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  • Writer's pictureMaureen Kenney, Art Nomad

Climbing the Family Tree

Genealogy on the surface appears to be an odd juxtaposition to nomadism.  Symbolically, the “family tree” with its broad and ever expanding branches and deep reaching roots evokes a strong sense of staying put.  Yet it taps into a profound source of energy, much like the abundant sugar maples being tapped during the winter-to-spring transition.  

My Nana, Helen Doucette Oxton lived to be ninety-nine.  From my perspective, she exuded seasoned wisdom, being the oldest and wittiest person I knew, yet a young spirit at heart.  She passed away in 1995, when I was 32, which means my interactions with her spanned her mid-sixties forward.  Tall, slender, limber, funny, hard of hearing, her radiant personality brightened my days.  She always smelled of rosy talcum powder, with silky smooth and papery skin.  

A treasured photograph shows her proud stance atop a striated stony ledge, decked out in practical hiking gear, and she jumps from the page in her exuberant youth.  The cocky tilt of her hat offsets her squared and determined jawline, and speaks to me of the powerful catalyst she continues to be in my mind.  Fast forward seventy-plus years, from her youthful autumnal perch to her final days, and you know there was a lot of living in between.


Recently, I found myself within 30 miles of the old family homestead near Montville Center, Maine.  Exploring the Camden coastline, I realized that my grandparents’ farmhouse, a place I visited in my youth, must be somewhere around these parts.  Pricking my inner nomad, and knowing Nana was buried in a small cemetery close by, my mission became to find that gravesite!  And so my intellectual nomad sprinted off.  

First, the phone calls to my father, Aunt Diane, and Aunt Helene.  Where was Nana’s grave?  Directions such as “it’s just off Route 3, you remember the turn-off?”, and “just beyond the chicken farm” and “a left turn at the gravel drive before the bend in the road” didn’t really help at the time, but I dutifully wrote everything down. I had vague shadowed memories of my one and only previous visit when she was laid to rest, but nothing of substance to hang these helpful random suggestions upon.  Where to go from here?  

I recalled that my sister, Kathy, had taken an old genealogy chart I created for a college class assignment, and loaded the details into the website. So I climbed our electronic family tree to shake it down for answers, hoping clues would, like ripened Macintosh apples, be ready for my picking. Remarkably, within an hour, a hint emerged that tied Nana’s second husband to someone elses family tree, clearly a distant relative I knew nothing about. Attached to his name was a photograph of the entry gate to Greenwood Cemetery, an image etched into my memory from Nana's funeral in 1995. 

"Just off Route 3”, "northwest on Thompson Ridge Road", “just beyond the chicken farm” at “a left turn at the gravel drive before the bend in the road”

And so we visited on a beautiful Sunday morning during Memorial Day weekend 2012.  In a remote resting place between Augusta and Belfast “just off Route 3”, "northwest on Thompson Ridge Road", “just beyond the chicken farm” at “a left turn at the gravel drive before the bend in the road” I arrived at my nomadic destination.  How could seemingly meaningless hints suddenly make total and complete sense? Everything fit. 

My determination deepened as we searched for the headstone of Helen Oxton.  

“Over here!”, an excited shout came from my daughter, Sarah. “I found her!”.  And so we stood in reverent silence, bestowing our love and gratitude. I sensed that I represented these sentiments for my entire family.  Nana meant a great deal to me, even though our time together wasn’t voluminous.  She welcomed my mother with such grace into the Kenney family back in the 1960’s, responded to my letters when I wrote to her over the years, left me her rather large collection of pencil sketches, and expanded my ideas about staying young even in her 90’s.  What gratitude she evokes in me. My nomadic truimph complete, I relish the sweet realization that I had tapped my family tree and worked the sap into a sweet golden treasure.

Grandma Kenney, Nana Oxton, Mom, daughter Sarah and the author, 1994

- Originally published 14 December 2012

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