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Syndic Literary Journal

Genealogy Pieces by Catherine (Clemens) Sevenau

Genealogy Pieces

by Catherine (Clemens) Sevenau

Great-Grandfather Isaac Willard Chatfield 1836-1921 / Civil War Photo 1861: 2nd Lt., Illinois Infantry


I am.
I am from
Leinen and Nigon,
from Chamberlin and Hoy.
I am from Clemens and Chatfield,
from Surdam, Sumner, Smith, Shade, Mastick and Tomlinson too.
From Matthew, Isaac, Finley and Charles. From Barbara, Eliza, Emily and Nellie.
I am from soldiers who fought for the Union and from a nurse who tended them.
From singers, shopkeepers and teachers, from miners, writers and preachers.
From wagon trains and railroads. From hard work and harder lives.
I am from cattle ranches and farmlands, from sowing and plowing and reaping.
I am from whiskey and ale, from betting and bad odds—and from the fall-out of it all.

I am from Noreen and Carl who were like sin and prayer.
What ever in the world made those two think they could stay together?
I am from bad kidneys, bad backs and bad eyes. And bad blood.
I am from dime stores and small towns.
I am from one-pot meals. From white beans, white bread and white rice.

I am from sweet peas, green peas and green tea.
I am from holy water and rosaries, from Hail Mary and Our Father, from mea culpa.
I am from Little Women and Nancy Drew, from I’m a Little Teapot and the Hokey Pokey.
From pop-beads, pee-wees, paper dolls, pick-up-stix, skate keys, comic books and jacks.
From coin collections and stamp collections and collections of cobalt blue glass bottles.

I am from a long line of sharp-tongued women.
From list makers, rule makers and rule breakers—from umbrage and resentment.
From complaining, carping, and keeping score. From they don’t speak… we don’t speak…
Sometimes it seems impossible for me to do it differently, to break this invidious pattern of ours.
And sometimes it is easier to not even try.

I am from good intentions and unattended sorrows. From courage and hope. And grace.
I am from extended arms, extended kindness and extended family. I am grateful.
I am from a company of strangers—this family—of it, but not in it,
watching from the sidelines, taking notes, sifting through
our story and writing down our history, wondering
what directs us, what pokes us and prods us
and has us be who we are, questioning
how I fit into the whole catastrophe,
and, at the end of the day—
knowing I belong.
I am they.
I am me.
I am.

‡       ‡       ‡       ‡       ‡

1917 Grandma Nellie Chatfield & Daughters


Starting her family and her hand-stitched crazy quilt in Colorado in 1895, Nellie Chatfield completed them both with the birth of my mother twenty years later. During her first confinement (pregnant and nursing women were seldom seen in public, even to attend church), the quilt began to take shape. Her fine stitching spilled across its rivers of gold, roads of onyx, and fences of pearl—defining a landscape as surveyed by a soaring red-tailed hawk: a patchwork of cattle-ranches, hay pastures, rice fields, and farm lands—the roof tops, ridge-tops and treetops all sewn with dapples of color, zigzags of rainbow, and splashes of hope. My grandmother worked on this piece over the twenty years during each of her pregnancies, and as the family traveled by horse and wagon, and then by train, settling parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana and alighting in a small town in California—the land of flowers—the quilt, carefully folded and boxed, traveled with her.

Maybe her crazy quilt kept her sane; I can’t imagine having ten children over a twenty-year period, I can’t imagine raising children for thirty-seven years, and I can’t imagine spending ten of those years in relative seclusion awaiting the births of my children, quietly creating new life, one stitch at a time.

Nellie’s quilt was not meant to be functional—it was meant to be beautiful. It is. Small birds, butterflies and bees happily perch on the jumbled pieces of satins and velvets. It has swatches of stripes and plaids and checks; stitched and cross-stitched with a panoply of maroon and burgundy, gold and mustard, jade and chartreuse, indigo, cerulean, mauve, lilac, fuchsia and pale rose, the brocades and ginghams and poplins seamed into a cover considerable enough to warm a generation of Chatfield’s. Small rectangles of nightgowns, patches of dresses, strips of shawls and shirts and skirts, squares of vests, aprons—the family’s daily lives—are sewn together in this blanket.

With the passage of time like the passage of my grandmother’s family, its threads, winding and wandering through the generations, have worn, frayed, and unraveled. Also— like her family—its colors have endured, withstood, and upheld the gestures of life. Brilliantly.


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Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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