The Music of One’s Life

In different hours, a man represents each of several of his ancestors, as if there were seven or eight of us rolled up in each man’s skin,—seven or eight ancestors at least, and they constitute the variety of notes for that new piece of music which his life is.   –Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love this image of our ancestors as the musical notes that make up our own songs.

My song is the song of the farmer, the maker, the student, the teacher.

It’s an American song, but it was begun here in this land before it was America. It’s a song with Dutch notes in early Manhattan mingling with solemn Puritan hymns in New England.

My ancestors must’ve been adventurers or at least seekers, coming from Europe to an unsettled unknown. They knew how to pick stones to tame unwelcoming soil and to stay warm where warmth was hard to come by.

They must’ve been loners; they seem to have sought isolation. While some lived in New York City and Boston, they did so when those were very small towns. Then they moved on to the reaches of northern New England and New York, barely settled then and sparsely populated even today.

I recently spent a few days with a favorite cousin and learned the source of another note in my personal song.

I always knew that part of my song included the lilt of Ireland. I could feel the Celtic in me but that’s the side of the family about which I knew the least.

My cousin shared what she knew about my paternal grandfather’s line. She gave me a copy of my grandfather’s grandfather’s marriage certificate, from Kilcluney, in County Armagh.

William Agnew was married in 1848, to Sarah Gray. I still don’t know when they came to America or why but I learned something that thrilled me no end.




William was a weaver.

So the special rhythm of the shuttle being thrown is added to my song; I always sensed it was there!

My song is northern European and rural. It is work music, the music of those who live close to the land and make for themselves. It also contains the strains of art music, as so many of my ancestors sought education to improve themselves and the lives of their children, and to teach the children of others.

My song is rare and unique and mine alone.

And so is yours.

What notes make up the music of your life? Can you see how your melody comes to you from your forebears?

52 thoughts on “The Music of One’s Life

  1. You gave me goosebumps with this post. What a wonderful find. 🙂 I know I have English on my mother’s side and French on my father’s but haven’t done a lot of other research, but it is on my to do list. Now I just need to make it happen. 🙂 My maternal grandparents were small dairy farmers, and I do know I feel quite comfortable around a barn, animals, and soil. I also have a small quilted piece that my great grandmother did so I’m good with the thread as well. 🙂

    • I haven’t done much research either–I never seem to make it a priority. I’m lucky in that a lot of the work has been done already, at least for parts of the family, but I’m still curious. I’m glad you liked the post–thanks!

  2. Lovely thoughts so well put. I have often thought the same myself. As to your Irish ancestor, chances are it was the potato famine and the chance of a better life.

    • I suspect you’re right about the potato famine, given the timing. I wonder how many Americans can trace their roots to that devastating time?

  3. love this post! How amazing that he was a weaver. I will have to give my song more thought. I know many stories about my paternal grandmother’s family, because I had her for so long, and she told me tales. My mother’s side is always springing surprises on me, though. Her dad idn’t share so many stories with us.

    • I know tons about some branches of the family tree and almost nothing about others. Some relatives were interested in genealogy and did much of the work for me. When I start researching, it’s like falling into a time-sucking rabbit hole!

  4. I guessed that you were going to find that weaving connection from your ancestor, but I still got tears in my eyes when I read it on the certificate. It’s not my relative but I still feel a little “shot” of connection, and I am sympathetic about the hard times they were facing.

    I don’t know of any of my own ancestors that were weavers, but my one great-grandmother did quilt. I never thought of it this way before, but she made utilitarian quilts with large pieces of free material, and that is my favorite kind! I admire show quilts and tiny pieces, but I have no plans to make them myself!

    • I’m with you about the fancy-dancy quilts that are so popular in shows. I am impressed but my heart goes to utility quilts and quilts made for heavy use. And for weaving that has a purpose in life, for that matter. So is your family history heavy on farming and working outdoors, with flora and fauna? That seems to fit . . . .

      • It is! On both sides of the family I have people who lived on small farms. Sometimes times were bad and they reluctantly moved to town, and there they were bakers, dairy men, and housekeepers, but they always had gardens. I don’t garden much but I do preserve food.

  5. Last evening Jim and I were looking at information on his grandmother. She was from Liverpool, and her “Auntie Campbell” and uncle ran a boarding house or hotel, for all the shipping crewmen who came in to port. The North’s blockade during the US Civil War put the ports, the textile industry, and the related economy in a bad way, and the Campbells chose to move to the US. At some point in the 1880s Auntie Campbell went back to Liverpool and escorted Jim’s grandmother and 2 siblings to the US, and ultimately to Oklahoma. That is where she met Jim’s grandfather, who had gone there from western Illinois for opportunity to make his own way. What does that say about the song of our home? I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. He comes from hard-working people, willing to uproot for a better life. (We did that, also.) That’s pretty characteristic about most Americans. 🙂

      • Yes, my mom was very creative, could make anything she decided to try. Her mother was a painter. I have a painting of hers on my kitchen wall. I don’t know anything about previous generations for that kind of thing. But no quilters as far as I know.

  6. This is the kind of magic we find when we know we have a song! Isn’t it just the most wonderful thing 🙂 I have Celtic roots too and they vibrate strongly in me, though I know nothing of the pre-immigrant history. I’ve sometimes thought to research it, but have never quite committed. Perhaps afraid of what I might find 🙂 I do think it is important to share our story with the younger generation, because when we are gone, so are our stories and our stories are their genealogical history.

    • Given the reasons many Celtic-types went to (were sent to) New Zealand, you might find some colorful stories if you researched! But then, we all have those colorful characters in our pasts. I don’t know why I get so excited about genealogy and my ancestors–I mean–what’s the big deal? We all have them–but I do. I guess we like the sense of roots and belonging.

  7. What a fabulous post Kerry! I am glad you have found a connection with an ancestor.
    I have found a quote from William Makepeace Thackeray the novelist. Writing in 1845 he says – ‘The ride of ten miles from Armagh (the town) to Portadown was not the prettiest, but one of the pleasantest drives I have had in Ireland, for the country is well cultivated along the whole of the road, the trees in plenty, and villages and neat houses always in sight. The little farms, with their orchards and comfortable buildings, were as clear and trim as could be wished: they are mostly of one storey, with long thatched roofs and shining windows, such as those that may be seen in Normandy and Picardy.’
    The road he speaks of is about 8 miles to the north of Kilcluney.

    • Clare! This is wonderful! Thank you for sending that to me! What a scene to envision. I’ve only been to Northern Ireland once, and then just along the coast. I really would like to go back and track down this area.

  8. What a beautiful post. I saw ‘weaver’ right away! In my family, it’s music, words, art and the beauty in landscape and plants. It’s shot through on both sides. It does make for a connection and continuity, the sense of companionship.

    • That’s a nice way to put it–companionship. So much about this ancestor’s life would be completely alien to me, it’s nice to feel I know him and his world through this shared understanding of weaving. He, no doubt, worked hard, grueling hours at it, in a way I’ll never know, but still . . .

      It doesn’t surprise me to know that landscape and plants are in your genes!

  9. How neat to find out that there was a weaver before you in the family!! On dads side of the family were German farmers. Trust me when I say my grandma knew how to be self sufficient,to be wasteful was a real no,no ,and a marvelous cook ,her cooking made your taste buds sing!,although she only did sewing out of necessity. On my moms side , immigrants of the First World War from Germany because of their Jewish blood, life was hard working in factories. My love of crocheting comes from her. I don’t know where my love of quilting comes from..

    • Even if there are no quilters, specifically, in your past, it sounds like you learned good lessons from your ancestors need for self-sufficiency and abhorring waste and making something pretty with their own hands!

  10. Kerry, so interesting, wonderful post!…. and my heritage very much the same journey. My father’s family , Thomas Miner ( my maiden name is Miner and I grew up in the same town Thomas Miner founded with 4 others) came to New England in 1630 on the ship Arbella. He kept a diary about his farm, life, and community from1653-1684, this was published being one of the only first-hand written accounts of daily life in New England, it resides in the Connecticut Sate Library. My maternal grandfather’s family also ( like your own) came from County Armagh, also a weaver by trade ( no wonder I was born on St Distaff Day!), I have the birth certificate and marriage certificate of both my grandfather and grandmother on this side. To me, this history…this journey of past to present…is so important and precious. Our roots and understanding of those who paved the way…cleared the fields, built the signature stone walls of New England, tended their flocks and crops, all very much matter in discovering things about ourselves. I am a farmer, a spinner, a maker, a soul who remains closely tied to the land and it’s traditions…..apples don’t fall far from their trees, do they ,Kerry? Also, what a pleasant thought both having roots in Ireland and from the same County. Surely why when I put my feet down on Irish soil every year it feels like home! No wonder I was recently quizzing you about Irish linen!
    Have a joyous day! Denise

    • So, Denise–we’re probably related somehow since we have the Armagh connection and my ancestors came in Governor Winthrop’s fleet, as well! And, even if we’re not related by blood, we certainly are in spirit! I see the diary is available on Google books–I need to check it out!

      • Related in spirit for sure, Kerry…hope someday we actually do get to meet, and quite possibly related by either our New England roots or Irish. If not related, I am going to pleasantly chew on the possibility that our kin came into contact with one another, perhaps while crossing the pond, and sat closely in dim light carefully embroidering a piece of linen together. Life stories, oral histories….captured so often in fabrics that travel with us. I think you might have a nicely monogrammed hankie from my great grandmother passed along to your great grandmother when she had a bit of a sniffle while riding the waves over from Ireland….check your stash, I’m sure you’ll find it somewhere!

  11. So weaving is in your genes… that must have been a surprising discovery I wonder if any of your ancesters made candy: maybe the maple syrup connection comes into play there.

    • The weaving gene was a surprise–I had no idea! The candy making is easier to trace. My grandmother, the one I grew up next door to, made the same caramels I make today. It’s was a Christmas tradition and I’ve made them at Christmas all my adult life, well before my more recent ventures. She also made fudge and divinity and turtles . . . yum.

    • Do you know your birth parents? If not, I guess you can create appealing fictions about where all your otherwise unexplained traits came from!

  12. What a lovely image–our ancestors joining their “voices” to make the music that is us. And how wonderful to find a fellow weaver in your past! I don’t know if any of my forebears were weavers. So far as I know, I come from a long line of farmers and laborers who were looking for a better life when coming here from Germany, Hungary, and Scotland (maybe).

    • Well, if you came from farmers and laborers, they were, no doubt, making many of the things they needed, whether in wood or fiber or food. So you come by your creative craft impulses honestly!

  13. That is wonderful! I’m not sure I know that much about my ancestor’s professions, but this is fun – – – my family discovered that the little house we lived in on the edge of my grandparents’ farm was built by a weaver! Then my mother and I decided that we had to learn to weave. I guess my relative stayed at home and wove, but I do know that many weavers were itinerant and set up their looms at other people’s homes to make for them. I wonder which kind of weaver your relative was?

    • Your story is wonderful–how neat that that is what inspired you to weave! I know my ancestor’s wife was Scottish and, between the Scots and the Irish, there were a lot of people weaving! I think I’d like William to have been a weaver of beautiful wool tweeds . . .

    • Thanks–it’s kind of been fun to think about these threads from my ancestors, and how they may be embellishing my basic fabric. (And how many more metaphors can I come up with?!) 😉

  14. So we both have workers with cloth among our ancestors! Yours have left a real leagacy with you in that you continue that tradition. It’s magical making these connections with the past, isn’t it?

    • It is magical, indeed. I really could get completely caught up in it but then I wouldn’t get anything else done! Luckily for me, others in my family have done a lot of the research so I can just benefit from their work.

  15. What a lovely thing for you to find out! I’ve always been quite envious of people who know their heritage and where they came from. Sadly, in our family either no one documented anything or isn’t willing to talk about it (probably due to WWII), so all us children have ever known about our family tree was who our grandparents were and where their parents grew up.
    You’re very lucky to have such extensive knowledge of your family 🙂

    • You, too, could have an extensive knowledge, with a little research! It’s never been easier to find these things out. On the other hand, the fascination with genealogy seems especially strong in the US–I’m not sure why!

      • I think that fascination might stem from people being an ocean away from their roots, which probably makes it more exciting to find out about your ancestry. Over here the roots would probably be just one country away 🙂

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