Ode to Annie
In my mind’s eye, I can see Annie. Disheveled. Wandering the halls of her modest, Carlisle home. Cotton nightgown catching on a stair tread. The wooden floor boards creaking under her frigid bare feet as she drifts from room to room. Upstairs. Down. The porch. Back again. December snow falls softly beyond the black window panes. She carries a burning candle, yet she doesn’t really see the stuttering light. She doesn’t need to. She knows these walls. This furniture. Those pictures. “Burn it, burn it all,” she whispers. “Down to the sticks. Down to the bones. They’re dead. They’re dead. They aren’t coming home.”
It will happen to you, you know. You’ll be chugging along in your research and someone will reach up from the grave, and capture your heart. Suddenly, you’ll have a driving psychological need to discover everything you can about that person. You won’t sleep. You’ll stop doing a present-time important thing to jump back in the past to put the pieces together. You’ll bond with another’s life without ever speaking to them.
Annie began as an innocuous character in the vast array of the Trayer/Drayer family. Not in the direct line, she was a figure that popped up as we went wide, hoping to piece together my husband’s sketchy lineage. We didn’t realize, at first, just how pivotal a part Annie played in our data collection. Just as in her life, so she became in our research – the glue that held an entire family together. And the last woman standing that picked up the pieces when it all blew apart.
1928. Annie Trimmer is married to William Henry Trayer, and she is the head of a large household in the city of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her husband, William, a recovered polio victim, has a successful shoe business that he shares with his father. Annie’s days are filled with numerous tasks, including the management of eight children, ages ranging from early twenties to under ten. According to the previous census, Annie’s only daughter has moved out of the house. Annie is manning the helm of this all male family without servants (none listed in the census) and is now saddled with taking care of her father-in-law who has temporarily moved in with them. This alone earns Annie a gold star. Yet, the year from hell is about to unfold.
I wonder what New Year’s Day, 1928 was like for Annie. The previous year, Samuel, her brother-in-law, passed away. A veteran of the Spanish-American War, they buried him beside his mother, Harriet, out in New Kingston. Did Annie think at all of Samuel and his early passing as the clock struck the New Year? Did she ponder the nature of life and death as she prepared the dinner for her large family? Did she have any inkling at all what 1928 would bring?
Annie’s life came together for us a little bit at a time. A marriage date here. A church record there…births of her children as the census years marched along. She became a person of interest when we realized that her father-in-law, Daniel, a direct-line relative, moved in with her family in 1920 even though he kept his own residence. To us, this meant he must be sick or in poor health. As we unearthed the 1930 census we realized that something had gone terribly wrong. We couldn’t find William (her husband), or Daniel, Sr., or even Annie. What the heck happened?
Many times in working with census records we’ve discovered just how unreliable they can be. For some reason, no one seemed to be able to spell or speak the name “Trayer”. In fact, to date we’ve found fifteen derivations (including Grayer) and we’re still counting. So, at first, we figured that someone screwed up on the census… again.
That was before I started moving hell and high water to pull obits. By the time I was done, I’d joined two news services and spent hours on the microfiche machine at the historical society. My tenacity did not go unrewarded. The story of Annie unfolded obit by obit, copy by copy, grave by grave. I gained an unending respect for this woman. And I felt her pain.
In February of 1928, Annie’s husband, William passed away. This had to have been an incredible shock to the entire family. Fine one week, dead of pneumonia the next. Annie’s widow’s vendue shows a complete inventory of the household and business. It appears that one of William’s brothers came to live with the family for a short time to assist either in running the business or in selling off the stock and equipment. Unfortunately, for Annie, it just gets worse. In March of 1928 a headline hits the Carlisle Evening Sentinel – Man Shoots Himself in Head. One of Annie’s sons, distraught over his father’s death and estranged from his wife (he’s in arrears in his child support) dispatches himself from this life in Annie’s front hallway with a shotgun. Funeral number two.
In the late spring of 1928, Annie’s sister passes away. Although she is not living in Annie’s home, this had to be traumatic and makes funeral number three. Funeral number four occurs in October – a sister-in-law which completely scatters that family. Funeral number five, her father-in-law’s brother, hits December 9th. December 11th, Daniel, her father-in-law is found dead in her upstairs bed. By this sixth funeral, Annie doesn’t have enough money to pay for it, and the burden is assuaged with the help of Daniel’s daughter, as shown on the records from the funeral home. Annie drops Daniel Sr. in the family plot in New Kingston without a headstone. In early 1929, Annie loses one of her infant grandchilden to influenza. In all, Annie has suffered through eight funerals in a little over a year, the loss of the family income, her emotional security, and most likely, her sanity.
When we visited the original address we found the house was gone, and half the house beside it was also missing – as if a fire took it.
For weeks I thought about Annie. Where had she gone? What happened to her children? In 1928, her youngest was only seven or eight years old. How she must have struggled! When I couldn’t find Annie in the census or church records I feared that she, too, had crossed beyond the veil in that terrible year. My husband and I double checked the cemetery in New Kingston. Although Daniel was buried there (another story), and Samuel, his son, and Jacob his brother, and Harriet, his wife… no William. No son Daniel. No Annie.
Late one night as I was surfing through Ancestry.com I found a reference to Annie from someone’s family tree. An Annie Trimmer that lived until 1950. Was this the same Annie? I hoped so. I would like to think that Annie was afforded some peace, some joy in successive years. Back to the historical society we went. I vowed I would find Annie. I didn’t.
Searching through the cemetery records, however, I did find William. Armed with camera, chalk, and a scrub brush, we drove to the listed cemetery. “Let’s use the side entrance,” said my husband. “I think it will be easier to pull the truck in that way.” He drifted about 500 feet onto the black, cemetery macadam and cut the engine.
I glanced to the left, just to take in our surroundings and uttered a screech of surprise. There she was, my Annie, right smack beside the side entrance we’d chosen to use. I know it sounds stupid, but I ran to the headstone and sunk to my knees before it. “Annie! I found you,” I cried, gently fingering the carved letters of the date of her death – 1950.
“Let’s see if there are other Trayer’s here,” said my husband, enthused that we’d finally found Annie. We discovered several more around her. She must have used money from sale of the business in 1928 to buy a number of plots. William, her husband, son Daniel who killed himself, his grown daughter, and other grown children of William’s were clustered around my Annie. We were so excited that we decided to walk the cemetery, to see if there were any more. In front of us stood a large building, and we really didn’t think much about it. My husband took the left side of the cemetery and I took the right, thinking that the bulk of the graves were in the front of the building. I rounded the corner first and stopped dead in my tracks. The cemetery stretched for…forever! Tombstones as far as the eye could see, and then flags and flat stones beyond that. Had we used any other entrance we may never have found Annie. Stunned, I turned in the hundred degree heat, a massive chill enfolding my shoulders. “Thank you, Annie,” I whispered. “Thank you.”
I don’t know why I bonded with Annie. She isn’t even my relative; yet, somehow, through time and space, although years and death stretch between us without the possibility of ever speaking, a connection has grown. And I wondered, as I stood there, could I pray for Annie now? They say time is not linear. Was I somehow tuning in on Annie’s pain? Was she wandering those ghostly halls or rocking on sore knees, asking the Divine for help? Could I stand here and send her my love? Would she feel it? If I really believed, could the barrier between 2010 and 1928 melt away – just for a moment? Or was dead really dead and gone very gone?
Screw the philosophical questions, I thought, and prayed my heart out.
If it wasn’t for Annie, there is a lot we wouldn’t know. She was instrumental in filling out the paperwork of the times that filtered down to us, that lead us further in many directions of our genealogy research. Although it seems like such a pain to work with indirect lines in your family, now and then you’ll meet an Annie. And when you do? Your physical reward may be facts and figures; but, you’ll reap something far more important — a strange and loving connection that lives beyond the grave.