The Call of Stories
Grandma's Story about Her Grandfather Emerson
There's a story that my grandmother, Marie B. Cornell, would tell about her mother's father. As boys, Charles Kent Emerson and his younger brother Benjamin were brought to Western New York from Chester, New Hampshire, by their stepsister Sarah. Although they traveled by ox cart, their route followed the Erie Canal, and for their enjoyment Sarah let the boys ride a canal boat part of the way. At last they came to Tyrone, New York, which is now part of Schuyler County but which was then still part of Steuben County.
On another trip, Sarah went back to Chester for their parents. Her mother, Mary "Polly" Porter, was also the boys' mother. The boys' father, Charles Emerson, was Polly's second husband and Sarah's stepfather. Later, Charles Kent Emerson and his wife would name one of their children—one of Grandma's mother's sisters—after his stepsister. Thus Grandma herself had an "Aunt Sarah." But the "Aunt Sarah" in the story was her mother's aunt.
"Aunt Sarah was a tailoress," Grandma would say. "She made men's heavy clothing—men's suits and overcoats. In Tyrone she had a carpenter build her a dropleaf cherry table, on which to cut cloth. Your Aunt Dotty now has that table. Because this was before sewing machines, Aunt Sarah employed other women to help her, and they boarded with her. At one time she had as many as eleven assistants."
I knew from experience that Grandma's stories were often complex constructions. They rested on her own considerable research, as well as on what others had told her. Woven throughout might be hunches and guesses, but usually she chose her words carefully—so that an attentive ear could pick out what was what.
In the case of the story about her grandfather, I knew there existed a published version, in a 1907 genealogy entitled A Porter Pedigree.1 For a while I wondered if that's where Grandma had learned it. But then she told me that her mother had been asked to contribute material to the book and had later decided not to purchase a copy—because, Grandma commented, "She already knew the parts that interested her."
To confirm that the story had indeed come to Grandma orally, I once asked her straight out who first told it to her. "My mother," she replied without hesitation.
"Where were you at the time?" I probed further.
"Mother was a busy woman in the kitchen," she explained, after a little thought. "But sometimes she would fill up with the desire to tell us (me and Edith) a story—work or no work, as long as supper was ready."
Although genuinely part of the family's oral tradition, the story did have a research dimension that Grandma liked to describe—about how she had located Aunt Sarah's tombstone. "Ellsworth Cowles is a local historian from Corning," she would begin, "and he had a cabin on the east side of Waneta Lake. Year after year, he and his wife would be there all during the summer. One time there was an excavation of an old Indian settlement on the land between Waneta and Lamoka Lakes. Somehow in connection with that, Mr. Cowles found out about the Wood Farm Cemetery—which took its name from the Wood family. This is not the big cemetery in Tyrone. Instead it lies in a woods, and no roads go past it. Mr. Cowles got excited about that cemetery. He came and got me and took me there."
Unfortunately, Grandma was never able to show me its precise location. Nor could I find it marked on USGS topographical maps. Following her death, I still had her story but not its ties to the land.
A Trip to the Bradford Cemetery in Late August 1990
"Are you a genealogist?" the man asked as he stepped from his car on a hot afternoon, the very last day of August 1990.
Already I'd been at the cemetery in Bradford, New York, long enough to locate the tombstone for Grandma's sister Edith B. Aber.
With Grandma now gone, I felt that someone in the family should learn the locations of all the family tombstones. Not only did I live in the area, but cemetery research was something Grandma herself had taught me. On a family visit in the mid-1960s, we took an afternoon drive to several cemeteries, looking for the graves of my ancestors. She showed me how to record the inscriptions, just as they appeared on the tombstones. Then back at her house she showed me how to rewrite my notes, one inscription per sheet, to be kept in a special notebook.
More recently I listened to her family stories and to accounts of her genealogical research. But I kept at arms length my own eagerness to collect information. Through a youthful hobby of stamp collecting I had become wary of collecting as an end in itself, without its being tempered by efforts to understand and explain. So when the man asked if I was a genealogist, I didn't give him a straight answer—though I did tell him why I had come. He then opened a notebook on the hood of his car and flipped through the list of inscriptions. "Don't you want to copy them down?" he asked, after locating the surnames I had mentioned. Again, however, I resisted. I had already accomplished my intended goal and was "itchy" to move on.
Meanwhile, he told me about his own work, preparing complete lists of inscriptions for cemeteries in the area. "The sites," he insisted, "are important repositories of information." To keep our conversation from becoming too one-sided, I brought up a recent newspaper article on the deleterious effects of acid rain, and he responded by describing the best angle for tombstones: not exactly upright but tilted slightly face downward.
As we continued talking, I slowly grasped the extent of his knowledge. That, in turn, opened up an opportunity I hadn't expected. "Can you tell me," I found myself asking, "where the Wood Farm Cemetery is?"
My First Trip to the Wood Farm Cemetery,