Last year if you had asked me why I was joining the Daughters of the American Revolution, I would not have had a good answer for you. Truth be told, I didn’t quite know myself. I didn’t know much about the organization, and my perception was that women joined as a matter of pride or for bragging rights, or because their great-grandmother was a member. I had a stereotypical image in my mind of older women who were very proper and had a lot of tea parties.
My own ancestry had been much of a mystery for many years. I knew of my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents who left eastern Europe in the early part of the 20th century in search of a better life (family legend has it that when my grandfather left his little German town, six months of his salary couldn’t buy a pack of cigarettes in the post WWI economy), and I knew that my paternal great-grandmother was named Jennie . . . and that was pretty much it.
I don’t have much hope for being able to research my maternal side since WWII destroyed much of my grandfather’s home town, and what was left was absorbed by Poland. However, in recent years I have been able to shed some light on my paternal side. Years of genealogical digging and a DNA test led me to make a pivotal connection — a connection that has most definitely altered the trajectory of my life. Making contact with my 7th cousin John Zafiris Jr. set into motion a whole series of events . . . and I often wonder with amusement where I would be today if I hadn’t spit in that test tube.
One night after comparing notes and looking through each other’s trees, John suggested to me that I join the DAR since I had Revolutionary ancestors in my tree. I knew that he was a member of the SAR and very passionate about the community. “Meh,” I thought. I was a little doubtful. Proper older women after all. But what the heck. Up until that point my life consisted of two things: taking care of the living at the hospital during the day and searching for dead relatives on my computer at night. Maybe it was time to peel off the surgical gloves and get out from behind the computer. At the very least I could get a snazzy certificate to hang up on my wall.
I went to the DAR national website and filled out a form for more information. I don’t think more than 20 minutes had gone by since hitting the “send” button when my phone rang. A local DAR woman in charge of membership talked to me for a few minutes, and then suggested I check out the Colonel Timothy Bigelow chapter in Worcester, Massachusetts. “You’ll really like it,” she told me. “They are a really active, progressive group.”
Everything since that moment has been such a fantastic blur. I spent the first few months in close contact with the chapter’s registrar Ginger, who was so sweet and encouraging, and was truly instrumental in helping me prepare my application for Washington, and she prodded my wallflower self to engage in the chapter activities. I met a number of wonderful women of all ages who welcomed me with open arms, and it didn’t take long before I fell in love with them and the 241 year-old chapter house affectionately known as “the Oaks.”
Looking back upon the last year (has it only been a year?) I think about all the ways I have become involved (and here are just a few):
Historian: this was my first commission in the DAR, and a fun way to begin. I kept the scrapbook of our events, and I also helped organize in the newly designated office 100 years worth of scrapbooks and ephemera that had previously been stuffed into the narrow pantry at the Oaks.
How to Make an 18th Century Cockade Workshop: Cockades have been popular throughout the centuries, and often denoted a person’s political allegiance or rank. In the early days of the Revolution when the Patriots had no uniforms, they would wear different color cockades on their hats to delineate officers. I led two workshops that first summer, teaching other members of the chapter how to make them.
Worcester Revolution 1774: this was a day long event to celebrate Worcester’s role in the American Revolution, in which over 3000 Patriots from all around Worcester county descended upon the courthouse on September 6, 1774 and forced the magistrates to walk the street and rescind their authority. British rule in Worcester was effectively ended on that day without firing a single shot. The Oaks was under construction that same year, 1774, and belonged to Loyalist judge Timothy Paine who was among those forced to recant. For the celebration my chapter dressed in costume and opened the doors of the Oaks to visitors and we entertained children with colonial games and crafts. I was also able to meet my 7th cousin John, (the man responsible for pointing me in the direction of DAR) in person on this day, who as it turns out descends from the same Revolutionary family as mine. My Patriot was married to his Patriot’s sister.
Seamstress: As a result of wanting to dress up for the Worcester Revolution, I made my own costume (which is really amazing considering up until that point I had never done much sewing other than what my mother insisted I learn as a child, and the footless bald eagle that I made in 8th grade home-economics class). Making my Revolutionary dress ignited my sewing gene after 40-something years, a talent and a love I didn’t know I had, and I have gone on to make more colonial outfits, each one a little better than the last.
Finance Committee: Clearly, this is going to be good, practical life experience. (“Join the finance committee!” they said. “It’ll be fun!” they said. Next thing I knew I was sitting in the financial advisor’s office signing my name on the line that said “Trustee.” Eeep!)
Elementary school presentation on the American Revolution: This was Verne Thayer’s idea, a charming and charismatic member of the Colonel William Henshaw chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution . . . and as it turns out, also a cousin. The DAR and SAR joined forces to do a presentation at the Hopedale Memorial School school in Milford. Public speaking was out of my comfort zone, but I thought, what the heck, I’ll give it a try. A little classroom of third graders can’t kill me, right? (“Come join me!” he said. “It’ll be fun!” he said. Before I knew it, the little classroom of third graders swelled to over two hundred students in the gymnasium. Terrifying!)
Blogger: Vice-Regent Linda Hart planted that seed in my head one day while we were organizing a century’s worth of chapter history in the office, and so “Revolutionary Oaks” was born. I had always wanted to be a writer, but somehow ended up detouring through a degree in Biology instead.
Docent: Almost as scary as talking to a gymnasium full of little people, but I have learned to love it. Once a month I dress up in costume and give tours of our chapter house to the locals.
Curator: my most recent role for which as a Surgical Technologist I am most uniquely unqualified, but I am so grateful to have this opportunity that not many people get. With the assistance of the current Historian and Librarian, we hope to have the Oaks take her permanent place in Worcester’s historical memory by becoming an effective museum house.
Even with the flurry of activity of the past year, and with all the practical life skills I am gaining by being a member of the DAR, there is still and always a quiet place in my mind and in my heart for the lives that came before me, for all the roads that were traveled and all the souls that converge within me to bring me to this moment in time. I can think as far back as my Patriot, Ephraim Warren, who at the age of 81 had buried most of his 13 children and was a destitute farmer . . . he applied for a pension from the government and was awarded 8 dollars a month. Unfortunately he died four months later, and so was paid a grand total of 32 dollars for his service in the War of Independence . . . or I can think as recently as my German grandfather, who bravely came to this country at the age of seventeen, with no money and no family. He was a truly a self made man, learning the language and working hard on construction projects like the Quabbin Reservoir. Eventually he put himself through school, started his own welding business and raised a good family and became an American citizen. Under similar circumstances would I have even half the strength or determination of either of these men from whom I descend?
Lineage societies keep history alive — the very act of taking the time to properly research and document your lineage reinforces the connection to the past. It gives you the chance to look more intimately at your ancestors lives, and to consider what they went through. Lineage societies also give you a chance to connect with others with a similar passion, and they give you an opportunity to take that passion out into the community and teach. It doesn’t have to be DAR or SAR — there are a myriad of societies out there for everyone and anyone who wants to honor their heritage, whatever it may be. You can do as little as hang your certificate on the wall, or you can get out there and engage the community.
If you ask me today why I am a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, you will not hear me say, because I am proud . . . but rather, because I am humbled.