Everybody wants to belong, to some place or some group. The question of belonging is the core plot of some of the most compelling movies, novels, plays and real-life stories. To belong is to be a strand in a fabric that sustains and fosters wellbeing. Belonging is no less than identity itself.
We just printed a story about a New Jersey man who showed up in the Black River valley tracing his family tree. With the help of historical societies in Plymouth, Ludlow, and Chester, he located not only his great-great-grandparents’ house on Main Street in Chester but also the building where they had a business, and their monument in Brookside Cemetery. Our brief story is accompanied by a photo of Kelly Pollard beaming from ear to ear as he stood beside the tall, carved Pollard grave marker.
All year long, historical societies field requests for information on long-lost forbears that descendants have traced back to Vermont. These requests come from all over the U.S., and some folks make it the focus of their vacations here. Sometimes they are seeking that “missing link” that would complete the genealogy and qualify them for membership in the DAR or the Mayflower Society, even though the family has been long gone from New England.
Historical society staffs drop everything to help the quester get the satisfaction of locating rootstock here. The exodus of Vermonters since almost the time they moved up here in the late 1700s took Vermont farmers and land speculators into the Midwest and beyond. They quickly found each other on the frontiers and established communities almost like those they left behind, in many cases naming them for the town they left behind.
Many times, the genealogical trail goes completely cold. In those cases, sometimes genealogical researchers admit that maybe the “missing link” didn’t want to be found – or someone in the family did not want them to be found. The ne’er-do-well uncle, the illegitimate offspring, the woman who was hidden away for some physical defect, perhaps.
Newcomers to Vermont have commented on the Vermont trait of tallying up the generations going back, and some of the newcomers sneer at the claims of five or seven generations. But most Vermonters we know don’t state it to brag but to express pride and to acknowledge those who came before and kept the enterprise going through some rough times. One definition of a Vermonter is having three generations buried in Vermont soil. There are other benchmarks as well, that have nothing to do with green license plates.
But the generation remark is a statement of belonging, of being rooted, of speaking the same “language” and valuing the same things, of shared experience.
Lots of people have moved to Vermont because of what it represents to them, which turns out to be another iteration of belonging. Vermont has always attracted urbanites and creative types seeking a deliberate pace of life and the intimacy it brings. Whether they found what they were looking for is another question. Some have and some haven’t. Vermont is a real place, after all.
People from elsewhere have assimilated by marrying Vermonters. Living here requires an adjustment of personal style as well as lifestyle. You don’t have to have generations under the ground here to have Vermont accept you. You need the qualities of patience, courtesy, respectfulness and a willingness to listen and accept Vermont as an old society whose descendants have a long cultural memory that they are loath to relinquish.
Vermont will let you belong … if you let it.