As genealogists, we often have the privilege to connect with relatives who have memories that stretch back much further than our own. Sometimes these connections are long-lasting, and sometimes they are very brief. But every one of these connections enrich our understanding of the past, and help keep alive ancestors that live on only in their memories.
On June 1, 2002, I had the privilege to meet Mildred “Millie” Leet, who lived 3 hours away in Corning, New York. I’d briefly corresponded by mail with Millie about our shared ancestors, the Colwell Family of Ellisburg, New York. She was the great-grandchild of the immigrant couple Hamilton and Susanna (Stein/Steen) Caldwell/Colwell, my ancestors as well, and she was born just 20 years or so after their death.
As a result, I thought she might have memories of her grandfather Colwell’s generation, the 11 children of Hamilton and Susanna. Indeed, it turned out that she was one of the last people on earth who remembered this vibrant family of hard-working and loving Irish immigrants, and she was so happy to share her memories with me that day.
Throughout the course of that Saturday afternoon, Millie told me about the “Colwell Thunder Band,” the impromptu drum and fife band that the family formed whenever they all got together. She told me about the strong Irish accents she heard, which they had never lost as a result of their childhoods in Ireland. She told me that when storekeepers in Ellisburg saw her great-grandmother Susanna coming, they would immediately raise their prices until she left, because she drove such an impossibly hard bargain. She told me about a dresser drawer full of grapeshot that the Colwells would uncover in their fields from the Battle of Big Sandy. Millie glowed while telling those stories, and it was clear that the love that this family had had for each other almost century earlier was still a part of her. For a few minutes, I felt like I too had known that long-lost generation of the Colwells. For a few minutes, they were all alive again in her living room.
Millie was my 2nd cousin 3 times removed (2C3R), and although I only met her in person once, she was one of the most important connections to my past that I’ve ever made. A few days ago, at age 97, after an incredibly long and rich life, Millie passed away.
It is possible, now, that some of those stories Millie shared with me have no other home. But the connection to Millie and our shared ancestors lives on.
I cannot thank Millie enough for responding to my letter out of the blue, for welcoming me into her home, and for sharing those personal stories from her past. I cannot thank her enough for helping me form an indelible connection to the Colwells, to Ireland, and to my past. Thank you Millie.
Millie’s obituary is here: “Mildred E. Colwell Leet.” My condolences to her family, who have lost someone so dear.
P.S. – In addition to the memories that Millie shared, her brother Raymond (who passed away last year) was just as generous. He had a beautiful collection of hundreds of Colwell family photos that he was happy to show and explain to me. I am so lucky to have made those connections.