Every family’s “quirks” and traditions have to come from somewhere. Around the dawn of the 20th century, our Victorian relatives were into some weird stuff. Germans really enjoyed their mysticism, mediums and seances. Some folks dabbled in phrenology, eugenics, and even handwriting analysis. Granted, the handwriting thing has come to be accepted as a pseudo science, but some of the other stuff? Whew!
Think about the Victorian fervor for the “language” of flowers. Then take a look at some old family wedding pictures. Do you find anything that went rather “unsaid?” Was Grandmama hiding any hints or scraps of wisdom in her bouquet? What did the lapel posy say about the groom? Coincidence?
In daily living and in researching with my family, I’ve found a few skeletons lying outside the closet door. Take for instance the skeleton that resided~ coffin and all~ in my second cousins’ front room for years. Somehow this branch of the family had “inherited” this unusual parlor piece when an aunt died. It seemed ol’ Aunt Luly was a high mistress / exalted poo-bah of some “unusual” lodge or another. So, she was the trusted keeper of the the “box.” I’m not sure who it was, or what the real scoop was…but I saw it. Often. And no one who lived there in the house with it seemed to be creeped -out. I assume that “Becky” as I will call her/ him / it, was eventually interred or placed with another family once the new
cult leader...chairwoman was installed. For all I know it was plastic, but never the less it was creepy. They’re all gone now, otherwise, I’d ask.
You may want to bring this up in casual conversation and see where it leads with your family.
Chances are pretty good that you’ll hear tales of at-home wakes and such. They were pretty common in some areas through the second world war era. My Mom’s family held this tradition in the rural community where she was raised well into the mid 1940s. In one of my favorite movies ever, my beloved Gone With the Wind, Mrs O’Hara is laid out on the dining room table. In a more contemporary vignette, the opening scenes of Sunset Boulevard feature Norma Desmond’s beloved pet chimp awaiting the undertaker in her posh Hollywood bedroom. I’ll admit that it didn’t seem as weird in the Civil War setting.
My Balkan relatives had a gruesome insistence on a photo with the dead family members. When a loved one passed, their casket would be propped up on the church steps as the poll bearers held the departed in place. A formal portrait would then be taken with all the close and extended family, and various Club and Union delegates posed carefully around the deceased. To this day, I know some older folks still want one last photo of their brother, spouse, whoever in their final rest. Now-a-days though, this is usually arranged in private before other family and friends are let into the room for visitation.
Funerals and death aren’t the only time our ancestors got freaky, but usually these are the traditions that sort of stand out. If you are ever going thru an attic or antique shop and run across a portrait of a sleeping baby…you guessed it…the baby is dead. Another one you will see occasionally is a picture of a willow tree with a lock of hair in the frame with the picture, same thing. A big family gathering photo with a funny looking blob on the wall in the back ground is probably a shrouded mirror, and you guessed again, a funeral gathering. Sometimes the photo is taken outdoors and if you peek behind a head or two you’ll spot a black crepe wreath on the front door. This is a signal to passers by that the family is in mourning, so it would be rather respectable to slow the horses and remove one’s hat.
But like I said, it’s not always death that brings out an unusual tradition. My Grandpa Farmer was a tea-totaling Methodist who had a disdainful and queasy feeling around Catholics and their “idolatry.” But he made a pretty tidy income on the side “witching” half the wells in Boone county for a fee. Grandpa would cut a switch (thin flexible little branch) off of a weeping willow tree. He always selected one with a sturdy “Y” shape for divining wells. The plain switches were for swatting the be-hinds of unruly grandchildren. George the Methodist would then hold the top Y ends in his hands lightly in front of him and walk about on the property of the neighbor he was witching for. When he found the underground well spring, the switch would twitch and that’s where they were instructed to start digging. In 1965 when my parents built their new house, Grandpa came over and witched the well. We never went without water.