Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Meet my grandmother. She was born Genevieve Leona Potter on her family's farm between Elkhorn and Burlington in Walworth County, Wis., on July 23, 1910. More precisely, she was born as "Baby Girl" Potter, because her parents ascribed to the 19th century farm habit of waiting to name a baby until it had a stronger foothold on this life, a defense mechanism against a world where the infant mortality rate was much higher than it is today. She once told me the story of how they chose the name Genevieve: "The story goes that I was probably about six weeks old, and I still didn't have a name. And one day my father came home and told my mother that he'd seen a pretty name in the newspaper that day - Genevieve. My mother liked it too, I guess."

I wish I could say she had a happy life, but I suspect that's not true, though she never said it. When she was four, World War I broke out. The Depression hit farmers earlier than the rest of the country, and she was living on a farm in the 1920s as crop values plummeted. She was 19 when the stock market crashed. She was a kindergarten teacher through the Depression, until she married my grandfather, at which time she was forced to leave her teaching position to make it available to someone who needed the income, which is a real tragedy, because she was a wonderful teacher. She entered into a controlling, unhappy marriage that eventually dissolved. (I never met my grandfather, but I understand he suffered from manic depression and alcoholism.)

In spite of these things, or more likely because of them, Genevieve was a resilient soul. By the time I came along, she looked more like this:

I never called her "Grandma." When I was a toddler, I called her Mum-mum. As I got older, I called her just Gen. We spent a lot of time together when I was little - I spent every Saturday night at her house, the same house my dad had grown up in. She came over many afternoons to watch me. Gen often traveled with us, keeping me company in the backseat as we drove to Kentucky or Florida or Mississippi. When I was in about 5th grade, she became ill and had to move into a nursing home, but up to that point, we spent many, many hours together.

And yet, until this year, there was a lot I didn't know about Genevieve. I don't think she ever told me about her parents, her childhood. Or maybe I just wasn't listening. There were certain things I knew she treasured -- after she moved into the nursing home, she was always asking about her recipe box, for instance -- but I didn't understand the significance of those things at the time. Even when she passed away in 1999, I didn't fully grasp how rich her family history was in this county, or how priceless these treasures of hers really were.

I'm just now beginning to understand, and to put together the photographs of her parents, her grandparents, her great-grandparents. In doing so, I'm piecing together the history of the earliest settlement of Walworth County, as the first wave of pioneers came here from Vermont and New York, and built farmsteads in what was then the Northwest Territory.

So I've started this blog to capture that research, and contextualize those stories so they make sense. I want it to be a space where you can learn about these watershed moments in American history through the eyes and ears and voices and recipes of the very people who created that history. There are many things you will discover with me in the days to come. There are boxes and boxes of photographs that date back to the 1860s. There are newspaper clippings dating back to the 1840s. There is a snippet of a travel journal kept by my great-great grandmother on a trip to New Orleans. There is furniture that was hand-made by my great-great-grandfather and passed down. There are beautiful original paintings that were painted by his sister. And of course, there are Genevieve's recipes, many of which I am certain were handed down from generation to generation and guarded carefully as a way to preserve a pioneer lifestyle that has long since vanished.

As we uncover these treasures together, I hope you'll find them as fascinating as I do. It's my hope that through this process, each person we meet on the way will reveal to us (as Adrienne Rich writes in 21 Love Poems):

"This we were, this is how we tried to love/ and these are the forces they had ranged against us/ and these are the forces we had ranged within us."