Since my story collection is inspired by the lives of my ancestors, and so many of my ancestors are from Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, I planned a trip there. I wanted to absorb the town, research more about my family history, and see if I needed to revise the descriptions about the town that I had imagined without ever visiting it before.
Something else I had never done before was stay at an Airbnb. My expectations were low. My parents had a negative first experience with Airbnb earlier this year that involved the host accusing them of defamation of character for their honest and disappointed review. I had a bizarre experience with a host when I made my initial reservation in Hastings. The host told me that since I had never stayed with Airbnb before, that I needed to send her a picture of my driver license. I explained that Airbnb’s message portal does not provide for attachments and that she could contact Airbnb directly to verify my identification. She declined my reservation. As (mostly) everything happens for a reason, the next reservation I made was a positive booking experience, and became perfect accommodations for my three-day stay. I rented a little studio guest house within walking distance of the train station and great restaurants. (Plus it’s just over a half an hour train ride into Grand Central!) I will definitely stay there when I go back again for more research–it’s a lovely private spot ideal for a writing retreat too!
My original plans were to spend a day researching in Ardsley and Hastings, and then to spend a day up in Poughkeepsie, about an hour and a half drive north. I needed to maximize my visits because I only rented a car for two days. Within just two hours of having the rental car, I realized I needed to change my plans.
My visit to the Village of Ardsley educated me on how town lines shift over time. They didn’t look up the records I had asked for, but instead told me that my family’s birth and death certificates were probably at the Dobbs Ferry offices. I drove a few miles there. That office couldn’t find who I was looking for (I did find a few cousins’ birth records) and they told me to go Hastings-on-Hudson Village Hall, which I had planned to stop at anyway. The office told me they would pull the records and “might” have them ready for me by the next day. With my options limited in Hastings since the historical society was not open, I got on the Sawmill River Parkway and then the Taconic State Parkway to reach Poughkeepsie.
In my stories, characters travel up these parkways to find answers to family secrets. I was happy to see my imagined description of the journey matched the real experience. In real life, my ancestors made the journey between Hastings and Poughkeepsie because my great-grandmother was a patient for more than three decades at the Hudson River Mental Hospital in Poughkeepsie. Out of anything I wanted to find on this trip was her cause of death and where she was buried. If I found nothing else, to me, the trip would be a success.
In Poughkeepsie, my afternoon fared similarly to my morning. I went to the Dutchess County Vital Records office and was told the death certificate I was looking for was at Poughkeepsie City Hall at the end of the street. I walked down there to be told that the certificate was kept at Poughkeepsie Town Hall, a few miles’ drive away. When I arrived at the town hall, the clerk was unable to help me because the record was locked in the basement, and her co-worker was at lunch. She couldn’t leave the office unattended. That might sound disheartening, but the clerk was one of the nicest people I encountered during my trip. She invited me to sit in their office, and gave me candy while I waited until she was able to get in the basement. I opened my laptop, chomped on M&Ms, and researched while I waited for almost an hour before she found my great-grandmother’s death certificate.
The death certificate revealed a cardiac issue caused her death, a theme I see repeated on my father’s side of the family, and makes me cognizant of my own heart health. It also confirmed where she was buried, back in Hastings, and provided the first evidence I had found of her mental condition. Among her afflictions, she had a form of schizophrenia. In sheer happenstance, a character inspired by her in one of my stories happens to have symptoms that completely align with her real-life condition. From my drive on the parkway, to this affirming moment in the town hall, I felt certain that I was meant to write this book. However, this became strikingly (and hauntingly) clear the next day in Hastings. Stay tuned for Part 2!