Once upon a time I was rich in grandparents. My trove included five full sets of grandparents hale and hearty up until my middle-school years or so.
They multiplied by virtue of divorce (in the 1950s! quelle scandal!) and re-marriages, plus a slightly confusing second marriage that joined a pair of in-law great-grandparents. Mimi's mom married Bompa's dad? Wha--?
I had ten grandparents, most in town and ready to babysit. They told stories about their parents and their parents, about dogs they'd loved, and horses that pulled the wagon even when the driver was tipsy. Snake bites and clairvoyance, kidnaps and practical jokes, consumptives and stowaways, scalawags and underage soldiers, and a cousin of Mamie Eisenhower. No wonder I'm interested in where they came from.
Those storytellers have passed beyond the stage-curtains now, leaving behind metal boxes of snapshots and documents. Still interested, I've been shuffling through the short stack of notes in various handwritings –– how strange it is that my grandfather Bompa and I make the same neat humped m's –– about family history.
Enter Hepzepia Elizabeth Vaughn. The iron-willed grandmother of my Granpa Navy who raised a family alone after her husband Russell –– one of the scalawag rascals –– lit out for parts unknown. With a name like that, she should have been one of the easiest people to research: a rock amid the flood of Marys and Ellens and Earls and Charleses.
Ten years of idle pasttime research and no Hepzepia in the right time or place. No Vaughns. Not even a hint of rascally Russel. And then, like a stubborn padlock finally opening on the hasp, I found this in the 1880 Federal census:
The right timeframe, the correct county, the right names and ages for the youngsters, but Hessy? Married to Jackson.
Imagine stern grandmother Hepzepia as a young woman, keeping home with a handful of kids. Perhaps she was light-hearted. Possibly in love. Maybe her husband (a first husband? A good-hearted brother to awful Russel?) answering the census-taker's question, filled in his pet name for her. The census-taker, dipping his pen in the traveling inkwell, taking a stab at the spelling.
Click click click, another few hours, and here's what I find out: Russel often used his middle name on official forms, as Russel Jackson, or RJ or R. Jackson. And on her death certificate (cancer of the bowel and stomach –– no wonder she seemed stern), there it is: Hepsie Vaughter. Not Hepzepia at all. She was Hepsie, a rhyme with Pepsi. Imagine that.
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