alone, with promises unkept and memories not created?

She left him then, he sensed it. Heard that last breath and knew another would not follow.  Perhaps losing Lawrence had been too large a shock.

Henry looked at his wife’s face, suddenly peaceful and sent a prayer windward:

May you hold our son,

know love and joy instead of this brutal heartache;

May the two of you suffer no more.

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Here are just the facts as I learned only today:

Henry Lucius Ferry married Blanche D. Adams on June 1, 1909

Lawrence Ferry was born on December 14, 1910 and died December 14, 1910

Blanche Adams died on December 17, 1910 due to “exhaustion from prolonged labor”

After Blanche died, Henry married Mary Julia Blair, my grandmother and they bore eight children. One of them, the youngest, was my father, Henry Ferry.

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Blair Family Fiction

Henry and Rosa…

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Dear Rosa,

You were a summer bride and just nineteen years old. I can only imagine how taken Henry was with your beauty. And those eyes, those stunning clear blue eyes…

I’d like to picture that day as a happy one, albeit quiet and informal. Please allow me to indulge, as no photos exist of this simple affair…

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He didn’t have much to give her. Henry looked down at the calloused hands of a laborer and shook his head. Not much at all, yet this beautiful, petite woman was willing to call him husband. Rosa entered the chapel, wearing a simple dress she’d sewn in a mad-rush with her sister’s help and God didn’t she look incredible.

How, he thought and not for the first time, did I get so damned lucky?

She smiled at him from across the room and the world spun in a crazy swirl of light.

It just really was impossible that this day had come to the likes of Henry Blair. His happiness faded just a bit when he thought of the future that awaited her. The back-breaking work, the sorrow and pain of life on the edge. Still, she understood. Her parents had made a go of it – left Canada in search of the great dream. They’d made it, so would Henry and Rosa, as long as they stuck together.

He straightened as she walked down the aisle with her arm looped through his brother, Newell’s. Did he have to be so tall? So infernal handsome? Henry took after his father: short, wiry and tough. He supposed that was a good thing, as Rosa was a delicate as a summer flower…

The thought drifted away when she reached his side. He saw merriment in those wicked blue eyes and mirth.  And damned if it wasn’t his job to keep that spark alive through all the trials they faced. Rosa Drinkwine would know she was loved every day that the good Lord gave them to share.

She deserved nothing less.

henryrosamarr

Blair Family Fiction

Newell Blair

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Dear Rosa,

He was your husband’s father, Newell Blair, but also your uncle! I know first cousins often married one hundred years ago, still it’s a bit daunting to think that your family tree simply does not fork.

For some reason, I’m enamored with Newell. Maybe it’s the name – I find it so exotic. Throughout this summer as I worked on my family’s genealogy, I always returned to him with a million questions.

What was he like? Was he tall, dashing with a hint of dare-devil within? There’s no one left who would know.  I guess it’s up to me to use the information I gleaned from familysearch.org and my over-active imagination…

And so, here we go…

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It was a hot day, August 31, 1872, and one that started out unremarkable for Newell Blair.

He rose early, long before daybreak, as the other men in the work camp did, and ate a simple breakfast of coffee and bread seated around an outdoor fire.  A quick glance at a star-studded sky told him the sun would be relentless and brutal as he worked laying the railroad through Bolton, Vermont.

Bolton. Just a scrap of a town and proud of it. He grinned and took a sip of pungent, terrible coffee. The Irish had claimed it for their own, at least while they worked here and didn’t they leave their mark where ever they went. He ran a hand through black hair that sorely needed washing. There was a river nearby, one with three pools connected by small waterfalls the locals used to bathe and find relief from the heat. They called it the “buckets.” Maybe it was time to clean his clothes and wash his hair…

He watched with curious blue eyes as the foreman approached. Colin O’Reilly was a bear of a man, beefy and strong with a heart just as big. He’d taken care of the work crew. He made sure of their safety as best as he could. It was Colin that pulled the bodies of the men that’d died recently when the blast brought down more rock than planned. It was Colin that let the women know they were now widows.

Newell offered him coffee.

He took the mug with a rueful grin. “And sure, what’s another cup of this poison? Gut rot, that’s what this stuff will give ya.”

“The tea you drink, Colin- that my friend, is stronger stuff.”

“Maybe, but this witches brew will put you in an early grave.”

Both chuckled and then fell quiet. A bird chirped, testing the dawn. Soon another joined in and a soft orange glow lit the horizon. More men began to shuffle from their crude tents and make their way to the fire to grab a last-minute breakfast before the hard, dangerous work would begin.

“This isn’t a social visit, now is it Colin.”

Newell had been in camp for the better part of the summer. He’d taken notice of the patterns, seen who the foreman befriended and who he did not. Though of Scottish descent, Newell was still from Canada and didn’t fit in with the Irish who barely spoke English. Not that his was much better. French was his language. This Gaelic he heard around camp baffled the imagination and damn the way these men could drink….

“Now, you know me well enough Blair. Know that I take care of my team. And I see in your eye a gleam that’s both honest and true, so I wanted to let you know there’s a man coming from Burlington this morn. He brings a record book and offers the chance for you to sign on to the grand US of America. He’s offering you citizenship, if you like.”

Newell stared into the fire.  Citizenship? Give up his Canada-France? He took a bite of stale bread. Was this what he sought when he left home?

Colin finished his coffee in one large swallow and wiped his mouth with a filthy sleeve. “You should know, I plan to take the oath and join the others. My children will be Americans. I’ll not be going home when these tracks are finished.” He looked at the mountains that surrounded them. “There’s work here and land to own. A place to build churches and the like. You should give it some serious thought, my Scottish-French friend. An opportunity such as this doesn’t come along that often.”

Newell watched Colin stand and move off. This was a cautious man, but ambitious and if an Irish could give up rights to his homeland, perhaps he could, too. Hadn’t his own father fought in the Civil War? Hadn’t Louis Blair become naturalized just three years ago?

A dog began to bark announcing a visitor to camp. The man from the Burlington office had arrived.

A day that began as ordinary would end with my great, great-grandfather becoming a US citizen.

Newell Blair would call Vermont his home.

Blair Family Fiction

Henry and Rosa’s first Christmas…

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Dear Rosa –

I’m a sucker for the romantic tale – the one where the boy gets the girl- so I hope you don’t mind if I let my imagination take a ride and paint the picture of your first Christmas as husband and wife. Merry Christmas, Rosa. You are missed.

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Christmas, 1892

She’d risen early Christmas eve to see to the chores and finish the gift she hoped to give to Henry. The tiny apartment they’d rented above the Drinkwine’s barn did little to afford privacy, so Rosa had made due the best she could, stealing moments throughout the fall to work on that gift. Her new husband – she smiled- Mr. Henry Blair needed a sweater -one to keep him warm as he labored outside.

She stole a glance out the window while her knitting needles clicked away. Still snowing, beautiful and drifting and each branch was lined with white. Her candle flickered from a breeze that crept through the cracks, bringing the smell of winter inside. Fresh, clean air- she inhaled- though cold, but the wood stove chased the chill away.

Snow is always so silent, she thought, it’s a like a dream watching those tiny flakes drift down from a pewter sky…

Her knitting continued, as did the smile as she thought of their next Christmas together. There’d be three then when she birthed this babe sometime in July. Busy hands paused and rubbed a belly just beginning to show.

Mary Julia, if it’s to be a girl and Frankie, if a boy.

Henry didn’t know of this yet. She’d kept the secret for two months.

It could wait for one more day.

The off-white wool was soft, spun by her sister-in-law from the shearing they’d done mid-summer. She’d taken on extra to barter for that yarn- chores and baking and cleaning, but it was worth it. The sweater, knit with cables and worked in a traditional Scottish pattern, would keep Henry through the long winter ahead.

The candle flickered again and Rosa sighed. Her Henry and no one worked harder than that man. He’d be a good provider, a faithful husband. Thank God he didn’t take to the drink like so many of her kin.

She heard the door open, footsteps and the stamping off the snow, as Henry climbed the stairs and hurried to stash the knitting. She’d finish the last sleeve later, between the baking and the dinner they’d share with her family. Christmas morning he would unwrap that singular present stashed beneath their simple tree and there amidst the happiness she would give him another gift.

Rosa would tell him of the child.

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Mary Julia Blair, my grandmother, was born June 7, 1893.

 

Blair Family Fiction

Frankie…

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Dear Rosa,

They say tragedy often binds and I wonder if that was true for you. In my search this summer, I discovered your devastating loss: little Freddie, dead at age 4. He left behind two older siblings. Two that seemed to share a closeness throughout the rest of their lives.

So little did your daughter talk of her family, but on the rare occasions when she’d open up, she mentioned her Frank with a smile. Clearly, Mary was proud of him. One can see their connection in this grainy photo. I’m not sure I remember it right, if he was the musician that could play his violin to any tune on her player piano. And if he was the brother whose son was born blind…

Still, I only need close my eyes and imagine that first Christmas when it was just the two of them…

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Mary glanced down the hallway to make certain her parents were safely tucked away in their kitchen. She knew each floor board and where they creaked, which ones to step on, which ones to avoid. She should be asleep, but Frankie’s tears had woken her again. Her mum didn’t need any more pain just now.

She opened his door without knocking, somehow knowing it would scare him more if she did.

“Mary?” She heard him sniffling in the dark. “That you?”

The smile was sad and soft as she crossed the room.

“It’s me, silly. Scoot over will ya? It’s freezin…”

Frankie hurried to make room for his big sister.

“You’ve been crying.” She wrapped her arms around him. “Too much, Frankie. It’s too much.”

Her gentle scolding only brought fresh tears.

“I can’t seem to stop. I want him back. We were friends.”

“I know you do, but you need to rest. We can’t give our mum any more reason for worry, right? Imagine if you caught cold…”

Frankie squirreled deeper into his sister’s embrace. She was tiny, ribby, not even an adolescent, yet she always seemed to know the right thing to say.

“Sing it for me, Mary.”

“Which one?”

“You know, the one about the old country.”

“Mum’s favorite?”

He nodded into her cotton nightshirt.

Mary picked up the tune she’d heard so many times before. A simple Scottish melody, sweetened by the French. She imagined the old tales it spoke of; the people from long ago and how they survived a great strife during the Clearances. With each passing moment, she felt Frankie slipping off to sleep and if he stirred, she simply continued the wordless song, knowing that sadness had a time and a place. That he needed to heal.

Seven was too young for such raw grief.

When at last she knew he was asleep, Mary carefully slipped off the bed. A quick kiss on his wet cheek and she sought her room, knowing they’d survived another long night; that they would always stick together, her and Frank.

That healing would come to their little family and someday she would throw her arms around him and they would laugh once again.

Blair Family Fiction

A quick goodnight…

Dear Rosa,

I like to imagine you putting your babies to bed. The gentle smile you would’ve had watching them sleep.  With all the calamity that beheld your precious family, I’d like to imagine just one night, perhaps a Monday, when Mary and Frank were still small enough to climb into your lap and all was right in your world.

Ready?

Because I’m about to take flight…

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It’d been a long day of endless chores. A fussing and worrying over every sniffle or cough. Late November often brought sickness and drafty old houses didn’t help.

Being newly pregnant added ten-fold to your cares.

Still, with one baby asleep nearby and the other just settling in, a profound peace slipped through your soul, if only for the briefest of moments.

You’re safe, little one, you whispered to the fussy child in your arms. Frankie fidgeted just a moment longer, then stuck his thumb in his mouth. His soft breath caressed your neck as you felt him slipping off.

A wordless tune you hummed, a simple lullaby. A whisper of lovely notes that soothed the infant in your arms.

World War I was still a dozen years off. World War II was an impossibility. For tonight you gave thanks to your maker for the blessings these children had brought you.

For tonight, Rosa, you felt peace.

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I wish for all of you peace and hope and all good things.

Sue

Blair Family Fiction

Elizabeth and John…

Dear Rosa,

Your daughter, Mary, never talked of your mum and dad, Elizabeth and John, and I’m sorry for that. Sorry I didn’t try a bit harder to get that tight-lipped Vermonter to tell me the stories I ached to hear. Somehow, it felt too personal to pry. They were her grandparents, not mine, and I got the message to leave it alone.

Until now.

I did some digging this summer. Fired up my computer and typed in “familysearch.org” and oh, the treasures I found.

Immigrants. All the census say “Canada-France.” Neither side of your family spoke much English when they came down to Vermont. Both Elizabeth and John were born in Canada. Elizabeth in 1849 or so and John… well, he was just a bit older. Seems he was born around 1809. Imagine my surprise when I found they were 40 years apart. An incredible census (1880) lists four generations of John Drinkwine’s living in one house.

I could tell you more, but perhaps I can show you better. For those that’ve read my posts, you know my imagination is about to take flight….

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Jean Boisvin stole a glance at his new bride, Elizabeth Blair. Younger than him by some 40 years; a  real beauty with those blue eyes and how did he get so lucky? His first wife, Harriet, had died in childbirth, leaving him to raise little Antwine and Jean, Jr. alone. Something a poor laborer just couldn’t do in the 1800’s.

The marriage had been quiet and quick. A simple affair as there were children involved. And now they were packing to leave their home.

Canada, his French Canada, could no longer support a growing family of four. He needed work and Vermont was the place offering. The Irish were building the railroads, mining quarries, working the mills that seemed to spring up overnight along the rivers. He was a laborer and would never be anything but. He’d find kin there, of sorts. Others that spoke his language and maybe, if he was lucky, he’d find work.

Papa? Little Jean tugged on his father’s shirt. Je n’parle pas Englais…

Oui, his father answered, but you will learn.

He met his new wife’s gaze. We will all learn the language. Comprende vous?

Eliza nodded and hurried the children along. The packing was done. With so few belongings, they carried what they owned in crude sacks. A new life waited. Fearful, yet hopeful, they stepped out the door…

They’d change their names when they arrived in St. Albans, Vermont. After weeks of travel, mostly on foot, they would find a place to settle and Jean would become John. Boisvin would become Drinkwine. There, Eliza would birth children that would be American.

That would become their legacy.

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I don’t think your papa lived long, Rosa. By the 1890 census, he was gone, leaving Eliza alone to care for you and Alfred, Harriet and Alice, William, Margaret and Sophia. Your mum would marry again to Peter Drinkwine. Perhaps a cousin or distant relation of John’s. Poor, French-speaking immigrants stayed within their clans.

It was all they knew. It was survival.

And here is my great, great gram’s death certificate. Elizabeth Drinkwine, born Elizabeth Blair.

Ah, the power of familysearch.org