Family.

gadsden/aurelia

This is a photograph from a book that my grandmother (my Nana) wrote about her family, which she published 1985. In it, she traces the ancestry of her parents back to its roots in this country, beginning with Henry Phillips, “the first of the name in our family to come to America.” He was a Puritan, born in England, and living in America by 1648. He died in Boston in 1686.

Henry’s son, Captain Eleazer Phillips, was a sea captain. Eleazer’s son, Eleazer Phillips, was a bookbinder, and married Lydia Hale Waite, whose relative would later declare “I regret I have but one life to lose for my country!” The third Eleazer Phillips died of scarlet fever in Charleston, and Nana includes directions as to how to find his gravestone in the churchyard. Another Phillips married a woman named Martha Milner, who saved her father from starvation by giving him rice through the bars of the Exchange where he was held prisoner by the English. Lemuel Milner Phillips, of the seventh generation, enlisted during the Civil War after marrying Elizabeth Fisher Gadsden, and Nana says that, “From here on theirs is the pathetic story of so many young people at that terrible time.” Lemuel was killed in battle at 29.

Nana follows Henry’s line all the way to her own grandfather, Gadsden Phillips, who was born in 1860 in Charleston, South Carolina. Gadsden “was a resilient person with a wonderful disposition. His blue eyes would sparkle with glee when recounting ‘tricks’ played on the unsuspecting.” Gadsden married Aurelia Teasdale on his 27th birthday, in a ceremony conducted by his uncle, the Rev. Henry Lafayette Phillips. The picture above is from their wedding day. They had five children and ten grandchildren, and he worked in cotton for most of his life. He passed away in 1945, in Southampton, New York.

All of the above, and much more, is covered in just the first 15 pages of a 150-page book. The rest includes details about other branches of the family that are just as varied, just as interesting and just as resoundingly human as these. Not just facts and dates — true love and weddings and scandal and triumph and war and birth and death.

And my astounding grandmother, Mary Phillips Bayless, conducted all her research before the internet gave her instant access to records. She didn’t click to connect. Instead, she was in courthouses and graveyards piecing together the stories of hundreds of relatives. She combed through hundred-year-old letters and deeds and talked to her own relatives about what they remembered and the stories they’d been told. Many of the lines she traces go back to the late 1600s but she writes about long-ago generations with the same familiarity and fondness that she has for those she knew herself. In her voice there is a constant reminder that this isn’t just history, it’s family. And that’s breathtaking.

Nana would not have known, in 1985, that the internet was even then taking shape, and that within twenty years, there would be very powerful new ways to find the kinds of connections that she had so painstakingly uncovered in her own work. Even if she could have, I’m not sure she would have done anything differently. Her way seems right for her. This book is an incredible piece of work and a mind-boggling achievement.

The forward to the book ends with a reminder that really makes me stop and think. Maybe it will do the same for you.

“The years fly by; the generation of the present, still being born, represents the continuing story of the Phillips family in America. But from here on our paths will diverge greatly, and each generation’s story will be different. Please do not fail to keep your own records, for you each have different personal experiences and in-law connections about whom only you can write.”

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