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Welcome to Hill Reeves, a blog where I write about the things I cook and bake in NYC.

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Uncovering Family History

One of my favorite memories is from when I was maybe about five or six. I was visiting my grandmother's house before she passed away and was digging through the depths of the guest room closet. In there, I found a mildewy old box that clasped together on one side. I snapped it open to find a bald Barbie doll (I'd later be corrected that this was "Midge," Barbie's brunette best friend). She came with a collection of wigs and you could try out different hairstyles on the doll as you pulled one wig off and placed another one on. I loved how particular the doll felt to such a specific time and place. I excitedly told my mom about my discovery and she told me how the doll had been hers as a girl -- my aunt Cindy got to have Barbie because they were both blonde and my mom had Midge. I'm not sure where that doll ended up, but even when I was little, I felt transported by touching the doll's hair. Gently replacing the wigs one-by-one brought me back to 1959, when my mom would have been my same age, playing with the same doll.

I get the same sensation when I read my great grandfather's journal. Somehow this journal landed in my hands despite my disconnection from my father's side of the family. I recently found a handful of my aunts and cousins on Facebook (my father was one of nine kids, and I've got 30+ cousins on that side) and every time one of them pops up in my newsfeed, I guiltily wonder if they know that I've inherited the precious item. I've also got two portraits painted by the same man-- the images of the two different women used to haunt me as a kid, but now I hang them proudly in my tiny apartment. When I run through emergency life scenarios in my head (What if this house went up in flames and I could only grab one thing?) they're always the three things I think of saving first.

My great grandfather, Erel Guidone, was a Harvard graduate and medical doctor. He lived in Hartford, CT as a young man, and moved to the Boston area when my grandmother was growing up. He worked in hospitals in Boston, but also wrote, painted, played the bassoon in an orchestra with other doctors, illustrated books and traveled quite a bit.

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Reading his journal from 1912-1913 illuminates the time before he'd started medical school. It seems like he wrote the diary in his late teens/early 20's; a class graduation photo is tucked into the back page of the book. Nine stern faces face the camera, and he's the tenth graduate with a slight, mischievous smirk. I don't know much about his personality other than what he says about himself, but it's nevertheless fascinating to open to a page that was written on today's date, 102 years ago to see what he was up to. There's lots of looking for work, visiting the nearby screw factory to collect paychecks, records of receiving a letter from a friend named "Shep," driving in "the machine" to New York City, nights spent at O'Connell's (O.C.'s) playing cards, dates with a "dame" named "Flossie," trips to see shows at The Palace, and, etched on the back page, a list of names, addresses and numbers, including one for Helene Clark of New Jersey who eventually became my great-grandmother (I believe!).

I revisited the journal this past weekend and then attempted to Google some of the names and places he'd mentioned visiting in July of 1912. Eventually, I came across this article about his sister, Elvira Dolores (what a name!) who ran away from home when she was fifteen. The family searched high and low, placed missing ads in newspapers and presumed that she was kidnapped. A few days later, though, she telegraphed home to say that she'd boarded a train to Boston seeking adventure, and was ready to come home now. One article even supposed that she wanted to become an actress and that's why she ran away, which I love.

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Elvira Found
Elvira Found

Anyway, that's that story which totally made my week. I love how tough and fearless "Dolly" was and I like believing that I have a little bit of that blood in me.

Reading the diary, I feel such a rush knowing that this same page was looked at and written on a century ago. It makes me wonder: do objects transport you at all, or do you feel like they don't hold any greater power than their object-ness? I listened to an interesting podcast by Radiolab a few weeks ago on the topic. Find it here, and let me know what you think if you listen! Also, if anybody has any tips for digging deeper into family history, I'd love your tips!

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