My Aunt Miriam, my father’s eldest sister, died peacefully in her bed with her children around her on February 21, 2017. She was the matriarch of the James and Jennie branch of the Fleagle clan after her own mother died in 1989, not only because she was the oldest female among the descendants of that union, but also because of her perennial presence at the center of family goings on. She kept track of family near and far, passed on the news, and made her home into a welcoming hearth for all. In Miriam’s passing we lost not only a beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt, great aunt, cousin, etc., but also an irreplaceable resource of family history, as anyone familiar with this website already knows. I can’t hope to improve upon the beautiful commemoration that her children, my cousins, wrote for her as an obituary, which is, at least for now, online here (and if it’s not, I’ve got it here), so instead I’ll tell a discursive tale about what Miriam meant to me and to the enterprise that this family photo blog represents.
Through my first thirty years, during which time air travel between coasts was something Fleagles and their kin indulged in only seldom, Miriam occupied a dignified but not particularly familiar place in the pantheon of my many aunts. I heard their names a lot, but as a child I found members of this group to be somewhat indistinguishable from one another. This was partly due to the similarity of their names — Miriam, Muriel, Vivian, Evelyn, Lillian, Marianne (all stressed the same way, even Marianne as “Marian”) — but it was also because mostly these ladies were older than my mother, who married the baby of the family, and were pretty old fashioned. They loved me — I took that as a given — but they weren’t very interesting to me. But during that first three decades, there was an event that kindled what would eventually become the embers of a warm friendship based on a common interest. I may have mentioned it before. My father had moved us to North Carolina for a year because of his job, and in that year, when I was 11 or 12, we visited Baltimore and made the rounds of kinfolk. It was on that occasion that Miriam hauled out a chart that she and an old aunt of hers (I’ve forgotten which one) had been working on, numbering the family ancestors from the very first one they knew about, a man named Johan Valentin Flügel, who had fled religious persecution in the Pfalz region of Germany (the Palatinate, we would call it) and taken a ship to America in 1738 and landed in Philadelphia. My father, her little brother, was gripped by fascination at this record and penned a copy of the entire thing on sheets from a yellow legal pad, which he rolled up together in rubber bands and brought home to North Carolina.
I actually don’t even remember much about the visit with Miriam. I mean I cannot see the event in my mind as a memory. What I see is the yellow scrolls Dad brought home. They languished in a cabinet in Winston-Salem and then in a cabinet in Seattle when we moved back, until one day in my teens I took an interest in my genealogy. It may have been when I discovered the article in Time Magazine about the sinking of the whaleship Essex, which horrific story every kid in America knew for decades right after it happened in 1820 but was by the 1970s a charming vignette of days past that Time fished up (everyone is once again familiar with the story thanks to the movie that was made from Nathaniel Philbrick’s masterly retelling, In the Heart of the Sea). That story is a story of the Coffins of Nantucket, from whom my family descends. In any case, I dragged out Dad’s yellow scrolls and copied them further into a notebook in which I used felt-pens to color-code the generations. My Uncle Dick took an interest in the family history shortly after (or maybe he had been interested for a long time, I don’t know), and he saw my notebook and asked if he could borrow it. He used it as the seed of a computerized reference that is now — after decades of his tireless research efforts — an online database containing thousands of names of the descendants of Johan (located here).
But it was in 1992, when I was thirty years old and visiting the East Coast after spending a year working in Ohio, that Mim and I hit it off. She of course was the point-person for visiting family, and I naturally ended up staying with her and my Uncle Freddie, who was still living then. My involvement in genealogy was dormant at that point, but since I was “back East” I expressed interest in seeing the final resting place of my grandparents, Jennie (Coffin) and James Ezra Fleagle, and any other graves she knew about. The day she and I spent roaring around Western Maryland in her big old car visiting graveyards and other Locations of Genealogical Significance was our bonding event. I wrote the story of that day on another blog some years back. The full story is here, but here’s an excerpt:
We got to Uniontown late in that warm spring day and quickly found the town’s cemetery across from the United Methodist Church on the main drag (there is no other drag; it’s a town along a rural highway) and searched it thoroughly but could not find Benjamin or his wife Catherine. We were hailed by a clergyman who saw us groping around and took us inside the rectory and showed us a detailed map of the cemetery. Our kinsman was not there. It was then that the question of my great great grandfather’s religious denomination was raised, and we were told a moment later that we must be at the wrong Uniontown cemetery. There was another? Yes, St. Lucas Cemetery, on the edge of town where another road branched off to the north.
The sun was already down. My aunt and I disappeared in that cartoon way that left behind a bullety sound and a couple of curled whoosh lines where we had sat a moment before. Gravel spat out from behind Mim’s tires as she gunned the engine and spun her old Buick out onto Uniontown Road again. We had nor flashlight, flint nor tinder, but we figured there might still just be time before dark to find the old man’s grave.
On that visit, Miriam showed me a box of old family photos, many of faces that were unfamiliar to me. I pointed out with alarm that many of the photos had nothing written on the back. She wistfully said that she always intended to go through and write on each one — the names and locations and events, it was all up in that steel-trap memory of hers. Mim was young (just 72) and her lineage was long-lived, but the horror attending the thought that she was the only one who had this tribal knowledge and that all of these wonderful unmarked photos would be meaningless if she were to pass from this life without first annotating them was too much for me, and I think I blocked it out of my consciousness, sealed it up in a mental closet with a mental note saying “remember to visit Miriam soon with some pencils and a pot of strong coffee and go at that box of pictures.”
But more than twenty years sailed by. My life only got busier. I did not return to Baltimore until a 2014 business trip to South Carolina gave me the urge to make a side-trip to the auld family turf. Miriam was excited at the news of my visit. I mentioned the box of photos. She said she’d have coffee ready. When I arrived, I found a much changed Miriam. Her hair was fully white and she was bent over, unsteady on her feet. She was still sharp as a razor, but she tired very easily and she certainly was not tearing up the countryside in her Buick anymore. I drove us around in the bland rental I’d picked up at the airport. We visited the site of the old Colonial Park house, which had vanished, and revisited the graves of James and Jennie, but we didn’t go out to the old family farm or the graves out in the country. She didn’t have the strength. Instead, we retreated to her dining room table, where her daughter Mardi, my cousin, who was up from North Carolina on one of the frequent visits she made to check in on her, put on the coffee and spent a wonderful day with us writing on the backs of old photographs as Mimi (her family on that coast calls her Mimi) examined each one and recalled their histories. There were only a few that had fallen out of her memory. Miriam also dragged out the sprawling old taped-together chart that had been the genesis of our connection.
I had lost my sister a year earlier, my father two years before that, and the shortness of life — even long lives — had begun to oppress me. I found it simultaneously wonderful and terrifying that I had this aunt, this old lady I had never really known, who shared my blood and more importantly shared my conviction that those who have disappeared along the trail behind us as we go through life, be they blood or water, still matter, and that it is the saddest thing in the world to forget them once they are gone. She was not only a sweet, wonderful human being beloved of many; she was also a treasure trove, a living reference guide to the names and faces and places that defined our family’s journey through time, and she could be gone in the space of a moment, taking all of that knowledge out of the world with her forever. I purposed to start capturing what old family photos I could lay my hands on, starting with an envelope-full that Mim had loaned me, and write whatever I could remember, or whatever family lore existed about the subjects in the photos, so that their stories could be preserved and shared, their images printed and framed and cherished. Whence this website.
In the years that followed, we wrote letters to each other — I saving up lists of questions for her about subjects I was writing about, Mim responding in her shaky hand with all the detail she could recall, and I called her every so often just to catch up. I always had a pad and pen handy when we spoke, to catch some tidbit of history, or a particular turn of her phrasing, as she had a way with amusing little adages. (In her kitchen in 2014, I remarked about the number of dishes we had to clean up, and Mim said “yes, the dishes you will have with you always, like the poor.”*) Her contribution to this endeavor continued right up to the week before she died; she wrote me a letter confirming identities in the photo in the previous post, and identified several unknown children for me in a group photo from a small reunion around 1911, also telling me about the occasion that brought those cousins together.
My relationship with her grew close in an unusual, hyperbolic way, a long curve that shot upward at the last. I wish it had been otherwise, that I had known her better earlier, but I am grateful that last year I was able to get my little family out to North Carolina, where Miriam lived out her final months within easy reach of Mardi, so that she could meet my two daughters for the first and only time and see Angela again (Aunt Mim and Cousin Lewis had visited Seattle once around 2000). And what Miriam knew is that being the keeper of family history requires patience in awaiting the arrival of partners in the project, which never ends. The very young rightly have no interest in the past, and the middle-aged are too busy raising the next generation to spare much thought for previous ones. All you can do is hold what you know and wait, pray that your mind stays sharp. Soon or late, if we’re all lucky, someone awakens to the realization of how precious and precarious the body of family lore is, and how the ancient thread of cultural memory, once severed by the passing of someone who guarded it but was unable to find anyone to take it forward, can never be retied.
And so in this regard besides all else, we owe Miriam our thanks. Just as she has so faithfully, enthusiastically and lovingly remembered so many of the tribe gone before her, it is now our turn — and in this we cannot fail — to remember her. –mdf
*To my delight, Mim referenced the New American Standard translation of 1977: “For the poor you have with you always; but you do not always have Me.” Virtually every other translation of Christendom’s Holy Bible puts ‘always’ earlier in this quote of the Savior, which to me loses the beauty of the line.
Image archive IDs:
First image: 20170520-005_miriamLinker_obit
Second image: 20141206-023_miriam_1937
Third image: 20161127-002_MimWithStonerFleagle1992
Fourth image: 20170521-007_walstanHouseSpring1992
Fifth image: 20170521-001_mimAndMardiOct2014
Sixth image: 20170521-002_miriam_w_fleagle_fam_tree
Seventh image: 20170521-005_mimAndMattat220BrightsideOct2014
Eighth image: 20170521-004_wMiriamAtMillSite_DurhamNCApril2016
About the physical photographs:
No information available. Image submitted by family for online obituary.
Written in pencil on back:
Miriam’s maiden name should be spelled Fleagle. I think Mardi wrote this; she was writing in pencil while we sat with Mim and none of the other photos had existing pencil writing on them. This is not an outrageous error; our family uses many different spellings depending on which branch they come from.
Color print from film. Nothing written on back.
Fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth photos: