Town Hall

I’ve become quite the connoisseur of local Massachusetts town halls in the last three months.

  • Town of Weymouth (Nice digs, could use a better parking lot, frankly.)
  • Town of Norton
  • Town of Easton (Thank-you to the nice woman who volunteered to comb the attic for old birth records!)
  • Town of Canton
  • Town of Stoughton
  • Town of Hingham (Twice! There are some very lovely ladies in the office there.)
  • Town of Hanover (Thank-you to the lady who visited the sub-basement looking for marriages from 1852 and had to call me back!)
  • Quincy City Hall

Ok…so the last one was to renew Amy’s dog license and rabies shot info…not do family history…but still…

And I may or may not still have to visit Abington’s town hall! I feel like there should be a FourSquare badge for this, or at the very least, a punch card: “Visit 9 town halls and your 10th one is free!” I’d be well on my way to a complimentary town hall! 🙂

This exercise in tracking down official vital records has been quite an adventure.

Firstly, the Maps function in my smartphone has been essential; if I didn’t have GPS, I don’t think this would even be possible. I went from Amy’s vet drop-off to the Hingham Town Hall to the Hanover Town Hall, back to Hingham town offices by way of a Starbucks, then home (and then back to the vet to reclaim my ball of fluff) all in one day, and if I hadn’t had the driving directions app on my phone I would never have made it all in one trip. At best, I’d have had to come home in between to get directions to the next place and print them out, then start all over again, but all I had to do was spend a few minutes at each stop preparing directions to get to the next stop. And off I went!

Secondly — right up until my paternal grandfather’s generation, we were from Massachusetts. The furthest west the family tree had ever been was only 28 miles, as the crow flies, from Plymouth Rock (that being an arbitrary, Massachusetts-coast landmark that I can pick to measure from). And they only went roughly 28 miles north of Plymouth Rock, too. In 300 years (well…about 290 years). I can traverse either of those distances in a car in about 30 or 40 minutes, and in fact I do, every Tuesday, when I go to the work office. So when I am driving around to all these various town halls, searching out records of births, marriages, and deaths, I am effectively traversing 290 years of family history in blinks of the eye. Elijah Hobart lived on Cushing Street?! I drove up Cushing Street today at a whopping 35 miles per hour! He’d be shaking his fist at me and yelling at me to get off his lawn! Sorry, great-granddad! If that building was built in 1840…it was built when my great-grandmum was 5. Or 35. Depending on which great-grandmum you’re talking about. Or the same 1840 edifice, it was built the year after Job died, and he never laid eyes on it. That tree, this farm lane, that yonder fishing pond, this church, that stately home, this stretch of coastline…I move among the landmarks and monuments like a ghost from a novel, my surroundings slightly disjointed in my head from the present day to an early-19th century, or early-17th century, panorama.

Ok, that sounded hyper-Romantic.* But it’s true. If there’s one thing I’ve developed since I started running around trying to wrap my fingers around my far-back family history, it’s a hyper-Romantic sense of place & time & the continuity of places through time, & the continuity of the past through to the present day in the vehicle of the genetic body.

*And by Romantic, here I mean “Age of Reflection” Romanticism, the early-19th century philosophical reaction to Enlightenment principles. Romanticism in science, for example, espoused the belief that observing nature was a path to understanding the self, sought the unification of Man with Nature based on ideals of harmony, and believed that the whole was more valuable than the mere component parts by themselves.

And at the end of the day, I get the official, raised-seal-and-everything record of my genetic history. It’s weird to finally have proof that someone you know must have existed, because here I am and I had to have come from somewhere!, really did exist and at long last there’s an official source that agrees with the story you’ve been telling yourself for as long as you could remember, back when these names were just names, from impossibly long ago and far away, on 9-pin printer print-outs stretched out on the living room floor. And before we know it the long ago is now, and the far away is here, in the grass beneath your feet, as present but as fleeting as birdsong.

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