Research.....that daunting word when you are a student knowing you have a paper due or a presentation to give. Hours spent in the library going through materials and old books. Or, research could be a scientist spending countless hours, days and years creating experiments that hopefully will lead to a breakthrough in medicine. As researchers we gather all we have read and learned in the hours of reading and experimenting to create a paper, presentation and an announcement that will change the world.
Life experience is research, also. With knowledge and facts you have accumulated over your time on this earth, you can put yourself in a setting, observe your surroundings, imagine a by-gone era then try to connect the dots of facts, scrutinize details and come up with an actual retelling of a happening. That may sound weird, yet, it works.
Recently my colleague and friend, Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow, along with her husband, Bill, and I made a trip to Methuen, Massachusetts where Gena Branscombe is buried. In her husband’s family plot in the Walnut Grove Cemetery, Gena is buried next to her husband, John Ferguson Tenney, along with three of their daughters; Betty, Beatrice and Vivian nearby.
Laurine had not been to the cemetery after Miss Branscombe's funeral in New York City in 1977. Nearly 40 years after beginning her interviews with Miss Branscombe which led to writing her dissertation on her, this was a bit of closure for Laurine.
The Tenney family burial area in the cemetery is extensive with three large monuments heading up individual Tenney families and the various family members’ graves.
The Tenney area is set on the side of a hill with a mausoleum at the top of the hill. Beautiful old trees shade the mausoleum.
At the bottom of the hill and next to the entrance to the cemetery is a small chapel built by the Tenney family. There services were held for family members before burial. The day we were at the cemetery, the chapel was locked tight.
What came next for Laurine and me was envisioning a reality in Miss Branscombe’s life. When looking across the street from the cemetery, we noticed the old railroad station. It had been abandoned in 2002 after many years of passenger and freight train usage. Laborer’s Union Local #175 purchased the station, restored and preserved it, now using it as their headquarters. We sauntered over to take a tour of the inside of the station and looked at the tracks.
The 1919 influenza epidemic took the life of Gena Branscombe and John Tenney’s third daughter, Betty. She was a delightful, happy and loved child. With Gena being the only family member who did not suffer the consequences of the epidemic, via train she travelled to Methuen with the casket that now embraced her darling daughter. Betty would be buried in the Tenney family plot.
Laurine and I stood next to the train tracks looking south knowing that was the direction from which Gena came.
Upon her arrival Gena and members of her husband’s extended family took Betty’s small casket across the street to the Tenney family chapel where a service was held. From there they proceeded up the hill and buried her.
Laurine’s one-on-one interviews with Miss Branscombe in 1976 and 1977 were written into her dissertation. Retold was the story of the death and burial of Betty. What became a reality of Laurine’s research was the life experience we had exploring the cemetery, being outside the chapel and standing at the train station looking at the cemetery then connecting in that moment the story Laurine had been told.
For quite some time we stood quietly seeing in our combined minds’ eyes January 1919 with cold winds and snow, a grieving mother bundled under her winter coat, a small casket being carried to the chapel, family members surrounding Gena who was putting to rest her “own little pilgrim, Betty.” Envisioning this happening is possible. The impossible and all the research in the world cannot solve…..imagining the grief of a mother burying her child.