When I took to researching my family tree, I knew—or thought I knew—many of the stories, of the men who fought in wars, the jobs they did, the small successes and bigger failures. Someone once famous but now forgotten. The sea captain, the machinist, the mason, the drunk.
But real research tells the real stories. That great-grandfather apparently didn’t get to the Spanish-American war on time, making it only as far as Florida by the time the fighting started. Another forebear seems to have abandoned his family, another may indeed have had an illegitimate child, Or two. I should have heeded one uncle’s advice when I mentioned I was researching one distant relative. “Don’t bother,” he said. “He was a reprobate.
But one thread of research steered me to the story I can right now only tell in detail but want to tell in full. It’s the story of Julia Mary Nighan, my third-great grandmother on my mother’s side.
Julia was born in 1827, in the north of England. Improbably, in 1850 she was in India, marrying the first of three husbands who would die there, the last two in battle. The second husband was Edward Halliday, my third great-grandfather, and the man whose name came all the way down to my mom. They had two children before Edward was killed. She married another soldier, had one more child with him, then he too was killed.
In 1860, Julia realized she needed a new plan. She made her way to Calcutta, then boarded a steam ship that took her all the way to Boston. The rest of the Hallidays had migrated here by then. She settled in Woburn among them, raised her three children, lived out her life. She lived a long time for those dies, dying at 83 in 1910.
If you asked me to come up with something that compares to Julia’s life, I’ve got nothing. What could that trip on the steamer have been like? How does one woman wrangle three children under ten years of age? What does she say to them, feed them, promise them?
I found her in censuses for her remaining years. She was a seamstress in one, worked in a store in another. When she grew older, she lived with one son, then another. She eventually moved to Maine, living and dying with her youngest son among his extended family.
I only have this on paper—on a screen really—the bare outline of her life. In fact I know more about each of her husbands, at least the battles they fought in, the medals they won, and how the last two likely died. Books have been written about these battles, websites meticulously maintained. One medal won by my third great-grandfather sold at auction a few years ago for several hundred pounds. Such things are rare and precious apparently.
But I want to know more about Julia. I want to paint the picture of her wating on that dock in Calcutta for the gangplank to be lowered and opened. I want to know which child’s hand she was holding, whether the one girl may have been watching over the boys, if they were roughhousing. I want to know what the boys were saying, and what she may have done to catch their eyes. Maybe she admonished them, told them to mind themselves.
After the long voyage, was something there to greet them? Had she packed more than clothing and papers and a little money? Who was waiting for her at the end of this long and improbable trip? Was she greeted as a burden or was she greeted with love? Was anyone there to lift all her bags, to guide her and the children to a wagon or a carriage? Did someone give her a long, heartfelt hug and tell her that she was OK now and that everything would be all right?