A warning to all who know me or have read prior blogs: I’m going to break redundant for just a few sentences—until the end of the italicized writing— in order to bring any new readers up to snuff.
I was widowed in 1993.
Two years after my husband’s death I packed up my two youngest children and moved to Europe, where I raised them in the small countries of Estonia and Latvia. I was financially ruined, after my husband’s death, but was able to scrape enough money together to make a decent life for my daughters and myself in North Eastern Europe. I bought a small home for cash and we had affordable medical care. It was a safe, clean environment in which to raise my little girls. My older children remained in the USA. In 1999 I met a wonderful man named Egils and we joined together to create a family and lived in Latvia.
Flash-forward: After the economic collapse of Latvia, in 2009, we moved to Scotland where we now live. Okay that’s it for the backstory of my blog today.
In 2006, while living in Latvia, I rented a fisherman’s cottage in Anstruther, Scotland, with friends. We spent two weeks living by the sea in The Kingdom of Fife, touring castles, walking along the rocky coast, eating fish and chips and sampling whiskey. In the evenings I watched, mesmerized, as the tide slipped into the village—seeping up the narrow cobbled alleyways that ran between old stone houses—on the sea side of the village. One night I sat up most of the night listening to the wind whistle and howl as it drove the beating rain against the old windowpanes of our cottage. I had been in love with Scotland, prior to that visit. From that time forward, however, I was consumed by a longing to return. Referring to my longing as homesickness sounded pretentious, even to me; but it was the only word I knew that came close to describing the aching I felt—when I thought of my time spent in the beautiful Kingdom of Fife—and my burning desire to return.
That same year, after my time spent in Scotland, I began researching my ancestry on my father’s mother’s side. Rachel Scott, my father’s mother, had offered me unconditional love all of my life until her death in 1973, just three months before the birth of my first child. I adored my grandmother, as did my brother and sisters; we called her Noonie.
Noonie taught me how and where to plant pansies, how to grow hearty vegetables and how to knead and bake bread. She’d wiped my tears, rubbed my sore muscles with Black Salve (an herbal concoction her mother had taught her to make) and tucked my body into bed with satin comforters—which smelled like her old cedar chest—every night I slept under her roof. She had endlessly tended, worried and fussed over me all of my childhood, but she seldom spoke of her parents. I knew that she was very close to both of them—especially her father— and that they’d come from Scotland; beyond that I knew nothing. I certainly didn’t know that my great grandfather—Noonie’s father—was raised in the small town of East Wemyss, only minutes from Anstruther, in The Kingdom of Fife, where I had fallen so deeply in love with Scotland. I’m not sure my grandmother even knew the name of this small village, since her father referred to his younger life as having been spent in Edinburgh—no doubt because it was the nearest large city. When I found the exact farm where my ancestors had worked as laborers, I realized that I had driven within a mile of that farm and their cottages, several times while staying in Anstruther.
This synchronicity came at the beginning of my journey into my genealogy. There were more to follow.
Within a few months of researching, I learned that my great-great grandmother, Agnes Scott (Noonie’s grandmother), had been widowed at a young age and moved with two of her children to America—one of whom was John Scott, Noonie’s father—leaving the rest of her grown children in Scotland. The fact that I had been widowed at a young age and had moved with my two younger children to Europe, leaving my adult children in USA, instantly created a bond between Agnes and me.
My nephew, David Cosentino, and I worked obsessively on this particular branch of our family tree, for several months in 2006.
Gradually my ancestors became more than names in an old bible in the attic. In particular my great-great grandmother: Agnes was a real woman who’d loved and lost her husband, William, as I had lost my husband, John. Her children had lost their father as had mine. Agnes left her homeland with little more than her clothes, two of her children and the wish to survive, exactly as I had. This small family left their homeland not knowing if or when they would see the rest of their family and loved ones again. In this sense our realities differed greatly; I knew I would frequently see my older children, family, and friends in my homeland. I could only imagine Agnes’s pain and insecurity with this additional burden. But in many of the fundamental ways Agnes and I were very similar. We buried a husband and father who was too young to die. We made the hard and drastic decision to leave our homeland, as widows, leaving our grown children and loved ones behind, to create a better life. We survived.
In 2009, when Latvia collapsed my partner, Egils, and I headed west landing in Scotland. I hadn’t thought much about my great-great grandmother Agnes—and our paralleling lives—for almost 3 years. David had been busy working and raising a young family; I’d been trying to survive financially… With neither of us nudging the other forward, the old stories lay silently tucked away in attics, drawers, and old archives.
I didn’t pursue researching my ancestry, here in Scotland, for the next two years. My life was busy with days crammed full of projects.
Then last year, while I was in the States, my mother broke her hip and was confined to a nursing home for what promised to be an indefinite period of time. My brother, Tim, and I began the laborious process of sorting through my mother’s home: The same homestead where my beloved grandmother had lived and raised her family; the home where my parents lived in their later life and where—after my father’s death in 1998—my mother had remained and grown old. This home has always been a reminder of the happiest memories of my childhood and my connection with those who have gone before me. It has always been magical…
As I sifted through mountains of paperwork including old photographs, documents, bills, and personal letters (my mom saved virtually everything she touched) my eyes fell upon something interesting: A document printed on cardstock, created near the end of the 19th century, somewhere in Scotland. I read it slowly:
“In Affectionate Remembrance
Aged 21 Years,
Who departed this life, 1st of January, 1874.”
My body went cold. Janet Scott was a daughter of Agnes and William. It wasn’t the fact that Janet had died that started my hands shaking; Janet would have died many years prior to 2012. It was the date on which Janet died that disturbed me. This document revealed something I had not known before that moment: Barely six months before, William, her husband died, Agnes had lost her daughter, Janet! Sitting in the living room of the house where my Noonie had kept me tightly tucked beneath her wing throughout my childhood, I thought of Agnes—Noonie’s grandmother—and she was once again close to me. Her story was unfolding: Now I knew that she had not only lost her husband, William, but also a daughter in that fateful year, shortly before deciding to migrate to America.
Janet’s Scott’s death notice: found among the piles of papers in my mother’s home last summer. The death was not shocking; the dates were.
When I returned to Scotland in July 2012, I was overwhelmed with projects: A new Internet store to organize and build, a new lifestyle to construct (after having CHF as a part of my life, I now swim 40 minutes a day, eat very differently and require more sleep). Consequently my genealogy was once again on a back burner.
But, even without any direct attention aimed at Agnes and the Scott branch of my family tree, they entered my consciousness from time to time—like each time I traveled up to Fife or baked bread or saw a movie set here in Scotland in the late 1800’s…
Then on September 3rd David sent me a picture of a middle aged man standing next to a monument.
This is my great grandfather, John Scott, standing next to a monument erected to his father William and three sisters: Catherine, Janet and Margaret.
The email read: Here’s one [a picture] of John Scott. The monument refers to William Scott who was his father. Janet is mentioned here (the one from the death notice [that I’d found last summer at my mother’s house]) – she would have been John’s sister. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could track this down and take a pic today? 😉
I loved the picture. I was, however, confused as to how Dave could think this picture was from Scotland. John Scott left Scotland with his mother, Agnes and his sister Rachel in 1874 when he was 19 years old. How could this monument to his father and sister, Janet, be in Scotland, with him standing next to it, as a middle aged man?
I wrote back to David:
Dave I’m 90 percent sure this [monument] is in USA. It was erected by Thomas and Rachel Scott Blythe in loving memory of their father… my guess is they erected this in the States in memory of their father William and sisters who had died here in the old country.
But there was more to this monument than just the mystery of “where in the world was it?” This monument clearly stated that Agnes had lost three of her daughters. Catherine had died in 1870, Janet in 1874, and Margaret had passed in 1877; three years after Agnes had migrated to America. All of the girls were in their 20’s. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. The sorrow that I felt for my great-great grandmother was now physical—my stomach was in knots. After a bit of research I learned that there had been a massive epidemic of Scarlet Fever in Scotland, between 1874 and 1875 that had killed 11,000 Scots. This explained both William’s and Janet’s deaths; the other two sister’s deaths remained a mystery. I told myself that this had happened many years ago; it was not an uncommon scenario in the 19th century and my visceral emotional reaction was illogical if not ridiculous. But I couldn’t curb my feelings and I continued struggling with this overwhelming sense of grief.
Egils, sensing my sadness, and always up for an adventure, suddenly said, “I get off work at 5. Why don’t we head up to East Wemyss and see if there is a cemetery or church that might have a trace of the William Scotts?”
It was a brilliant plan. Getting out of the house and looking for some tangible evidence of my ancestors would occupy my mind with something other than the Scarlet Fever epidemic of the 1870’s and the pain and suffering of my people.
I shot off a message to David:
I just got a bee in my bonnet. Egils and I are driving up to East Wemyss after work and a quick swim and going to the cemetery.
To which David—shocked and excited by the abruptly hatched plan—wrote back simply:
Well, [removed expletive]. You go! 🙂
I honestly feel that my ancestors—at this point, if not prior—actively stepped in and took the reins…
We left our village, intending to take a quick swim before starting the hour drive to East Wemyss. Swimming is a daily routine, conducted at specific times; we very seldom reschedule.
As we headed out, however, Egils said, “We have plenty of time before the pool closes; let’s go to East Wemyss first.” This was the first touch of destiny: Had we gone swimming first, we would have gotten caught in a massive thunderstorm that was, unbeknownst to us, heading for East Wemyss. Heavy rains would have undoubtedly made walking the cemetery impossible.
We arrived in East Wemyss just after 6:00 to sunny skies, parked our car in front of the only church we could see, on Main Road. Apparently there is a small cemetery in the back of the church but for some reason we didn’t even look there. Instead, I asked a passerby if there was a main cemetery. (In hindsight, I realized how out of character this was for us. This church cemetery would have been the logical place to bury people in the 19th century. But again, if we’d spent any time looking through that cemetery, we’d have gotten caught in the coming storm.)
We were told that if we followed the same road a short while we would find a large cemetery on our right. We got back in the car and drove maybe a half-mile to the enormous MacDuff Cemetery, sandwiched between the Main Road and the Firth of Fourth (just this side of the North Sea). From the time we left our village our world seemed a bit surreal, but from this point on I recall feeling like a character in a play—going through the motions of a prewritten script.
We parked the car in a parking lot at the far end of the cemetery, not realizing that we could drive into the cemetery and began walking back towards town through thousands of stone markers and monuments. If we’d driven on the small roads that, we later realized, ran through the cemetery we’d never have ended up where we did. It’s hard to imagine that we didn’t notice the roads and drive them… It simply wasn’t part of the script, I suppose.
We arrived at MacDuff Cemetery and immediately felt slightly deflated. The size of the cemetery was daunting. The old and new stones and monuments stood side-by-side and the weather was looking dodgy. But something made us move forward…
As we walked slowly across the grounds, we searched for old stones or markers of the type that might have been placed by a poor family in the late 1800’s. We quickly realized, to our dismay that most of the older markers and stones had worn down too badly to read.
Initially I’d hoped that the cemetery might be divided into sections according to eras. It was quickly apparent, however, that the very old and fairly new (1850-1960’s) markers stood side by side. Logically there was little room to hope we’d find anything, but for some inexplicable reason we continued walking forward through the center of the massive cemetery, slightly veering left, for no reason that we were aware of. We did not meander; we walked in only one direction, through the grass, making our own route towards something, or—more likely, it seemed—towards nothing at all.
We both quickly agreed that the calm walk along the seaside was probably more of a reason to be there than any realistic hope of finding anything.
After perhaps 10-15 minutes of wandering, we realized that a storm was coming in off the sea. Clearly understanding the improbability of ever finding evidence of William, Janet, Margaret and Catherine Scott in this beautiful, massive, maze of a cemetery, Egils (who was walking slightly ahead of me) turned around and said, “Maybe somewhere there’s a directory of names and where people are buried.” And then he reiterated what we’d already recognized, “Because even if there is a marker somewhere, most of the really old ones that are close to the ground are not readable…”
I knew, at this point, that he was tired after a long day’s work and the importance of our journey was probably just getting out of the house and spending some time together.
“Yeah, and there may not even be a marker if they were as poor as I think,” I added, as I prepared to turn around and return to the car.
Then suddenly I stopped in mid turn-around and said, “You know we had this exact same sense when we were looking for Stella. We knew there was a good chance that Stella was killed in the war or had died afterwards or had married and changed her name. We had every reason to doubt that we’d find her and then we did. Just like that: There she was!”
(Note: Stella was a Latvian woman who had disappeared pre WWII. Against insurmountable odds, after years of searching through old Soviet archives and just as we were about to give up the search we found her.)
It restored my faith a bit to remember how I felt when—against all probability, feeling deflated and helpless—Stella seemed to materialize in front of our eyes.
I began walking towards Egils, again, but after only two or three steps forward, I had to step around a monument just to my left. I looked at it and read “William Scott.”
I was mentally unable to process what I was seeing.
This caught my eye but was too shocking to completely process, mentally.
When I continued reading, my first thought was, “Huh… this stone is full of names exactly like my family’s. Those Scotts really liked those particular names!”
This is seconds after stumbling across the monument that I was “90 percent certain” was in the USA.
As I realized what I was looking at, I almost fell over: I was standing in the exact same spot where my great grandfather stood, in Dave’s photo; I was looking at the same monument!
The ground beneath my feet felt sacred—not in the cemetery sense, but in the “Something really blessed is happening right here in this moment.”
As dramatic as it sounds I was completely overwhelmed with a sense of my ancestors presence. I sat down on the ground and touched the base of the obelisk as I read the names: William. Catherine. Janet. Margaret.
I’m not sure why, but touching this stone, made it more real to me. It was actually unreal until the moment that I felt the stone beneath my fingers.
Agnes’s husband and three of her daughters. Gone.
What immediately struck me as odd (and continues to) is that I suddenly felt happy. Seeing this monument and reading these names didn’t sadden me more. I felt my people smiling down at me. I felt they had brought me to this point and were pleased that I now knew a bit more of their story. We were connected in that moment; they were once again engaged in life—my life and that of my children and living family.
By the time we walked back to our car it was raining and it rained all the way home…
This monument made a statement: How incredibly important family must have been to my ancestors. This pilgrimage back to the motherland, at the turn of the century, to erect this monument to William and the three girls—Janet, Catherine, and Margaret—took money, courage and a commitment that speaks volumes about the terrible sense of loss they felt but it also speaks of immense love, loyalty and bonds that lived within the family.
I emailed Dave as soon as I returned home:
The monument is here!!!! I found it!!!!!!
And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our ancestors led me to it. It was bizarre beyond my wildest dreams.
And Dave replied:
This ancestry stuff can take some weird twists and turns…
David is the master of understatement.
David and I agree that sometimes the magic and miracles that surround this genealogical research leaves us thinking the ancestors want to be heard. They want their stories to be discovered and shared. It’s important—perhaps only because it makes us stronger to know what our people went through in order to get us here. Today.
I thank them, today, for all of the pain, grief and sorrow they endured those years gone by, as well as for leading me to a monument in East Wemyss on September 3, 2012 so I could unravel a bit more of their story and share it.
And as I sit here, in my wee Scottish village, writing this blog in the 21st century, I feel the completion of a circle. Agnes left and I’ve returned.
A note to Agnes: I’m home, Agnes. My babies are all grown and some have babies of their own. I have cousins and second cousins with babies who have babies… Your line lives on… It’s not always an easy life here on planet earth but I think I can speak for all of us—your descendants—we are grateful for the opportunity to travel these roads. And we are here thanks to you, your perseverance and your strength. It was all worth it.