“It has been said that the gate of history turns on small hinges,
and so do people’s lives. The choices we make determine our destiny.”
Thomas S. Monson
When looking backwards in time at my ancestors’ lives I tend to romanticize them. I never fail to be shocked to discover that not one of them had one that was ordinary. And once in a while I will uncover a decision that changed the direction of their life and their loved ones’, too.
But isn’t that how the story goes for all of us?
Today I’d like to introduce you to my husband’s great-grandfather, Addison Cross, and his wife Hattie Marshall Cross. My oldest daughter owns the violin that Addison made almost one hundred years ago, and that’s what I assumed would be the thing that I focused on until I started having questions about his wife.
I talked to one of Addison’s relatives this week and even though she didn’t give me anything new, she had a question of her own about Hattie. We both knew she’d been married at 16 in 1868 to Oscar Armstrong, and six months later had Fred, followed by divorcing Oscar and setting out on her own, never living at home again. She (the woman on the phone) thought that Fred had died because she called him “the boy”, and no one knew anything about him except what they’d been told. Her question was what really happened to Hattie? Was she raped? Was she forced to marry him against her will after she learned she was pregnant? Would Oscar and Hattie have eventually married no matter what her condition?
When I hung up the phone I was perplexed. I’d made the call to make sure Hattie actually had been married to Oscar, or to correct a mistake that I run into often in family research: the Same-Name-Syndrome. But I came away relieved that my collection of documents were telling a true story, that her son Fred was very real, and that he hadn’t died until he was 30-years-old.
One event changed the life of so many.
Fred was sent to live with his great-aunt and might have grown up playing with his aunts and uncles next door. Was anyone besides Hattie, her parents, or Hattie’s aunt and uncle privy to the information about Fred’s lineage? Guess not. Nobody I talked to knew about him.
When I turned my attention back to Hattie my heart broke. I was told that her death was mourned by people who said, “everyone loved Hattie. She was a beautiful and kind woman.” I found her in the 1880 census, 18-years-old, childless and single, living with a family as a domestic servant in Nashua, while her ex husband was making furniture down the road in Merrimack. Can you imagine not being able to raise your own child? I’m sure that so many of you can. To have to watch him grow up, start walking, go to school, make friends, and finish school as her life went on in a different direction, but parallel to his, must have been challenging.
But the gate to that new life, Fred’s, Hattie’s, Oscar’s, grandparents’ and caregivers’ had started to swing the moment she got pregnant.
Imagine Addison walking into Hattie’s life seven years later. Fred, now the age of my second youngest, is either a secret, a sore spot and source of discomfort for one or both of them, or an unapproachable indulgence. Addison and Hattie ended up having eight more children while living in Hudson and then Derry, New Hampshire. They died within 10 months of each other in 1934/5. How did they manage their family and Fred? With or without him?
Fred died in 1899, a year before the next census which would have illuminated a bit more about his life and how other people’s choices had affected his. No matter what, Fred had no choice about the circumstances of his birth and upbringing. (Maybe he did!)I’d like to believe that his caregivers, the Newcombes, gave him a stable and happy childhood. I’m curious about how and why he died. Was it a genetic weakness? Could have been. Harriet’s next child, Frank Marshall Cross, my husband’s namesake, died of a heart condition when he was just 54-years-old, 3 years before his parents. It would be so interesting to discover a family trend for heart problems. Wouldn’t it?
What did I learn from looking at this group of people? What did I take away that I can apply to my life, or use to teach my children? I’m left considering the importance of choices. Once the gate swings open or shut it opens and closes to opportunities that could be good, bad or just plain different.
However, I had to search for this story. It was buried in secrecy or neglect of proper record-keeping and oral history. Why? If my daughters faced similar circumstances, or even my sons, I know that secrecy is not the direction I would go. Make a choice and own the consequences. That is what I believe. Enjoy them, fix what is yours to fix, or get help. But live in them completely. How else can you learn? Better yet, how else can anyone else learn from your life if it’s hidden away?
You can throw the consequences to your choices or the circumstances that have been thrust upon you over the garden gate and turn your back and run.
But watch the gate on its backwards swing.