Marching orders

Were you ever handed something you couldn’t help but take as marching orders? You know what I’m getting at, right? It’s like that moment in Mission: Impossible when the commander says, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

My orders came the day Tom Henry scrawled a comment in red Sharpie in the margin of a story I’d written for his creative nonfiction workshop. I wrote “Imagining Sam Burgess” as a process piece: how to make pottery from the perspective of an 1840s child labourer. At the time, I thought Sam was “my” Sam Burgess, grandfather of my grandmother Betsy. Turns out he wasn’t (awkward), but that didn’t matter. His story had already reeled me in. That’s what happens time and again as I research my family history—the stories grab hold of me and won’t let go.

I’ve been digging up dead relatives for something like 35 years now. It started innocently, with an entry in a local history book Dad gave me, titled Bladworth and District Memories (Bladworth Pensioners and Senior Citizens’ Organization, 1978). A short description of life in rural Croatia, where Dad’s parents emigrated from in the early 1900s, stoked my imagination. I wanted to know more about my grandparents’ lives in the old country, so I started asking questions, writing letters to cousins I had never met, reading history books.

It’s typical, I think, to start genealogy research with your own surname, but the Prpich name didn’t take me very far because fires and wars have destroyed almost all of the records in our village in Croatia. I also tried tracing my mom’s paternal families in Sweden and Norway, but I didn’t get far with those either. Both countries have kept detailed household and parish records, but I struggled to make sense of them because I can’t read Swedish or Norwegian. It was only when I turned to Mom’s maternal family in England that my research took off. Not only are the records plentiful, they’re in English, and I could piece together my ancestors’ stories.

Stories turned my hobby into an obsession.

So many of my stories start here, with my grandmother, Betsy Burgess. This photo was taken shortly before she left England in 1926, age 19.

So many of my stories start here, with my grandmother, Betsy Burgess. This photo was taken shortly before she left England in 1926, age 19.

I wouldn’t want to tally the hours I’ve invested or the money I’ve spent chasing dead people’s stories. Suffice it to say I’d have been better off finding stories in the library’s fiction shelves. I discovered with Sam that I don’t really care if the people in the stories are even related to me. It’s the challenge of finding out what happened to them, and then what happened next, that has kept me enthralled.

But now, after 35 years, I’m left with the stories, and the question is, what do I do with them? My kids aren’t interested yet—and they might not ever be.

Here’s what Tom wrote:

Sam is your responsibility now. No one else is going to tell his story.

That’s what I mean by marching orders. And it isn’t only Sam.

There’s my grandmother Betsy’s paternal grandmother, Betsy Bennett (1839–1919), whose name Nana didn’t know, even though she was named after her. The elder Betsy married Sam Burgess—not my awkward mistake, son of George Burgess from Longton, but another Sam Burgess, son of a different George and born the same year in Tunstall, five miles away. I’ve heard rumours about the family rift that led to Nana not knowing her Burgess grandparents. There’s probably no way of knowing if they’re true—but if there is a way, I’ll find it.

I found Betsy’s mother by accident, after a morning of traipsing up and down rows of graves in a drizzle fourteen years ago. Martha Bennett and three of her ten children (Josiah, aged 29, Emma, 26, and Hannah, 27) are buried in the shadow of St. Margaret’s Church in Wolstanton. In a corner of the churchyard riddled with ivy, a pair of tall stone monuments—too expensive for the family’s circumstances (Betsy’s father, Joseph Bennett, was gamekeeper for the Sneyd family at Bradwell Wood)—answered some of my questions about the Bennetts, but raised a lot more: Who paid for the headstones? Why did Betsy’s brother and sisters die so young? Did the Bennett sisters marry Gourley brothers? Why wasn’t Joseph buried with the rest of the family—or, if he was, why didn’t he rate a mention on the stones? I’ve answered some of these questions, but then the answers always raise more.


I have questions, too, about my 3xgreat-grandmother Sarah Johnson. Sarah was born on Burslem Hill in 1836, daughter of an Irish potato famine refugee whose village in county Cavan I would dearly love to identify so I can visit it one day. Sarah grew up hungry in the midst of riots and strikes as Britain’s trade union movement erupted. When she was 18, she married a potter named Joseph Heath and then followed him back and forth between Burslem and Worcester, chasing jobs. She died of “brain congestion” when she was 28, leaving three little girls without a mother. Sarah’s mother, Ann, raised Lydia, the eldest, and Joseph’s new wife, Dorah—a woman with plenty of stories of her own—raised Martha, the baby. My great-great-grandmother Annie Heath, Sarah’s middle girl, was sent out to work as a servant to a local beerseller before she was 11.

These are just a handful of the stories that needle me. They feel more like a treasure than a burden, but I still feel a weight of responsibility for them. Dot Stutter, a woman I used to see often in a neighbouring carrel at the LDS family history centre in Victoria, wrote a poem years ago that shows she shared my dilemma. Dot heard her ancestors calling her, saying, “Daughter, if you don’t remember us, who will?”

One of these days, I’ll be gone, and then who will remember Betsy, Josiah, Emma, and Hannah? Who will remember Sarah and her three little girls? Will it matter? Maybe not.

Still, I have my marching orders.


4 Responses to “Marching orders”

  1. theresa

    Oh, I love this. Yes, I think we are called upon to remember them, even though there are generations in-between us and them. And the scraps of paper, the rumours of a grave, a photograph of someone we somehow recognize across time and space — are they enough? Hmmm. “They feel more like a treasure than a burden, but I still feel a weight of responsibility for them.” Me, too.

    • commatologist

      The rumour of a grave can be a powerful thing – it’s what brought my partner and me to our farm 14 years ago. I like knowing that you understand the feeling of responsibility. Thanks, Theresa.


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