The Van Wagners (or Van Wagoners, or Van Wagenens, or other variations that seem to free-float across generations) are probably the best-researched line in our family tree, due to the name-pride that persisted to at least the generation born ca 1916, ie, my mother and aunt. My aunt was named Jane Van Wagner Condon, from her mother’s maiden name (Beatrice Van Wagner), and used the full name on all documents and important papers her whole life. It is on her tombstone. Jane and my mother Joan (Elizabeth Condon) had an active, if sporadic, interest in the family tree and various versions of trees and trails and fragmentary notes survive in their well known, to this generation, handwriting. My mother reached back into family history for the middle name of her youngest son, my brother Robert Garrett Guilfoyle. Their aunt Dorothy (Van Wagner Towle), the matriarch of an east coast branch, researched and read and happily wrote up many versions for her grandchildren, including one, now sadly lost, that was apparently illustrated with her drawings of period costumes inserted near the appropriate branches.

I started my own work in my forties, when my children were in elementary school, and was sporadic, too. I enjoyed looking through the materials my aunt and mother had assembled (my mother presented each of her children with a red folder at some point in that decade), obtained some software to contain and organize it all, and took a subscription to, putting it all down and picking it up again periodically. After the deaths of my aunt and mother, and after finishing a book project in early 2016, I gathered up everything I could find in their estates, obtained new software, and got at it. In some cases, my researches led me back to the unnamed source material that apparently fed previous researchers. I started to assemble a library.

It’s a willful wandering, and a kind of tidiness impulse, really, I think – all those bulging cardboard boxes and un-catalogued bits of paper – in combination with a contented appreciation of the pleasures of research. I’ve gotten lost in the research in everything I’ve ever written, and this material presents two particularly magnetic aspects. There are those disorderly boxes and intriguing hints. And, I discover, family history is a rich and essentially unlimited way to spend time. The wonder, and the problem, with ancestors is that there are so many of them, and each with a life as deep and complex as our own.

The proximate cause of this particular work is a carte de visite that emerged from an envelope somewhere in Michigan, with three separate inscriptions. 1 The upright young man in Civil War uniform is resolute and bewhiskered. Faint pencil identification on the back and bottom reads ”Grandpa V. W.”, which would place the scribe somewhere in my grandmother’s generation. One generation later, my aunt’s back-slanting script at the top “Great, great, grandpa Van Wagner to Tom, Peg, Choo, and Rob”. And then one more which I wrote myself some decades ago: “George Herbert Van Wagner b. 1838”. I can’t believe we used ink.

Got a box or two of family memorabilia? I'd like to hear about it!

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