Amusement Among the Abstracts: Finding humor in the driest genealogical records

For those of a genealogical bent whose family history in the US starts in Colonial Virginia, you must be familiar with the Gentleman Genealogist, Mr. Beverley Fleet, who throughout his life as an historian studied the legal documents of the courts, wills, marriage listings, death notices, deeds and the operational receipts of landowners and merchants, and personal family documents contained in many county records and in the Virginia State Archives. In addition, he abstracted many documents in the hands of private citizens.

His most important work, The Virginia Colonial Abstracts, was contained in thirty-four paperbacked volumes, organized by county, which were created between the year of his retirement as an accountant on Wall Street in 1938 until the year 1948, the year before his death.

This man sifted the various documents collected through the courts and family records of Virginians, creating thousands of abstracts that have assisted genealogists in this country for approximately one hundred years now. Many of us who have sought even the faintest of glimmers representing the lives of our ancestors owe a great debt to the man for his dogged determination to reduce volume upon volume of loose leaf court entries, land records, etc., down to easily perused lists of abstracts containing only the most pertinent information necessary for family historians to find and document their ancestors lives. Recorded in the crabbed handwriting of court clerks, surveyors, plantation owners and often almost illiterate government officials in early Virginia, the vellum and parchment documents were succumbing to the ravages of time, fire, flood, and general misuse. 

Unfortunately, many of the records were not filed in any order and were often found mixed in with other groups of records that did not always have anything to do with each other. Obviously the clerks of the colonial era were as bad, if not worse, at proper filing techniques as many are today. This meant that as Mr. Fleet began working with one group of records, he often found records that didn’t belong with that group sandwiched in among the pages. Rather than pull it out of the group, he abstracted those as well and often included them in the volume he was working on at the time. While he recognized that placing these items within the record groups in which they actually did belong would have been ideal, his purpose was to document the records before time and mishandling destroyed them forever. As each volume was completed it was separately indexed within the volume, but there was not an index created covering the whole series.

Sadly, this made it made it difficult to quickly find the records one needed. To determine if a record of an ancestor was in a particular volume, one had to pull out each volume and read the index to determine if that ancestor was included in it. It was slow and tedious work, but far easier than actually goingthrough the stacks of primary documents and learning how to read the strange squiggles that sufficed for handwriting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Armed with a pencil, paper and a magnifying glass Beverley Fleet spent the last decade of his life doing that for us. Eventually the Abstracts were typed up and bound in paper volumes that found their way into the Genealogy sections of libraries across the country.

These volumes have since been reorganized into three large volumes and properly indexed to make the records easier to locate. As a genealogist who has been dipping into the original works since the 1980s, I have always pulled the volumes off the shelves of libraries across the US, checked the index and put the ones I didn’t need to review back on the shelf. The ones I did review, I spent as little time as possible in that process. I checked that it was the county I needed, perused the index for the ancestors name and page number, then went to that page and copied the items that were pertinent to my research, and dropped them back in the return stacks. This is the time honored process every historian uses to determine if the information they are looking for is contained in a given volume, whether it is a book of extracts or a non-fiction account of an historical even or locale.

I have never spent any time learning about the author of such a work or reading the prefaces to each volume to gather the author’s thoughts on the work. Genealogy is a time-consuming past time in general. The faster one can find the information one needs, the quicker one can move on to another line of inquiry. I developed a method of skimming sections of histories and documents, without taking the time to read deeply unless the details of the events I was researching provided interesting reading in and of itself, or gave me good social background on the reasons our ancestors moved around the country and the events that touched their lives.

I have recently discovered that the volumes of Fleet’s Abstracts, as well as thousands of other books and documents, previously only available to read within the walls of libraries, have now been digitized into pdf files which are available for download from the website maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I knew some years ago that this project was ongoing at the LDS Church’s Family History Library in Salt Lake, Utah, but had not realized the scope of how many documents and books are already available to any researcher armed with a computer or handheld digital device. 

Until recently, I mostly worked with the records that were indexed on, because it provided the easiest, fastest method of reviewing large quantities of data to be included in the family trees I research and regularly maintain. With the advent of Ancestry and FamilySearch, most of my research has been limited to the databases on these websites. I was thrilled when I was looking for information on FamilySearch and decided to see if a particular title I knew existed might have been digitized yet. Of course, it was. Not only could I read it online, but I could actually download a copy of it to read at my leisure. For free!

That kind of price tag is thrilling to genealogical researchers, who have been used to years of paying for copies, buying important volumes for our own personal libraries, or paying fees to historical societies for the use of their libraries. Not to mention the savings in papers and pencils for note taking that invariably get lost. Of course, any book with an active copyright still needs to be either bought (most are available through Amazon, of course) or read at a library. But the number of genealogical materials whose copyrights have lapsed and relegated them to public domain is amazing. Currently the FamilySearch site has hundreds of thousands of books and documents available for use in research without ever setting foot in a library!

I began downloading the Virginia Colonial Abstracts this last weekend, and skimmed the author’s preface to see what the volume contained rather than going to the end of the volume to peruse the index. And there I discovered something I never had time to notice before.

Beverley Fleet was a man with a very droll sense of humor. He seemed to think nothing of providing little amusing anecdotes about the process of creating the abstracts in that particular volume. He often included stories about the people he met over the course of the research and even included some rather snide remarks regarding people who wanted to hire him to do similar work on their particular project, usually for pennies on the dollar. And he was a man who never pulled punches. Words that were generally censored out of novels and other tomes at the time he was researching and writing these, were not removed from his prefaces, which struck me as a delightful clue to the man’s character. He had a particular affinity for the word “ass”, which at the time more often referred to a donkey than a disgusting part of the human body. I began looking forward to reading the preface in each of the volumes I looked at and almost invariably ended up laughing over the things he shared there. It made me wonder that I had not really read any of them before. 

And because I enjoyed them, because I learned so much about the personality of the man who spent a decade of his life making research easier for other genealogists, I just had to share this with you all. 

If you have used his Abstracts before, you may have skipped over these little gems to get to the meat of your research. If that is the case, the next time you dip into them, take a moment and read the preface. I guarantee you some surprising entertainment in the middle of otherwise dry historical research. Sadly, the reorganized three volume version of his work most likely doesn’t include these little bits of oddity, and that is a true loss to our community.

The only problem I experienced while reading them was learning that he had not written more on his own that didn’t have to do with genealogy. It takes a strangeness of thought to make a person enjoy reading history in the actual documents of the period. I think if he had had the time left in his life, he might have become an interesting author of history. It makes me sad to think that he was gone from the earth before I arrived on it. 

I would have enjoyed meeting this man, I think.


On Being Alone with Fibromyalgia

Today I ran across an article on, the title of which struck a latent tone in me. On ‘Going Away’ was written by Julieanne Smolinski, a thirty-something writer struggling to deal with being back on the dating scene after her first and only “true love” break up experience. A lot of the things she mentions thinking about while remaining unmarried in her thirties were very familiar to me. I have thought a lot about these as well, only from the perspective of someone about thirty years further down the road of Life.

I struggle to find myself, single once more after being divorced from my “life partner” of over forty years. I wonder if I am also “meant to be alone.”

I grew up alone. I should be used to it by now. I had no siblings and my parents (my dad and stepmother — my mother passed away when I was six) really didn’t spend much time advancing a great parent-child bond. They pretty much just wanted me out of the house and out from under their feet.

Their desire for my absence didn’t work out quite as they wanted. A naturally gregarious child, my mother’s early death had left me extremely introverted, and because of my dad’s work, we moved a lot, so friends were hard to come by. In fact, I got bullied a lot for just being the new kid in school. So I hid in my room and read. In the pre-internet world, I found friends and experienced the lives of the characters in the books I read. Even the worst villains in books were much safer than the bullies who lay in wait around every corner in my real life.

Yet, despite the joy I found in books, I ached with loneliness. I hated being alone.

Shortly after I left home at eighteen to join the military, I was lucky in that I found a man who loved me; a man who, as I believed for over four decades of marriage, I could trust to always be there for me. We married, had kids, raised them and then were back to just being a couple again.

This process of marriage and parenting was not an easy one. As most of us find out once we get into the meat of adulthood, life always has its ups and down. Family issues developed, a normal thing in any family group, but for the most part we clung together. Held each other up. We always stood together. I always thought we weathered the storms well. But maybe not. Periodically, problems not properly dealt with at the time later bubbled to the surface, seeming uglier than ever. We either dealt with them, or re-stuffed them, depending on their importance in the current day’s struggles. Looking back, I think we probably stuffed a lot more than we really dealt with them, but at the time it felt like we were doing well at maintaining our equilibrium in a difficult world.

Of course, work was a constant stressor for me, especially after I fell down a flight of stairs when I was 38. The damage caused by that fall made working harder and harder for me as time went on. And all the emotional pain of my childhood and the ups and downs of marriage, combined with the physical pain of the injuries from that fall, turned me into a bundle of screaming nerves.

By the time the kids were finally out of the house, I was living my daily life with horrific pain. My body just didn’t do what I told it to anymore. I gradually lost the ability to do even normal, everyday things. Multi-tasking, something I had always been pretty brilliant at, became impossible to do. I found it hard to concentrate. Even reading a book became a chore because I couldn’t concentrate on the words for more than a few minutes. I easily got lost on the page I was reading and would have to re-read it again and again. It seemed like I lost days and days on end wrapped in a blurry blanket of something I later learned is called “brain fog.” This was a scary experience for someone who loves the written word as much as I do.

I slowly let my husband, sweet man that he was, take over most of the chores around the house because I simply did not have the energy to do them. This was definitely not fair to him, but I had no choice. The pain I was experiencing was horrific and the exhaustion I lived with was pervasive. Work took more and more energy until I felt like I had run a marathon by the end of every day. I could only hold the exhaustion off so long before I seemed to hit a wall that stopped me in my tracks.

By the time I got home from working a full day, I felt as if someone had beaten me with a baseball bat. Half the time I would go straight to bed with a migraine, or anesthetize myself with a few drinks and a handful of over-the-counter anti-inflammatories. I began using my sick days more and more, which made my bosses look at me suspiciously. Depression crept into the corners of my mind and made a home for itself there, gradually strangling and killing all the joy I’d had in my life.

Seeing my life falling apart by this mysterious illness that I couldn’t find a way to get away from, I began experiencing severe anxiety. I thought others must surely see that I was losing my edge and I had frequent panic attacks that I would lose my job because I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I lost faith in my own abilities.

As time went on, my husband had difficulty believing my pain and exhaustion was as bad as I claimed. He resented what must have seemed to him like sheer laziness and self-centeredness on my part. I can imagine he was wondering what had happened to the fun girl he had married. He often asked me if I had just stopped loving him, which was no where near the truth. Unfortunately, no matter what I told him, he believed this lie rather than accept that there was something physically wrong with me that couldn’t be fixed.

When I was finally diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, he had even more difficulty dealing with the disease than I did. After all, the medical community at the time did not really understand the disease, let alone know how to treat it. Even many cancers and heart disease now have treatment plans that keep people from dying from them as they had once done. But Fibromyalgia has them stumped.

At the time I was diagnosed, most of the medical profession didn’t even believe Fibromyalgia was a real illness. Many still don’t. They all believed it was all in the patient’s head. New doctors often told me the Fibro diagnosis made by another doctor meant they were just too busy to actually look for a “real” cause. Many doctors just thought “Fibromyalgia” was a catchall phrase for lazy medicine. It didn’t help that Fibromyalgia patients had many other physical problems (called co-morbidities) complicating this condition of horrific muscular pain and exhaustion destroying our lives. And because it did not kill the patients who had it, no one really dedicated studies to figure it out what caused it and how to cure it.

As a result, Fibromyalgia became an invisible disease that has decimated the lives of millions of people around the world. No one can see it’s effect on you, so it doesn’t really exist, right?

Of course, the medical profession is trained to ease pain. At the time, that meant prescribing drugs to combat the many symptoms we all described. And Big Pharma was happy to design more and more drugs that were supposed to help, but really didn’t. In fact, many of the drugs made it worse or caused serious side-effects. Doctors would treat one symptom with one drug, then treat the next emerging symptom with another one. Before long I was literally a Walking Dead from all the drugs they had me on. Looking back, it’s a wonder I could function at all! I am still surprised I did not overdose on them as so many others have done.

Eventually, I found a pain doctor who was able to get me off the opioids and other drugs. Thankfully I got my mind back. I could read again. More importantly I could write! Yay!

Unfortunately, it also meant I was back to living with the excruciating pain. Nothing had really changed, except that I had my mind back. Now of course, I have arthritis increasing my pain. The joys of aging.

In any event, after nearly twenty years of living with me in constant pain, my husband finally had enough and walked away from it. He was the perpetual “Fixer” in our lives, and apparently I was the one thing he could not fix. He said couldn’t handle watching me deal with my pain while not being able to do anything to help. He said he blamed himself because he just wasn’t good at being a caregiver. He also blamed me for not wanting to get better. He figured he only had a few more years to live and just couldn’t see spending them with me. He felt he deserved some to have some happiness in his life again.

So he left me to move in with another woman with whom he felt he could once more have a fun life.

So after over forty years as part of a couple, I am alone again.

At my age, dating is not an easy thing, even with a healthy body. Most men in their sixties are like my ex, looking for playmates. They want younger, fitter women, who enjoy sports and travel and partying. They’re not interested in someone who isn’t physically perfect. It’s truly depressing how cliché this attitude is among older men.

Unfortunately, the specter of Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, depression, and the host of other ailments controlling my life make it hard for me to even think about dating. After all, anyone who enters my life has to take on the Fibro Monster and allow his own life to be limited by it. The resulting depression over this conundrum nixes any desire I have to find someone to help me feel not quite so alone.

The fact is, I don’t want to put any other man in the same situation that drove my ex away. I don’t think I could go through another breakup like this one. My self image is tarnished enough for one lifetime.

I began to ask myself if it was even fair to try to develop friendships when this disease makes it hard for me to do anything from one minute to the next. I can’t plan on anything. My body won’t let me guarantee that I will “be there” or be able to “do that” at any given time. I know it gets old for everyone who knows me. It gets old for me as well, but I don’t have the luxury of being able to walk away from it.

So I am coming to accept the reality that I am always going to be alone. For the rest of my life. Not a fun thing to come to grips with, especially for a romantic soul like me. The future I see for myself stretches off into the distance like a bleak, gray road I have to travel alone. It’s a depressing thought, but it is what it is. There’s no magical miracle cure waiting for me just around the bend.

However, reading On ‘Going Away’ actually made me laugh about the situation a little bit. I secretly commiserated with an introverted thirty-something who was also struggling with being alone. I understood her pain and the irony she has found in her own experience.

It made me feel not quite so alone — for a little while anyway.